Review: How We Named Solipsism (A Review of How We Named the Stars by Andrés N. Ordorica

By Hugh Blanton

When Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was published in 2013 it brought back into vogue The Big Novel. Weighing in at 771 pages, it was followed by more Big Novels including Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire at 944 pages two years later. Writing for The New Yorker Louis Menand said, "Garth Risk Hallberg's new, much promoted, nine-hundred-and-forty-four-page novel, "City on Fire" (Knopf), is about four hundred pages too long." That was a common refrain among critics of the bricks rolling off the presses at that time—the books were in serious need of editors with relentless scissors. The so-called avant garde publishers avoided being caught up in the trend of The Big Novel, but more likely due to printing costs than to any fidelity to literary style. However, Tin House, one of the more avant garde of the avant garde, just released a novel that's in serious need of having about two-hundred pages cut. Only problem is that it's only 274 pages long.

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How We Named the Stars is the debut novel from Andrés N. Ordorica. It's written in the form of an apostrophe to a recently deceased lover and is rife with the literary mistakes, stumbles, and fumbles typical of poets making their first foray into prose. The first mistake being that there's no novel here. Stuffed full with egocentric lachrymose wailing, it goes on page after page with absolutely nothing happening but the main character's (Daniel de la Luna) fits of anguish. The novel covers three events: Daniel gets a boyfriend his freshman year at college, boyfriend dies, Daniel visits the grave of a deceased uncle and learns the uncle's life story. The novel tries so hard to make these events poignant it becomes more annoying than humane.
How We Named the Stars begins with Daniel arriving at the University of Cayuga in Ithaca, New York where he meets Sam Morris who soon becomes his lover. There's a lot of campus life in the story, but How We Named the Stars can't be classified as a "campus novel." The events are framed in Daniel's anxieties and insecurities about them, rendering them not much more than weightless fiddling. One of the many problems with this novel is how Daniel is constantly reminding Sam (Do you remember...? Remember when you...?) of the things Sam had done. It's a common problem with apostrophes (see Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous), but Ordorica takes it to an exasperating level to where it seems the reader is just an unwelcome guest.
Each chapter begins with a diary entry from Daniel's deceased uncle (Daniel was named after his uncle who had died before he was born). The uncle lived in Chihuahua, Mexico and the circumstances around his death had been kept a secret from Daniel his whole life. We are left deflated after the big reveal, Ordorica treating it as if it's just some minor afterthought after attempting to build suspense for something especially tragic and heartbreaking.
Ordorica goes to great pains to portray Daniel as a sensitive young man, but he comes off as not much more than a sniveling child. After receiving a gift of school supplies: "What I needed most right then: someone to hold me and let me know it was going to be all right." While he is meeting a potential new love interest in Mexico: "I was alone with no best friend to ask me how I felt about what was going on..." Sometimes Ordorica's poor writing gets in the way of portraying Daniel as sensitive: "I mumbled between crying a heavy breathing, my nose filled with snot." Mucous does not a touching moment make. Daniel believes himself not just to be the center of the universe, but everyone and everything in the universe is there to support him, to look out for him, to divine his inner thoughts.
Main characters certainly don't need to be likable to make a compelling novel. Lester Ballard, the protagonist of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, was a serial killing necrophiliac. However, Daniel de la Luna is not supposed to be an unlikable character. But his endless bleating, histrionics, and incredulous hypersensitivity lead the reader to have nothing but contempt for him. Ordorica simply tries too hard with the limited talent for prose that he has. (And somebody needs to take his thesaurus away from him too: "I got up and sauntered through the patio door." Sheesh.)
Shortly after Daniel arrives at the University of Cayuga he starts to feel excluded and picked upon and his grades start to suffer. His advisor, Naomi, calls him into her office to encourage him to do better and she invites him to enroll in her honors program. Daniel says he can't do it, his high school transcript isn't compatible with the academic caliber of the honors program. "Well, that's some classic Cayuga bullshit," Naomi tells him. "I'm not going to let this place keep ostracizing Black and brown students like this." She goes on: "Tell me why every Charity, Cassidy, and Chad are always in my classes, wasting my time by not even doing the work." A few weeks later Daniel's honors application is approved and "Naomi...remained on her larger mission to improve the experiences of all students of color at Cayuga."
How We Named the Stars had the potential to be a good novel—a story of devastating heartbreak, loss, and a family of loved ones to offer succor to the horribly grief stricken. This is Ordorica's first novel, let's see if he can get out of his own way and bring us well a written story if and when a second one comes.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5