APRIL 13, 2018
FROM THE BOOM of César Aira mini-novels published by New Directions (15 to date) to the emergence of Spanish-Argentine powerhouse Andrés Neuman (two novels, a travelogue, and a story collection) and the recent debuts of fantasist Samanta Schweblin and futurist Pola Oloixarac, the international literary scene has yielded a bumper crop of Argentine writing translated into English over these last few years. But nothing quite compares to what’s being built at Open Letter Books. There, within an international list spanning works from Iceland to Israel, a revolución rioplatense is under foot. To wit, so far, and in no particular order: five books by Juan José Saer, three by Sergio Chejfec, and one each by Macedonio Fernández, Guillermo Saccomanno, Neuman (the story collection), Damián Tabarovsky, and — until this month — Rodrigo Fresán. Now, Open Letter, which published The Invented Part in 2017, deepens its Fresán shelf by releasing The Bottom of the Sky, another of the author’s 10 novels and the third translated into English as well as the second to be translated by Will Vanderhyden. (Open Letter also plans to release a translation of Fresán’s La Parte Soñada in 2019.)
Born in Buenos Aires in 1963, Fresán arrived on the scene with great fanfare in 1991 when his debut, Historia Argentina (Argentine History), leapt onto the best-seller list and refused to decamp for months. The book is a genre-defying “pop” novel-in-stories that on its surface depicts 1970s Argentine life — and does so with the rebellious swagger of rock and roll — but which is about much more than the ’70s. To quote a version of the jacket copy, the novel’s peripatetic ambitions encompass:
apparitions, disappearances, professional and amateur kidnappers, Mickey Mouse, Eva Perón, coups d’état, depressive states, the United States, stormy weather, thunder and lightning, hyperconductivity, Gurkhas, Lawrence of Arabia, first person, third person, minimalist gauchos, Goldberg variations, street gangs, rock & roll, Mozart’s skull, biographical inaccuracies, exact sciences, dulce de leche, hard drugs, yuppies in decline …
And so on.
Another thing it’s about is a Latin America fully engaged in the mess that globalization had wrought. In Chile, Alberto Fuguet called the new pop-culture landscape McOndo — a McDonald’s-ization of García Márquez fictional town Macondo — and published a 1996 anthology of stories by that name to herald the beginning of a post-Boom Latin American literature uninterested in a romanticized past, picturesque village life, or quaint folktales. Included in that anthology with Fuguet, co-editor Sergio Gómez, and a handful of other Bright, Young Men was Fresán.
When Historia Argentina was rereleased in Spain to celebrate its 18th birthday in 2009, Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría, looking back across Fresán’s career, called it “a manual of instructions from which to devise the pattern of a mutant literature” and a novel that “contains the germ of all [Fresán’s] subsequent books.” That same year, Fresán (by that time himself living in Spain) published The Bottom of the Sky — a novel as uninterested in Latin-American village life as it is interested in mutating the genre DNA of science fiction.
The Bottom of the Sky may be the progeny of Historia Argentina, but it’s more specific and contained, if only slightly so. It deals with space travel, science-fiction factionalism, Philip K. Dick, the September 11 attacks, the US invasion of Iraq, Jewish-American identity formation, Kabbalah, suicidal widowers, awkward adolescents, snowball fights, alien invasion, time travel, the apocalypse, the Manhattan Project, and so on. But as with Historia Argentina, it’s misleading to characterize the novel in such a way. So why do it? Because a list of disjointed foci cuts to the heart of a major aspect of Fresán’s project: he constructs a layered literary sandwich that does away with a key element we’ve come to expect from narrative — namely, the bread. Despite the glut of ingredients, his novels are resolutely “protein style.” And yet they hold together impressively well.
Such design is intentional. In the afterword to The Bottom of the Sky, published with the subtitle “Explanations and Acknowledgements,” Fresán articulates his ambition as coming from “one of the paragraphs I reread most from one of the novels I reread most written by one of the writers I reread most.” Because of its artistry, and because Fresán quoted it in full himself, here is that section from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (italics mine):
They were little things […] Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars […] Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen at one time.
So what is a novel like when it is written, to use Fresán’s description, as a “clump of simultaneously broadcast messages, like a storyline that wants nothing but to be a succession of marvelous moments seen at one time?” Well, sometimes it reads like a list. Other times, like a story. Often, like liturgy: repetitive and droning, but not without rhetorical power. Fresán’s “marvelous moments” run and leap, return and repeat, in thematic punches and cursory cuts, slippery to grasp as a whole but vivid in each part. Reading Fresán, one does have to fight the instinct to shut the book in dismay — the through line can be thin — yet the care and precision in the sentence craft keeps the reader on the page:
What has happened is as fantastic as what is to come.
The past never stops moving though it appears motionless.
And yes, there was snow and there were snowmen, men made of snow. And there we were — Ezra and I — in the snow.
And our planet is never more another planet — never does it feel more alien and distant, never so new and so different — then after a long and heavy snowfall.
And that year — remember it, remember us, like this — it snowed like never before.
Here, as often in the novel, the poetry of repetition creates a momentum that compels the reader on. The image of snow is just one such binding agent: its rhythm on the page and its meaning to the story hold the novel’s ingredients — and its intentions — together.
The novel is divided into three parts: “This Planet,” “The Space between this Planet and the Other Planet,” and “The Other Planet.” Each functions both as a self-contained narrative and as part of a linked text. The first section is the most compelling and cohesive, but without the second and third parts it would be frustratingly incomplete.
“This Planet” opens with the coming-of-age story of two teenaged Jewish boys in New York on the cusp of hormonal bloom: Isaac, who narrates, has just lost his father and been moved from backwater Brooklyn to high-rise Manhattan to room with his cousin Ezra. They immediately bond over an obsession with science fiction, which they also write, and then fall in love with the same girl, who they promptly lose. This formative event, which they sometimes call “The Incident,” haunts the remainder of the novel, though clarity about what exactly happened isn’t offered until near the end. Long before that, Ezra heads off to a cryptic career in the military (it’s the era of the Manhattan Project), while Isaac becomes an important, crotchety science-fiction writer.
If part one is about science fiction — the cousins’ interest in the genre, their participation in its significant cultural boom, its role in bringing them together with Her, their mutual love and mutual rejecter — part two is more like science fiction. In “The Space between this Planet and the Other Planet,” two alternating voices tell a story of Iraq and alien abduction, and a story of the planet Urkh 24 and its inhabitants’ fetish for humans. The two stories compete with, intersect, interrupt, and bounce off each other. While this section is the most obtuse, it’s also the shortest and most intense. A typical exchange has one voice saying:
I saw the planes crash into the towers, I saw the towers in flames, I saw the men and women falling from the towers, and I saw the towers fall just as I once saw the sinking of that transatlantic, those men dragging themselves through the trenches, that Russian family shot in front of a soviet wall, that blond actress dying with the telephone in her hand, those earthquakes bringing down churches full of believers, heard someone say for the first time “To be or not to be…”
Followed by the other voice:
We fell like towers. Struck down. And there I was, surrounded by dead men, by open-eyed bodies. I closed my eyes to keep from seeing, but that solved nothing: the less I looked at them, hiding inside that dark whiteness that grows behind the eyelids, the more I knew they were looking at me, that they would keep looking at me, that me looking at them was the last thing they had seen.
For Fresán (again, from the afterword), his is “not a novel of science fiction” but “a novel with science fiction,” and in part three, “The Other Planet,” the reader is given a sense of what this means. Narrated, at last, by Her, the section shifts abruptly between the interplanetary and the domestic in an interplay unlike standard science fiction: the alien has indeed come to Earth, but not to colonize, experiment, or kidnap. Rather, her elegiac mission is to preserve the last of humanity as a singular, fleeting ideal. It’s not colonization by the extraterrestrial — it’s elevation of the terrestrial. The book turns out to be a love letter to our most earthbound human urges.
In his 2009 Letras Libres piece about The Bottom of the Sky, Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán points out that while Fresán makes “multiple referential nods [toward] and appropriations of” Stanley Kubrick, Héctor Germán Oesterheld, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Loriga, readers will also recognize Vonnegut, Cheever, Bradbury, Bolaño, Bioy Casares, and Borges “thrown into the mixer.” As with all of Fresán’s work — and all of those writers’ work — the story is, ultimately, about story: Her project is the author’s project. And the Authors’ project, too.
Fresán’s paragraphs can be mere single lines, his lines phrasal, his phrases elliptical, his ellipses infuriating and provocative, but in the end his prose bristles with energy. He never lets the reader feel totally comfortable or linger in the groove. He withholds resolution until the reader just about wants to give up — but then he delivers. The Bottom of the Sky is another mutant novel about the most basic of human experiences. All of them.