Say Her Name

By Francisco Goldman (Grove, 2011)

The danger of an author as powerful and panoramic as Francisco Goldman writing a book about the untimely death of his young bride is that he comes close to solidifying a new genre of literary exploitation, of which Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story are recent, exquisite examples.

Goldman offers us every facet of his time with the lovely and doomed Aura Estrada, a Mexican-born Columbia University graduate student whom he meets after stumbling late into a literary panel celebrating one of her ex-lovers. As a narrator, Goldman simply gives everything away: the absolute luck he felt escorting Aura to a Salman Rushdie-attended soiree, the speed at which his beloved could consume a pastrami sandwich, and even the cash that was stolen from his wallet on the day she snapped her neck while body surfing.

To actually call this grave and earnest endeavor a novel seems beyond belief. Say Her Name is no memoir masquerading as fiction to protect the innocent, but a kind of catharsis that is formidable, generous and depleting. It is, in fact, a novel-like essay into torrential mourning. On a pure sentence level, the book is a solemn spectacle of restraint and release. Here is how Goldman talks about his fugue of lament:”The sensation that my brain was leaking, spurting dream images into the day. Fatigue like a hand inside an old soft leather glove, softly gripping my brain, the discernable pressure of its twitching fingers.” He dreams of his dead bride as the color of a Popsicle or frozen household liquid cleaners, “but she didn’t feel cold, curled alongside me, legs drawn beneath her, slowly bending over to kiss me, and that’s when I was jerked awake.”

The reader might experience an ascending guilt enjoying the lush uncanniness of Goldman’s language, which can be as tailored and whimsical as a César Aira novel and as grounded as Saul Bellow’s Herzog. His book reads very close to suspense literature, where tension builds not over the safety of the characters, but over that first moment when the reader will be compelled to weep. Absolute empathy is delayed with the humor and pacing of a master storyteller who is now a slave to the facts of his real life, and who knows it his job to give these facts away.

If Say Her Name is a novel, let us just say that the plot is about a man grappling with guilt over the death of a beautiful and brilliant young wife, a guilt that is compounded by accusations of murder from her distraught mother and uncle. Goldman, author of The Divine Husband and The Art of Political Murder, provides the forensic details of a doomed May-December relationship, in which a middle-aged malcontent, a guy who has had flings with prostitutes and who always wanted to avoid becoming like his loveless father (a man who also married a much younger woman), falls hard for a pretty Mexican graduate student who, despite obvious talent as an academic, wants to write fiction and is fixated on the salamander-like creatures called axolotls in a Julio Cortázar short story.

Goldman illustrates the luster and charm of his bride by bringing up her quirks and frustrations: “One thing that never changed in the four-plus years we were together: once Aura passed her two- or three-drink limit, she’d start reciting poetry.” Goldman himself is presented as a man who enjoyed a very brief bit of happiness with a woman who exuded promise and mystery, and who should now have every reason to accept that his worst fears about life and love have been confirmed. In the hands of a less skilled author the message would be blunt: Love is simply not worth the pain it brings.

But in art, pain may be diffused. Goldman balances the tragic with the tedious and has Aura suffering from daddy issues and obsessions of self-worth and artistic doubt, even in the face of praise. Goldman drowns his sorrows in booze and tries to lose himself in dark rebound relationships. He feels a seething anger toward the people in obituaries who have lived a full life, nearly dies after being hit by a car on New Year’s Eve, and is eyed by a sinister literary critic who seems to judge Goldman’s relationship with the young woman he will never ever have enough time with.

Say Her Name, which employs fragments of Aura’s short stories and anecdotes of her undeniable intellect and comic insight into Jorge Luis Borges, manages to make savvy jabs at the distractions and failing of art: at the beach books that keep people from getting into beach water, and the wedding dresses that hang as unhealthy altars for the bereaved. Like a man who has lost himself trying to rescue his beloved, Goldman says, “Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that’s my advice to the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair; breathe her in deeply.”

Memorializing is, in the end, an art, and art aims to never let go. Finally, Goldman seems to be saying that only the breath that enthuses the mouths of lovers matters.

Roberto Ontiveros