NPR Review: 'Empty Words,' by Mario LevreroThe late Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero was known for his gleeful weirdness. Empty Words follows a writer who tries to cure his block by writing boring nothings — and it's anything but boring.
The Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero, who died in 2004, is beloved among Latin American readers for his gleeful weirdness. Levrero wrote comic book scripts, crosswords, brain teasers, and novels, all of which function as brain teasers themselves.
In the introduction to Empty Words, his first novel to appear in English, translator Annie McDermott writes, "In Latin America, it's said that Chile produces poets, Argentina produces short story writers, Mexico produces novelists, and Uruguay produces 'los raros' — the strange ones. Levrero was a raro of the highest order, though he rejected that label, complaining that it meant journalists and critics were forever wanting him to do new strange things." Empty Words, the sixth of Levrero's ten novels, certainly qualifies as a strange thing: a novel pretending to be a series of handwriting exercises, which are meant to have no content at all.
Levrero opens Empty Words with an announcement. "My graphological self-therapy begins today," his unnamed narrator declares. His plan is to improve his handwriting, on the theory that "changes in behavior can lead to changes on a psychological level." By changing his handwriting, the narrator hopes to "improve my concentration and the continuity of my thoughts, which are currently all over the place." Thus, the book's stakes are immediately clear. To a certain extent, reading any novel is about watching the writer's mind work, but reading Empty Words is about nothing else.
Evidently, the risk of boredom here is high. Levrero points this out constantly, scolding himself on the page whenever he veers into writing that engages his mind rather than reinforcing the habit of crossing his Ts. But he remains determined, announcing, "On I go, trying to write about uninteresting things, perhaps heralding a new era of boredom as a literary movement." But Empty Words is never boring. Levrero is too talented a writer — and McDermott too talented a translator — for that. The narrator is funny and self-deprecating, earning the reader's affection with his half-earnest efforts to quit smoking and fully earnest diatribes against his wife's cat. Reading his exercises is relaxing, like sitting at the kitchen table and chatting with a friend. As a result, the novel slides by effortlessly, so smoothly written that it's easy to miss the bits of plot peeking in.
Empty Words has about as much of a plot as life does. The narrator is highly anxious, though he tries not to take his anxiety seriously. His mother is getting older, he has writer's block, and his marriage is on the rocks. His stepson takes little interest in him, so he devotes most of his time and emotional energy to Pongo, the dog. Arguably, Pongo and the narrator are the only fully realized characters in Empty Words. No one else appears in the text, and no one else has an antagonist. Pongo's enemy is the sinister street cat that the narrator's wife, Alicia, has recently adopted. The narrator's enemy is his own mind.
This is the core of Empty Words. In order to free himself to write fiction, the narrator must discipline his writing and his mind, which become close to synonymous. But in order to discipline his writing, he has to write. Thus the need for empty words. Over and over, the narrator fails to write about nothing. His handwriting deteriorates. He tells stories about the dog or worries about his upcoming move, then scolds himself for allowing those worries into his exercises, which means "paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic." He's a charming narrator, winning in his self-deprecation and humor, and so the reader increasingly roots for him to successfully produce empty words. The irony builds as the novel continues: As Levrero develops his protagonist, the reader hopes to learn less about him.
Happily, Levrero delivers. After a series of dramatic moments in the narrator's life and in Pongo's, Empty Words returns to emptiness. The narrator sharpens his focus. He devotes a full paragraph to practicing Rs: "rhododendron, rower, sombrero, bra-strap, parricide, reverberate, procrastinate, corduroys (I repeat: corduroys)." Here, the writer's joy in writing shines through. Liberated from the pressure to produce — or avoid — content, he can delight in actual words. It's the first time he has fun on the page.
Empty Words is not Levrero's only novel about writer's block. In 2000, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to write La novela luminosa (The Luminous Novel), a 400-page diary detailing the pursuits to which he devoted the time he was meant to spend writing La novela luminosa. Like Empty Words, La novela luminosa could qualify as a new installment in the literature of boredom, except that like Empty Words, it's too charmingly, haplessly funny to be boring. But don't take my word for it — McDermott is translating La novela luminosa next.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.