WHEN BERYL, one of the protagonists of Betina González’s American Delirium, tries to persuade the residents of a nursing home to hunt the area’s homicidal deer, she’s surprised by how eager they are to help. The residents, she explains, “didn’t care whether it was Christ or Buddha, deer or the dopers in the woods.” The rousing calls to hunt
only reached as far as a blind spot in their minds, where they crashed into which pills to take at one forty-five, competed with plans for lunch at Ritter’s the next day, and then finally decayed alongside the memory of cauterized veins on an inner thigh […] [and] the smell of onion under fingernails (so hard to get out!).
The nursing home residents are bored. They’re fed up: “All they wanted was to shoot something.”
This blend of violence and mundanity characterizes the novel, published in Spanish in 2016 and released this March in an English translation by Heather Cleary. The story follows three primary characters: Vik, a chronically ill taxidermist who discovers a hippie living in his closet; Berenice, a suddenly abandoned daughter of the town florist; and Beryl, an employee of a natural history museum who toggles between horny and cranky. As the tale progresses, this trio is revealed to have tangential connections to a now-defunct psychedelic commune, where a drug called “albaria” helped members connect to their “animal selves.”
Early reviews of the novel have tended to emphasize both its absurdity and its heavy-handedness — the sense that at any moment the entire narrative could either go off the rails or get corralled into a tiresome social allegory. One critic, for instance, argues that “the cockamame plot is most legible as a psychosocial phantasm,” a kind of acid-trip version of a freshman paper on the topic of Man versus Nature, or a hackneyed thesis on the American fear of death. Those themes are present, of course. Many of González’s characters seem to worry about their droopy eyes and whether they’ll get any action in a nursing home. A group of “dropouts” — nouveau-hippies who abandon their kids to live in the woods — is painted in fairly broad strokes, and the killer-deer-as-avenging-nature subplot is perhaps a little clunky. There is even a consistent critique of the patriarchal nuclear family, an argument that gets bluntly articulated by the dropout in Vik’s closet. “Family,” she says, “noun. Pain or the social administration of such.”
These thematic engagements are farcical enough that they contribute to the novel’s overall sense of the absurd — a sense otherwise generated by the gradual accretion of Gonzalez’s whimsical details. A retired woman cleans zebra cages in ball gowns. Museum dioramas show mailmen being attacked by lions. Vik’s brother wins ping-pong tournaments, and Barbie dolls mount each other like a “pair of tongs.” These details are both relentless and intensely pleasurable — narrative improbabilities that are balanced by the novel’s general commitment to the familiar difficulties of smelly onion hands and awkward small talk.
But to focus on the whimsy is to miss what might be American Delirium’s most compelling achievement: its subtle recalibration of the critique of the realist novel. For most narrative theorists, realism is a mode that leans decidedly conservative. Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson, for instance, argues that the “realistic novel has a vested interest, an ontological stake, in the solidity of social reality, on the resistance of bourgeois society to history and to change.” Queer theorist Heather K. Love takes a slightly more forgiving line, arguing that “to the extent that realist novelists are aligned with a neutral or detached observer, merely noting what exists, they are seen to endorse the injustices of the world.” To the extent that their representations create “new and living realities,” on the other hand, realist novels can potentially escape this negative judgment. Realism, in other words, is sometimes taken to be synonymous with political quietism.
Forms and forums for disseminating natural-historical knowledge — the dioramas, zoo enclosures, and taxidermy animals that fill American Delirium — are subject to strikingly parallel criticisms. “Taxidermy,” historian of science Donna Haraway writes, “fulfills the fatal desire to represent, to be whole; it is a politics of reproduction.” Insofar as the stuffed and reconstituted animals stage an accurate image of the extant, Haraway continues, taxidermy is “the art most suited to the epistemological and aesthetic stance of realism.” Its fight against the processes of decay renders it conservative in the most literal sense. The diorama and its sheltering institution, the natural history museum, work under the same epistemological claim to truth — the subjective work of curation often obscured by the veneer of neutral observation. And the zoo, while clearly institutionally distinct, conjures similar questions of representational violence in the constraints it imposes on animal lives. By drawing inspiration from natural history’s mimetic project but rejecting that project’s ideological mission in its wild, absurdist plot, American Delirium harnesses dead and enclosed animals to mount what Love would call “new living realities.”
In interviews, González is frank about her generic choices. “What,” she asks, “is the point of writing a novel that aims to replicate reality? A fiction writer must do more, at least must give her readers something different from the usual, anesthetizing discourses.” In American Delirium, this “more” comes in the form of reminders that efforts to replicate reality are a product of both labor and violence. Toward the end of the novel, for instance, Vik tells the story of his first taxidermy experiment. Hoping to restore a youthful crush’s treasured canary, he makes an incision in the bird’s belly and empties the “cavity with a crochet hook, allowing the blood to drain into the sink.” Then, he severs the joints, replaces the skeleton with wood, and sews on two black pearls from his mother’s broken necklace for the eyes. He’s amazed — he’s made a bird from a corpse! — but his crush is horrified, and the figure is discarded. Vik’s museum boss, Smithfield, talks about taxidermy in less pragmatic, more philosophical terms. The “passion of the taxidermist,” he suggests, is a “driving need to exert control over that other form, over its balance points and secret articulations, over the structures and mechanisms that accounted for that other harmony.”
These scenes capturing the natural history museum’s unique blend of representational violence and literal bloodletting make the whimsy of González’s plot start to look less gratuitously bizarre. The novel is littered with truth claims gone askew: Smithfield’s entire “Primeval” exhibit turns out to be falsified; Beryl has the strange verbal tic of repeating the word “fact,” thus throwing her assertions into question; and Vik worries over accurately restoring an all-mouse diorama. Yet many of the novel’s oddest details turn out to be more or less true. When Smithfield, who by this point in the book has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, gives a spiel about the “sheep that committed suicide in Turkey, the time it rained frogs in Kansas, the zombie pigeons in Ukraine,” it seems like just another exercise in an animal whimsy. But a quick internet search reveals that versions of each of these events actually happened — that González is staging a kind of oddity-first feat of historic preservation.
If both traditional taxidermy and traditional realism have a vested interest in continuity — forestalling tissue decay in the former, preserving the solidity of social reality in the latter — American Delirium might be seen as performing a kind of speculative taxidermy. In its simultaneous parody of contemporary American culture and its joy in how often the parodic and the real coincide, it both preserves and imagines otherwise. It shifts seamlessly between representing the “has been” and the “might be.”
The novel finds its closest textual foil in Vik’s beloved mouse diorama. Because the museum has started discarding older taxidermied scenes, Vik often brings them home from work to prevent their destruction. Throughout the novel, we see him restoring a piece by the renowned German taxidermist Hermann Ploucquet called “Romeo and Juliet by Moonlight.” With that “combination of innocence and obscenity so typical of the Victorians,” Romeo, a white mouse, yearns for Juliet, a pink rat in a ragged tulle gown. Vik has never experienced the passion of the taxidermist. For all his skillful cutting and stuffing, he’s never felt the process of mimetic reconstitution as an ecstasy of control. But the Ploucquet figures are different: he sees “himself reflected in those miniatures, in the attempt not just to simulate life but to go beyond it, to transform it into something else.” American Delirium attempts much the same thing.
Molly MacVeagh is a graduate student in English at Cornell University. She works on questions of food and climate in contemporary literature. Her writing has appeared in Public Books and The Rambling.