Starting today, I’ll be writing a monthly roundup highlighting newish books that should be on your radar. The first installment includes two: Aura Xilonen’s impressive debut novel, The Gringo Champion, and Lauren Elkin’s enjoyable memoir/cultural history, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Toyoko, Venice and London.
If there’s a book that you think should be on Jezebel’s radar, let us know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen
As the President of the United States employs the phrase, “illegal immigrant” to invoke fear, criminality and imply the crumbling of a once great America, Aura Xilonen’s debut novel The Gringo Champion is a fierce—if unintentional—rejoinder to the increasingly ugly narrative surrounding undocumented workers. Xilonen’s novel follows Liborio, a young man who, after a childhood of abuse, decides to leave Mexico for the United States. He crosses the Rio Grande and stumbles through the desert, a traumatic crossing story that Xilonen tells intermittently as flashbacks, as memories prompted by Liborio’s attempts to build a new life in an unnamed border town. Liborio finds work a bookstore where he reads novels and learns English, giving the book its literary feel, but the violence of his childhood follows him, ironically leading him to boxing, where he’ll eventually find success and love.
The Gringo Champion’s plot isn’t what makes this novel compelling; rather, it’s Xilonen’s empathetic character development combined with a deeply original voice. The story, told from Liborio’s perspective, is narrated in a mix of vernacular language and Spanglish. Xilonen has a particular knack for expressionist language; silence is “shredded,” a ransacked bookstore is a “bedlam of books,” and pedestrians are like “befuddled telephone poles.” Rather than the sun simply setting, it lowers “its angles and is heading out, as it does every day bouncing orange among cirrus clouds.” Xilonen’s imagery is always offset by the violence that, for the first half of the book, frames Liborio’s life. After such a poetic description of the sunset, Liborio is pulled back to reality, and asks, “What’s wrong with this goddamn world?”
The Gringo Champion is quite an accomplishment, particularly for a debut novel. But Xilonen’s work is even more astounding considering that she wrote the novel at 19 years old. The Los Angeles Review of Books notes that it was the winner of a contest held by “Librerías Gandhi, Mexico’s largest chain of bookstores, and Literatura Random House, the literary arm of Mexico’s Penguin Random House subsidiary.” It was chosen from 392 entries and the judges were surprised to learn that the book was written by a woman. LARB reports that “the jury assumed that the writer was in his late 30s and early 40s, due to the quality of the prose, and was likely male, on the basis of the marks of identity in the book.”
Regardless of the circumstances of its publication or Xilonen’s age, The Gringo Champion is a compelling novel, rich with description and empathetic in its depiction of a migrant worker. Europa Editions, Xilonen’s American publisher, has translated and published some of the most compelling novels in the last few years (including Elena Ferrante’s work) and The Gringo Champion is a perfect fit for the publishing house. Like Ferrante, Xilonen’s novel is unflinching and occupies a clearly political point of view without being a political book.
Anyone with passing knowledge of French Impressionism is aware of the flâneur, that particular 19th century man who spent his time strolling Paris’s arcades and walking the newly widened avenues of the city. The hero of poet Charles Baudelaire, the flâneur knew every corner, and every inhabitant, of the city, documenting the crowd without falling prey to it. The flâneur, linguistically and otherwise, was always male and even modern scholars of French literature and art agree, the flâneuse (the feminine for flâneur) simply did not and could not exist. Lauren Elkin disagrees.
Her new book Flâneuse, a kind of memoir planted in history, makes the case for women walking, claiming international cities as sites of both expression and observation. “The great writers of the city,” Elkin notes, “[...] They are all men, and at any given moment you’ll find them writing about each other’s work... As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.” With that in mind, Elkin looks and finds for other flâneuses, women who, like the author, want to stroll the cities, exercising their powers of observation. Among the women she finds are George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Sophie Calle, Martha Gellhorn, and Jean Rhys—a formidable and appealing group. Elkin is a smart writer, she offers a mix of her own pleasures couched in literary criticism and history.
The city and its streets, Elkin acknowledges, have a political and racial history that she touches on that, particularly Occupy in New York and the Communards. Admittedly, that’s some of Elkin’s weakest writing—there’s a sense that she wants you to know that she knows. And that’s fine, it’s a necessary if a sometimes overly insistent nod. Elkin is at her best when she intermixes say Jean Rhys with her childhood interests and adult appreciation of the freedom of the city. Meandering with Elkin through city streets and through histories is the heart of Flâneuse—her observations are sharp and her company is enjoyable and intelligent.