Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Novel About Everything

Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Novel About Everything

Channel Surfing

Agustín Fernández Mallo’s contemporary epic.

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In June 2004, Agustín Fernández Mallo was struck by a motorbike while crossing the street in Thailand. Instructed to stay in bed for the remainder of his vacation, he spent the next 25 days in his hotel, popping pain medication, watching TV, and reading.

A physicist who worked at a hospital on the Spanish island of Majorca, Mallo was a poet and critic in his spare time, and he saw his confinement as a chance to begin a new project. His writing, which had a small cult following, tended to be academic and otherworldly. A typical Mallo poem might juxtapose excerpts of a scholarly paper on neutrinos with lyrics from a Smiths song or musings on film theory. Over the course of several weeks, as he scribbled notes on napkins, receipts, and anything else within reach, something new began to take shape. By the time he returned to Majorca, he realized he was at work on a novel. He named it Nocilla Dream, after Spain’s knock-off version of Nutella.

Nocilla Dream was completed in just three months, and the final version reflected its haphazard creation. According to a coda at the end of the book, Mallo was influenced by a handful of disparate sources: a New York Times article about a desolate stretch of highway in Nevada; a sugar packet in a Chinese restaurant that contained a verse by Yeats (“All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born”); and a chance hearing of the 1982 song “Nocilla, ¡Qué Merendilla!” (“Nocilla, What a Snack!”) by the Spanish punk band Siniestro Total. An assemblage of short texts, 113 in all, the novel includes a mix of found material and original fiction. There are quotes from physicists and philosophers, descriptions of distant cities, excerpts from scientific papers, and observations about nationhood and the Internet. Reading Nocilla Dream, as many critics have noted, often feels like channel surfing.

Most of the entries are between a paragraph and two pages in length; the shortest is only a sentence: “The following day, Peter threw his art books in the fire, and the day after that, he left.” Mallo opens the novel on US Route 50, the so-called “loneliest road in America,” which spans the Nevada desert between Carson City and Ely and is bracketed by “a whorehouse at each end.” Somewhere along the highway is a lonely cottonwood tree covered in discarded shoes, which locals claim as “proof that something happened here.” These melancholy details, lifted from the Times article, provide the initial outline of the novel. Mallo then fills in the blanks, often with a cast of recurring characters, including a hitchhiking ex-boxer from San Francisco, a prostitute who falls in love with a client, and a young boy catfishing a woman in China.

Along with his fictional protagonists, Mallo includes real people. In one section, we are dropped into the former Madrid apartment of the American surrealist painter Margaret Marley Modlin, who spent her final years as a shut-in. In another, an elderly Che Guevara is fatally struck by a motorcycle while on holiday in Vietnam. Mallo’s sketches are wry and voyeuristic, but there’s also a tenderness to them, an affection for his strange solitary figures. We return again and again to the Argentine who takes to pacing in his Nevada hotel room after losing faith in Borges; the Mexican who defects to the United States after finding a dead stowaway in the back of his trailer truck; and a permanent resident of Singapore’s airport. While objects and events connect these people momentarily, they remain largely oblivious to one another, living their lives in parallel states of isolation. At the same time, the novel depicts a world in which individuals and objects are discrete parts of more complex systems, overlapping networks in which everything is connected. Thus, an excerpt from a report on cryptography will follow an account of a computer programmer who lives in a fictional country, which will follow a series of historical anecdotes about existing micro-nations that somehow all bear on one another. Mallo’s stylized fragmentation has many literary precedents, including works by David Markson, Thomas Bernhard, and Enrique Vila-Matas, but its sensibility is perhaps most reminiscent of what critic Alissa Quart calls “hyperlink cinema”: films, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble epic Magnolia or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams and Babel, in which the characters occupy separate realities that may never intersect but are nonetheless connected.

When Nocilla Dream came out in a small-press edition in 2006, it was an unexpected national success. The book traveled through the country’s bloodstream like a drug, and before long, the rights were acquired by a major Spanish publisher. Mallo, who looks the part of the uncompromising avant-garde writer with his black-rimmed glasses and permanent grimace, was championed as the leading figure of a new literary movement. The book was divisive, but nobody disagreed about the extent of its impact. While not all critics believed that Nocilla Dream deserved to be called a novel, many agreed that it was Spain’s most significant book of the year, if not the decade.

The inspiration for Nocilla Dream grew out of Mallo’s notion of “postpoetry,” a term that he coined in 2000 and elaborated on in a 2009 essay of the same name. Part treatise and part polemic, Postpoesía is a blistering critique of Spain’s literary culture, contending that, while the interaction of science and poetry had once given rise to dynamic new artistic movements, Spanish writers were no longer engaged in productive dialogue with other fields; nor had they chosen to reckon with the lived realities of the 21st century. The essay contained many of the ideas that were nascent in Nocilla Dream, but it also reflected a tension at the heart of the novel: Even as it was invested in serendipity and the soundness of scientific principles, it also held to the belief that the universe itself is fundamentally unpredictable.

Nocilla Dream turned out to be only the first of three Mallo novels on this theme; Nocilla Experience and Nocilla Lab soon followed. Published as one book in an English translation by Thomas Bunstead, the Nocilla trilogy represented a sprawling experiment in radical aesthetics and a challenge to Spain’s old literary order. By its conclusion, it had helped catalyze a new cultural moment and solidified Mallo’s celebrity. Yet it was far from a unified project. While the trilogy may have seemed to be advancing a worldview organized around systems, it ultimately went in a very different direction.

One of the paradoxes of Nocilla Dream is that it is an apolitical book that owes its success in part to politics. Mallo was born in 1967, only eight years before Francisco Franco’s dictatorship gave way to Spain’s nascent democracy. He came of age in the midst of La Movida, the Madrid-based countercultural movement that released decades of pent-up desire for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Through music, art, and, most notably, the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, La Movida introduced young Spaniards to a world beyond their own borders. At its height, Mallo was living in Madrid as a full-fledged punk in the first year of a physics degree, skipping parties to stay in and write. It was a heady time for artists, and in his insightful introductory essay, Bunstead draws a parallel between “the trilogy’s fractured chaos and its huge, almost yearning emphasis on order” and “the wider Spanish experience of this period,” which saw the country struggling to define itself in the absence of Franco.

In 2007, shortly after the publication of Nocilla Dream, Mallo and a group of about 40 other Spanish writers—including Eloy Fernández Porta, Vicente Luis Mora, Germán Sierra, and Jorge Carrión—gathered in Seville for a conference on the impoverished state of Spain’s literature. Most of them had grown up during La Movida, and the energy and originality of their work had not yet infiltrated Spain’s conservative literary culture. But Mallo’s success was starting to have an effect, and the Spanish press paid attention: Covering the conference, it anointed the Seville writers as the beginning of a new literary movement. They were members of a new generation of writers—the “Nocilla generation”—that wanted to deprovincialize the Spanish novel for the 21st century, and they planned to do so by bringing into their fiction high and low culture, technology, and formal experimentation. Moreover, they were committed to “a new style of narration: fragmentary.” All of the Nocilla writers rejected the label, but it stuck nonetheless.

Reading about this moment, I was reminded of Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to The Savage Detectives, in which she describes a young Roberto Bolaño leaping onto a table in a Mexico City bookstore in 1976 and announcing the birth of the movement that would eventually displace the Latin American “Boom” writers. While the publication of Nocilla Dream was a similar instance of gauntlet throwing—Spanish-language cultural historians have long thrived on identifying and amplifying generational breaks—Mallo and his peers were also returning to the radical ideas of the past century, borrowing from Dadaism, Situationism, and American postmodernism to better frame their present. The result was a blend of historical avant-gardism and contemporary innovation. As the Nocilla writers drew from pop culture and the Internet, developments in the arts and the social sciences, they were also working to recover and help preserve a once-censored past.

By the time the second installment of his trilogy, Nocilla Experience, was published in 2008, Mallo was well-known in Spain. He had also gained a number of detractors, who accused of him of trying to depoliticize literature, of passively accepting a late-capitalist worldview, and of prizing showmanship and experimentation over literary quality. Some of these criticisms Mallo had anticipated. In Nocilla Dream, he includes several fictional reviews of the novel itself: “The emptiest and most pretentious pedantry reaches its zenith,” one critic complains of the book. “Who was the author trying to fool?”

Nocilla Experience was unlikely to convert anyone who felt strongly about its predecessor, but it is a richer and more satisfying encounter with the ideas that Mallo was testing out in Nocilla Dream. Our cast this time includes a barnacle collector in Spain, a doctor in the Russian city of Ulan Erge, a widowed bouncer at a strip club, an American soldier who falls in love with an Iraqi woman in Basra, and a man who mourns his divorce by running across the United States. Glimpses into these lives are punctuated by excerpts of interviews with musicians and a recurring quote from Apocalypse Now, which grows a few sentences longer each time it appears.

Like its predecessor, Nocilla Experience is a global novel. Insofar as it is set anywhere, the action mostly happens in the Nevada desert and on the Russian steppes—open, empty spaces seemingly devoid of life or detail. In Nocilla Dream, Mallo invokes anthropologist Marc Augé’s idea of the “non-place”—locations, such as hotels and airports, designed for function over enjoyment—and challenges the notion that such sites are uninteresting. In Nocilla Experience, these non-places come into focus. We see the Singapore airport through the domestic patterns of a man living in it; elsewhere, a tree transforms a nondescript highway in Nevada into a place of curiosity. In the former Soviet Union, children trudge through miles of empty oil pipes, and a destitute town insulates its buildings by covering them with old white sheets. In their beauty and their desolation, Mallo’s postindustrial landscapes evoke filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s hallucinatory visions of contemporary China, in which modernity stands toe-to-toe with the future.

Offsetting these bleak geographies, however, are quietly funny moments of speculative fiction. Steve, the “cook, manager, ideologue, and overall ruler at Steve’s Restaurant on Orange Street in Brooklyn,” has achieved the status of a celebrity chef by repurposing found objects. Customers wait months to experience his conceptual meals.

The dishes most frequently served, depending on Steve’s mood, are: furtive Polaroids of the customers taken through a hole in the kitchen wall, then fried in egg batter; as the batter is parted, the photos, and the people’s transformed faces, are revealed…. Then you have Paperback in Syrup: a pocket book served, curled around inside a jar, in syrup; the sugars adhere to the ink, making crystal formations on the letters. And finally, Carpaccio of Work of Literature in Pepper Marinade, which work depending on what Steve has found at the secondhand market: [1] On the Road by someone called Kerouac, [2] The U.S. Constitution, [3] Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Mallo’s interest in garbage would become the basis of another philosophical essay, “A General Theory of Trash,” which was published in Spain last year, but in Nocilla Experience, it indicates his growing comfort with his sui generis form. As the novel progresses, the stories within it become intertwined. The Apocalypse Now quote ends up in the mouth of a smuggler from Cancún, and characters from one story appear at the periphery of another. Julio Cortázar, the great Argentine novelist, wanders around the novel telling people about his own work of speculative fiction, Hopscotch. There are newspaper clippings that begin to intersect with Wikipedia entries about paranormal phenomena. At times, readers may feel as if they’re standing before a “crazy wall” (that time-tested means for catching serial killers) just when everything begins to add up—even if the point is that nothing does. Yet Mallo’s achievement is to make readers care not just about characters, but also the larger networks in which they’re entangled.

In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, Mallo described his fiction as “complex realism,” an approach that discards the conventional understanding of literary realism and that focuses on the powers of subjectivity and the making of a subject. “Until a short time ago,” he noted, “we knew the world in parts, whereas now we know that those parts are all connected through a system of networks with a very concrete topology.” The ambition of Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience is to capture how we might gather and organize information in a world in which our very subjectivity is the result of structures outside our control. But as we make our way through the first two Nocilla novels, something else becomes clear: Mallo’s networks are not distributed, as he suggests, but rather centralized around an invisible author.

Nocilla Lab, the final installment of the trilogy, seems to bring Mallo himself closer to the novel’s surface. It begins with a single-sentence monologue by a man at a combination bar and pizzeria on an island near Sardinia, who is rambling about science and travel and recalling his life: Madrid in the ’70s, a motorcycle accident in Thailand, discovering a copy of Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Mallo, in short, is taunting us to take this fictional version of himself literally, and to look for clues where none may exist:

One has to be very careful about the objects one places inside a text because they affect the story like magnetic poles, they attract the plot, become potential focal points for our attention, and the same happens in life, like for example, when you go to a country and a tree branch reminds you of another tree branch in some far-off place, or when you look in detail at the skin pores of a Sudanese person going past you on a bus and they seem identical to the skin pores of an Inuit man who passed you the salt in a spaghetti joint in San Francisco once….

In chaos theory, such “strange attractors” affect how future events might play out by influencing the state of a system. In the context of fiction, they have a different effect—rather than heightening a sense of randomness, they call into focus the hand behind it. Far from being dead, the author is impossible to escape.

After the monologist finally falls silent, we next encounter him and his girlfriend on an extended trip through Sardinia. Suddenly, the text begins to resemble a journal, switching into first-person narration. They spend a month at a campsite and make meals with a cookbook from Steve’s Restaurant. They drive through the countryside and eventually end up back where they started, checking into a remote eco-lodge on the site of a former prison. There are shades of Psycho and Solaris here as the narrator realizes that the proprietor has the same name as his and is working on the same book. Gradually, the seams of reality begin to tear: The narrator becomes hermetic and obsessive, fixated on his situation. After his girlfriend leaves, he spends days watching TV in search of clues to whatever is happening to him. Finally, an altercation ensues. The text gives way to images: photos of a TV screen, a fever dream of a comic strip. The unreliable narrator dissolves into unstable narrative, and then the book is over.

After having acclimated his readers to channel surfing, Mallo ends his trilogy by flipping the script and forcing us to face the man holding the remote. Unlike its predecessors, the final installment of the trilogy is more biographical and centered on human agency; it’s about Mallo, or a version of him, and more explicitly engaged with literary creation. By making himself a character, Mallo gives readers another way to connect with the Nocilla universe and allows us to see it as not entirely random, but also a product of his own design.

At the same time, the novel remains restless. Fragments overwhelm systems, even if we can now see the three books of the trilogy more plainly as human creations. Mallo also seems ready to end his experiment; after building a world of complex realism, he now invites us to watch him take it apart.

In keeping with the spirit of the books, one is tempted to wonder what might have happened to the Nocilla trilogy if things had worked out just a little differently. What if Mallo hadn’t gotten into that accident in Thailand, or come across that article about Route 50? Without the Seville conference, would Spain’s literary culture look as it does today? Obviously, it’s impossible to know—but then, that’s partly the point of the novels.

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