[Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2019]
Tr. from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
The Nocilla Trilogy is a monumental and maddening piece of writing. Monumental in its scope and its sprawl, and maddening in how its form, in refusing to be pinned down, chips away at what we think we know about what a novel does, what poetry does, what books are for. “Dear whoever has found this. Now, if you like, you can throw it away. Affectionately, Hannah.” This line appears partway through Nocilla Dream, the first book in Agustín Fernández Mallo’s sprawling three-volume work. It’s the dedication to a poetry collection called New Directions, that a young woman named Hannah self-publishes and distributes copies of at random, leaving them in public spaces for strangers to find on their own. The book and its dedication, as with so many objects, characters, and threads of plots in The Nocilla Trilogy, disappears from view after its introductory vignette, only to reemerge later, in a new context. In Nocilla Experience, the trilogy’s second book, Josecho, a writer whose first novel is about to be published, reveals that he has encountered a copy of New Directions, and felt so moved by its dedication that he was inspired to translate the poems inside. “Dear whoever has found this. Now, if you like, you can throw it away.” As I encountered the dedication again, startled to see words that seemed at once familiar and out of place, grasping at the memory of where and when I’d seen them before, and flipping through countless pages to find their source, I wondered if it might not be an invitation from the author himself, assuring me that upon finding The Nocilla Trilogy, I could simply throw it away.
Only, of course, I couldn’t. Fernández Mallo wrote Nocilla Dream over the course of three short weeks while he was bedridden in Thailand, recovering from a hip fracture—it’s an episode that appears in a fictionalized form in Nocilla Lab, the final book of the trilogy. In that episode, a character with the same name as the author recounts how his forced bedrest led to the publication of a book, writing a series of notes on pieces of paper, napkins, the margins of books, and even his return plane tickets. “And there was something gratifying in seeing the notes develop and begin to take shape,” the author recounts. A series of accumulative notes is an apt description of the shape the trilogy takes. Each of the first two books is comprised of over 100 individuated sections, some of which introduce recurring characters (some of whom are real people, like Ernesto Che Guevara) and progressive plots, but some of which are quotations from New York Times articles, physics textbooks, snippets of interviews with musicians, articles about the internet, or any other number of found sources. It is a vast assemblage of artifacts, and the connections between each of those artifacts simultaneously hint at their own emergence from within the text and elude any kind of narrative order. The headiness of those bedridden three weeks, the gratification at seeing a seemingly random collection of half-things pile up into one whole something, these affectively suffuse the reading experience as well; the reader feels the frenzy of it all and in an echo of the writing process, the reading experience produces a moment when suddenly there is a shape to all of these pages we’re holding. It is, again, somewhat of an impossibility to throw this book away once you’ve begun, even if trash, detritus, and waste are among the images most frequently returned to in the text itself. Its cacophony is enveloping and it invites the reader to try and stitch together some organizing principle despite the channel-surfing whiplash it induces.
The televisual metaphor is one invoked frequently in discussion of Fernández Mallo’s work, but just as accurate would be a metaphor of networks, of networked life in the time of the World Wide Web. The sensation of reading the fractured chaos contained in The Nocilla Trilogy is akin to navigating the internet at breakneck speed and attempting to separate different media from each other, but ultimately ending up with a sort of patchwork collage instead. As the narrator of Nocilla Experience describes, that book is a “mixing together and overlaying of bodies, of texts, of skins, songs, magazines, of film theory, of bodies that were unlike and yet fit together.” The trilogy seems to ask about what sorts of narrative forms surface in a new, digital age that stages the asymptotic almost-collision of stories, times, and spaces ad infinitum. Even when connections between scenes, sections, and books emerge, they don’t necessarily cohere into a comprehensible whole so much as a layering of familiar images and ideas. Ultimately, the text’s organizing principle might be emergence itself: The Nocilla Trilogy is a phenomenon so complex as to perhaps not be distinguishable by looking at any of its individual parts.
The trilogy is an explosion of the idea of narrative itself, or at the very least of what we understand realism to mean. Early in Nocilla Lab, the eponymous narrator muses on the truth claims of various artforms, lamenting that even documentary “is not real but a kind of realism: it may emulate reality but remains no more than a cut-and-paste job, the product of an edit, a construction” and this preoccupation with the accuracy of representation carries on throughout that volume. If realism is mean to emulate reality, The Nocilla Trilogy seems to argue, and if our contemporary reality is now understood to be a complex and nearly incomprehensibly networked one, then our realism must look different in order to accurately represent that new reality. And thus: a dense series of notes and characters and quotations and geographical locations and temporal settings and narrative voices and thematic focuses and visual formats — including typewritten diary entries, photos of a TV screen, and comic-book panels — all coalesce into a behemoth of a work, one that maddens but that also accomplishes what it sets out to do. To call this trilogy realism feels out of place, because of its shocking left-turn away from received wisdom of what realism does and is; to call it anything but realism, though, is to ignore its canny fidelity to what it feels like to be in the 21st century.
This break from tradition is not a new development for Fernández Mallo, who, as his translator Thomas Bunstead notes in the introduction to the trilogy, is perhaps the “most distinctive” and “most widely read” of a generation of Spanish writers reacting to what they see as a too-long stagnancy in the world of Spanish letters. Those writers, referred to as “The Nocilla Generation” wanted to see the Spanish novel move away from its historical preoccupation with Franco and its apparent allergy to formal experimentation; Fernández Mallo, with his almost swashbuckling disregard for the conventions of the novel form and the expansiveness of his project’s scope is a natural fit as a vanguard for this new movement in Spanish fiction. As Bunstead writes, it is perhaps difficult to remove the trilogy “from the wider Spanish experience of this period” and indeed that specific national and historical context is surely at the foreground of the text’s project.
However, if the trilogy is in part a channeling of what Bunstead calls “Spain’s wide-eyed opening up to the world,” then it is also a text that I think functions in a more loosely defined context as well. The novel jockeys between Nevada, Sardinia, Russia, Madrid, Mexico, and myriad other locations, and maybe its most compelling setting is in a section that follows Kenny, who has lived in Singapore International Airport for four years, a place that he refers to as “legally a non-place.” As a reader whose familiarity with Spanish literature is minimal, the trilogy’s density, its pace, and its negotiation of the strange new porousness between national boundaries still struck me as a refreshingly new take on representing the reality of today.
After all, if its formal innovation and experimentation mark The Nocilla Trilogy as stepping into a globalized and networked world, then the audacity of that experimentation and its refutation of inherited novelistic conventions thrill any reader familiar with the experience of living in that world. Upon surveying the collected arguments regarding the novel’s demise that talking heads both within and without the literary world make regularly, literary critics Adam Hammond, writes, “Let us accept that, if the digital world is killing literature as we have come to know it, then this presents us with an immense opportunity to reevaluate and redefine literature.” Fernández Mallo’s brash literary gambit makes the most of that opportunity, presenting a kind of fever dream of the digital world we now live in. Its attempt to order the almost impossible amount of information accessible to us and the systems that structure the very way we move through the world reflects both the immensity of that task and the role literature can play in making sense of it, if authors are willing to embrace the risk of novelty.
“Dear whoever has found this. Now, if you like, you can throw it away.” But there is, as we know, no real throwing away of anything. It merely returns, rearranged and remixed, edited, constructed, a copy-paste job. Wading through Fernández Mallo’s copy-paste job in The Nocilla Trilogy can feel overwhelming and even tedious, but it is a juggernaut that doesn’t let you go, instead propelling you through its pages with a relentlessness that is as mesmerizing as it is edifying.
Mary Pappalardo lives in New Orleans. She has a PhD in English from Louisiana State University, and her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Real Life, and others. She is an Assistant Fiction Editor at The Offing.