MARCH 16, 2021
IT’S A DOWNER when you realize that writers aren’t infallible Greek gods, but rather can be exhausting humans with tendencies toward self-absorption and gasbaggery. It’s also a bad day when you grok that art is not purely a hieratic calling that will save your life, but also a business demented by market forces, trends, and a bulimic habit of eating and spitting out hot young things.
In her engaging and challenging novel Mona, translated by Adam Morris, Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac jumps into this saturnine literary tradition and adds to it an eccentric, intersectional feminist despair. Mona commences at the outset of a journey that the eponymous Peruvian hero takes from Stanford University, where she is undertaking her PhD (as did Oloixarac), to a small and idyllic lakeside village in Sweden. Here, Mona and several other authors will party, deliver canned speeches, and await the announcement of the winner of the Basske-Wortz Prize, “the most important literary award in Europe and one of the most prestigious in the world.” Mona, sadly, is in bad physical and psychological shape at the outset of this odyssey, downing Ambien and Valium as if they were Altoids and packing BB cream on a lurid blue-green bruise that has somehow appeared on her neck. She flumbers around in her airplane seat, warding off the glances of a “toad man” and brooding on the nature of being a Peruvian woman writer in the United States: “There was a niche sort of glamour to it, like being a rare specimen of an endangered species […] [in order to] advance her career […] it would have been even more advantageous to add on some kind of physical disability — a slight but evident defect.”
With asides like these only on the seventh page, the reader is alerted to the fact that Oloixarac is abandoning any ambition to deliver an easily agreeable protagonist, an interesting goal in an age where relatability is the coin of the literary realm — though if one happens to be Latinx and/or someone who has experienced an “evident defect,” they might find these flip accounts of their identity cringeworthy before the first chapter has ended. Nevertheless, press onward: even if the book will supply a yet richer hoard of insults, Oloixarac offers an illuminating critique of the business of literature. Thus, strapping into our reading chairs, we travel with Mona as she drugs herself senseless on the flight to Sweden, which she commences by masturbating relentlessly and also checking on Twitter about a 12-year-old girl named Sandrita, who has been kidnapped from Lima (and will soon be found dead). Once at her destination’s lakeside village, Mona ditches meets-and-greets in favor of staying in her cabin to camgirl for one of her off-screen suitors, when she isn’t chasing around a hot Swede named Sven. At this point in the story, Mona has all the makings of Nobel/Guggenheim/European Prize for Literature porn, except that something horrifying is going on beneath the awards circuit’s glittering surface: while meandering around the bucolic surroundings, Mona sees an eviscerated fox staring at her from its shallow grave in the tall grass, and then steps on “the little head of a decapitated animal, its dark fur caked with blood.” In addition, she can’t seem to stop crying:
A tiny tear could suddenly become a cascade, like one of those shamanic transformations in which a man swims across a river and emerges as a puma on the other side — only that Mona carried the river and the puma and everything else she didn’t want to encounter inside, about to burst. She was brimming with tension, to the point of overflow.
No one around Mona appears to notice her distress, absorbed as they are in their own genius. Oloixarac treats us to a litany of harangues delivered by short-listed Basske-Wortz writers, many of whom flirt with stereotype or earn Mona’s contempt on account of their sized, sexual, or ideological status, even while they disclose important ideas that intersect with Mona’s unspecified plight. Hava, an Israeli feminist poet, wants everyone at the conference to talk about their first sexual experience and “drones on” about the Holocaust. After trying to convince Mona that she has undiscovered Jewish heritage, Hava says, “There’s a volcano underneath, just waiting to erupt. I feel them watching us — I feel my memories watching me.”
And then there’s Lena, a “tremendously fat woman,” another feminist who, while pontificating about the significance of the writing life, “manage[s] to make [Mona] feel a bit bad about herself, which Mona always figured was every fat woman’s secret objective.” Despite these supposed failings, Lena turns out to be deeply prescient. “The earth’s crust is like the surface of a frozen lake, but beneath it there’s this giant eye, watching us,” she teaches a “martyred” Mona as both women lounge naked in a sauna. “And life is a journey across the ice, knowing that it’s there, watching you, stalking you. Everything you do is touched by the knowledge that the monster is watching and waiting. What’s left of you if you don’t write about it?”
One of Mona’s favorite people at the event is Chrystos, a young Macedonian with “radiant white skin and delicate pink lips” whom Mona brands as her “gay sidekick” once she “delighted […] learn[s] that he identifie[s] as a f–got” (amended from the original). “Everything now is so … boring,” Chrystos complains, as the celebrations kick into high gear. “Don’t you think? It’s like nobody cares about being a personality anymore.” Along with giving Oloixarac an opportunity to telegraph Mona’s evident comfort with homophobic slurs, Chrystos unintentionally identifies Mona’s own quandary while he diagnoses the flatness of the festival: she floats through the panels and open mic nights seemingly stripped of a real personality, even soul, manifesting instead as a jagged assemblage of appetites and numb gestures that resonate with the dead fox, the headless animal, the captured Sandrita, and the peril and amnesia alluded to by Hava and Lena. With these clues in hand, we detect gradually that Mona is traumatized and unable to extend any warmth to her fellow writers — though it is painful to read this casual dispensing of epithets in the service of limning the protagonist’s malaise, particularly as they are better ways of communicating her psychic death.
So, what is going on with Mona? Reader, if you do not want the novel’s big reveals spoiled for you, please cease perusing this review here.
Mona has been sexually assaulted, an outrage that took place in the hours before she boarded the plane for Sweden. The revelation occurs while Mona attempts to bed down with Sven during a pause in the ceremonies, and her lover stops amid his ministrations to stare down at her ravaged body after flipping on the “cold overhead lights.” Mona explains to Sven that Antonio, a man in her graduate degree program at Stanford, had fed her Ketamine, raped and savagely beat her, and then dumped her at the Caltrain station in Palo Alto. There, she woke up, matted in blood and bodily fluids, and somehow returned to her apartment, where she packed and then drove to the airport.
Blue hematoma stains crossed her thighs, along with darker brown blotches that had begun to acquire yellow halos. She had cuts and bruises all over. Back in the sauna, the flickering lights had kept Lena from noticing — besides, Lena was too distracted to see anything besides her own caricature of Mona’s appearance.
The same holds true of everyone else at the festival, who talked at rather than to Mona, and failed to read the signs that they were in the company of a severely harmed person. After the shocking disclosure of Mona’s assault, the rage and hate begins to escalate in the novel, culminating in the moment when Ragnar, a talented Icelandic poet, stands before the region’s sparkling blue lake and speaks of the highest calling of literature. “Writing is a mystical act […] It traffics in energy. It is a dialogue with monsters.” Ragnar accuses contemporary writers who fail to write to the current moment of failing their vocation, and illustrates his indictment with a story of the ancient Etruscans who made death into an art form by leaving their victims to perish of exposure while strapped to corpses beneath the sun. “They love to watch the transfer of this horrible thing from one person to another,” Ragnar says, about both the Etruscans and the misguided writers. “Their theory of reading is […] a theory of death, death by contagion, the death that liquefies and spreads and silences the territory it conquers.”
At this moment in the story, Oloixarac takes a hard U-turn in style, conjuring a mythical but very real dragon-beast from the mere. The monster rears from the water and proceeds to destroy the world, drowning and shredding the bodies of Hava, Lena, Chrystos, Sven, and even Mona herself. The ending, and Oloixarac’s solution, is not entirely satisfactory, though it is reminiscent of the gesture of repulsion and impatience that shaped the conclusion of László Krasznahorkai’s mesmerizing 2016 novel, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, where an apocalyptic descent of fire and brimstone erases a troubled, vivid, and corrupt provincial Hungarian town.
What is the sin that has led to this retribution? Oloixarac appears to be targeting dead and derivative literature-making in these last scenes and speeches, though the arc of the novel itself speaks to a different dilemma, one that echoes the nastiness of Theroux’s literary hit job, Ford’s alleged commission of battery upon Whitehead, and Cheever’s and Rimbaud’s struggles to find meaning in writing. That is, Oloixarac is appalled by a literature and literary society that is bereft of love and care. These days, it is a commonplace that we should not confuse the art with the artist, but, between the last death rattles of the fantasy that writers are both rock stars and priests, and the now-inescapable narrative that the author is dead, we may have forgotten to demand of artists that most frightening and precarious and dangerous of things — compassion. Oloixarac argues that love and empathy — capabilities that Mona herself and the rest of the writers at the festival lack — must form part of the literary enterprise if it is to have any real significance. Very few passages in the novel glimpse this possibility, but they are worth treasuring. “I was thinking recently that the history of ideas has also got to be the history of people liking each other,” Mona tells Sven as they sit on the lakeshore before their abrupt demise:
Art is marked by these moments when certain artists take a liking to each other. They get along, they become friends. Something like love circulates between them. This way of getting along and making friends and forming groups is then what we call, after a few decades have gone by, an avant-garde or a movement or the Boom or whatever. […] Without that love, there would be no avant-gardes […] So it’s important to love each other.
What Oloixarac calls for is a heady counteroffensive against “death,” which I stand by: writing as a commitment to people and some version of love, without descending into pabulum or cliché. Though Oloixarac herself appears skeptical or even nihilistic about the possibility of a contemporary literary culture that practices the humanistic values it often preaches, particularly when it comes to women writers of color, it bears noting that such a world does exist — you just have to look for it. In my case, I have struck gold in the society of little magazines, small and university presses, the editors and writers working for independent digital enterprises such as the one publishing this very review, and a shining assemblage of novelists, poets, critics, and teachers who care for their communities with the same scrupulous attention that they do their manuscripts. I suspect that Oloixarac also knows that independent and small presses offer happy territory for literary kindred hunting, as she is one of the founding editors of the luminous Buenos Aires Review.
Mona’s message is often difficult to discern amid the emotive blankness and mythical creatures, but it is there, and rich, and real. We need literature that is born of a practice of recognizing others, forged in the heat of personal and emotive risk, and wrought from intimate, collective, and passionate struggle. It may be that such vaunted goals are tricky to realize within the mega-publishing houses that arise today like Ragnar’s monster, but, thankfully, there are still folks out there who love both literature and the human beings who read and write it.