From the award-winning author of the Man Booker Prize finalist Like a Fading Shadow, Antonio Muñoz Molina presents a flâneur-novel tracing the path of a nameless wanderer as he walks the length of Manhattan, and his mind.
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.