Jul/Aug 2019 Reviews & Interviews

Mac's Problem

Mac's Problem.
Enrique Vila-Matas.
New Directions. 2019. 224 pp.
ISBN 978-0811227322.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Mac is 60-plus, his family business has gone bust, and he is "embarking on a new path." He would like, he tells us, to write a fake, posthumous, unfinished novel, but should he die in the process, it would ruin his "great dream of being a falsifier." So, being a complete novice at writing, he has chosen to write a diary, in part "to ascertain if, as Natalie Sarraute once said, writing really is an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote."

Mac's concerns—the obsessions and problems he explores in his diary—are repetition ("We come into this world in order to repeat what those before us also repeated") and the incomplete—mostly books and art works but actions, too. His vocation, he writes at one point, is "as a modifier of things." But he is also interested in the origins of story and the art of novel writing, and at times his ramblings explore these things, and his diary is his practical exploration of them.

Mac's diary allows him to write about his obsessions with constant reference to his everyday experiences, memories, random thoughts, and opinions. He has always been a voracious reader, and his reading has clearly been extensive and his taste eclectic. He makes casual use of ideas and quotations from the works of a diverse range of writers, including Petronius, Baudelaire, Agatha Christie, Marcel Schwob, Philip K. Dick, David Mamet, and many other writers from many different eras and cultures. Being so interested in repetition, Mac is well aware of the novelist's fear that repeating oneself is "the slippery road to ruin," but it is a fear he can't understand, since there is really "not a soul on the planet who doesn't repeat himself." Even Stanley Kubrick's work, varied as it is said to be, is in Mac's opinion, "all built around the same closed circle of obsessive repetitions."

Mac's concern with the unfinished, too, leads him to memories of an exhibition of unfinished artworks and a digression about Walter Benjamin's thoughts on ancient carpet patterns and the cracks in an unfinished masterpiece, which open up paths and "set the imagination working."

One constant theme in Mac's diary is the work of his neighbor Sanchez, "the celebrated Barcelona writer," whose novel, Walter's Problem, Mac begins to comment on chapter-by-chapter, intrigued by its inconsistencies, mistakes, and its "occasional absurd change of pace, and all kinds of twaddle." Mac's diary itself exhibits these same characteristics as he ponders, digresses, drinks, and wanders his neighborhood. And he has trouble deciding what real events from his days he can include in his diary:

If you ask me, reality doesn't need anyone to organise it into a plot, it is itself a ceaseless Creative Centre. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless Centre that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn. I resist then, because I don't want anything to interrupt my work as a diarist. I resist with the same sense of horror that Jekyll does in the presence of Hyde....This is what happened today when reality insisted on revealing to me, with the best and brightest light at its disposal, its own ruthless novel-writing machine...

While Mac examines and explores the nature of novel-writing and story-telling, he also reminds himself, "this is a diary, it's a diary, a diary."

So, we hear something of Mac's marriage to Carmen, his daily peregrinations, and his opinions of the people he meets. His comments and his whole approach to writing are often wryly funny, but the humor is muted and ironic and often an unintentional result of Mac's character as revealed through his writings. However, although his creator Enrique Vila-Matas is well-known in Spain for his humorous and erudite writings, I found the book too rambling and repetitious (no-doubt deliberately so) for my taste, and Mac's diary often seemed as mundane and boring as his life:

Once inside our apartment, I poured myself a glass of ice-cold water. I then deliberated over whether or not to put this trivial gesture in my diary. The answer wasn't long coming. I absolutely must write it down if I didn't want to lose the sense that what I'm writing is a diary and not a novel.

In the end, I lost patience with Mac, although I am aware that my reaction to the book is purely subjective and other readers may thoroughly enjoy his company. He does have a distinctive voice and character, and the book is well-written and thought provoking. But, as Mac says, "the motto of many German writers was always this: may heaven grant the reader patience." I was not patient enough with Mac.


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