'Talking to Ourselves' an Affecting Examination of Death

"Talking to Ourselves" by Andrés Neuman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


“Talking To Ourselves” takes a remarkably long time to read for a 150-page novel. At first glance, Andrés Neuman’s follow-up to his acclaimed epic “Traveler of the Century” has an easily navigable structure: it follows the brief and concurrent monologues of a mother (Elena), father (Mario), and son (Lito) as they experience Mario’s illness at the hands of an aggressive cancer. Yet Neuman, who crafts a different form of interior communication for each character—writing for Elena, voice recording for Mario, and thought for Lito—captures the cadences and mental progressions of his characters so accurately that it is necessary to read the book at the same pace one would hear speech. Each character is astonishingly consistent and life-like. Elena’s writings, buoyed by her knowledge of literature, are erratic and gorgeous ruminations on the confusing facets of illness. Her husband’s tape recordings to his son are heartbreaking and unsettlingly honest. And 10 year-old Lito’s thoughts are full of an innocence and sense of wonder that creates an inevitable yearning for youth. Neuman ties together his characters’ thoughts with an effective and chronologically elastic narrative, which magnifies the already staggering emotional and technical depth of his unforgettable “Talking to Ourselves.”

The novel has a lot in common with Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Both books juxtapose the styles and methods that family members use to deal with a parent’s illness, death, and afterlife and cycle at varying lengths between the protagonists. Both utilize confessional first-person narrative. And perhaps most significantly, both are centered on a journey. In Faulkner’s tale, Addie Bundren’s family encounters absurdity and intense danger on their way to bury their matriarch in fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. Neuman’s concerns a goodbye trip led by the dying Mario for his son Lito. The duo borrows Mario’s brother’s truck and embarks on a cross-country odyssey through an ambiguous South American clime—the unrecognizable place names, which are never explicitly linked to any particular country, are perhaps another nod to Faulkner.

Despite the lack of explicit spatial grounding, however, Neuman eschews other forms of surrealism or heightened reality. The father and son trip is sweet, if a bit too peaceful and restrained. More sensational plot elements certainly exist; Mario is fading fast and often seems on the brink of being too sick to continue the trip, while Elena strikes up a lascivious and experimental affair with Mario’s doctor back at home. Unlike Faulkner, whose novel’s plot takes on a biblical gravitas, Neuman’s story progresses with a sad sense of inevitability—there is little question that Mario will die, that the affair is ill-fated, and that Lito, who is left in the dark about his father’s decline, is in for a pretty big shock. The book is buoyed, then, almost exclusively by the ruminations and psychological developments of its characters. While this overt focus on interior processes should become tired, Neuman’s care and deliberateness in imitating thought and speech keep them just as exciting as any river crossing or grand conflagration.

Elena’s narrative is the most extensive and memorable. She combines ideas about illness, death, sex, and femininity from the many books she reads with the unraveling world she inhabits. Neuman, who presents her story in the form of a journal, embeds quotes from the likes of Roberto Bolaño and Helen Garner directly into his character’s thoughts, creating a startling but accessible collage. Unlike the remarkably brave Mario and childish but well-intentioned Lito, Elena is not particularly likeable. Her affair with Mario’s doctor, while initially a coping mechanism that appears entirely understandable, devolves into a power game that paints her in a vindictive light. Additionally, her obsession with writers seemingly acts as a crutch against her own emotional shortcomings. Neuman’s willingness to create a morally ambiguous main character is further testament to his understanding of the subtleties of the human condition.


Mario’s missives, which Neuman presents as tape recordings to his son while in a hospital bed, are both gorgeous and poignant glimpses into the contradictory simplicity and deep entanglements of impending death. On the one hand, Mario spends his time thinking about his pains, itches, and meals. On the other, he is profoundly afraid of death and has no faith to fall back on. Lito’s sections, which are made up of thoughts he experiences on the farewell trip, is a remarkably accurate exemplification of the mind of a child, complete with sudden ponderings about the science behind a shadow or a windmill. The organization of the sections is far from chronological; Elena’s tend to rush ahead into the future, Mario’s are fixed near the end of his life, and Lito’s are from the trip. The combination only serves to further highlight Neuman’s brilliance with emotion. Taken out of order, his story is no longer just merely a chronicle of a broken family, but rather a universal commentary on the nature of grief.





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