“Every person tries to explain the inner workings of things with whatever is at hand,” explains M, the narrator of María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe. “I, at seven years of age, had reached out my hand, and had grasped a Kramp catalogue.”
She refers to the hardware company for whom her father D works as a traveling salesman. When she turns seven, D starts taking her on his business trips “because it was one thing to tell a man clutching a sample case that he was shameless, and quite another to tell him so when his other hand was clutching mine.”
This short novel—or long novella—contemplates the small but aspires to weighty themes through its pointed prose and abundant soul. It is a subtle yet devastating testament to human beings striving against impermanence and a record of one small child’s attempts to understand her constantly changing world.
Mainly, the characters in How to Order the Universe attempt to order the universe through stories. M and her father frequent coffeehouses that “formed the center of the universe around which the planet of sales revolved.” There, traveling salesmen trade, enjoy, and embellish stories that M identifies them by. What is a person but the story they tell others—and themselves? Though M calls their stories “lies,” it doesn’t make them any less true. They speak multitudes about their narrators, even if through falsehoods.
When she doesn’t have stories to divine life’s inner workings, she is stuck parsing through its outer machinations. A hitchhiking photographer named E both nourishes and disturbs her relationship with her father when they give him a ride and strike up a friendship. He photographs ghosts in a near-empty town close by, never quite explaining to M what kinds of ghosts he’s seeking or why.
“It took a long time to find ghosts,” M says. “You had to ask questions, make calls from public telephone booths, and talk with people who were afraid of telling you what they knew.”
It’s dangerous work. The three of them inhabit Pinochet’s Chile, a time and place laden with death. After his ghost-chasing runs afoul of the authorities, M learns about violence not through witnessing it but through weathering its consequences: one less friend, two scared parents, and no more trips with D.
Just as important as the eloquent text is the white space surrounding it. The physical book leaves wide margins on the page, and the blankness holds everything M won’t—can’t?—say. What cruelty does it take to teach a seven-year-old child when to speak up and when to say nothing? Ferrada answers obliquely. She depicts a world in which vanishing is all too easy, whether disappeared by the government or reduced to nothing by economic decrepitude. If people can be killed and disappeared by monolithic state power, saying nothing becomes a way of speaking up.
M’s father carries a gun in his glovebox. At first, it seems like a futile way to resist state violence, but she learns from her father’s coworker S that every traveling salesman carries one. S explains how he bought a “truckload of revolvers” to distribute among the salesmen so they can commit a mass suicide when the last small business they can sell to closes. M writes:
I could have told him he was nuts. That all of them were absolutely nuts. But instead I said:
That M refers to herself only as M, to her father only as D, indicates that the work of erasure is already underway. It’s a small choice by Ferrada that speaks multitudes about her book. Her prose glistens with humor and insight while its dark themes churn underneath the shine.
In this way, M invites you to look twice, even thrice, to glimpse beneath her carefully chosen words, and each small, careful choice Ferrada made—a joke here, a cunning turn of phrase there, and flashes of beauty throughout—becomes clear the more you look.
M is lucky to be a child, to still possess the power to change. With her father, M learns that the naked eye perceives only hints of what’s true, mere traces of “the Great Carpenter’s” craft. Religion plays a small role in the book, perhaps because God felt so absent in Pinochet’s Chile, perhaps because God goes by so many different names in the book. M’s way of understanding God/the universe/everything changes at a dizzying pace, but the adults’ perspective stays static, then atrophies.
M wants to become a traveling salesman like her father, but she comes to dread the dire economic fate of her father, a “human being whom time had left inside some kind of parenthesis.” In this dialogue, D speaks with the weight of experience.
“Will I sell Kramp products forever?”
“Forever is a very long day,” responded D.
For a day is week is a month is a year is a lifetime, each the other in macro- or microcosm. The only thing to keep human beings from being lost in time is the stories they tell, but even these have a habit of disappearing. The dissolution of the self—of their stories—comes to be an obsession for M. Waiting for a train with her now washed up father, she imagines them “disintegrat[ing] as we crossed the sky above the city. […] You turn into smoke. People of the future do what they can with your remains.”
They do what they can to home each person in a time and place, to keep them from vanishing. Some, like Ferrada, do this by telling their stories.
Purchase How to Order the Universe here
Michael McCarthy's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver, The Adroit Journal, Beyond Queer Words, and Prairie Schooner. He is currently at work on a poetry chapbook about his late uncle entitled Steve: An Unexpected Gift. He lives and writes in Massachusetts.
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.