Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero’s Empty Words is a deceptively appealing little book, in large part about a most unlikely subject: penmanship. The unnamed narrator is hoping that his self-imposed handwriting-improvement exercises will relieve his anxiety and improve other aspects of his life. This proves to be a tall order and one that is frequently stymied.
But this is only one half of the book. The other half is what Levrero calls The Discourse, which has the rather nebulous goal of discovering its real subject matter beneath the simple flow or rhythm of what he describes as an apparently empty form. This is something that can’t be forced. As the narrator describes it:
I need to be alert, but with my eyes half-closed, as if I were thinking about something else entirely and had no interest in the discourse taking shape. It’s like climbing into a fish tank and waiting for the waters to settle and the fish to forget they had ever been disturbed, so they move closer, their curiosity drawing them toward me and toward the surface of the tank. Then I’ll be able to see them – and perhaps even catch one.
The ritual of practice is the main force that binds the two parts of the book together, but it is an embedded variety of practice that loses itself in the activity and has no concern for anything outside itself. This indifference to outside matters is critical. For the handwriting exercises to be successful, the protagonist must focus simply on forming appropriate letters without the typical concern in writing with expressing meaning – in fact, if he drifts into emotion-laden topics or areas of personal concern, he loses sight of his task and his penmanship goes to hell. In other words, the narrator’s handwriting is an outer manifestation of his inner state and its success is largely dependent on him not focusing on substantive matters. The Discourse, conversely, seeks to engage in an activity (in this case, a kind of half-willed psychological probing), that requires practice and attention but that remains outside of the narrator’s control. For the goal of the Discourse to be met, the narrator must keep his psychic antennae alert but cannot attempt to influence whatever it is they may pick up. He must simply be open and attentive to see if the real nature of the discourse might emerge.
Of course, the world intrudes on his practice with regularity, and both parts of the book braid through each other with the details of the narrator’s domestic existence – his wife whose habits and temperament are quite different from his own; his ever-curious son who interrupts him at every opportunity; interruptions from the telephone or buzzing electrical equipment; his concerns about needing to tie up his books and arrange for moving house; and not least, his role as primary caretaker of the family dog and a newly adopted cat.
Life, as we know, largely consists of intrusions and responsibilities and interruptions and interactions. Fiction, too, must hum with the conflicts and messiness of its characters’ lives. Levrero clearly understands this and it is in these disruptions and the details of the narrator’s attempt to improve his inner life that we come to find Empty Words a brilliant and moving tribute to both the mundane and sublime.
That the handwriting exercises both contain and are about the act of their composition makes for an inherently playful dynamic which is further amplified by the narrator’s commentaries on his anxious world of interruptions, domestic responsibilities, and the wish for whatever is behind the blocked or walled-off part of his psyche to reveal itself to him.
We learn about both the narrator’s life and inner life in the course of his diaristic writing but also through the quality of the writing itself. There is a calm and precision in the language that belies his claims of anxiety (which he partly tracks through the number of cigarettes he smokes in a day). We learn that he is a novelist and that he is quite interested in psychology, sharing with us a number of his dreams, and mentioning in passing such figures as Freud and Jung along with comments on the anima, id, ego, and superego.
The narrator is also a bit of a soul-seeker. He mentions favoring a Zen approach to getting things done (in contrast to his wife’s tackling things by sheer willpower). And his handwriting practice is after all a course of self-therapy in the hope of self-improvement. It’s a start-and-stop process, and the results are a bit tenuous, but the execution of these exercises and his open-ended explorations in the discourse do seem to help him “to place himself within himself,” to learn to go with the flow, and to find a more grounded way to respond to circumstances beyond his control. As he says toward the end: “it’s all a question of finding the right balance, by means of a kind of spiritual acrobatics.”
I think I’ve failed here to communicate what a charming and eccentric character Levrero has created in his protagonist. It was a pleasure to step into his mind as it sought (but sought not) the words that became Empty Words.