In 1985 I went to the University of Buffalo to finish my graduate degree in creative writing. Raymond Federman headed up the program and that year “Smiles on Washington Square” was published.
This novel was my introduction to metafiction, or experimental fiction, or whatever you want to call it–and I was blown away. My world expanded. The definition of a novel expanded.
It’s hard to describe this novel, other than to say it is a love story between Moinous and Sucette, two characters who pass and smile at each other on Washington Square in New York City during a protest against Senator McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.
She’s from a wealthy New England family. He’s a poor ex-soldier from France. But whether Moinous and Sucette ever actually meet is a mystery. They might be figments of each other’s imagination. Moinous might be a character in a short story that Sucette writes for her class. The conditional, present, and past tenses are mixed. What happened may not have happened in this looping and contradictory narrative.
And yet the story is simple and easy to follow. At 145 pages, it’s short, sweet, and stunning. I believe it belongs on the top ten of the Most Important Novels in My Life. It opened my eyes. It influenced me as a writer. Early on, I tried to imitate (with zero success) Federman’s style.
“Smiles on Washington Square” is one of those novels I would recommend to everyone, even though only a few will likely appreciate its subtlety, grace, and originality.