Most owners of personal computers make use of only a small fraction of their capacities. The technology is almost frightfully large, capable of negotiating anything our intellects present it, but few of us wish to explore that far.
Novels, too, are innately capacious, and have been since the form first emerged four centuries ago. That said, the majority of novels are likewise content to use just a small fraction of their structural potential.
But some novels are interested in the form's capacities, and from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760s) through James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), these books have had to negotiate being called difficult or even unreadable. They have also nearly always been what is new and most exciting.
Ilustrado , the first novel by young Filipino novelist Miguel Syjuco, may well prove a literary bridge-builder between the formally innovative and the reader-friendly. It is certainly an extraordinary debut, at once flashy and substantial, brightly charming and quietly resistant to its own wattage.
A Filipino graduate student in New York, also named Miguel Syjuco, is writing the biography of a fellow exile from the southeast Asian nation: gifted, alienated man of letters Crispin Salvador. When Salvador turns up dead - floating in the Hudson River, a presumed suicide - Miguel takes on the additional task of detective, including of his subject's unfinished masterpiece, a novel no one seems to have laid eyes on.
The biographer's journey back to the Philippines, ostensibly in search of both the manuscript and a better understanding of its author, opens onto a glancing portrait of a country, a society, in the grips of a failing traditional self-narrative.
Narrator Miguel Syjuco doesn't get far with the mystery of Crispin Salvador. He also does too much cocaine with his similarly upper-class clubbing buddies, breaks up with one girl and finds another, and suffers bouts of self-loathing.
Buttressing this intentionally frustrating pilgrim's progress are two brilliant literary foundations, both constructed by the "other" Miguel Syjuco. One consists of fragments from the stories, memoirs, histories, children's texts and poems of Crispin Salvador, all portraying aspects of Filipino history and experience, and of a certain kind of creative mind. Syjuco's gifts for pastiche, his protean narrative energy, are in particular evidence in these pitch-perfect fictions of the fictions of his fictional author.
The other buttress is Ilustrado itself, which proves far sturdier and more impressive than the biographer's lame efforts at his craft. Indeed, in the book's final pages, Miguel the narrator abandons the chase for Salvador and instead writes his own novel - about, of course, Crispin Salvador and Miguel Syjuco.
In so doing, he realizes that he is able to unite his globalized, deracinated sense of self with that of the earlier Salvador, a member of an older, vanished "ilustrado" class of learned, erudite but also colonized and creatively crippled Filipinos.
"I had knotted his being forever with mine," he writes. "And with this fiction of possibilities, entwined with the possibilities of fiction, I've woven in my own unlived life."
That single, whip-smart sentence goes to the heart of why Ilustrado must be told in such a fragmented manner. Though just in his early 30s, Miguel Syjuco has worked out, in a sense, the project for a new kind of Asian identity, one that can simultaneously sort through the messes of the colonial past while staying alert to our emerged century of almost too easy East/West flow and too many realignments of formerly solid borders.
More remarkably, he has done so in an exuberant, funny novel that neither takes its grand ambitions too seriously, nor pretends to be measuring itself by any less a scale of intent. How Syjuco, lately a resident of Montreal and a recent winner of the Man Asian Literary prize, has done this is foremost a testament to his prodigious gifts.
But it is equally a testament to his faith in that expansive model of the novel. Ilustrado does not so much unfold any convoluted tale as incarnate in its very form the process it wishes to describe. "Difficult" books are almost always just hopeful attempts at dissolving form into content, and so creating unified, seamless expressions.
With this dazzling first foray, Syjuco suggests how his new Asia, his new identity, must "look" on the page and between the covers. That look is unexpected and fresh, quite unlike anything that has been seen before.
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's biography of Mordecai Richler will be published in October.