March 30, 2018KR Reviews

I’m So Free: On A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro

Translated by Christina MacSweeney. San Francisco, CA: Two Lines Press, 2017. 200 pages. $14.95.

Elvira Navarro’s novel A Working Woman might be a tough sell for mainstream fiction readers acclimated to linear storytelling and amiable characters, yet this agile exploration of friendship, jealousy, and mental health told through transcripts, short stories, dossiers, and traditional chapters cements Navarro as one of today’s most interesting and original young Spanish writers.

Controlling the novel’s trajectory is protagonist Elena, a sometimes writer and copy editor. After losing her full-time job at a Madrid publishing house, Elena works freelance and decides to rent out a spare bedroom to stay afloat as she toils away at her own writing. Through a mutual friend, the slightly older, worldly artist Susana enters the scene; yet before we read of Elena’s first encounter with her new roommate, Navarro shifts time and devotes the first forty pages of her novel to an extended monologue spoken by Susana that occurs long after the two women meet. Crammed with text, Elena’s recollection of Susana’s rambles spill across the page, describing a time in Susana’s past when she solicited kinky sex partners through newspaper ads and dated a gay dwarf named Fabio. Elena’s bracketed thoughts and commentary punctuate Susana’s confessions; as the listener, Elena considers the sanity and veracity of her companion and turns the entire admission into a publishable story.

By launching her novel mid-relationship, Navarro swiftly establishes the dynamics of her duo: Susana is spontaneous and free; Elena is reserved, anxious, and shows signs of mistrust. Recognizing these traits from the start allows for full appreciation of both women during their early encounters, for the connection between the pair becomes the heart of A Working Woman. When Susana vanishes for several days immediately after moving into Elena’s apartment, her absence isn’t as much of a shock to the reader as it is to Elena, and Elena’s suspicions of this relative stranger reflect an established mannerism of her character. Likewise, as Elena drifts into moments of panic and late-night detours through shadowy neighborhoods, resulting in an eventual breakdown and a prescription for antidepressants, Navarro has already established these seeds of her self-doubt.

Elena and Susana do eventually click, and in an attempt to avoid her own copyediting assignments, Elena takes interest in Susana’s art projects, particularly a series of collage maps of local neighborhoods. The pieces consist of a jumble of magazine cutouts and are, as Elena describes, “encrypted and exhausting,” faintly recognizable yet impossible to pinpoint. Elena explains, while admiring each piece, “it was even more difficult to recognize anything. Susana appeared to have excluded the most obvious landmarks, such as the Gran Vía building with the huge Schweppes advertisement, or La Cibeles. Or perhaps I just couldn’t locate them.” And while this exchange leads Elena to help Susana secure a space to show her maps, what’s most interesting here is Navarro’s greater commitment to an idea of perception and surveillance that peppers the entire novel. Through her maps, Susana forces Elena to see her world via a new lens, yet before this, Elena spends much of her story as both the watcher and prisoner of her own personal panopticon. During her nighttime excursions, a mysterious group of trash pickers frequently stalk Elena. She also believes she is watched, “not from the apartments projecting . . . lights, but from the ones that were unlit.” In her apartment, Elena observes as Susana and her on-and-off boyfriend, Janssen, spend entire days on Skype watching each other’s every move without ever speaking, and Elena uses Facebook to sift through Susana’s history. Even as Elena begins to take personal control after adjusting to life on antidepressants, she remains on high alert, admitting she does not “stop observing [her]self from a watchtower.”

This frequent swoop into panoptic ideals lends A Working Woman a claustrophobic air.  However, the novel doesn’t wallow in depression and police state paranoia. In fact, there is often a humorous Odd Couple vibe to Elena’s relationship with Susana. Early on, Elena admits, “I’d always trusted in time and the willpower I was able to find in solitude,” and the moment Susana begins to add her own flair to the apartment and rearranges Elena’s kitchen, Elena stands by “in horror,” deciding about Susana that “there must be an inherent lack of coherence in someone possessing such a wide array of different things, as if the person’s tastes had yet to gel.” Equally shocked and amused by Susana’s raunchy past, yet within her nervousness, Elena also shows flashes of jealousy toward her more experienced roommate. When Susana mentions the idea of having a baby with Janssen, Elena responds with the clipped nonchalance of a rejected teenager, and once Susana finds success with her art, Elena makes a point to admit her congratulations are insincere.

By the novel’s end, Navarro has run her characters through physical and emotional gauntlets, and a final coda forces the reader to question the truth of many of the narrative’s details. Despite this successful twist, the author leaves Elena in a position that isn’t terribly different from where she began. This echoes Elena’s mid-novel declaration that “the passing of time changes nothing, we’re constantly doing the same things, but we disguise them so they feel different.” Yet while Elena does remain at her station in life, she has learned and experienced a great deal, and this subtle accomplishment makes her journey worthwhile. In fact, her story is one that hangs with the reader, both for its casual familiarity and its jags of absurdity. Within her uncomfortable and liberated creations, Elvira Navarro dares her audience to see themselves, and it’s in this mirror that A Working Woman rousingly succeeds.

Benjamin Woodard is editor in chief at Atlas and Alice Magazine. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Atticus Review, jmww, Hypertrophic Literary, and others. Find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.