The Touch System, by Alejandra Costamanga

The touch typing system—the namesake of Alejandra Costamanga’s The Touch System (translated by Lisa Dillman)—involves placing the fingers on designated keys on a keyboard and typing without looking at those fingers after memorizing the positions of all the characters. It’s an amazing skill when done by people who can type hundreds of letters a minute. (I took a class back in middle school to learn how to touch type. I was terrible at it. I could only type a sentence correctly if I peeked. It’s only after years and years of near-constant writing that I’ve gotten good at touch typing.) In this novel, Costamanga shows us in high-relief what might happen when people never quite manage to get their metaphorical fingers on life’s keys.

The main characters of Costamanga’s novel haven’t really got the hang of having their fingers on the figurative keyboard of life. Agustín, dying somewhere in Argentina, drifted through life without doing much of anything. Ania, his niece, does a lot of many different things…but also struggles to move forward through life. She does odd jobs for money like plant and pet sitting. So when Ania’s father calls her and tells her that someone from the family needs to be with Agustín as he lies dying. He can’t make it for reasons and it’s not like she’s doing anything important, after all. So Ania travels from Chile to Argentina, back to the old family home in a backwater town. The Touch System is told through two streams of consciousness. While Ania thinks about life in the present, Agustín takes us into the past. Agustín’s thoughts reveal his biggest regrets in life, his mother’s mental illness, and a long existence of failing to launch. To be honest, it’s a bit like jumping back and forth between two hoses on full blast. (The ARC’s lack of formatting made it hard to figure out who was talking for a while.)

I realize that my Western perspective makes me value productivity as a virtue. I also realize that ambitionless characters tend to bother me. (The only reasons I got through Bartleby, the Scrivener were its brevity and my sense of psychological horror at a character who says no thank you to everything from a cookie to life itself.) But I think my pro-productive-life stance is supported by the narratives in The Touch System. Ania knows that the way she lives is not normal; she just struggles to find her purpose. When she visits the old, dilapidated family home, she gets enough of a jolt to put her fingers on the keyboard of life. We never get to see it, but we do learn enough to know that Ania doesn’t want to end up like Agustín. Meanwhile, there is so much of a sense of failure around Agustín that I know this story doesn’t approve of people who can’t make a life for themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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