IN HIS ESSAY “Definition of Man,” theorist Kenneth Burke argues that language is a symbolic system, which orders our world but limits our experience of living in it. In naming and categorizing our surroundings, we necessarily reduce their meanings. The word “tree” derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for “strong” and “solid.” But that gets at only one element of a tree’s qualities; it is also a home to animals, a giver of oxygen, often green, et cetera. Gender is a similarly, and often painfully, limiting binary. A man may be many things, but he is definitely not a woman. Or a tree. Unless he is.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest, expertly translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker, is a performance in eluding the limitations of definition. It is set in a coastal medical community, where our unnamed narrator works as a physician at the local sanatorium. The facility is the final destination for “the incurables, the migrants, the dregs” of a heavily monitored police state; rather than treating patients, the staff “expedite their deaths.”

On a dark and stormy night, two women arrive at the narrator’s house. The first claims to be Amparo Dávila, the real-life Mexican author. Dripping wet and uninvited, she is met with skepticism and excitement. The second woman, less mysterious, is the narrator’s ex-lover. The two women forcibly, effectively, move in. They form an exclusive bond, sharing a bed and lavishing affection on each other over elaborate breakfasts, even speaking in their own indecipherable language:

[I]t was a complete and sophisticated language composed of large grammatical units with a significant sense of repetition. Its guttural sounds gave the language the feeling of something distantly infantile, of certain round resonances. I was unable to grasp the rest of it — its internal rules, conjugations, moods.

The relationship between the women may be sisterly, but it may also be erotic. Whatever it is, the narrator is not privy to it and, as a result, he is encroached upon and mortified. Unprompted, Amparo Dávila claims to know the narrator’s innermost secret: that he is a woman. The reader isn’t told why this accusation is met with such intense fear, but it sets the narrator off on a frantic quest to rid himself of Dávila.

Disorder reigns over the narrator’s world. From the start of the novel, characters act in unorthodox ways. Not only is their behavior unpredictable, but their identities are elusive: they are constantly renamed, proving not to be who — or what — we expect. Take the narrator, if you can. Midway through the novel, the reader learns that “he,” a man with a penis, is also (or actually) a woman. One might assume, then, that this is a novel about gender fluidity, but that description just falls short, for in addition to being a man and a woman the narrator is also a tree:

My leaves grew, my trunk coarsened over time, and clouds and dew clung to my branches. There were birds around me and other imitations of living, warm sonorous beings. The canvas of my melancholy. […] [M]y life as a tree filled me with an immense sadness.

This confusion serves a definite purpose. By exploiting and undermining our expectations, Rivera Garza is able at once to build and undo an entire language system, all the while deconstructing concepts of identity. Rivera Garza is cleansing our palate, if you will, priming us to accept the anarchy of existence. The sense of instability that Rivera Garza’s deconstruction of the symbolic order triggers is what Burke calls “peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss.”

As the novel progresses, the narrator grows increasingly worried that his true gender will be revealed, and compulsively checks his genitals to reaffirm that he is a man: “I hid to touch myself and confirm that everything was still in its place.” The extent of his paranoia gives us the impression that this is more than an identity crisis — the narrator fears for his safety. In her introduction, Rivera Garza discusses the violence on the Mexico–US border, where she has spent most of her life. At the center of The Iliac Crest is an assertion that, for women especially, gender classification is dangerous. This is a reference to, on the one hand, the plague of femicide on the border, where hundreds if not thousands of women have been murdered over the past few decades, and on the other, to the radically circumscribed role of women writers in a male-dominated literary sphere. It is not by chance that the central character in the novel is Amparo Dávila. Dávila, the real-life Mexican author, is a major literary figure who began publishing in the 1950s, a booming decade for Mexican letters, yet one in which women writers were nearly invisible. Like other female authors, she has been largely marginalized in favor of her male contemporaries, such as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz.

This enigmatic novel raises a difficult question for readers: how does language construct the world around us? Discussions about semantics and gender politics in Rivera Garza’s introduction and the translator’s note generously offer some guideposts. Yet at its heart, this novel is still a mystery: Who is Amparo Dávila? Is this narrator a man, a woman, or a tree? As the book’s plot lines tangle and dissolve, the reader is left with something more interesting than concrete answers: fresh language. Once our compulsion to name, to classify, and to know relents, The Iliac Crest becomes a joy to behold. This is what it feels like to simply be in a world free of artificial distinctions.

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Rachel Ballenger is fiction editor of Gulf Coast. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Houston, where she is working on a novel.