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  • Kaleb A. Brown

Heartbreak Tango Book Review

Read from ~11/17/2022 — 12/31/2022

Cover of Manuel Puig Heartbreak Tango

As a reviewer, what you harp on and what you praise can unintentionally say a lot about you as a person, or at least as a reader. This is why I’m wary of calling a book “boring” — I’m afraid it will make me look dull. I don’t want people thinking of me as someone who only finds books worth reading if they’re bursting with blood and explosions or slap-filled drama. As much as I can, even if I do think something’s a snoozefest, I try to coat that criticism to make myself look better.

But sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade. Even at a measly 224 pages, Heartbreak Tango was an absolute slog to get through. If it were 200 or even 100 pages longer, it would have gone into the DNF pile.

I almost always start with a book’s positives, but the boringness of Heartbreak Tango was so central to my reading experience that it would feel dishonest not to lead with that.

Still, I’d be remiss not to highlight the book’s genuine positives, namely an inventively experimental form. Heartbreak Tango documents the life and death of Juan Carlos Etchepare, an Argentinian casanova who suffers from tuberculosis. Taking place mostly in the 1930s, the story documents how Juan Carlos’ untimely death and callous living have affected the women around him — his mother, his sister, and two of his former lovers. The story achieves this through a series of documents — confessions, newspaper clippings, tarot divinations, diary entries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and remembrances. I like to say “we don’t fault ambition” and that definitely applies here. For all my problems with this book, I can’t help but respect it for how hard it goes into the epistolary concept. I haven’t come across another book that reads like Heartbreak Tango and that’s really a testament to how devoted Puig is to crafting a narrative while staying fairly true to the epistolary format. Corners are rarely cut in Heartbreak Tango; everything reads as a document that was collaged into a narrative throughline and not a narrative that was converted into documents. It’s one of the most awkward books you’ll read, but it feels genuine. And you might be thinking that the problem with the book is that it’s all style over substance, that for as much effort as Puig puts into making a believable epistolary novel, he has nothing to say. But no, that isn’t the issue, either. There are genuinely compelling themes here — the pervasiveness of whiteness in beauty standards, the way in which women’s bodies are commodified by men to be used, abused, and discarded as they see fit, the way a man can pit women against each other, the inexplicable endurance of desire and fantasy. Make no mistake Heartbreak Tango has a lot going on and the themes it explores are genuinely important. Heartbreak Tango is both creative and thoughtful, and it’s for these reasons that I can’t write it off completely.

Recommending it is another thing entirely. Because it’s one thing to have an interesting format and compelling themes. Those are still just concepts. You still have to execute them successfully. This is where Heartbreak Tango falls apart.

Things start breaking down real fucking fast and Heartbreak Tango struggles to successfully utilize even the most basic of literary devices such as point-of-view. Having merely a rudimentary handle on POV is vital for a reader to connect with a story, to get to know the characters and the world they inhabit. Unfortunately, Heartbreak Tango’s format shoots the book in the foot in this regard. The first chapter is told through a single character sending a series of letters. This \ isn’t too hard to parse. The next chapter then throws us into another character’s perspective and another format and things never really slow down. Au contraire, dear reader, we’ll sometimes switch POV and format several times in a given chapter. Oh, and did I mention we jump around in the timeline as well? To be fair, it’s not nearly as drastic as the shifts in POV and format, but it’s still another thing to keep track of.

Having multiple POV characters in a book with a more standard format is a hard enough juggling act. When you throw in this epistolary format, it becomes absolute hell to read. A casualty of this is engagement with the characters. It’s hard to connect with characters when a good chunk of their POV is spent figuring out who’s talking about whom. Sure, you can backtrack after figuring it out, but that’s a lot of work for what should be a leisure activity. It feels like a puzzle where the picture is still jumbled at the end.

There are some sections that aren’t quite documents. Take, for example, when Juan Carlos (I think) visits a tarot reader and has his future read. You may think Puig may be giving us a break here, but not so fast, dear reader! As I said before, these don’t feel out of place. In the section I described, we only hear the fortune teller’s responses to questions and not the other character speaking, which makes it feel similar to the actual documents. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, these sections don’t feel jarring, on the other hand, they’re just as confusing as the others. The most traditional type of section is complete narration, but these are rendered as oblique streams of consciousness.

All of these layers of obfuscation lead to a sense of ennui, where I’m reading but not feeling — these don’t read as characters but as mere subjects.

Then there’s the question of who gets the POV. There are some good decisions here, to be sure. At first, I wasn’t sure the point of switching to the POV of Juan Carlos’ friend, Pancho, but we get a fairly unsettling delve into a man with a racial fetish that sees women as objects. And as this is the core of the book’s drama, as gross as it is, it’s good to highlight. What’s odd is that Juan Carlos has very few POV sections for as big a role as he plays in the book. You could make an argument that it’s more important to highlight the women in his life and its more impactful to show him as a force of nature than an actual person, but I feel like we lose more than we gain. For one, for as much as the book seems to concern itself with death, it fails to paint a picture of what it’s like to be dying.

The story’s interesting on paper, but Puig inexplicably goes out of his way to render it in the most impassive way possible. Big blowups between characters are either mentioned in passing or glossed over. This could be a slap-filled melodrama, but it comes across less like a dramatic, long-running telenovela and more like…I don’t know, a dry documentary

I think the best example of Heartbreak Tango’s problems comes in its ending, with one of the characters still pining for Juan Carlos, someone they were only involved with for a short time, even on their deathbed, even with grandchildren. My overwhelming thought was that they were pathetic.

And I’m aware of how callous that can may seem, but sympathizing with a character requires the author to put the work into putting me in their shoes. As someone who similarly thinks too much about an ex whom I split with an embarrassingly long time ago, I know I can’t just start wistfully whining about my past relationship to a stranger without them feeling put off. I’d have to explain what the relationship meant for me then and what its absence means for me today.

For some of the relationships to be believable, Heartbreak Tango would need maybe 100 more pages. But paradoxically, this would make it even more of a slog to get through.

Heartbreak Tango is ultimately a compelling and creative novel on paper that’s crushed by the weight of its ambition in practice. I can give the story points for its novelty, but not much else.

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