Sergio De La Pava, Personae, University of Chicago Press, 2013
Personae is a fragmentary story about stories, a text that is also a sort of love song to text, a beautiful and smart exploration of the bridge between author and reader. The reader here is Helen Tame, a preternaturally gifted detective (formerly a preternaturally gifted pianist); the author here is the unknown and unpublished Colombian centenarian (technically 111) Antonio Arce. The author is dead.
The death of the author is the inciting event, the opening chapter, written in the verbally acute style of Tame's report on the death of the author, which despite evidence to the contrary Tame believes to be a mystery, something needing solution, investigation (as she notes, she is obsessed "with Truth," she seeks "how an unexplained human death nonetheless retains a core truth that can be teased into discovery," like a text)—thus Personae is in a sense a mystery novel, taking on the genre conventions playfully as a smart comment on text, on the way a reader pieces together the fragmentary evidence the author leaves behind (and of course, the author is always, effectively, dead) in order to try making meaning, assembling these fragments against our own eventual ruin. Tame gathers from the scene a box filled with unfinished texts, which then form the body of the novel, and include a notebook, a short story, an existential play, and an unfinished novel or novella.
Personae at various times and in various ways directly comments on itself as text, as in Tame's introduction to the notebook's aphorisms, "the result often feels fragmentary, or inchoate, perhaps heightening the effect that what we have here are halting steps towards future cohesion." Among other writing on writing, the notebook contains Arce's closereading and deconstruction of García Márquez's Cien Años De Soledad, and more tellingly various meditations (mostly faded to near-erasure but recovered by Tame's careful work) on the role of art, against formalism and toward a type of empathic anti-loneliness, a connection:
The author's task is not to invent or even discover but to reassert, in compelling fashion, what we've long known to be true....
an unhealthy fascination with technique and innovation to the detriment of the true and...
At the center of the novel is its longest fragment, an eponymous play, which is a philosophical drama that is as smart and funny and poignant as anything I've read in a long time. Filled with meditations on life, death, memory, loss, identity, politics, and more, this existential drama grounds the center of this unpacking, this interpretative attempt to extract truth from the unexplained death we begin with.
Throughout the text, we have various fragments also of Tame's own writing, a piece on Bach and Glenn Gould, the inclusion of which suggests the idea of the text as variations, and thus the connection between Tame (who is arranging these variations, the ideal reader) and Gould (the ideal performer), but also as noted here the difference between Gould's 1955 and 1981 performances of The Goldberg Variations reflect the changing nature of interpretation, the way the younger Gould's "reading" of TGV differs importantly from the older, just as all readers' readings differ from reader to reader and through time, the process of interpretation its own art. As Tame says, "in creating this work, Glenn Gould obliterated the line that seeks to separate interpretive art from its creative superior. Consequently, it can be accurately stated that these two men showed Time for the mockery it is and collaborated artfully despite the impediment of more than three centuries' distance..." Soon after the 1981 performance, Gould dies, and we read this section just before we get twinned obituaries of author and reader, creator and interpreter of the texts we're immersed in.
Of course, the whole novel is composed of texts, blending Tame's reports with her article on Bach and Gould, and late in the novel we get the abovementioned obituaries, as if clipped—showing us that, indeed, though within these pages Tame is the ultimate interpreter, she is not in fact the interpreter of these pages. That, clearly, is us, since this fragmentary novel weaving author and reader together as dual creators of what is here for us to "tease into discovery" is itself a box of fragmentary texts, which we assemble in order to tease out some core truth from the deaths within, the texts within.
Another way of saying it: just as the two interpretations by Gould of Bach exhaust, in Tame's reading, the Variations, so we have Tame in essence performing, interpreting or arranging or framing for us how these texts approach Truth, how they do indeed—though not as expected—tease into discovery the core truth of a human death.
The novel ends with the unfinished novel of Arce, which explores his Colombian background, the impossible balance between the life he'd lived there and the life he lives here—serving coffee because Americans know they can trust Colombian coffee, as the primary association with that country—as well as parallel lost loves. So, though we open with the mystery of an unexplained human death, details that can only be interpreted, pieced together, and which in some respects do not seem to cohere into a singular picture, we end with a deeply felt exploration of a particular person, the dead man resurrected.
The achievement of this novel, apart from its brilliant formal exploration, its love song to text as text, the dance between reader and author, interpretation and creation, is the way each individual fragment is beautifully written and powerfully felt, full of character and emotion, managing in the words of the author's notebook to create "palpable human beings one can feel for... increas[ing] the recipient's capacity for empathy thereby increasing the world's store of Love," indeed showing us that "Art is a common language and commonalities combat loneliness." [MS]