[Charco Press; 2021]
Tr. from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
The unnamed narrator of Brenda Lozano’s novel Loop is an amateur classicist who, to make sense of her life, often turns to the works of Ovid, Aristophanes, and Homer. So it’s no surprise that, when her boyfriend Jonás goes off on a trip to Spain, leaving her alone in Mexico, she fancies herself a sort of Penelope, awaiting Odysseus’s return. Our narrator spends much of her solitary days filling her journal; Loop takes the form of that journal. She compares her time writing to Penelope’s time at the loom, as she finds herself “weaving the notebook by day and unravelling it by night.” She dutifully holds down the fort in Jonás’s absence, aching for him all the while. Inevitably, the question arises: “While she was waiting, did Penelope masturbate?”
Because Loop is fashioned as a diary — that is, a repository for its writer’s every thought — the novel is filled with many such weird and wonderful curiosities. The narrator’s journaling is confessional and freely associative, almost a stream-of-consciousness: “Is it possible for the Pope to carry out an exorcism?” “Does our height determine our destiny?” “Did Juan de la Cosa have any tattoos?” “Why am I writing this down?” Scattered among these questions are her deepest desires: she longs for Jonás and their reunion; she wants to exist without constant pressure to be productive; she wishes desperately to turn into a swallow — a wish, outlandish as it sounds, that’s made with such conviction it doesn’t feel completely impossible. In fact, this type of shapeshifting appears in many great works of Spanish-language literature, from Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl” to Osvaldo Dragún’s The Man Who Turned into a Dog. Interestingly, the transformations of Cortázar and Dragún’s protagonists result in captivity, as their amphibian and canine forms find themselves trapped in a glass tank and an animal shelter, respectively. Our narrator’s aviary aspirations, on the other hand, represent total liberation — no burdens, no constraints.
The cascading, scattered quality of the novel imitates the patterns of actual thought. Ideas emerge and overlap and blend together; the same anxieties and obsessions intrude again and again; a resurfaced memory or random encounter sets off a chain reaction of emotions. But Loop’s meandering structure also reflects its narrator’s concerns about living in a culture fixated on productivity and efficiency. She’s skeptical of our obsession with “[u]seful things. Useful work, useful thoughts, useful phrases. Stories in which everything happens. A society that worships the verb.” She rejects this cult of utility by keeping her notebook just for herself, for no other purpose than the pleasure it brings her. It becomes an undertaking with no aim other than self-gratification and self-excavation. Journal-keeping, then, stands in for a host of endeavors that, under the gaze of capitalism, are dismissed as unmonetizable and therefore useless. But of course, our narrator proves the profound importance of such useless endeavors, as it is our hobbies and personal interests and passion projects that make and keep us whole.
Ultimately, Loop is a manifesto for inefficiency, even in the way it’s written — digressive, circuitous, goalless. “Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere,” she writes. “Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously.” This is a sentiment I suspect many share — at least I do — now that a global pandemic has laid bare so much precarity and tapped into a fresh sense of nihilism. Self-care — in its truest sense, as Audre Lorde understood it — takes on new importance when we feel we lack control over anything outside of ourselves. Our narrator cares for herself “when I buy records, when I watch the laundry spinning in the machine, when I spend ages in the shower, when I go the long way home from work, when I watch the cat sleeping, when I deliberately waste time on the computer.” The hours she spends enjoying herself and pursuing pleasure are not wasted, as purveyors of productivity would have her believe, but acts of “self-preservation,” in Lorde’s words. (And isn’t that the best way to know yourself anyhow — to do the things you love?)
At its core, Loop is very much a writer’s novel: our narrator is a writer who writes about writing. She philosophizes about the loneliness of it: “To write,” she muses, “is to maroon yourself on an island the size of a page.” She uses her notebook like a “Ouija” to communicate with her favorite writers; from the grave, Lispector and Pessoa and Juan Rulfo tell her that they share her affinity for The Odyssey. She thanks Sor Juana for “put[ting] the [Spanish] language on the map,” then thanks Borges for giving “the map . . . so many names.” She’s eager to build on their legacy: “[W]e can’t sanctify the map,” she writes, “we have to get it dirty, toss in a nappy, a fizzy-drink bottle, a plastic bag.” She believes strongly in the creative and formal possibilities of keeping a journal, how it allows her to get language “dirty” and indulge in unfettered, unfiltered prose.
To subsidize her writing life, she works in an office, performing unspecified but likely unpleasant clerical duties. Like a refrain, she repeats over and over, “Am I getting closer or further away?” Is this job enabling her artistry, or diverting her from it? Is the best still to come, or has it already passed? Is she headed toward something, anything? She settles, it seems, on the fact that in life there is no climactic moment of arrival; it’s all just constant motion. “Change, phases and movements,” a friend tells her.
Our narrator spends most of the novel in a liminal space — waiting for Jonás to return, for life to resume. “Will the day ever come when the waiting stops?” she asks. “Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” Indeed, it feels the majority of adult life is spent waiting to hear back, to find out, to feel better. We cycle through phases of waiting — If I can just get through this week; If I can just hang on until August; If I can just keep it together till I get home — in order to keep ourselves together. “An endless wait,” she writes, “the carrot always ahead of us.” Anticipation can be a kind of faith that things can and will be better; as long as there’s something to anticipate, there’s still hope. But even as our narrator waits, she roots herself firmly in the present, fully occupying the in-between interval in which she finds herself. She is standing by but never idly.
It’s a good thing that Loop ends before Jonás returns. Just hours before. There’s no romantic reunion, or explosive revelation upon his homecoming, or really any satisfying conclusion to all this waiting that the narrator and by extension we have been doing. No denouement, no grand finale. By rejecting these narrative conventions, Lozano honors the patterns of life outside of literature. In life, there is no clear climax, no neat resolution. So our narrator, uninterested in inventing a false climax or forcing a false resolution, leaves us hanging. “It’s not the ideal ending,” she writes, “but what can we do.”
Sophia Stewart is a writer and editor from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Hyperallergic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Catapult, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets @smswrites.