How to Order the Universe

María José Ferrada
Tin House ($19.95)

by Bethany Catlin

María José Ferrada’s debut novel, How to Order the Universe, unfolds like a litany of palpable sonnets. Ferrada organizes her work in short, breathable chapters, each of which is constructed like a poem without ever feeling pretentious. Each chapter retains a quality of self-consciousness, however, reminiscent of a clean one-liner or that tone-shifting couplet at the end of a sonnet.

Eight-year-old protagonist M and her father, D, have teamed up as traveling salespeople in 1970’s Chile. They sell hardware under the brand name Kramp, and the Kramp catalog quickly becomes M’s bible. D teaches M about salesmanship, the value of self-presentation, quid pro quo, and the necessity of pragmatism in all things. M, meanwhile, learns about silence: the effect of a child’s gaze on a business transaction, the power of feigning innocence or ignorance, and the ease of wordlessly agreeing with her father—including about the fact that it would be best that they keep her recurrent truancy from her mother.

Much of the book follows the trajectory of M and D’s relationship from father-daughter to employer-employee. She negotiates herself a going rate, and he uses the presence of his daughter to soften potential buyers and frustrated customers. Despite the quiet self-interest that D studiously passes on to his daughter, the heart of this story is the unspoken loveliness of their partnership. She draws him pictures of flowers and beetles. He draws her fish and whales. Over their travels, she slips into his sample case “letters of this kind: ‘I like being your assistant’” and D responds “with phrases like: ‘I’m pleased!’” Ferrada recreates that joyful moment when you, a child, are treated like an adult and a person by someone who is already both of those things. D lets her drink coffee in the evening, smoke cigarettes, skip school, and spend time with other salesmen who say things like “sonofabitch” and “fucking whore.” But he also tries to build her up with warm tea, compensatory gifts, and the respect of abstaining from sentimentalities.

Ferrada’s book is one of those that offers itself as part of a grey area verging on YA. She trusts her young narrator with the hard edges of reality while still maintaining the authorial distance to convey that quintessential coming-of-age disorientation as a young person tries to figure out how to order their universe. In Ferrada’s hands, one of the limitations of the genre becomes its greatest tool: the shrouding of the reader from the climactic moment—whether it be sex, violence, or violation—parallels the phenomenon of los desaparecidos taking place silently in the background of D and M’s story. So many people disappeared. In Argentina at the time, the military junta was flying planes out over the Atlantic and dropping live bodies. In Chile, M’s countrymen were quietly sent to the mass graves and political prisons that gave Pinochet his infamy. People ceased to exist, and anyone, including some of M’s fellow professionals, who sought to uncover anything about the disappeared would soon disappear themselves.

In the sparse, poetic style of contemporaries like Jenny Offill, Ferrada captures the sleight of hand that was civil society in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship, the disappearing act of M’s childhood, and the uncanny reality where everyone knows something is wrong all along.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2022 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2022