Title: To Walk Alone in the Crowd
Author: Antonio Munoz Molina
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: July 13, 2021
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction
One Sentence Summary: A nameless man wanders Madrid and New York City, collecting experiences and telling stories of writers and artists from bygone eras.
To Walk Alone in the Crowd drops the reader into the mind of a nameless man wandering Madrid and New York City. We’re caught up in his thoughts, ruminations, and all the things he hears and sees. But he’s on a mission to record everything around him, to drink in all life has to offer when people these days are so focused on screens and their own lives. The wanderer rambles on about other, late wanderers within the literary world while also rambling around large cities. It’s a nice literary fiction read, but made me a bit angry as a female reader. Still, it’s a unique story, kind of feeling like a one-of-a-kind sort of thing, though I don’t read literary fiction often, so I couldn’t really say for sure.
Follow a nameless man around the large cities of Madrid and New York City. From the beginning, he sets out to pay attention to everything happening around him, from the signs he reads to the sound of his recorded footsteps. It almost feels like he’s trying to rediscover himself or the city he finds himself in, or both. Every paragraph is headed by something that made me think it was pulled from the headlines or from a magazine, bits and pieces that make no sense on their own and don’t have any real relation to the content of the paragraph it heads. It’s an almost dizzying mass of a man trying to take in the world, seeing everything and reading everything, and then having it all be spit back at us.
To Walk Alone in the Crowd presents an interesting clash of new and old. Clearly written in the modern age as the wanderer uses smartphones and references other modern inventions, includes a few mentions of Trump seemingly running for president, and definitely mentions it’s 2016, there’s a huge focus on artists and writers from decades and centuries previous. He often feels a little obsessed with them and their own wanderings, telling their stories, particularly that of Walter Benjamin, with a great deal of what seems like reverence, though I still have no clue what Benjamin wrote. There’s such a focus on these other writers and artists that it seems he’s trying to emulate them, but the reader never really knows who he is or what he does. The whole story comes off more as a commentary of modern life than about the nameless person whose head we are in.
I did like the focus on opening one’s eyes and seeing and hearing everything going on around one, of being fully present in the here and now, of taking in life as it happens. It seems, more and more, people are so tied up in devices and staring at screens that it’s refreshing to see someone experiencing what life is really about. The noise and cacophony of daily, modern life is documented in lists and each paragraph is headed by what appears to be a newspaper headline or bits and pieces pulled from a magazine. There are mentions of current news stories woven throughout, stories that might make the front page or be glossed over and forgotten by the end of the day. The wanderer feels fully present in life, taking note of everything people often miss these days due to more interest in what devices have to offer. It was refreshing and fascinating to read about all the life happening every moment around everyone.
Yet To Walk Alone in the Crowd also feels incredibly misogynistic. The lives of men are detailed over and over. The wanderer returns to their stories repeatedly. Their careers and their own itinerant behavior are documented over and over. Their personal stories are told with a great deal of care and detail and what feels like genuine understanding and reverence from the wanderer. I now know more about men like Edgar Allen Poe and others I’ve never heard of before. Yet the women are sexualized. The man has a wife, but I don’t know anything about her other than she’s beautiful, has lots of sex with him, and seems to absolutely adore him even though they don’t spend much time out of bed together and he travels away from her frequently. Often, she felt forgotten or more like a lover. Even when he was going home at the end of the day, there was no mention of her at all. Then there are whole paragraphs devoted to prostitutes. The wanderer goes to great lengths to describe their sensual and sexual natures, the way they look, the way they position themselves invitingly, the things they have to offer to patrons. Most disturbing of all is how they are usually described as exotic, youthful, as though their only pursuit in life is to make their patrons very happy.
I must admit there is a lovely lyrical quality to the writing, though. It’s beautiful to read, as long as you don’t pay too much attention to some of the words. I loved that it drops the reader into daily life and opens their eyes to what they’re missing, but the smaller subject matters bothered me and I seriously debated on abandoning this book. On one hand, I appreciated what this book is trying to do. On the other, as a female reader, it made me angry. Or maybe literary fiction is just not for me.
To Walk Alone in the Crowd can be applauded for the invitation it offers to readers to step away from a screen and into actual, real life. It shows the cacophony that thrives around us every day and offers insights and ruminations on some great (male) artists. But it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea as a female reader, so it missed the mark a bit for me.
How many cups of tea will you need?
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.