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MR. GWYN by Alessandro Baricco Kirkus Star


by Alessandro Baricco ; translated by Ann Goldstein

Pub Date: July 15th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-938073-96-0
Publisher: McSweeney’s

Two novellas, thematically related by the theme of love...or the lack of love.

The first, Mr. Gwyn, is a tour de force of literary fiction about a mysterious, somewhat reclusive and definitely quirky author. At 43, much to the distress of his agent, Jasper Gwyn has tired of writing books. After a brief and restless hiatus, he's inspired to create “portraits” in a way analogous to that of visual artists. He rents a studio and even commissions a composer to create “mood music” appropriate for the space. Then, to practice his craft, he hires his agent's assistant, Rebecca, to visit the studio four hours a day for 30 days. She simply lives her life there (though without clothing), and Gwyn observes her, though some days he doesn’t even bother to show up. At the end of that time, he produces a portrait in words that Rebecca finds extraordinarily insightful and deeply moving. Gwyn develops his talents and winds up with a flourishing business for those who want their portraits “painted” in words; the most meaningful one is for his agent, who has a terminal illness. Throughout the story, Baricco suggests that Gwyn is able to do in words what he can’t in life—get close to people. Rebecca then makes a startling discovery, believing that Gwyn has plagiarized his portraits from another author, Klarisa Rode, but in fact, he's begun publishing under assumed names. One of his works, published under the name Akash Narayan, is titled "Three Times at Dawn," not so coincidentally the name of Baricco's second novella. Though slighter, in some ways, this story is even more complex, for it focuses on three separate episodes revolving around a seedy hotel. In the first, Malcolm Webster meets a mysterious and seductive woman in his hotel room, while in the second, a young woman flirts with the hotel clerk (perhaps an older Malcolm Webster) as she tries to get some perspective on her relationship with her boyfriend up in their room. In the final section, a teenager, the younger Malcolm Webster, escapes from the squalor of the hotel with a woman detective as he deals with his dysfunctional family.

Although the events he recounts remain cryptic, Baricco’s style is lucid, and the appearance-versus-reality mind games he plays with his readers are fascinating.