Perfect Days cover[Penguin Press; 2016]

Tr. by Alison Entrekin

Medical student Teo Avelar is a bit off from the start. We know this because his best (and only) friend is an examination corpse named Gertrude. Teo fantasizes about his friendship with Gertrude: “Together they’d have drunk expensive wine, chatted about all manner of things, watched films and discussed the cinematography and the set and costume design afterward like film critics. Gertrude would have taught him how to live.” And so, through his lifeless friend, Raphael Montes establishes Teo as a creep not directly because of Gertrude, but because of Teo’s desire to superimpose both personality and experience onto what Teo sees as a blank canvas: women.

Teo meets Clarice Manhães at a party, when, she follows him away from the crowd. And so begins the nightmare Montes weaves in his thriller, Perfect Days. Their relationship begins with Clarice following Teo, an ironic start given the dynamic of following and followed that ensues. After the party, Teo begins obsessing over Clarice — for the sake of argument, let’s call this “harmless” stalking — he does simple things like pretending to be from the Institute of Geography and Statistics, conducting a phone survey to figure out her last name and where she goes to school. One night, Teo lurks long enough to take a very drunk Clarice home. Clarice, assuming Teo is nothing to fear, introduces him to her mother, Helena, as her boyfriend in order to get Helena to leave her to tend to her hangover in peace. Alas, “boyfriend” is just the catalyst Teo needs. The next day, Teo arrives at Clarice’s home with a copy of Clarice Lispector’s The Collected Stories and an invitation for a date. When Clarice turns him down, explaining that she’s going to Teresópolis to work on her road-movie screenplay, Teo bashes her unconscious with The Collected Stories, shoves Clarice in a suitcase, and takes off to Teresópolis, then Ilha Grande — essentially following the road-trip outlined in Clarice’s script, entitled Perfect Days.

As I mentioned, Montes illustrates Teo’s alarming demeanor through Teo’s unhealthy relationship towards women. From his introduction, we see that Teo wants women to be — in this case, literally — lifeless. But, we also see that he wants the women around him to lack personality; upon Teo’s meeting Clarice, the narrator states: “He wasn’t comfortable around women who were so sure of themselves: he saw them as superior, almost unattainable.” Montes never actually gives the reader any reasoning as to why Teo has such deeply internalized misogyny. All we see is that Teo has a deep mistrust of women, especially women interacting with each other, which he sees as threatening (e.g. Teo’s disdain of his mother, Patricia’s, friendship with Marli). More obviously, in his “relationship” with Clarice, Teo views Clarice’s relationship with women (whether amorous or platonic) as a threat — either he suspiciously grumbles about the friendships or he attempts to sabotage them completely.

In short, Teo (who has now established himself as a full-blown psychopath) hopes that Clarice will fall for him in a Stockholm Syndrome situation. Teo forces Clarice to spend her days locked up in a hotel room working on her screenplay, continuously reminding her that he will return her home — if only she gives him a “chance.” Like us, Clarice knows that this cannot be true, as she spends much of her time handcuffed, gagged, and/or sedated.

Initially, Clarice’s character provoked a tremendous eye-roll from me: another Manic Pixie Dream Girl teaching a closed-off man how to live. Clarice, an upper-middle class art history student loves to drink, smoke, and generally “live” to the fullest. In one simple gesture, Montes sums up Clarice’s MPDG-ness: “Her nails, cut short, were painted in an array of random colors . . . She answered without thinking, “[why?] To be different,” and raised her right index finger to her mouth.” However, Montes soon thereafter makes it clear that Clarice does not fit into the MPDG mold. Instead, Perfect Days works to dismantle this particular misogynistic trope (which in itself is reason enough to read Perfect Days). When Teo approaches Clarice in her home, Clarice does not jump at the chance to be Teo’s Dream Girl — she has no interest in saving him from his dull, solitary life as he imagines she would. Instead, we see that Clarice is just a girl interested in living her own life — not being a pawn in a man’s personal development.

Now, some spoilers:

Clarice strives to flip the power dynamic between her and Teo several times, usually through an attempt at emotional or sexual manipulation. After several failed tries, Clarice gains control when the two are isolated at Ilha Grande. Finally, finally it’s Teo handcuffed to a bed and Clarice in control. This scene is, perhaps, the most tense in Perfect Days, as we know Clarice’s power is fleeting — she loses it as fast as she gains it.

Clarice loses said power in a quick and rather unsatisfying manner. Whilst searching through Teo’s belongings, Clarice finds a pair of glasses that belong to Breno — the man she was sort-of-seeing prior to her kidnapping. What we already know, Clarice discovers: Teo killed Breno while Clarice was in a drug induced sleep. Teo tells Clarice that she helped him kill Breno because Breno was attempting to rape her, and that she doesn’t remember because she was in a disassociated state of shock. Naturally, this news startles Clarice. As she rages in the bedroom, we already know: Teo will escape during (and due to) Clarice’s fit of emotion. As she runs down to the ocean and attempts to drown herself, Teo unlocks himself from the bedpost. It seems to me that this re-reversal of the power dynamic is terribly easy and convenient, not to mention, out of character with Clarice. Teo, on more than one occasion, describes Clarice as overly emotional. Yet, Clarice’s actions and power plays up until her suicidal break are quite calculated, making this loss of control seem out of character.

Teo swims out, finds Clarice unconscious on a rock, and in the most physically monstrous moment in Perfect Days, Teo cuts into Clarice’s spinal cord, paralyzing her from the waist down. Soon after, we find the two in separate hospitals in Rio de Janeiro: Clarice in a coma, and Teo being questioned by the detective that’s been on the trail of Breno’s disappearance.

From this review (and from the novel itself), it may seem like the Brazilian setting is entirely insignificant. The distance from the setting comes in part from Montes presenting us with an upper-middle class Brazil — a Brazil that does not fit with our typical Brazilian imaginary. Instead, Montes makes Rio de Janeiro as the setting indispensable through an underlying narrative of corruption at the level of the upper-middle class. This concept comes up a couple times in passing: Teo’s dead father was a corrupt judge, police at a highway checkpoint let Teo drive through slightly drunk after he hands them a bribe of 100 reais. But, most critically, corruption plays a critical role in Teo literally getting away with murder. While Clarice lays comatose, Teo keeps up the charade of being her boyfriend, and recounts the story of Breno’s “disappearance” to Helena. Helena reveals that she already knew Teo and Clarice had something to do with Breno’s disappearance, which is why she took the liberty of bribing the hotel to change their records to show that Teo and Clarice left prior to Breno visiting the hotel in search of Clarice in order to “avoid scandal.” However, this narrative is ever-so-slightly too subtle to characterize Brazil as Brazil, and doesn’t fully realize the nuanced critique I suspect Montes intended.

Clarice awakens from her coma having suffered, conveniently for Teo, short term amnesia; she remembers nothing of her life after her high school graduation. With that, she finally becomes Teo’s dream woman: a blank slate. Teo feeds Clarice the fantasy he conjured up for the two of them (somehow, Clarice’s family and friends tell her nothing of her post-high school years) and the two get married. Montes ends the novel with Clarice, who remains an amnesiac paraplegic, pregnant. Eerily, in the last line of the novel, Clarice suggests that they name their baby “Gertrude,” leaving Teo (and the reader) wondering if indeed Clarice remembers something or if it’s simply her subconscious. Through Clarice’s tragic ending, Montes completes his critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope: Teo can only have this “dream” woman if he erases the real woman. Clarice, through her loss of mobility and self, becomes a “living” Gertrude for Teo to manipulate into the woman he has constructed in his mind, as he seems determined to be shaped by women while denying them agency in the most extreme sense possible.

But, for all the interesting work Montes’ Perfect Days does to break down the MPDG trope, the writing itself leaves a bit too much to the reader’s imagination. Even as someone who tends to gravitate towards writing that falls on the terse side, Montes’ prose is too curt, too medical. While the detached language would be tremendously effective if Perfect Days were told from Teo’s perspective, Montes employs a third-person narrator, which makes the stark language not only seem dull and at times lazy, but also prevents the reader from entirely inhabiting the space Montes places us in. Even with simple language, Montes weaves a tense tale — but, were he to employ more creative language and imagery, I suspect readers would find themselves more invested and on edge throughout the novel. That said, with his skilled take-down of the MPDG archetype, Montes’ Perfect Days is a worthwhile, pleasantly creepy English-language debut.

Julia Irion Martins is a current Melville House intern and former Editor-in-Chief of American Literary. She lives in Brooklyn. 


 

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