The bad news: Melanie Haupt isn't satisfied with Sandra Cisneros' eagerly awaited epic. The good? Read on.
Carameloby Sandra Cisneros
Knopf, 448pp., $24
No one ever said that writing an epic novel is easy. Writing a good epic novel is even less easy. Leslie Marmon Silko, in describing the process of writing the sprawling, violent Almanac of the Dead, revealed that after a decade or so of being locked up in her office, wholly absorbed in writing her prophetic opus, her friends and family stopped coming around, having finally given up on her. But that was a different book, one far more wrenching and triumphant than Sandra Cisneros' entrée into epic, Caramelo.
In it, Cisneros charts the trials and tribulations of the Reyes family, traveling back and forth from Chicago to Mexico to San Antonio, dancing through the 20th century with an eye for scandal, sexy seductresses, and sweaty, stolen moments. Our narrator is Lala, a precocious girl who describes dusty family car trips to Mexico, recounts the endless machinations of her Awful Grandmother, Soledad, and, after her discovery of the unfinished, handmade silken shawl of brown -- a precious caramelo -- begins to knit her own tapestry, attempting to weave something beautiful out of some very unlovable people. Unfortunately, Lala (and, by turns, Cisneros) is often unsuccessful.
The book's epigram reads Cuéntame algo, aunque sea una mentira ("Tell me a story, even if it is a lie"), a quote from Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story, an ethnography of one Mexican woman's life that explores the act of mythmaking and narrative. The idea is that the recipient of the narrative (the reader) is charged with the duty of protecting the narrator's memory, despite the veracity of the story itself. As Lala tells her family's story, her Awful Grandmother (whom Lala eventually sees replicated in her adult self) butts in, criticizing Lala's stylistic choices or the "truth" of the representation. It's an interesting dynamic, one that in retrospect seems as though Lala is arguing with herself as she struggles to paint an interesting portrait of who she is and where she came from.
Trouble is, it ultimately isn't all that interesting. Cisneros seems more interested in capturing people's conversational styles -- digressions and all -- than in keeping the reader interested. She gets so caught up in weaving her web that the plot's progression slows to a crawl, all momentum is lost, and the reader is bored.
Nothing is more grating, however, than Cisneros' egregious abuse of footnotes. It is indeed honorable that the author wants to make her readers privy to the historical events that contextualize a character's motivation, and it's quite a cute idea to complete a fleeting character's life story in a page-and-a-half-long footnote at the end of nearly every chapter, but the overall effect is distracting. Rather than serving as archeological layers that help support the story, the asterisked notes (which are sometimes longer than the chapters themselves) are distracting, dust blowing in the reader's eyes, causing a distressing lack of focus. The overall effect is alienating, preventing the reader from fully engaging with characters that Cisneros doesn't seem to care enough about to give her full attention. Others have used the technique successfully -- Mark Danielewski in his House of Leaves, for one -- but it's a hindrance here.
The community of Latina writers is small and extremely close-knit, and the literary regime wants to endow every work by a Latina writer, especially Sandra Cisneros, with unequivocal importance. Where Cisneros errs is inflating this particular work with her own sense of self-importance, which leads to a forced and plodding novel that is hard to trust.
Then again, maybe that's the point.