The Sound of Things Falling is Very Quiet

Snap 2014-07-30 at 20.38.52This novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, originally written in Spanish, focuses on the intersection of two lives—that of Antonio Yammara, a youngish lawyer/professor in Bogota, and Ricardo Laverde, a former drug runner during the Pablo Escobar era. Laverde and Yammara are walking together when shots are fired. Yammara is permanently injured. Laverde is dead. The event causes Yammara to abandon much of his own life (a wife and child) to uncover the life of virtual stranger Laverde. He encounters Laverde’s daughter, Maya, and it is through her that the story unfolds. The book won tons of awards and made it onto numerous “Best Books of 2013” lists.

Jennifer: I’m pretty sure this will be an unorthodox review, because I’m sensing some issues. What are the issues, Lara?

Lara: There’s probably no point in beating around the bush… while the book was good, it didn’t always hold my interest. It didn’t pull me away from other things the way I wanted it to. I also didn’t love Yammara. There, I said it.

Jennifer: Well, coming from you—an avid reader—that’s pretty harsh. We’re not going to beat a dead, um, hippo… this is the book’s opening line:

“The first hippopotamus, a male the color of black pearls, weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009.”

Basically, the book didn’t suck you in. You weren’t all that interested.

I’ll give you my little assessment, and then we’ll move on, using our Snotty Literati platform to raise provocative literary questions—why don’t we? I liked the book. I was into it—fully engaged. I highlighted many beautiful lines. In these pages, one finds:

“the dark green hills . . . bristling with eucalyptus and telephone poles like the scales on a Gila monster,”


“uniformed boys armed with rifles that hung across their chests like sleeping animals.”

Nice stuff. The prose is pretty rich, and I have to admit that, when I read a book in translation, I always wonder—just a little bit—who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the prose. This is mostly due to my own ignorance of translation and language, but I wonder still—and I have since I read my first Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment, translated by Sidney Monas (translated in 1968—though I read it in the eighties, and I want to give him some credit for my love of that book). I’ve thought about this often and was reminded of it again when reading that awesome story about a faux-translator named J. C. Audetat in B.J. Novak’s story collection, One More Thing.

I also might mention that this book by Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez will invariably bring up comparisons with one of Colombia’s biggest literary gems, Gabriel García Márquez. I think there may be similarities, but I’m not so sure I can speak intelligently about them. Both authors seem terribly poetic—but I don’t know if it’s so hot to generalize and say, Wow, those Colombian writer dudes are all so poetic! A question that does interest me is this: Is it fair or even possible to characterize a national literature? People are always talking about the Great American Novel—we’ve done it too. What might the Great Colombian Novel be? Is this it?

The Sound of Things Falling reveals the quiet tragedy of Colombia’s recent history. The thing is that this book is a quiet book. What impact does a quiet book make? How is a quiet book defined? What, in contrast, is a loud book? Is loud better than quiet? What are your favorite books—loud ones or quiet ones? Give me the name of a quiet book you loved. What are we saying? What do you think, Lara? We are—I’d say—loud women. Right? What does that mean?

Lara: Slow down, sister! Your response isn’t quiet at all. But you are right. This is a quiet book. That’s not to say that it is boring. In fact, the writing is beautiful. I particularly liked this passage,

“Experience, or what we call experience, is not the inventory of our pains, but rather sympathy we learn to feel for the pain of others.”

And speaking of the hippos…

“On the morning radio programs and evening news, in the opinion columns that everybody read and on the blogs that nobody read, everyone was asking if it was necessary to kill the lost hippos, if they couldn’t round them up, anesthetize them, and send them back to Africa; in my apartment, far from the debate but following it with a mixture of fascination and repugnance, I was thinking more and more intensely about Ricardo Laverde, about the days when we’d known each other, about the brevity of our acquaintance and the longevity of its consequences.”

And, yes, that was one sentence.

So, there’s violence in this story, which isn’t quiet. But Vásquez has a style of writing that is calming and even alluring. And the more I think about it, I just allowed myself to be distracted by other things and could have done a better job with my reading time.

Can I also say that I think we are loud, but that does not resign us to loud books? There are a number of quiet books that are quite good. Plainsong by Kent Haruf immediately comes to mind and that’s a book I absolutely adored.

Jennifer: I think I’m with you. Maybe. I like that you said that Vásquez’s prose is calming. I’m wondering if that’s at the heart of this “quiet” novel thing. I actually looked this up, and found a site for Forest Avenue Press. According to their definition, “quiet novels” are marked by interiority. The character’s interior life is key. They mention Glaciers by Alexis Smith, which is a book I read and really liked as an example. I can think of another quiet book I loved: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The goddess Marilynne Robinson might write quiet books.

Okay, we settled that. Quiet is fine. Loud might get more attention.

Lara: Loud always gets more attention, by nature. So here’s a question for you. Can a book be good if it doesn’t stay with you or teach you something?

Jennifer: I’d say no. This requires me to alter my previous comments, though. I take back what I said about Sherwood Anderson and Marilynne Robinson. I think there’s a difference between quiet prose—which is what they possibly write—and quiet content. I do not think their content is quiet. I think good books are necessarily books that stay with you! How they stay with you might be an issue.

This is getting weird. I know that, recently, I enjoyed a few books that seem to be slipping away from me in terms of significance. Like The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer) and The Husband’s Secret (Liane Moriarty). I totally liked those books, too! But they aren’t resonating with me, or something. And then there are other books that, even though I had issues with them, keep coming to mind: State of Wonder (Ann Patchett). It resonates.

Lara: Why does a book have to be significant to be good?

Jennifer: Well, what is “significant”?

Lara: Can’t a book be entertaining and be good? Can’t a weekend spent devouring a book that isn’t life-changing still be good? I say yes! There are many great TV episodes we can watch that lift our spirits and make us laugh for 30 minutes or think hard for an hour and they don’t change our lives: are those not good?

By the way, The Husband’s Secret won’t change your life but, damn, it’s good and so readable. And everyone I recommend it to loves it. How is that not good? It’s like you think that Mr. Right Now can’t be as valuable as Mr. Right… trust me, he can be.

Jennifer: I don’t trust you one bit. Mr. Right Now is not as valuable as Mr. Right, and you don’t even think that.

Lara: Good girls—and I am one—don’t kiss and tell. But I will say that everything has its time and place… and I will just leave it at that.

Jennifer: Well, I can tell you this: there’s part of me that absolutely recoils at the idea that anything—book, movie, TV show—is “mere entertainment.” I remember teaching during the Friends era, and I’d positively cringe when my students flippantly suggested that the show was just a good time. No, it was not. It was teaching cultural values, spreading its postmodern gospel. I think that every half-hour of a funny sit-com is spreading its own worldview, and we can totally enjoy it—but not without our artistic sensibilities. We watch Parks & Rec with our lit-crit glasses on. This doesn’t rob us of the fun; it multiplies the good time. Trust me. I loved Superbad and Knocked Up in very special ways. So, like, a book is never just a good time. I devoured The freakin’ Hunger Games; it was more to me than a good time. I learned something about writing and people, you know? I’m still thinking about it.

Let me give you a little example of why we need to be smart about this (wow, snob-fest tonight!). It’s been pointed out to me that Friends, the big hit which told us all about what it’s like to be young, sexy, urban, and single, failed to include any significant black characters. So it also implicitly taught us that young, sexy, urban, and single people were pretty much white. Should we just let this go? Should we dismiss this? Should we make a big deal about it?

I don’t think we need to get ballistic or anything, but I think it behooves us to be aware of what’s going on here. The show was fun. It was not, however, just a good time. It taught the world something, for better or for worse. Besides race, it taught us about sex, relationships, appearances, etc.

Am I off subject?

Lara: You probably are off subject, but I can indulge that. I think what is interesting is that you think something “just fun” isn’t valuable. Friends was great and taught us a lot and showed us completely unrealistic white-washed, totally gorgeous, slender Manhattanites who can live in expensive apartments on jobs that probably paid each of them $30-50K annually (although I think Chandler and Ross made good money, the others clearly didn’t).

Jennifer: The show sucked, but I say this in retrospect. I liked it when it was happening. I now agree with my friend who asked, “Where are the black people?” I think that, even before that, I had white girl issues—I lived in Manhattan, and my life wasn’t like that! That said, I disagree with my friend on her thoughts on Little House on the Prairie, which was racially progressive.

Lara: We are not going all Little House in this review. Here’s what I am going to say. I am going to say read this one. If you can be focused and take time to enjoy the great writing and not allow yourself easy distractions from life, I think it’s worthy of reading. I think it’s good. Whatever that means.

Jennifer: Oh, wow. You’re changing the subject! That’s okay. Back to the book?

Well, this hot July, Snotty Literati leaves you with some questions: What is a quiet novel? Do quiet novels resonate? Must novels resonate? What does it mean to be “good,” in literature especially? Implicitly, we are posing other questions: Is taste relative? Is good literature objective? Is it okay to just have a good time reading your book?

Oh, there’s so much to say.

I don’t want to leave the impression that Vásquez lacks depth—because he doesn’t. Rather, our engagement seemed limited. Chalk it up to the heat, summer vacation madness, work and the pull of other social pursuits. But we don’t want to dismiss it… so we’re kinda using it as a platform to discuss other issues. Cool? Cool. Thanks for being so understanding.

Bottom-line: fine writing. Is it enough? You tell us.

Next Time

We’re going for an easy good time. We’re finishing the Hunger Games trilogy with Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins—because we read the other ones, we got addicted, and we’re seeing the movies later.


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