I have a friend who often refers to the line from Rachel Cusk’s 2014 Guardian interview, in which she admits that before writing the Outline trilogy, the conceit of traditional fiction, the idea of “making up Jack and Jill and having them do things” suddenly felt “fake and embarrassing.” As autofiction—or at least the idea of the author being starkly present in the book—becomes more and more common in the world of fiction. I wonder why it is that seven years after Cusk’s statement, traditional fiction stills feels so oddly fake and forced at times. Is it because the need for personal stories, the ones that take us out of a fictional world (one that has stretched to the other realms of life; identities stretch and comingle with our created identities online more than ever) have this intrinsic, vital sense of being urgent that standard fiction lacks? In her work, Cusk seems to bridge the divide between eutrapely (friendly, intellectual conversation that smells of heliotrope as Julio Cortazar writes about in Final Exam) and the real distance we find ourselves living from other people, both physically and emotionally. This bridge is also expertly occupied in Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, Mona, translated from Spanish by Adam Morris.
The novel is set at a prestigious literary festival in Sweden (the Cusk similarities continue) where Mona, a Peruvian working on her second novel, attends after she is nominated. The hazy, drug-induced fog that Mona experiences this festival in contributes to the over-arching sense of estrangement she has from the world around her throughout the book. Mona focuses on this estrangement, on how consciousness is embodied in her person, with a clear sense of dissociation from actively participating in events around her. When another attendee verbally spars with her over her role as a female writer; she reacts:
But the truth was that Mona had no problem taking this particular bullet. She accepted humiliations with instinctive courtesy; any kind of guilt made her feel good. She considered it a noble exchange, with herself in the role of martyred Saint Sebastian.
The novel takes course over only four days, slowing down the plot to the point that the intellectual, cultural, and human conversations Mona has take center stage as the festival continues on around her, unassuming in its presence. These conversations are wide ranging, caroming from a discussion of TED Talks to autofiction to fake news and the role of the author in contemporary culture and life. At one point, Mona, after another writer, Chrystos, begs her to sing at an open-mic night at a bar because he “can’t bear to hear another spoken-word ‘reflection on the current era,’” Mona responds:
“It’s not that there’s more literary personalities in our era: it’s just that now they come to places like these thinking they’re writers and end up leaving as characters. The festivals are the real novels!”
The laundry list of characters that Oloixarac, an Argentinian writer, journalist and translator, introduces in this book numbers close to 20 (in a 176 page novel) and almost all are other writers or poets from countries around the world. These writers are, as a whole, never fully formed and usually serve as conduits for further conversation between Mona and others on art, writing, and the societal implications of the two. At one point, Marco, a Colombian writer, says:
“First of all, we have to accept that our readers are no longer human. That we’re immersed in an immense narrative, the largest representational endeavor in the history of the world: Google.”
“The characters, which is to say, the users, are increasing in number every day, and every day, more of them write themselves into the story, each user doing his or her best to sound just like themselves! The genre for these characters is autofiction, playing at being real.”
Mona goes through much of the novel with a snarky, confidently listless attitude to the goings-on around her, leaving the responsibility of understanding and comprehending the importance of events and conversation almost fully to the reader. Oloixarac paints Mona as a character estranged from everything around her, partly out of choice and partly out of happenstance, and this idea of “the present moment” and the faulty nature of that term now, drives much of this novel. This “present moment” exists only in name now, and if it does still, it is the slightest speck of a moment that could be conceived of and held onto. That is it to say if what Cusk posits about fiction is true, then one might say that attempting to capture the current moment in any form, autofiction or not, is equally embarrassing and useless. Technology no longer allows for a capturing of the present time we live in; anything written about is outdated by the time it reaches the public.
By realizing her place in the literary festival, as a Peruvian woman who was in a sense unique to the largely Nordic population, Mona is able to glide through the experiences of the novel without being largely affected by anything, and so it is left to the reader to be affected by what occurs. While readers reckon with the various sexual encounters, discussions about body image and plagiarism and identity, Mona takes another Valium and listens to another lecture, watching each author put on their own stage production.
The ways that each of them appropriated their local colors and used them as a backdrop for playing parts in the theatrical literary market; these were just the modern tools of the trade, weapons in the battle royale of ‘world lit’.
This novel descends into absurdity towards the end as the festival is concluding and the final speech is about to be given before the award is handed out. Similar to the technology and philosophy-laced work of Don DeLillo (think Zero K or Ratner’s Star) Oloixarac’s absurd additions, such as a random group of blonde men who appear out of nowhere all around the festival, multiple severed heads of dead animals, or an apocalyptic-level event, only serve to highlight the dexterity with which Oloixarac writes with. Though all of this occurring around her, for the most part Mona remains firmly locked inside her own exceedingly intellectual and blasé view of the world, unchanging in light of traumatic events preceding the festival and during.
The effects of these influences constitute a changed existence for Mona; she’s moving through time, not the space she’s actually in. The narration of Mona, so expertly done by Oloixarac, gives the sense that the investment in the plot is squarely on the shoulders of the reader, and this is to our benefit. By listlessly moving through the novel, the humorous oddities of the situation, the windstorm of opinions and ideas hurtling around her, descend into the realm of ego-stroking and image-making, as if Twitter threads come to life. To all of these influences, Mona would say, does it even matter? Does it matter that, before the award is handed out, an Icelandic poet takes the stage and speaks as the world around him falls apart and a beast rises out of the lake behind him? Does it matter that Mona is receiving texts throughout the book from someone who assaulted her the night before? Does it matter that the book captures whatever the present moment might mean for someone like Mona? Any writer attempting to capture the present moment, one that has changed even since I began writing this, is nonsensical. This book effortlessly captures the tension between personal investment in the present moment and the urge to lackadaisically move through the world. So instead, you might as well go to a literary festival, and listen to writers attempt eutrapely, because again, by the end of this sentence, there will be something new to think about, to discuss, to ingrain in personality, to tweet and write about, endlessly and endlessly on.
by Pola Oloixarac; translated by Adam Morris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 192 p.