Manuel Puig World Literature Analysis
Just as a single Puig novel may offer a variety of technical strategies and tones, Puig’s career as a whole is marked by continual experimentation and changing subjects and themes. Change is one of the three Puig constants. The other two, which became increasingly interrelated as his career progressed, are small-town life (and lower-middle-class people in general) and political concerns, especially the politics of power and authority.
In almost all Puig novels the first thing the reader notices is his technical brilliance. The reader should not insist on looking for what Puig refuses to deliver—a conventional introduction of setting, main characters, and conflict, and then a chronological complication and climax—but instead should take pleasure in solving the author’s technical puzzles.
Puig’s first two novels—Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango—are perhaps his most stylistically varied and innovative. In both Puig employs disrupted chronologies. The reader may not be supplied with information necessary to fully understand an incident first mentioned in the novel until that incident is alluded to again, perhaps only indirectly, later on. For example, in Heartbreak Tango, Nene wonders why the letters she writes to the mother of her late lover go unanswered. It is not until much later that the reader learns the answer: Nene’s letters have been intercepted by her lover’s sister.
Altered and piecemeal chronologies are just one of Puig’s technical flourishes and are not truly an innovation, being a favorite strategy of such earlier writers as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and especially William Faulkner. More distinctive and truly innovative are the varied sources of information presented the reader. The fact that the information does not come from a single source imparts a richness to the novels—and, admittedly, a greater degree of difficulty.
In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango, for example, Puig constructs his narratives out of letters, newspaper excerpts, memos, diary entries, police reports, advertisements, telephone and other conversations where the speakers generally are not identified (and sometimes only one side of the conversation is given), and interior monologues (rambling meditations of certain characters). The best analogy for the Puig style, especially in his early novels, is the collage. The total effect comes from an assemblage of apparently disparate parts. Puig used the collage less extensively in his later works but almost all later strategies are prefigured in these first two novels. Kiss of the Spider Woman, for example, except for a series of footnote commentaries, is composed almost entirely of dialogue between two characters, without the usual dialogue tags to identify the speakers. The same is true of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages. The most nearly conventional of Puig’s novels, in style at least, is Pubis angelical (1979; English translation, 1986), but even in that novel one finds sections of dialogue without attribution and a mixing of three different plot lines.
Puig’s novels reflect and employ various aspects of Argentine popular culture that intrigued the author. The Buenos Aires Affair is written in the style of the hard-boiled detective novel. Heartbreak Tango pulses to the rhythms and passions of the tango (excerpts from which introduce each chapter), while the characters play out roles reminiscent—in their own minds, at least, if not in reality—of the film serials suggested by the subtitle. In fact, films are almost omnipresent in Puig’s fiction. The characters attend them, dream about them, discuss them at great length, and let their thinking, dress, and mannerisms be influenced by them. Puig’s novels are clearly not themselves examples of popular fiction, but he does employ aspects of popular culture in his fiction to the extent that the reader is convinced of its importance in Puig’s Argentina.
Technical innovation is such an important and fascinating feature of Puig’s fiction that the reader may forget that the novels are also about something. Indeed, his style always serves his subjects and themes; in Puig, as in all great writers, style and content are one. Popular culture, for example, works its way into Puig’s style because it is an important aspect of Argentine culture. Moreover, his characters immerse themselves in films, songs, fan magazines, and radio programs because their lives are devoid of romance and drama. Similarly, one-sided conversations, letters to which there are no replies, and interior monologues may be technical strategies, but they also underscore the desperate aloneness of so many of Puig’s characters.
Ultimately, Puig’s fascination with his characters rivals his fascination with technical experimentation. His earliest interest was in the people of small-town Argentina. Even when he later broadened his canvas to include city dwellers or persons living outside Argentina, his interest rarely strayed beyond the working-and lower-middle classes. The generals, starving peasants, and hacienda owners so favored by other Latin American novelists are not so much in evidence in Puig’s fiction as are clerks, policemen, maids, and housewives. Their lives tend to be narrow—narrower than their dreams, at least—and their futures more limited than their hopes.
Starting with The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig moves away from powerfully evoking the mundane lives of the characters and focuses more on the causes of their unhappiness. Their problems are rooted in politics. Puig first cast his critical eye on the repressive regime in his native Argentina (Kiss of the Spider Woman) but then broadened his scope to include the nature of power and powerlessness in general (seen most tellingly in the exploited women of Pubis angelical).
Puig is as technically inventive a writer as may be found...
(The entire section is 2462 words.)