At the confluence of literary criticism and the novel, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac’s Problem is a story of an unemployed 60-year-old aspiring writer. Seemingly a diary (Mac refuses to call it a novel), we follow his attempt to rewrite a short story collection written three decades a go by a now-famous acquaintance of his. As Mac rereads the collection, he realizes the stories mirror his own life in various ways.
Vila-Matas’ extensive literary career becomes apparent through Mac, in good and bad: it’s interesting to read Mac’s thoughts on a wide variety of authors including more recent names such as Alejandro Zambra and Samanta Schweblin, but it is also a little too evident that it is Vila-Matas speaking, not his narrator who has allegedly spent his life as a construction worker.
After a promising, lively start, Mac’s Problem soon dives into rather overwrought metatextual trickery that tests his readers’ patience. It is at times gruesome to follow Mac / Vila-Matas paraphrasing or quoting from an imaginary collection of short stories and muse what he would change to make his version better. On the other hand, Vila-Matas is often funny and clever, and the novel is superbly co-translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes, no small feat.