So I finished Pacazo, and it's hard to say much about the way the book changed in this latter 40% without spoiling more or less everything. I was right to suspect that the arc of apparent healing would have to be disrupted at some point, and my guesses as to how it might happen weren't too far off, but experiencing the novel's structure for yourself is probably necessary to its intended effect, so instead of discussing all that (though/because it was very successful) let's talk about several other things I noticed while reading.
1: The protagonist may be self-absorbed, but the novel sees past him.
I wouldn't call the cast of Pacazo especially large, but there are a number of reasonably developed characters: Reynaldo, a botanist and friend to John who likes alien movies and wants to study in America; Arantxa, John's boss (he teaches English at the university) and a potential love interest; Casualidad, whose name means "coincidence" (her actual name is Pilar, but John didn't want to call her by his dead wife's name); a hungry, hairless dog; Armando, another professor who has given John a book of poems -- these are some of the people we come to know in the book.
At times the novel's structure feels pleasantly baggy. One Amazon reviewer complains that there are unnecessary scenes, but the unnecessary scenes are a part of the book's pleasure: in part because what makes them seem unnecessary is the fact that the protagonist, also our narrator, is not really quite perceiving them. We have to read past some scenes as presented in order to see how they advance the story. The most obvious case is the progression of Reynaldo's arc. Fairly early on, Reynaldo begins to change in ways that the narrator apparently finds wholly unremarkable. The attentive reader won't be able to help but suspect what Reynaldo is up to, and it seems impossible that John doesn't see it also, but, well, he really doesn't. The novel's premise -- John's search for his wife's killer -- takes a back seat for a long stretch in the middle, but because we're seeing the events through John's eyes, we often have to exercise some imagination to get the most out of the story.
I like this. I like the way it evokes the mystery of others without relying on an excessively convoluted model of human behavior. It's not that people are complicated so much as that we usually fail to actually perceive them -- we're too blinded by ourselves. In structural terms it creates a pretty neat effect wherein characters seem to emerge and submerge periodically, sometimes changing in front of our eyes, sometimes changing when we aren't looking.
|This is a pacazo, I guess.|
2. Kesey gets a lot of mileage out of unexpected juxtapositions.
I've written here before about how much I loved it when Infinite Jest changed tracks unexpectedly, something that usually happened between sections and occasionally between paragraphs. Sometimes we alternated between present action and past action, sometimes between external activity and internal reflection, and sometimes we switched settings and characters unexpectedly. This was nice. Kesey doesn't wait for a paragraph break to change subjects -- he does it with gestures as small as a conjunction. Usually this serves to show us the distance between what John is observing or saying or doing and what John is thinking about, a distance that can become disturbingly wide. Here's one of my favorite examples (note: Mariángel is his very young daughter):
Around the fountain there is a ring of small plants covered with tiny gold flowers and Mariángel bends, pulls one out by the roots. She shows it to us and I nod. She bends again, pulls out another. I should tell her to stop. We sit and wait and stare. She pulls out a third. I will crush the joints of his fingers first.
He is thinking, of course, of the Taxista that he means to kill. This is one of the easier disconnects to negotiate -- our attention is being drawn to the differences between John's circumstances and his thoughts -- but often the relationship is more complicated. When he's more distressed, he shares more details about Peruvian history, so that the interruptions of history serve partly as an index of his emotional state, but also their particular details serve at a second coordinate in a triangle that might allow us to guess his feelings, his anxieties, his needs, etc. Between his present action narration and his reflections on history, implied by their relationship, lies some secret of his inner life -- the third point of the triangle. Sometimes this geometry is not too difficult to understand, and sometimes it is quite hard. It is always, anyway, interesting.
3. It made me want to read more fiction concerned with the world outside my own.
One of the weird tendencies of realism is its habit of casting anything outside the realm of its (usually white, usually middle-class) author's immediate experience as a sort of fantasy. Because realism is defined by plausibility rather than reality, other times and places have become markers of genre. To the extent that realist writers visit other places, they often treat those places as fundamentally unreal. This may not be exactly racist but it's pretty close. So it was nice to see a basically realist novel that was interested in times and places outside my own, and which treated the setting as a real place rather than some sort of fantasy wonderland.
4. The novel expertly negotiates desire.
Here I mean the desire of its readers, the desire of its protagonist, the desire of its author. As I wrote previously, it initially seems to be a sort of revenge novel, and though this tendency flags in its middle, it does return quite strongly in the third act. The protagonist is, as a critical historian, skeptical of our ability to reach the past from the present moment -- he is aware that even when he believes he has found his wife's killer, it will remain impossible to know for sure. This reflects our growing dissatisfaction with simple revenge narratives, but the book can't just deny the desire it creates: it makes us want revenge, fails to provide a sufficient replacement for that desire, and shows us how the narrator fails to find a sufficient replacement as well. It would be stupid for it to insist on refusing to satisfy a need that it created in the first place. But it does, in satisfying that desire, complicate it, and give us a way of looking at the context of that desire, allows us to consider its problems as well as its power. I feel as if a lot of narratives I've seen in the last few years have struggled to manage desire in light of the sometimes-paralyzing difficulty of assigning guilt -- the most successful have simply decided to lay the guilt on the head of their protagonists and ostensible heroes. Pacazo does this, to some extent, but it also does other things, and more. It satisfies the desires it creates, rather than scold us for wanting.