Mr. Muñoz Molina is not after answers, or even definition; all that he has seen and read swirls within his memory like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. In that sense, his novel represents a psychogeography of the imagination, in which streets, encounters and scraps of history fold back upon themselves in astonishing, unpredictable, ways ... Burroughs-like cut-ups reveal how our inner lives have been outsourced, colonized by the marketplace ... The novel appropriates such bits and pieces and regurgitates them as lists and news bulletins. We re-experience Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, yet each comes off as equally consequential and inconsequential: events over which we have neither agency nor control. This floating quality extends to place and person, offering a porousness To Walk Alone in the Crowd gleefully exploits ... All these strands come together in the closing section of the novel, which traces a long meander from southern Manhattan to the Bronx cottage where Poe once lived. It’s a stirring attempt at reconciliation, although in a world of displacement, Mr. Muñoz Molina understands that this is not enough ... But walking, throughout, offers its own small consolations, not least the presence observation requires.
There are many excellent passages, insightful biographical sketches about the lives of his favorite writers or tender reflections on his beloved wife. And Guillermo Bleichmar’s translation is consistently graceful. But there are too many paragraphs describing his pencils and his favorite cafe, too many environmental catastrophes listed off as if we don’t know about them. Too much simply pointing at realities all of us already see. Where Benjamin’s writing is energized by his erudition Baudelaire’s by passion and invention, and Pessoa’s by his immersive voice, Muñoz Molina’s narrator seems content to catalog, as if writing things down is enough to make them interesting ... It is an increasingly pressing project, as the refuse keeps piling up, but also increasing is the need for imagination in transforming the refuse into something that will move us.
There are several such miniature biographies in To Walk Alone in the Crowd: portraits of Baudelaire, Poe, Melville, and others in extremis, their works to be celebrated only posthumously. These stories give the novel some of its antique, near-Sebaldian flavor, which sits more easily than one might expect alongside reflections on the digitally mediated city. A clue to Molina’s most obvious archaism: in describing his novel I have so far not mentioned a single female writer or artist...for the most part, in a novel that purports to be as much about the present as the ways we discover what, and who, has been neglected in the past, women seem to function in this book as local color, at best. At times it is genuinely (deliberately?) like reading a writer from a hundred years ago ... at once brilliant, erudite, absorbing, moving—and quite quaint, a sort of literary consolation, assuring us that defunct forms can still give us news about now. It is also a book that could only have been written today, as an act of engaged nostalgia: not so much for the materials and materiality that it constantly hymns, nor for the lives it describes at great historic remove, but for the sort of writing that detailed such things, the first time around.
What appears at first as cacophony transforms into, in the words of one of the characters, 'an implicit and spontaneous order of the kind that occurs in nature.' In this sense, the translation from Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar should be celebrated for being consistent, transparent, nearly imperceptible as a translation, meaning that there’s no sense of interference or clumsy misplacement by another hand. The narrative voice comes through as European, sophisticated, in an English that is neither distinctively American nor British, and also entirely fluid. This is especially impressive in the passages riffing on advertising, which are hard to imagine as originating in another language, considering there’s an entire industry dedicated to 'localization' of ad copy to local markets ... The effect is one of bracing poetry. By this I’m not referring to the common misperception of poetry as a sentimental form or to 'lyrical language,' but rather the facility poetry has of turning a trite phrase inside out and making it glow with new meaning ... While the sheer mass of text and its sometimes repetitive episodes requires readerly fortitude, the novel’s sprawling excess, its playful unwillingness to be any one thing, are its greatest strength and the source of its splendor. I wouldn’t call the sensibility exuberant, but rather curious, open, if with a tinge of world-weariness ... The investigation is in the realm not of the literary scholar but of the alchemist who seeks to know what combination of streets, boots, and perambulations influence the creative process, and by implication, what forces transform a reader into a writer.
... provides the reader with the far-reaching ruminations of a witty middle-aged man taking long walks through cities. His thoughts run beyond the point of overload and into the realm of being talked at while at a party filled with writers and want-to-be-writers. His intellect is never in question. It just tends to get annoying ... brings elements of modern life to the page that go ignored on a conscious level out of a fundamental need to filter the deluge of stimulus to remain sane ... Few writers would attempt this type of exploratory work and fewer would be able to pull it off. One of Spain’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Muñoz Molina makes it work more often than not–if you give him and his unnamed narrator an inordinate amount of patience. Most fiction is considerate of the reader, if for no other reason than an author’s well-founded fear of beta readers putting the book down and telling their family and friends to take home something else from the bookstore ... This is certainly not the case with To Walk Alone in the Crowd...The lackadaisical approach comes through loud and clear. A writing experiment is drawn up across several hundred pages and, presumably, miles of sidewalk ... The overstimulation is intentional; the moments of unadulterated beauty and clarity that shine through are all the more worth it as a result ... Does any of this sound appealing? Do you want to read something that only further reminds you about how exhausting the day-to-day tends to be during the early decades of the 21st century? Do you want to follow a smug man’s meandering thoughts, clever as they may be, as he meanders through Madrid and then New York City? ... If the answer is no, that is fully understandable. To Walk Alone in the Crowd is not for everyone, especially if literary life paths are not of interest. But those that decide to relinquish hours of their precious free time to this strange novel might find something worthwhile on the stroll.
... this is more than a novel, it is travelogue, autobiography, biography, political commentary, and an environmental call to action ... It almost becomes too much and the wall of words seem to be taking on a life of their own that no longer simply describe the world but define it and in many ways now create it. To Walk Alone in the Crowd: A Novel invites the reader to become immersed in it and by doing so to be altered ... This is a novel for our times, disjointed, bite-sized sections to ensure our Twitter-moulded minds never lose interest and move on to something else before we get bored. Headlines, soundbites, street sounds, gossip, arguments, and high art scramble through the chaos of words ... Yet somehow it all knits together like the different coloured loops in an intricate mandala that when you stand back from it takes on a hypnotic form to draw you into a world that is of and yet somehow beyond this world.
... a deft translation ... Billed as a kind of homage to flânerie, the book reads more like a cautionary tale about the endangerment of the art of idle walking ... These excursions into literary history lend the proceedings a certain gravitas, but they also highlight the relative monotony of the narrator’s own wanderings ... The use of fragments is not uncommon among flâneurs, but Muñoz Molina’s set pieces read as mere compilations of visual and sonic data, with no thread looping through them, no enigma being circled. Bleichmar, the translator, is meticulous in his attention to the rhythms of the author’s Spanish. The voice of the narrator does not call to mind any of the book’s literary heroes, nor does it evoke more recent literary flâneurs, such as Amit Chaudhuri, Rebecca Solnit, and Teju Cole. Rather, he sounds like a character in a novel by Don DeLillo ... The autumnal melancholy one expects in a solitary rambler is instead a wintry misanthropy, leading not to observational insight but to sneers ... The most captivating moments in To Walk Alone in the Crowd come when the narrator lets memories seep through the barrage of pushy advertisements and pleading headlines ... there is a frustrating terseness to his historical musings, and a lot of tour-guide trivia ... Rather than gaining the depth of perspective that the past provides, To Walk Alone in the Crowd seems to cave in to the present, mimicking its superficiality and self-importance, channelling its short attention span and its addiction to topicality ... There may be a tacit critique in this approach: have big cities across the globe become products, too, soulless and interchangeable? Still, there is something self-defeating in an homage to flânerie that offers little sense of place ... What is really missing, though, is humanity—or specific, ordinary instances of it. Muñoz Molina’s narrator embodies the detachment of the flâneur but not his capacity for empathy. He tries to be 'all eyes and ears.' This is a different goal than, as Woolf has it, briefly inhabiting 'the bodies and minds of others.'
It’s only by recalling the urban walks of Poe, Baudelaire, Melville, and De Quincey, among others, that our narrator achieves a degree of stability, if not quite purpose, in his wanderings. The resulting swirl of impressions and lamentations is both bewildering and poetic.
For the reader accompanying this walker, each new section reveals something unexpectedly different, akin to what one might find after crossing the street to the next block ... Those familiar with Muñoz Molina’s more traditional works will be surprised, though not necessarily dissatisfied, with his latest offering. Relative newcomer Bleichmar’s excellent translation adds to the prize, despite the absence of the illustrations from the original.
In the end, the solitary writer’s journeys and observations culminate in his discovery of solace in loving his wife, and his passion makes the narrative deeply rewarding. The result is a treasure trove.
Molina writes with a poet’s sensibility ... writing that feels like it’s part fiction, part memoir ... Reading paragraphs composed almost entirely of these recorded words across this 400-plus-page book becomes suffocating, though the paragraphs made from news headlines replicate the 24-hour news cycle’s deluge with stunning accuracy. Relief arrives when the collage becomes an epiphany about life, capitalism, wandering, or the self; or when Muñoz Molina indulges in fascinating stories about the lives of Baudelaire, Poe, De Quincey, and more ... Mr. Nobody is interwoven with stories about the same famous men but feels less claustrophobic because here Muñoz Molina focuses more on describing the city and its people, which enriches the experience of wandering ... While this book is a flâneur’s catalog of walking among the noise of the modern world, it often feels like a marathon.