For a writer who attacks his subject matter from so many angles, Chilean author Alejandro Zambra is oddly concerned with truths that can’t be expressed in literary prose. The unnamed protagonist of his third novel, Ways Of Going Home—a writer born in the same year as Zambra, and with a similar biography—spends much of his time trying and failing to write poetry. His father is reticent and emotionally withdrawn, a trait the narrator finds fascinating, but repulsive.
The first and third parts of the novel, structured as excepts from another novel written by the narrator, and presenting a fictionalized version of a fictional character’s life, are indicative of Zambra’s oblique approach to storytelling. The rest of Ways Of Going Home settles in for a slowly paced rumination on the narrator’s adult relationships with his parents and his ex-wife, Eme. The “fictional” portions focus on Claudia, a girl the narrator of the novel-within-a-novel spied for as a child, and whose reentrance into his life drives most of the novel’s scant plot.
Without a strong plot, Zambra’s writing thrives in the details of the narrator’s day-to-day life, painting a picture of his passive, wistful protagonist. Zambra spends pages on describing everything from the late-night writing process to liaisons with Claudia. Tangents like a vivid, specific account of the narrator’s original encounter with Madame Bovary as a schoolboy become increasingly important to understanding Zambra’s digressive style, which refuses to leave any potentially interesting subject unexamined. But in some cases, Zambra appears blinded to common sense—in one particularly egregious paragraph, the narrator expresses deep-seated resentment about coming from a family with no dead relatives, with only the slightest hint of irony.
Several of the nostalgic, adrift people who populate Ways Of Going Home explicitly say they want to be characters in somebody else’s novel. The narrator considers himself a secondary character in the story of his parents, who spent his childhood dealing with the Pinochet regime. That sentiment is bound up in a set of complex emotions that, like everything else, Zambra communicates well. But the device of using fictional characters to explore what would make real people want to be fictional characters becomes dulled and increasingly pretentious with repetition. Every interesting idea is pored over from all possible angles, often unnecessarily. The use of so many perspectives almost guarantees at least one of them will turn off a given reader.
Zambra’s history as a poet places the rest of his prose in a much more illuminating light. His acclaimed first novel, Bonsai, reportedly began as a collection of poetry that morphed into a novel, albeit one only 95 pages long. The nonlinear, kaleidoscopic quality of Ways Of Going Home seems like an attempt to translate the unique virtues of poetry into prose, a challenge Zambra doesn’t quite meet. Bonsai was hailed as “a kind of bloodletting” of Chilean literature, but at 50 pages longer than Bonsai, much of Ways Of Going Home collapses under its own weight.