Part of the World by Robert Lopez. Calamari Press, $17.
Reviewed by Leigh Murphy
In his first novel, Robert Lopez leads the reader into a peculiar “part of the world” on his own terms. The novel itself deals with the everyday actions of the narrator, from renting an apartment to buying a used car. However, these tasks become yard sticks by which one must measure the narrator himself and his sense of reality. By the end of the novel, the reader is forced to question the validity of everything the narrator has said, as a new, obfuscated yet elucidated reality begins to appear.
The narrator reveals himself in a piece-meal fashion, immediately declaring that, “Sometimes I know the particulars when asked, but I just as often forget.” In this way, Lopez brings the reader into an unnamed, vaguely described place in America. (One can only assume it is America, as the narrator, who is himself unnamed, differentiates himself from a proclaimed female foreigner because of her use of typically British colloquialisms.) The narrator depicts his own part of the world in a series of oppositions throughout the novel. He observes other characters, and remarks on their part of the world in contrast to his own. Certain “parts of the world” are described with simple statements such as, “Where she is from the women admonish the men for being perverts.” Rather than describing his surroundings to the reader, the narrator seems preoccupied with diction, and the story becomes intertwined with, and eventually inseparable from, these anxieties: “Imposing is not the correct word in this instance, the proper usage. This is the second time imposing has been misused. But I like the sound of it, accentuating the soft vowel sounds.”
As a reader, one is at first concerned for the narrator and wonders how he survives, as he is plagued by strange daydreams and an inability to pay attention to anything other than himself. In this way, he resembles Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. The narrator’s mantra--“Almost nothing has anything to do with me”--becomes superfluous as the novel progresses. The reader sees that the narrator is unable to relate to the outside world in much the same way as Meursault, through his fumbling interactions. His familiar apathy is also illustrated in his statement that, “Whenever someone tries to explain something to me I get lightheaded and fall down.” What distinguishes him from Meursault, though, is that this apathy does not seem to be intentional. While at one point he states that sequence is of no importance, he later expresses his belief that “Certainly someone was responsible for it, for all of us.” Similar contradictions can only mean that this character is not determined in his beliefs, as was Meursault. Instead, it appears that the narrator is simply unable to comprehend others’ feelings and attitudes. Moreover, he acts disgusted by what he cannot understand. Especially troubling is his concern with the so-called Teardrops: middle-class, overweight individuals who seem to make up most of the population. While this indifference bordering on contempt appears symptomatic of some mental defect (e.g., “Choosing something from a take-out menu can induce anxiety, even paralysis. I have gone without more than once, have gone to bed without my supper”), the narrator remains self-aware, assuaging to some extent most of the reader’s concerns. Also comforting are his relatively functional relationships with a neighbor and sister, though they are functional only from his viewpoint.
The structure of the novel is patterned around repetitions. The narrator repeats himself, nearly word for word, on several occasions. Each time he does so, however, the passage takes on a new significance both within the narrative and to the reader. As the work progresses, the reader begins to question the veracity of the narrator’s account. There are holes in his stories, and each time he repeats them the details change. While he admits this occasionally, and states that he does not intend to deceive the reader, this does not provide any sense of confidence. Instead, it increases the reader’s concern for the narrator’s functionality.
At the same time, the narrator begins to refer to his health problems more frequently. What begin as allergy pills eventually morph into some type of medication that results in sluggishness, drowsiness, and confusion. What at first appear to be idiosyncrasies begin to suggest a more dangerous, innate problem with the narrator. He can no longer distinguish his own present from fiction and memory. The narrator’s repetitions begin to take on new meanings. “When the phone does not ring is never a problem,” a seemingly innocuous statement insinuating that the narrator does not like to answer the telephone, ultimately leads the reader to see that the narrator is paranoid and anti-social, or worse. The repetitions of certain passages, word for word, acquire new meaning when the narrator changes the subject of the descriptions. He describes his neighbor, with whom he has a sexual relationship, in the same words as his sister. He describes the neighbor’s car in the same way he previously described his own. The reader begins to question everything he or she has just read, and wonders whether the other characters were ever real at all.
Part of the World is simultaneously accessible and complex. Lopez chooses each word carefully, giving the novel a two-tone sense of superficiality and depth. The repetitive structure gives the reader a distorted perception of reality, parallel to that of the narrator. The banalities of everyday life are reconceptualized as fascinating, important, and complex through the eyes of this equally mesmerizing narrator. The reader must come to a conclusion at the end of this novel and decide for him/herself whether or not to believe the narrator: a refreshing literary technique since the author provides balanced evidence for numerous conceivable endings. Ultimately, Lopez gives the reader the unique opportunity to determine reality in Part of the World.