Having Time Without Wanting It
Jessica Payn reviews Brenda Lozano’s Loop (trans. Annie McDermott)
“Is it possible to lose time?” In Brenda Lozano’s novel Loop (trans. Annie McDermott), her first to be translated into English, the narrator finds herself in the condition of having time without wanting it. The expectant limbo of waiting: not moving forwards, but “floating”, unsure whether she is “getting further away… or getting closer”, or whether “these stairs go up or down”. “I’m in the waiting area”, she says at one point. “They’ve just announced the flight’s delayed. This situation is also the shortest possible summary of this story.”
Where waiting suggests stagnancy and threatens boredom, the narrative of Loop is experimental, witty, and disruptive, its narrator impetuous and pensive. She is filling a notebook while she waits for her boyfriend Jonás’ return from a trip abroad to Spain. He has left following the death of his mother, taking a journey to the country of her birth — a journey with no defined duration. The novel that surrounds his absence is interested in the distances of memory, space, and intimacy, as well as of geography. But its tone is light, even mischievous, and it is also a book about the gaps between life and art, meaning and words, ‘usefulness’ and significance. It is told entirely in elliptical jumps of thought via the voice of a first-person narrator whose tone is slippery, at once beguiling, bright, and tumblingly abrupt: “I wonder. What do I wonder?” Even as this narrator speaks only to the page, she supposes an audience (sometimes explicitly addressing Jonás, but otherwise some other interlocutor) and the leaps of her aphoristic assurance feel knowingly performative. Hers is a voice given to dreamy rumination, which also flashes its instinct for fun: “The word can be a sea or a puddle. Phrases can contain anything, like these delicious coconut biscuits I’m eating.” She takes the repeatable objects of her home, her social life, and the generalised urban surrounds as her frame of reference, asserting a stance of pointed frivolity:
Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously. That’s what universities are for, and theses, and academic studies. Personally, I like cafés, bars and living rooms. Not to mention comfortable cushions. So nice and cosy.
To call this voice ‘faux-naif’ might be one way to come to an understanding of Lozano’s project here. Knowingly artless, it conjures a helpful sense of the deflections patterning the apparent whimsy: “Now I’m going to write something important: bats have smaller ears than rabbits.” The charade of delighted improvisation, the teasing attention to trivia, our suspicion of there being competing depths to the writing (after all, as the narrator reminds us, “All stories are a deep ocean and a puddle at the same time”) are brought into relief by moments of explicit challenge: “Watch out: I ask questions that aren’t real, like plants made of fabric.”
As much as this unevenness of tone is part of the book’s off-kilter charm, it is also one of its challenges. We are put on our guard by such warnings, led to feel suspicious of the narrator’s breezy wonderings as she waits for Jonás to return, and it’s not long before we realise that, even as the book seems conditioned by his absence, the themes it considers are much messier and all-encompassing than the story of a relationship put under strain. The narrator’s notebook represents more than a manner of filling time and escaping the suspense of ‘now’. It is an “ideal notebook”, an idea Lozano introduces by way of a brand that slips into a philosophy: “I’ve found my combination: a Scribe notebook for a diary and an Ideal notebook for fiction. This is my married couple. Gemini at last become one.” Complicating our sense of the text before us — which appears closer to a ‘diary’ than a novel — the “ideal notebook” makes and remakes itself. It is a conception of writing. It is whatever it says itself to be. The narrator notes: “One way of turning into a swallow is by writing: I’m a swallow.” Elsewhere, she applies this same logic of writing’s transmogrifying potential to the notebook itself: “My notebook is my guitar.”
Something about this playfulness can make the “ideal notebook” seem almost trite. It has infinite potentials: “It does everything, it allows everything.” Yet the objects into which it transforms are an iPod, a karaoke booth, a telephone, a piano — items suggesting song, music, the voice, but which lack that lyrical liveliness, and which taken together form part of the clutter of consumer capitalism. Lozano entertains us with this bathetic mismatching: the ‘ideal’, that implied superlative meaning ‘the best that can be conceived’, made stationery:
…the Iliad of notebooks. … A long poem about notebooks. The war of the notebooks breaks out between two sides: squared versus lined. The Trojan horse is an HB pencil, and Helen is a beautiful white rubber. The story of Ideal notebooks contains all the elements of an epic poem.
In muddying the distinction between ‘ideas’ and ‘things’ — between language, the world it creates, and the external world, its material referent — Lozano brings us up against a refusal to look through objects. In his paper ‘Thing Theory’, Bill Brown notes that “[w]e begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us”. While Lozano draws attention to the notebook’s covers, pages, lines, and heft — surfaces not put only to the service of semiotic signification — she also shows the ‘ideal’ notebook behaving outside the role by which it makes meaning and is made ‘useful’. The narrator uses it as a coaster for her coffee, to wedge doors open, and even throws it at the wall to turn off the light:
I forgot to say that yesterday this notebook came in useful for turning off the light. I stretched out my arm but couldn’t reach the switch, and yet thanks to the notebook’s solidarity we managed it together, in a true bilateral partnership. As you can see, the notebook, reproduced and widely distributed, could serve as political discourse. And thrown at the right moment it could be an anarchist gesture.
Behaving purposefully or ‘usefully’ is the opposite of the activities we adopt when we’re waiting. “The waiting room is a concentration of useless things”, the narrator tells us. “All the things we do to waste time. The paraphernalia of uselessness, of lost time.” Her thingish notebook is a manner of filling space, passing the hours and days, but she also paints her context as a country mired in suspensive inaction. Mexico: “Waiting for peace on the streets, peace at bedtime. Here people are waiting for safety — is that too much to ask?”
It’s difficult to disentangle these threads: to understand in what ways ‘usefulness’ is being disturbed. Is waiting (with its attendant trivia) being celebrated or criticised? The mode is one of ambivalence — waiting is, after all, a time of questions:
I’m not looking for answers — questions are more my thing. After all, I like waiting.
Oh, I have so many questions. All unusable. I prefer questions to answers. Being on the way is better, you can open the windows and let the wind mess up your hair. I love messing up my hair. I could hold a garage sale with all the questions I’ve accumulated here — I have so many, piled up like pieces of junk.
Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to put your finger on what Loop is ‘about’. Where answers create closure, the movement of questions is centrifugal, exploding the sense of a centre. Paratactic exclamation — jumping with pinball-rhythm enthusiasm between naïveté and knowingness — does little to settle our understanding.
At least part of what the book is doing is playing with its own literary ancestry: Penelope, who wove and unwove a burial shroud in Odysseus’ absence, lingers always in the margins, providing a figure for the narrator’s own attempts to “lose time”. Occasionally, she is snatched into the open: “This is a time of waiting and I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again.” While these textile metaphors cast knowing glances towards that Latin word texere (meaning ‘to weave’), the root common to both ‘textile’ and ‘text’, the (note)book knits its own patchwork of observation, quotation, post-its, overheard conversation and reminiscence — except that Lozano’s similes are better:
I thought that writing in this notebook is a bit like wool, because the lines are baby blue and the words, added in cross-stitch, could even become socks or a scarf or a doily, and maybe I could unravel it all and then knit it and unravel it again while Jonás is coming back from his trip.
We see Lozano’s narrator teasingly rewriting The Odyssey, at the same time as deflating the grandiosity of her own allusions — she shows us how the epic quest might be shrunk to a series of questions, pondered from a static spot on the same wooden chair: “A question. While she was waiting, did Penelope masturbate?”
To cast the narrator’s knowingness in the terms of showing that ancient text’s ‘relevance’ to our modern context would be to miss its subtlety. Penelope is as much a part of the ‘fabric’ of the novel, its structure, repetitions, and global syntax, as she is a point of reference. A gesture towards this notion is offered by the English title. Where the Spanish original, Cuaderno ideal, takes the “ideal notebook” for its title, straightforwardly referencing the narrator’s dominant preoccupation, the alternative “loop” more obliquely suggests the book’s tapestry, implying a circuity or doubling into oneself, but also the looseness of a textile with an absence at its centre: the yawning ‘O’ in the middle of the thread. As the narrator runs into her own repetitions, the book bespeaks stuckness (the waiting room), yet her insistence on returning to previous thoughts creates a pattern of dominant strands: the dwarf, the sea, the wish to become a swallow, life experienced ‘on a smaller scale’, the Bowie song ‘Wild is the Wind’. Thoughts that seek to escape themselves and arrive at the branchings of distraction — in the word’s sense of drawing away or asunder — are instead looped into one another.
Perhaps less convincing is the idea that, in metaphors of doing and undoing, the narrator writes and erases these thoughts. How do we undo what we have written? By repetition to the point of semantic satiation, so that phrases become meaningless through overuse? Or by vision and revision,
I wish you were here, Jonás. I wish you were here.
Am I getting closer or further away?
Whatever claims the narrator makes for “unravelling”, undoing and “unlearning yourself”, our sense of the book is ultimately cumulative — perhaps inevitable for an object experienced more in time than it is in space. And from the kind of statement its ending makes, every throwaway thought in the novel — even its “pointless sayings” — emerges as integral to its broader argument. Its final paragraphs gather its various strands to make the case for the value of waiting, of journeys, “however profound or superficial”, of writing and of words “in the full splendour of their everydayness, which can be used to sing a Shakira song, or so someone can tell you about their day.” The “ideal notebook” redeems the magical, metamorphic powers of language: “Misfortune, pain, tragedy all ought to be transformed into something else.” Perhaps the only thing missing from Annie McDermott’s adept English translation of Loop is the awareness that, in Spanish, the verb ‘to wait’ is also the verb for hope.