Francesco Pacifico Confronts Fiction’s Oldest Questions

A third of the way through Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Women I Love, the narrator, a semi-employed editor and writer named Marcello, does something to his girlfriend that men have been doing to women for centuries: He constrains her freedom. Then, understanding the weight of what he’s just done, he attempts to write the scene from her perspective: “I’ll just avoid…the neurotic, obsessive, childish point of view of the typical male narrator—and I’ll tell the story instead through Barbara’s eyes.”

Marcello has just announced to Barbara that he’s struck a deal with his rich father to purchase her beloved and hard-won apartment, which he’s moved into, as an investment. When she tells him her name de ella has to be on the deed, he brushes her off de ella. She’s predictably livid: at the threat to her own independence from her, at the audacity of her wealthier boyfriend from her to use his father’s money to snatch up the only thing that’s ever truly been hers from her. “The courtyard, the flowers, it was all being commandeered,” she thinks—at least according to Marcello. Her gaze from ella falls on him: “His nearly hairless body from him but his face covered in beard, overweight, someone who’d never had a real job, never worked in a restaurant, who’d never actually been scared.” Suddenly, without warning, Marcello snaps back into his own perspective, imagining an alternate reason for his girlfriend’s anger at her: She does n’t want to fully commit to him because she’s still entertaining a flirtation with a rival.

Are we able to write about people who are not like us? This is a question vexing artists everywhere these days, usually with a very specific qualification: Can a member of a dominant group write about a more marginalized one? Pacifico’s Marcello, a failed poet living in Rome, dives headfirst into this conundrum but lands with a belly flop—producing a “book,” indistinguishable from the text of Pacifico’s novel, that inevitably foregrounds himself rather than the women he has set out to portray. . In detailing his narrator’s tortured attempts to write a book about the women in his life de him, Pacifico has written himself into a sly metafictional paradox. Marcello’s fumbles prove there’s no escaping our own subjectivity, nor the constraints that gender (and age, and class) impose upon it. But rather than merely shrugging at this conclusion or abandoning the effort altogether, Pacifico charts a third course: He indicts his narrator, and himself, for the arrogance that compels his project de él, even as he defends his right to undertake it.

Pacifico is a writer practiced in exploring big, capital-letter topics through lowercase moments and minor feelings. His first novel by him, The Story of My Purity, dissected the relationship between sex and religion; his second of him, Class, satirized Italian fools abroad. Each of The Women I Love‘s five sections is devoted to a different woman in Marcello’s life, but despite this conception, there’s no real thematic variation: Characters wander and in out of the narrative, which is largely a recitation of the routines and tonics of bourgeois urban life—drinks , pills, squabbles, trips, affairs, commutes, dinner parties.

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