August Romina Paula cover[Feminist Press; 2017]

Tr. by Jennifer Croft

“Ah. Pain, the most profound/lowest kind of pain. He’d just stayed with her? Since when is he capable of that level of love?” Such is Emilia’s complaint to her best friend Andrea about her ex, Julián. There’s no jokey rejoinder to buoy up the conversation or change the subject — not when Andrea has been dead for five years. Still, there’s an awful lot to say.

Romina Paula’s remarkable novel August, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft, begins as a typical tale of bittersweet homecoming. In her early twenties, Emilia confronts the fifth anniversary of her friend’s suicide with a return to the small Argentinian town of Esquel. Her general numbness alleviated only by breakthrough pain, she sleeps in her friend’s childhood bed, cuddles with her cat, and walks the streets of their carefree teendom, Andrea’s jacket across her shoulders. She inevitably runs into Julián (while Synchronicity plays in the background, no less) and must reckon with the reality of his loss as well.

But the wistful Emilia-Julián connection, which takes over the last quarter of the book, isn’t the primary attraction of August. Instead, the book’s excellence resides in its weird, interstitial little set pieces and musings. As Emilia ponders the pleasures of Reality Bites, considers the essential nature of cats (“first and foremost creatures of place”) or wrestles with a subpar menstrual pad, we watch her work to assert a continuous present, one in which Andrea is necessarily included. To that end, the book reads as a one-sided conversation with a confidant: aggressively meandering, insistently present-tense. It’s melancholic and reflective, but with something messy and perverse hanging around the edges.

Emilia identifies this unsettling energy in terms of decay and permanence; in particular, objects that stubbornly persist or transmogrify in the face of death. In the first pages of August, she confronts the physicality of her friend’s ashes:

Your dad tells me that now it’s legal to exhume the body, your body, that you can finally be exhumed and, I mean, dealt with. How since the waiting period on an exhumation has expired they can now remove you from that anonymous grave and actually deal with you, deal with your body. He says they want to take you out of there to scatter you, elsewhere, sounds like they want to scatter you from somewhere else or bury you. I don’t know, that part wasn’t super clear to me, I don’t think they know exactly, either, what to do.

The strangely exhausting logistics of “dealing with” the ashes become a secondary plot point in the book, and other belongings of Andrea’s are fraught with meaning as well. And yet Emilia can’t help but enjoy, on some level, how objects associated with Andrea have changed since her death. When she first arrives at Andrea’s family home, she notes the simultaneity of her friend’s absence and presence with near-pleasure: “I always liked it that your parents kept your room going, like that they kept it up to date, so that way it’s neither yours nor not yours, I don’t know exactly how to explain it: it’s yours, but neutralized, taken down a notch.” She wears Andrea’s clothes partly to feel close to her, but also, seemingly, to participate in their decay, to complicate their ownership: “the blue pullover with the little balls, which I slept in until really recently, it’s pretty disgusting at this point, but I still couldn’t toss it, even if it means nothing now.” The link between materiality and meaning, she recognizes, is a hard one to break.

August is stuffed with late-90s cultural references, some native to Argentina, but many recontextualized American imports. Emilia jokes that her now-remarried dad looks like “a kind of more robust Woody Allen”; discussing the plans for scattering Andrea’s remains, she can think only of the funeral-home family in Six Feet Under. She remembers the music video for a Counting Crows song, but only vaguely: “Falling into water? I don’t fully remember, I do know the overall sense of it was of total desolation.” Rendering the quirks and gaps of personal media consumption, these references create a stable setting — a kind of experiential lexicon — for the book’s long conversation. But even as she claims these pop monoliths for her own narrative ends, Emilia describes their perfection in terms of inaccessibility and loss. The music video affects her emotions but withholds its meaning; the longing generated by Winona Ryder in Reality Bites is eternal, since it can never be sated: “We all wanted to have her haircut and have it look as good on us as it did on her.”

In one of the book’s riskiest conceits, Emilia introduces another variety of pop culture to the conversation: lurid true-crime stories of murder. Occupying separate chapters that starkly interrupt the plot’s trajectory, she raptly describes these cases of what she calls “families that eat some of their members”: the torturing, raping, and killing of a daughter-in-law, a wife, or a sister, and the unsuccessful attempt to hide the evidence. Emilia seems fascinated with the sheer boldness of the crimes, for one, but she’s also intent on the physical evidence that the victims can’t help but leave behind: “think of all the things Rachel won’t ever be able to tell us. Of the teeny tiny amount her decomposed body was able to tell and everything else it kept quiet.” These forays into senseless violence and horror are so abrupt and clinical as to seem disconnected, but they do important work in a story that could too easily melt into sentimentality. Even as she seems almost to forget the fact of Andrea’s suicide, and never mentions its circumstances, Emilia needs to talk about death — unnatural death — in a detailed and unsparing way.

Most powerful, though, is August’s exploration of life-or-death contingency through the variability of Emilia’s language. She liberally peppers her monologues with the slash mark: when she first lands by bus in Esquel, she reflects that her boyfriend Manuel “with his pants and his curls, seems far away/removed”; she cries after seeing Julián “because I’m nothing now/because I’m such an idiot.” After having a conversation with her dad and evading his questions about self-care, she comments, as much to herself as to Andrea, “all those things, boyfriend/school/work, were mine, were me, and it’s strange I would refer to them as things/activities taking me away — or at the very least distracting me — from myself.”

The toggling between and stacking up of intensifiers and alternatives vividly brands the narrative of August with a symbol of equivocation and transition. This verbal tic of Emilia’s subtly grounds the action in the kind of arbitrariness that Kierkegaard described, and sort-of endorsed, in Either/Or: “Arbitrariness is the whole secret . . . One does not enjoy the immediate object but something else that one arbitrarily introduces. One sees the middle of a play; one reads the third section of a book. One thereby has enjoyment quite different from what the author so kindly intended.” By resisting fixed terms, a person can assert their autonomy, their own secret order — with the small consequence of utter alienation from potential meaning.

Emilia seems very similarly disposed: near the end of the book, she remarks, “the only thing that can save you is fiction. I mean, whenever you can, when it gives you access. What isn’t fiction consumes you.” The fictions she invokes undeniably change the terms of her visit to Esquel. They aestheticize it, deny the ash-scattering ritual its solemnity, and easily flatten the five years that separate her from Andrea.

But August isn’t a to-the-letter exercise in existential despair. The book’s complexity is more naturalistic than theoretical, and its narrative detours and dead-ends all enhance the immediacy of Emilia’s voice. And the need for immediacy — propelled by that sense of both intimacy with and distance from someone who’s gone forever — keeps her talking. When she cries over an old cassette tape, Emilia easily imagines Andrea’s derision, and her retort is as snarky as it is disconsolate: “All I can say to that is that it’s easy to refuse to be sad when you’re only planning on living for such a short amount of time.” Despite its hedging either/or-ness, August holds onto the essentiality of the dialogue, and leaves us waiting for a response.

Emma Ingrisani lives in Brooklyn.