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Francisco Goldman, Archivist and Alchemist of the Self

Before autofiction, there was autobiographical fiction, and before autobiographical fiction there was nothing very much. There’s no whole cloth in fiction; the novelistic floor is littered with our private scraps and remnants. Invented stories are also inventories of the self: dressed facts; felt, remembered tales. When Cervantes came to write the second part—the sequel—of “Don Quixote,” he incorporated into his novel a real rival writer, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, who had already published a knockoff “Quixote” sequel of his own. Tolstoy borrowed so much from his own life, and so directly, that he once remarked that he lacked any imagination. Kafka edited his harrowing allegory “A Hunger Artist” on his deathbed, while suffering from starvation brought on by tuberculosis.

Francisco Goldman’s new novel, “Monkey Boy” (Grove Press), looks like a nicely impertinent example of autofiction. A middle-aged writer named Francisco (Frankie) Goldberg, like Goldman the offspring of a Jewish-American father and a Guatemalan mother, takes a train from New York to Boston to visit his ailing mother, who is in a nursing home outside the city. Like Goldman, Francisco Goldberg, who narrates this book, was raised in a small suburban community outside Boston; like Goldman, our narrator is a novelist who has spent much of his adult life in Mexico and Guatemala working as a journalist, and is the author of a recent book of reportage about the infamous assassination of a leading Guatemalan bishop and human-rights advocate. (Goldman’s book, from 2007, is called “The Art of Political Murder”; Goldberg’s more flippant title, “Death Comes for the Bishop,” is perhaps the one Goldman wanted but knew he couldn’t have.) There are countless such correspondences between Goldberg’s fictional existence and Goldman’s real one, and these, in turn, enable autofiction’s apparently randomized freedom: essayistic riffs; a return to the dark material of “The Art of Political Murder”; considerations of the U.S. involvement in Central American political violence; a memory of first reading, in the summer before college, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” on Boston Common; and so on. As with Valeria Luiselli’s recent novel “Lost Children Archive,” the contents of a whole life and mind are being assayed; the formal analogue for this project, as with Luiselli’s, might well be a box or an archive of many different texts, beginning with the author’s own diary or notebook.

But “Monkey Boy” is also a memory book, a novel that reads like an autobiographical immersion, a story that travels relentlessly between a difficult present and an unfinished past. In this guise, Goldman’s book recalls older, if not necessarily less experimental, works of fiction. The great novelistic autobiographers Proust and Bellow, both mentioned in this novel, sponsor Goldman’s story. In “Monkey Boy,” a middle-aged male writer and witness, like Moses Herzog, or like Charlie Citrine, of “Humboldt’s Gift,” is dealing with some tricky contemporary business (here, as in Bellow, often amorous). The contemporary business is lightly, even haphazardly, plotted, because the real pressure, the storied onrush, comes from the past—from inescapable memory. Indeed, the protagonist may struggle to reconcile the demands of the present with the more urgent cry of memory.

In this case, bringing together the child and the seasoned adult may involve a kind of spiritual revolution, a casting off of the past by a reliving of it, a turn in the middle years toward a different way of being. Francisco Goldberg, unmarried and childless, has recently met a younger woman, a Mexican immigrant named Lulú López. They encountered each other at a “learning sanctuary for immigrant kids in Bushwick,” where Frankie runs “a Wednesday evening story-writing workshop.” (This is the novel’s version of Stephen Haff’s Bushwick schoolroom project, Still Waters in a Storm, which also makes an appearance in “Lost Children Archive.”) Lulú appears one evening to collect one of the kids, who is a cousin. Frankie falls in love, perhaps truly for the first time in his life. But that life is strewn with the shards of unsuccessful relationships, and he has a long history of solitary travel and work. If the question he has about Lulú is how much she really loves him—an anxiety that runs through the book—the question he must have for himself is how well he can really love Lulú: he must change his life. “Proust wrote in his novel that a man, during the second half of his life, might become the reverse of who he was in the first,” our narrator tells us. “When I first read that a few years ago I liked the line so much I wrote it down on a piece of paper and put it into my wallet.” This novel is that wallet.

As Frankie gets closer to Boston, his memories quicken into life, rich and painful at once. The most acute concern is his late father, Bert Goldberg, who was a wall of rage and malcontent. Anti-Semitic quotas kept Bert from Harvard, and the Depression kept him from studying medicine at Johns Hopkins, since his family needed his salary. And so “Grandpa Moe made him stay home and go to work as a locksmith so that he could help support the family.” He then studied chemical engineering at Boston University, “eventually leading to his long career in false teeth”—Frankie’s mordant way of summarizing Bert’s job as a chemist at the Potashnik Tooth Company. The narrator likens his abusive childhood to a war story. He returns again and again to his angry father, and the violence he meted out on his sickly and academically disappointing son. In one talismanic scene, Frankie fights back, and knocks his father to the ground; the memory seems, in equal measure, to thrill and to horrify our narrator. The parents’ marriage was largely loveless. Francisco “never once in my life saw my parents kiss, never saw one lightly caress the other in a loving or even passingly sensuous way.” While Bert physically attacked Frankie, “with my mother and sister, it was insults, bullying, berating, derision.” Meanwhile, at school, Frankie—“monkey boy” to his bullies—had to dodge racist classmates like Gary Sacco, scion of the Sacco family, who built the subdivision the Goldbergs lived in, and who had a road named for them. To be beaten up by Gary Sacco and his gang on Sacco Road must have felt like being definitively put in one’s place.

“Sometimes I take a break from working on my computer and work from my phone.”
Cartoon by Dan Rosen

Yet Frankie’s account is full of rebellious comedy and vitality. Goldman is a natural storyteller—funny, intimate, sarcastic, all-noticing. At Penn Station, Frankie, about to board the train to Boston, takes what he calls his “Louis Kahn memorial pee” in the men’s room where the great architect died of a heart attack: “I always picture his final collapse onto the floor like Nude Descending a Staircase, a paroxysmal grandeur but with a short, elderly Jewish man clutching his chest and falling.” The prose is loose-jointed, hybrid, elastic. Goldman describes the gentrifying area of Brooklyn where he meets Lulú thus: “Corner tiendas where neighbors like to gather to chat and gossip are being replaced with coffee bars where bearded blanquitos in eyeglasses sit on stools behind laptop computers at long front windows staring out at the street. . . . Staring out from behind their eyeglasses at the street that one day will be all theirs.” And, more lyrically, there is this lovely portrait of a snowstorm on Clinton Street, where Frankie and Lulú go walking: “Clinton Street in the snow looked like a long, straight logging road through a frozen forest, snow-piled branches, blanketed parked cars and trash cans, the occasional taxi rumbling past like a Red Army tank.”

Tellingly, in a book so shadowed by a violent father, the sources of vitality, laughter, and resistance tend to be female. Francisco admires Lulú’s academic ambition. He recalls an old girlfriend from his days in Mexico City, a photographer named Gisela, who was a talented shoplifter: “To this day the best kitchen knife I own is a Wüsthof that she stole for my birthday from the Palacio de Hierro on Avenida Durango . . . whenever I move, I take it with me.” His earliest memories involve his grandparents’ house in Guatemala City, where he went to live with his mother when his parents split up for a few years—a house of dark rooms, heavy furniture, caged finches and canaries.

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