by Guadalupe Muro
192 pages, $23
Reviewed by Laryssa Wirstiuk
For people who write fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and craft essays, it is often hard to decide where to focus efforts and energy. Air Carnation by Argentinian writer Guadalupe Muro may inspire you to ask why you need to choose one form in favor of another. Though marketed as a novel, the book is more appropriately defined as a mixed-media collage made from bits of memoir, poetry, song, letters, historical fact, fiction, and metafiction. The late Jorge Luis Borges may have found a prodigy in his fellow Argentinian Muro, who dedicates nearly 200 pages to the art of becoming and being a writer, a vocation that requires more than just putting a pen to paper.
An air carnation is a flower that grows wild and can thrive without access to soil; often they are found in trees or on rocks. The title Air Carnation refers to women who feel comfortable without roots. Muro writes, “Maybe for some people, travelling feels like home…she gave birth to a dynasty of air carnations, women who really are flowers whose hearts belong to the wind.” Muro—as first-person “I” in the beginning of the book and later as an imagined third-person character named Rita—are unwaveringly comfortable with the nomadic life.
Air Carnation is a thoughtful meditation on persona. The first section of the book is titled “Guadalupe,” and the reader can assume that the “I” used throughout this section is the author herself. However, the third section of the book is called “Rita,” named after a character whose story runs parallel to the author’s. Using this technique, Muro is able to challenge the reader’s judgments and assumptions; one cannot know what is or isn’t true about Muro, but the truth is the love she/Rita feels and her/Rita’s single-minded dedication to craft.
Throughout the book, Muro and alter ego Rita travel to and from places like Buenos Aires, New York, Washington, and take a cross-Canada train from Edmonton to Toronto. Despite the book’s celebration of seeing the world, Air Carnation is also an homage to home: in this case Bariloche, a city in Argentina’s Patagonia. Muro displays nothing but respect and admiration for her real home, for its landscape and climate. She also understands and emphasizes how a person’s home affects his or her ability to function in the world:
Disappointment, velocity, meanness, technology, underpaid work, expectations, the literary canon, womanhood, assassinated whales, school teachers, fashion, good manners, personal tragedies, global catastrophes, diet yogurt, emotions, sex doubts, academic emptiness, demanding boyfriends, war, needy friends, desire, contests, birthdays, disillusionments, scholarships, viruses, tickets and bills – oh, baby, baby it’s a wild and cold world, and we who are reared in the mountains learn that Cold is a patient beast.
Muro’s first and only other book, a collection of poetry titled ¿Con quién dormías? (With Whom Were You Sleeping?) was published in 2007. Her voice has been described by author Pasha Malla as, “somewhere between the startling intimacy of Marguerite Duras and the fragmentary wit of Renata Adler…” Reading Air Carnation, it easy to be reminded of the glittering moments in Adler’s otherwise fragmented and difficult Speedboat, which also chronicles a young female artist’s coming of age as both a sensual being and a writer. However, Muro outshines Adler with her mastery of clear, cohesive narrative. Even though she plays with her form, Muro doesn’t allow the reader to lose herself spatially or chronologically.
While reading Air Carnation, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—an experimental meditation on grief and the color blue—also comes to mind. Where Nelson obsesses over color, Muro focuses on her interactions with other human beings, especially strangers. She writes, “Nothing she said sounded too terrible when she said it to a stranger, and she could listen to anything in return. Nothing made her feel uncomfortable. Her most profound secrets are now carried by men whose names she doesn’t remember.” Despite a fleeting and numerous cast of secondary characters, Air Carnation doesn’t leave the reader feeling as if the interactions should be logged. Rather, the relationships that Muro briefly describes help the reader deepen the connection with the author and Rita because they provide insight into the ways that these primary characters move through the world.
The prose in Air Carnation is lyrical and sublime. Muro is a master of the quiet image. In one standout passage, she writes, “…I’ve hung a few halves of empty coconut to fill every day with corn starch and pieces of old bread. All kinds of birds come every day…I feed them, and then I watch them. This is our way of pretending we need each other. Like poems, birds are docile creatures. They always look grateful.” Throughout the book, Muro describes her relationship to writing in this way, using metaphors related to the landscape and non-human life. In the book’s final scene, she reaffirms her dedication to her art during a difficult swim in a lake.
Currently, Muro is working with musicians to compose a soundtrack to accompany her novel; it will share the name of her book’s second section, which is a series of poems: Songs for Runaway Girls. In a digital world of mashups and what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “nude media,” or media stripped of its original context, more writers should strive for fusion while still maintaining narrative drive. Air Carnation is a fine example of how a writer can push formal boundaries and still maintain a reader’s curiosity and interest from the first to final pages.