Apocalyptic Aesthetic: On Agustín Fernández Mallo’s “The Nocilla Trilogy”
By Katryn EvinsonMarch 13, 2019
The Nocilla Trilogy by Agustín Fernández Mallo
At the turn of the 21st century, according to writers often referred to as the Nocilla Generation (those born around 1970), the Spanish literary scene found itself in a sort of loop. Spanish fiction was largely devoted in some way or another to either the Spanish Civil War (1936–’39), Franco’s dictatorship (1939–1975), or the years of the Transición (the transition to democracy in the late 1970s). The industry insisted on promoting conventional literary works that rarely engaged the most inescapable question of them all, according to the Nocillas, for whom the different experience of the world resulting from the percolation of mass media culture into our lives could not be ignored by fiction. The Spanish novel par excellence invested in invoking the nation’s 20th-century history — however tangentially — no longer spoke to the world as it unfolded before the Nocilla writers’ eyes, or anyone else’s for that matter. For instance, the line between high and low culture still seeming to rule publishing standards in the Spanish peninsula appeared not only as conservative and restrictive, but as an obsolete way of looking and representing the world that ought to be challenged if literature aspired to continue being a prominent form of thought.
Instead of employing history to legitimize literature, Fernández Mallo posits history “like a huge supermarket” to which authors resort in order to be welcomed into the publishing world. Therefore, The Nocilla Trilogy is a vast, uncategorizable work that must be understood as a tool aimed at fracturing the mainstream Spanish publishing industry. On the one hand, such a strategy should be seen as invested in proving that a DIY approach can work as well when it comes to publishing and circulating new works in a 2.0 era. On the other hand, Fernández Mallo’s efforts were also intending to inaugurate a new platform for literary experimentation where multiple expressions of knowledge could be conjugated. First published by small independent publishing house Candaya, Nocilla Dream catapulted Fernández Mallo to fame, making him the author of the moment. In fact, critics used his novel to name an entire generation of writers who were changing the form of fiction. However, as a gesture targeting the Spanish literary status quo, the term Nocilla, quoting a widely known song by punk band Siniestro Total (literally “total write-off”), invoked a neo-punk ethos that was as much concerned with revolutionizing established market dynamics as it was with destroying and renewing fiction’s conventional form and content.
Far from being a traditionally punk emblem, Nocilla was a pop product present in most Spanish kitchen cupboards, a lesser glamorous chocolate spread than Nutella. Nocilla Dream brought a very pedestrian icon of consumer capitalism and made it worthy not only of literary value, but of a framework, a form of thought. To think Nocilla-like meant to experience the current world “as it was,” a fragmented and accelerated reality where human existence was better conceived as a string of disjointed stories, products, songs, scientific principles, media, technology — a hodgepodge of constant stimuli coming and going in a never-ending network, compounding and dissolving simultaneously. The trilogy’s paradigmatic image is the internet, and traveling through its pages is similar to zipping through hyperlinks. Inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizome, Nocilla Dream unfolds through discontinuous open-ended stories that share bizarre connections bordering the threshold between reality and delirium juxtaposed with scientific reflections on how the world functions, or malfunctions. “[A]ll material, all objects, everything we see, are clots — catastrophes that took place on the neutral, two-dimensional, isotropic plane conterminous with The Beginning,” describing how this world of matter is far from being anything harmonious, but instead, a chaotic organism growing in any and all directions.
Indebted to the influence of foreign writers, musicians, thinkers, scientists, and engineers, The Nocilla Trilogy is fascinated with the circulation of embedded global references bombarding us non-stop across a variety of media in the 21st century. Portraying the link that connects Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Auster, Martin Heidegger, Albert Einstein, Henry Darger, Giorgio de Chirico, and the Unabomber, Fernández Mallo attempts to uproot Spanish fiction from its self-referential coordinates and inscribe it within a wider cartography aware of the current globalized world where fluxes of data and information no longer function on a purely national level. Such a dislocation happens not so much through situating Spanish experimental literature within a historical tradition — although references to the canon are not scarce throughout the trilogy — but rather through establishing a reference map that draws connections between ideas, forms, images, principles, geographies, places, in a growing network accelerating in the same way the universe is.
Where time in literature has traditionally been the plane through which characters and plots travel somewhat continuously, The Nocilla Trilogy privileges space, and particularly sordid landscapes, as the main backdrop for the staging of human experience. From the Nevada desert to the Albacete desert in Spain, all the way back to the Chihuahua Desert in Mexico, Nocilla Dream jolts from one plateau to the next, rendering passages on scientific principles (and reflections on science) corridors able to circulate us through the planes that hold Nocilla Dream together. A tree in the middle of the desert covered in shoes, a group of female surfers completely lost in the southern Spanish desert searching for northern Basque beaches, a homeless man in Gucci shoes who lives in an airport where a Catalan “manhole cover” designer won’t stop rambling: these are all vignettes that unfold in fragmented fashion — very carefully captured by Thomas Bunstead’s translation — generating a kind of stagnant atmosphere one might imagine as preceding the end of the world.
In Nocilla Experience, the horizon functions as the measure of a livable place. No inhabitable place other than the underground territory where gas pipelines run can better express the experience of horizon deprivation. Kilometers of gas pipelines in the guts of Russia and the Ukraine combined with the vanished horizon now invisible from an airplane in the sky become the sensorial limits where life starts to wane. Two kids secretly walk the tunnels carrying a lethal radioactive capsule in a mission to become suicide bombers. At the same time, a nouveau cuisine chef designs impossible dishes. “I’m cooking the horizon!” he exclaims to a group of dinner guests by the Brooklyn Bridge during sundown, while a few pages later a huge Siberian palace has been designed to play Parcheesi. The world is an unsalvageable place where nonsense and injustice govern, but this is not a moral judgment, it is just “the world as it is,” a place of increasing decadence. If the desert is a place where the organic meshes with the inorganic, where life conflates with death, as is Nocilla Dream’s paradigmatic place, then Nocilla Experience experiments with the ways in which life is devoid of projection, a form of quotidian apocalypse.
Nocilla Lab takes on the island as the paramount site for love and futurity. A beach in Mediterranean Sardinia where a couple spends their vacation repeatedly appears like the Atlantic Azores, reminding us that even when life is possible, it’s never authentic and singular, but rather an out-of-place repetition of the same. The world is a mirage that “takes place at least twice, this being the only way to create rhythm, the intermittent wave that gives rise to a very powerful law, the law of verisimilitude,” a law that pushes us away from living life as pure presence and forces us to draw connections between elements that should or shouldn’t be linked — and it doesn’t really matter. That is precisely what this couple is devoted to, the Project. An existential investment in the Project drives them together and forward, but paradoxically the existence of the Project is in fact unknown to them. Once they realize the Project exists, they know its consummation will entail the consumption of their relationship, because when two individual lives end up morphing into a perfect form containing the adequate amount of each couple member’s imaginary, they can each cease to live their life in an individual way. But that level of combined perfection can only mean the end of everything. That is what the Project represents: a metaphor for understanding life as a constant process. But where the Project cannot be achieved, it should nevertheless mark the pace, dreams, and desires of a relationship.
But where Fernández Mallo shows a virtuous ability to produce an aesthetic for current times in which “the world as it is” resembles a postmodern Baudrillardian hyperreality — where human beings are incapable of distinguishing what is real from what is fiction — he shuns a critique of what has lead us to this point while dismissing the larger consequences of an apocalyptic world. Such an analysis would entail a historical lens Fernández Mallo considers to be a mere illusion, even though he shares with Marx the idea that history happens twice, “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Captivated by this end-of-the-world aesthetic, Fernández Mallo echoes an accelerationist attitude according to which capital should be intensified in order to achieve an ever-more dehumanized mode where technology could fulfill its capacity to function independently from human control.
Accelerationist positions can also be found in Fernández Mallo’s interest in dissolving subjectivity. Dissolution here doesn’t take place via language deconstruction but rather through the persistent fragmentation of the subject, who, seeing itself unable to process an over-abundance of stimuli, becomes disintegrated. Oddly, however, paramount figures of Westernized culture, from Einstein to Damien Hirst and Mark Dery, together with many other electrical engineers, system engineers, and physicists, are strong enough to resist the forces of fragmentation and rhizomatization (i.e., hierarchy breakdown) managing to pervade in the hierarchies of contemporary white-male-dominated imaginaries, and remain intact as exemplary subjects. On the other hand, we should note that when it comes to introducing hard science into fiction, a wider audience might well appreciate not only the trilogy’s guidance in the form of references, but also some basic education that Fernández Mallo provides.
Science, or physics to be more accurate, leads Fernández Mallo to emancipate space from time even at the cost of obliterating history. A trained physicist currently working in biomedical engineering, Fernández Mallo takes literature as a literal laboratory for scientific experiments, as in his work in Postpoesía (post-poetry), a trend he himself founded in the early 2000s. Science as a fiction-producing method shapes The Nocilla Trilogy, paving the way to reimagining what true interdisciplinarity looks like and how it can function as a metaphoric device that morphs fiction into new, unimagined forms.
Katryn Evinson is a PhD Candidate in Latin American & Iberian Cultures at Columbia University.
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