Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

This appeared in The Independent on 21 December 2015 (Section 2, page 38):

Strange Beauty of the Nada in Nevada

Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry

nocilladream

Modernism’s last stand, according to the great art critic Robert Hughes, was a retreat to the American desert. This is the terrain Agustín Fernández Mallo explores in his debut novel, Nocilla Dream, set against the barren backdrop of the “loneliest highway in North America”. Bookended by two forlorn brothels, US Route 50 is the non-place — the nada in Nevada — where “precisely nothing” can be found, if you look hard enough.

The horizon, here, is an event; a vanishing point, reminiscent of one of the characters’ de Chirico-style paintings, rather than the magnet that fuels narrative drive. No longer manifest, destiny can only be glimpsed obliquely, as illustrated by the haunting, Fitzgeraldian image of “the last casino glimmering on the horizon in the rearview mirror”. This retrospective vision soon infects the reading process itself.

First published in Spain in 2006, Nocilla Dream is the opening gambit in a trilogy that spawned a generation of like-minded writers. It is composed of 113 brief chapters — one of them is less than two lines long — which appear like shards of a shattered globe, or fragments of an unfinishable whole. Jorge Rodolfo Fernández is obsessed with Borges’s tale of an empire where cartography becomes so sophisticated that a map as large as the territory it represents is produced. He comes to believe that he inhabits the ruins of this mythical map, which seems to hark back to a time when a work of art could coincide with life itself. In another vignette, a Mexican stowaway who suffocates in a truck trying to cross the border, leaves a “broken map” of himself on the black beans serving as his deathbed.

Linear narrative is ill-equipped to respond to globalisation, hence Mallo’s picaresque twist on the road trip trope. Objects and characters migrate from one chapter to another, prompting the reader to constantly flick backwards to check if the biscuit tin produced in a Danish factory had already appeared in a supermarket in Carson City.

Nocilla Dream is a world seen in a grain of Nevada sand. Its arborescent structure stems from a solitary poplar tree, decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes, growing alongside US Route 50. By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction — more than 20 chapters are lifted verbatim from extraneous works — the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry.

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What the Whole Thing is About

Caleb Crain. Rev. of Memory Theater, by Simon Critchley. The New York Times 16 December 2015

… In “The Phenomenology of Spirit,” Hegel imagined history as a long, bloody drama acted out by the spirit of history, which played all the characters. Critchley cleverly describes (or rather, claims that his late teacher cleverly described) Hegel’s idea of history as a moving memory theater — “a kind of proto-­cinema.” The narrator concludes that his own experiments have failed because his memory theater didn’t move, and he looks forward to a posthuman upgrade: “an endlessly recreating, re-enacting memory mechanism.” This sounds awfully like the Internet, to which it is so tempting nowadays to offload one’s more tedious tasks of remembering — and indeed, in a recent interview with Andrew Gallix of 3:AM Magazine, Critchley has admitted that the Internet is “what the whole thing is about.” Maybe it makes more sense to think of “Memory Theater” as an allegory.

A Mermaid’s Tail in a Neutron Monitor

My review of Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Nocilla Dream appears in The Independent. Here’s an extract:

Nocilla Dream is a world seen in a grain of Nevada sand. Its arborescent structure stems from a solitary poplar tree, decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes, growing alongside US Route 50. By juxtaposing fiction with non-fiction — more than 20 chapters are lifted verbatim from extraneous works — the author has created a hybrid genre that mirrors our networked lives, allowing us to inhabit its interstitial spaces. A physician as well as an artist, Mallo can spot a mermaid’s tail in a neutron monitor; estrange theorems into pure poetry.

nocilladream

Incomplete

“‘In my world there is something wrong with people who are writers,’ he says. ‘If someone wants to write, that means there is something incomplete in them; if they’re writers, it’s a certain sign of unhappiness.'”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Why Karl Ove Knausgaard Can’t Stop Writing” by Liesl Schillinger, The Wall Street Journal 4 November 2015