‘To Walk Alone in the Crowd’ is convinced of its own skill
Walk alone in the crowd
Antonio Muñoz Molina
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
“A figure of male privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibility to claim his attention, the flâneur understands the city as few of its inhabitants do, because he has memorized it with his feet”, writes cultural critic Lauren Elkin in Loafer, his 2018 work that tears the idea of urban wandering without a fixed destination from its masculine implications.
Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Thomas De Quincey – some of the figures most associated with the flâneur – take center stage in master craftsman Antonio Muñoz Molina Walk alone in the crowd. Over 400 pages long, the novel offers the reader the far-reaching ruminations of a witty middle-aged man taking long walks in the cities. Her thoughts go beyond the point of overload and into the realm of discussion at a party filled with writers and writers eager to be. His intelligence is never questioned. It just tends to get boring.
“He is the restless archaeologist of the present, from the moment when what is precious or virgin turns into debris, when the words and images of an advertisement pass from ubiquity to non-existence,” reflects the writer at the third person in one of the many statements of intent that permeate the novel. Like the mind-blowing classic of Don Delillo White noise, a novel that he thematically parallels, Walk alone in the crowd brings to the page elements of modern life that are being ignored on a conscious level by a basic need to filter the deluge of stimuli to stay sane.
The pages are filled with vivid descriptions of discarded flyers, snippets of overheard conversations, and a barrage of references requiring Wikipedia at your fingertips. Remember the killer clown panic five years ago? In the novel, he returns from the lost archives of an incessant recent history.
Few writers would attempt this type of exploratory work and fewer would be able to do so. One of the most famous contemporary Spanish authors, Muñoz Molina makes it work more often than not, if you give him and his anonymous narrator inordinate patience. Most fiction is considerate of the reader, if only for an author’s well-founded fear that beta readers will drop the book and tell family and friends to bring something else back from the bookstore.
This is certainly not the case with Walk alone in the crowd. “I don’t write because I have something urgent to say,” muses the narrator at the beginning of the novel, “I write for the pleasure of filling the blank pages of a notebook in front of me. ” The nonchalant approach is heard loud and clear. A writing experience is written over several hundred pages and, presumably, miles of sidewalk. The walk from Manhattan’s lower tip north to a house in the South Bronx where Poe lived through some of his precarious days – the main event publicized on the back cover of the book – does not begin until two-thirds of the way through.
“He realized that, more than writing a book, he was assembling a collage made up of hundreds of pages of quotes, fragments, sketches, drafts that he did not have time to develop”, the narrator reflects on the continental philosopher. Walter Benjamin. “The further he went, the more difficult it became to order the materials in an intelligible form. ”
The intelligible form of Walk alone in the crowd takes a while to concentrate. The overstimulation is intentional; the moments of sheer beauty and clarity that shine are all the more worth it.
Does all of this sound appealing? Want to read something that only reminds you of how grueling everyday life tends to be in the early decades of the 21st century? Do you want to follow the meandering thoughts of a smug man, as smart as he can be, as he winds through Madrid and then New York?
If the answer is no, that’s perfectly understandable. Walk alone in the crowd is not for everyone, especially if literary paths are not of interest. But those who decide to devote hours of their precious free time to this bizarre novel might find something worth their while walking around.
DeLillo, Don. White noise. Classic penguins. 1985.
Edgar Allen Poe House Web page: Historical Society of the Bronx.
Elkin, Lauren. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2018.
Walter Benjamin profile: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.