A good portion of my paying work involves slogging through reams of contemporary Spanish fiction and writing reader’s reports, sample translations, and press dossiers. In general, the picture isn’t pretty. It’s true that, in any country, literary quality figures fairly low on the scale of what makes a book salable: that both publishers and agents tend to stress tried-and-true themes (World War II, a couple’s struggles with infertility, a crime that reveals hypocrisy in a small town, etc.), risible comparisons (the Lithuanian Sebald, the Maltese Virginia Woolf, a mix of Bolaño and Jeffrey Eugenides), and even grimmer things like a writer’s physical attractiveness. In Spain there are added problems with deep roots in the country’s history: a class structure that often favors the well-connected and mediocre; cultural politics that funnels funds and prizes to writers who express the correct views; and the heritage of the dictatorship, when little information flowed in and creators, confined largely to a national market, missed out on the major aesthetic currents of the twentieth century. Much has changed, but much hasn’t: the best-seller lists remain crowded with books lacking in appeal to foreign markets, and higher-brow writers are praised for pastiches so transparent as to merit pillory.
Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.
Another, perhaps minor point, but one that counts for a great deal in an era when fewer and fewer people manage to master the basic mechanics of style: Sierra writes well. His prose is clean, he doesn’t repeat himself, and he dispenses with the kind of mundanities and bloated, pseudo-philosophical digressions that plague so much Spanish fiction in the present day. Nothing in his books is excess, and nothing looks unpolished. Most of all, there is no trace of self-indulgence.
Standards, his most recent book, was published in 2013 by Pálido Fuego, home to Lars Iyer, Robert Coover, and David Foster Wallace. This is fitting company for Sierra, a member of the so-called “Nocilla Generation,” which introduced Spanish audiences to a model of writing characterized by quick shifts in register, collage-like overlays of seemingly disparate details and events, and a critical, but also fatalistic relationship to technology. Vicente Luis Mora described Standards as being “L.A. Confidential filmed by David Cronenberg,” and while such a description falls short of exhausting the book’s allure, style, or depth, it does give a sense of its lurid pull and its eerily apt blending of the cerebral and the macabre.
Standards opens by coupling the gastronomical refinement of the modern gourmand with the yearning for communion and ritual in the “ice suicide club,” when an Argentine hypnotist, after a long period of nourishing himself exclusively on vegetables, exercising an hour a day, sleeping eight hours nightly and foregoing sexual relations, sends out maps to a location where invitees can come to dine on his dead body, which is packed in snow. In accordance with the laws of the market, this once-exclusive luxury becomes democratized, and soon cannibalism is another faddish indulgence for the in-crowd, like pour-over coffee or fugu sashimi. In the book’s early pages, a down-at-heel rocker and his companion, two of the book’s major characters, sit down for a meal of human flesh along with other hedonists grown bored of more accessible pleasures. Later, the musician finds himself near Central Park as one woman pulls a gun on another, her exact replica. Silence reigns amid the towering stores, the designer bags and designer shoes, and locals and tourists take out their cellphones to record whatever it is that is happening—whether it is a crime or a work of art, no one seems to know or care—and project it for the millions of eyes glued to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Numerous critics have observed that Nocilla Generation writing approximates the experience of channel surfing, aiming for a state of constant, low-level agitation; here, Sierra documents the moral stupor of the overexposed media subject, who has become a conduit for pure spectacle, neither capable of or interested in distinguishing the import of what is passing before his eyes.
In the next chapter, a radiologist shows a video of the event to a surgeon colleague, asking him, “Is it one of ours?” “I don’t think so,” he replies. “Could be from Singapore, or Las Vegas, or Bombay. I think they’ve made a few of those in Bombay.” The channel changes, and Sierra offers vignettes of an eighteenth century sculptor obsessed with the ideal rendering of human flesh in stone; Soviet cosmonauts who contemplate the ideal of the New Man; a doctor, inspired by Nabokov, researching therapies that will lead to eternal youth; shady scientists and government operatives meeting over drinks in a Swiss bar; and an assassin standing over his prey in a hotel room.
Searching for hidden resonances between technical and cultural innovation, Sierra draws together a dense web of figures, some fictional, some real, in an intrigue that culminates in a fictionalized history of plastic surgery. The ossification of canons of beauty thereby implied converges with other technologies—holographs, organ regeneration—to offer, like Manuel de Landa’s robot historian in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, an account of evolution in which humanity is not the end, but merely the necessary catalyst for a series of scientific processes giving rise to the cyborg-like life forms that will succeed it. The Trojan Horse, appropriate for a time when a majority of young people in English-speaking countries list becoming famous as their primary life goal, is a consultancy called the Clones Agency:
In simple terms, the Clones Agency represents everyone who look like a certain celebrity and would like to exploit that similarity in a professional capacity, whether in public relations, pornography, or prostitution.
Sierra visualizes a moment when the advantages conferred by genetic variation become a liability, and the diverse forms of life drop away. Standardization of the physical body brings with it a diminishment of inner life, a slow blunting of love, care, ambition, and the longing for community into the synthetic values of the post-human world. The clash of sinister and tawdry that accompanies this process proves an ideal backdrop for Sierra’s meditations on individuality, its possible eclipse, and what opportunities for resistance remain when the allegedly insurrectionary possibilities of instantaneous global communication have themselves become a ruse of capital.
—Adrian Nathan West
The fashion, they assure us, had its origin in some remote Scandinavian hideaway; from thence came the custom of keeping the dining room far below ambient temperature and offering, in the middle of the month of August, a leather jacket to the customers, as in those bars constructed of ice blocks where they sip vodka and dine on caviar. The ritual recalls other conceits of underground gastronomy such as, for example, the consumption of species on the road to extinction. Refinements deriving their attraction from the excitement of the concealed, the furtive, the esoteric, the illegal. Thai restaurants that cook sea turtles in their shells, hidden like opium dens amid the shanties of the most improbable quarters of Bangkok, where exquisite tourists with their feet sunk in the repugnant muck of the street, their John Lobbs or Christian Louboutins in hand, pants rolled up or evening dresses gathered over the knees, walk behind the local guides. Secret taverns with passwords, peepholes and tough guys packed into every cellar, every back room, during the cinematographically glorious years of the prohibition. Shamans’ cabins in the middle of the jungle where the gods descend temporarily to earth over the surface of a bowl of ayahuasca. Dark dives with industrial music where, on certain nights of the month, provided the client knows the password, it is possible to drink cocktails prepared with authentic human blood.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, prior to its secret expansion through the various capitals of Europe, the fashion seems only to have been known among a small group of initiates who called themselves the ice suicide club: a circle of friends, legend has it, who had received identical missives in which, under a hand-drawn map and a list of geographical coordinates, the Argentine hypnotist César Ripa explained how he had set about dying in a specific place in the middle of nowhere, lost in the sea of white and fascinated by the absence or inaccessibility of his shadow, trusting that his body would be perfectly preserved when they went to pick it up. To contrive that his muscles should constitute a delight for the palate, César Ripa had fed himself exclusively on vegetables and had exercised an hour every morning upon waking for several years. He had slept eight hours each day, winter or summer. He had abstained from sexual relations, ignored the woman with the barbarous cobalt stare who generally accompanied him at his spectacles. And he hoped that, by following precisely the instructions on the map, they could find him and enjoy the extraordinary pleasure of feeding on his flesh.
From then forward, at the same time as the custom of being hypnotized—immersed in that enchanting dream from which the recently born middle class hoped to glimpse the truth or the spirit realm—began to fade, for the same reasons of boredom that had led to its popularity, the idea of dying in the snow and being consumed by kin and intimates began, slowly and discreetly, to catch on: grown-up men and women, when they arrived at the decision that to continue living was no longer worth the bother, would head, first in their sleds or boats, later in extravagant automobiles capable of cutting a trail through those glistening wastelands, to solitary redoubts where they would set their vehicles aflame and tread over the crackling frozen foam until the weariness and numbness produced by hypothermia impeded their going any further. Taking care, always, to avoid any possible witnesses. There they would build a tomb of ice and enclose themselves in its interior, to keep from being devoured by wolves, stretching themselves out nude to die like arctic monarchs, Nazi psychopaths, or videogame protagonists, waiting for their comrades to come and recover their crystallized remains, shimmering like gemstones and brittle as steel.
Nonetheless, the rumors that establish a link between the growing popularity of this custom and the European Black Metal renaissance are absolutely unfounded.
Now, apart from the cold, there is nothing extreme, uncanny, or luxurious in the décor. It’s expensive, naturally, since there is a paucity of raw materials, but not so much of one, for demand never exceeds supply. As with every extravagance available for purchase, there are fewer extravagant persons in attendance than one might be led to believe. In fiction, it is generally represented as the outgrowth of madness or an extreme indulgence for eccentric millionaires who have already tried everything—snuff films, cryogenics, extreme surgery, trips to outer space; nonetheless, it can hardly be said to be costly, in fantasy terms it is rather like a visit from a high-class prostitute to a hotel room. What began as a rite wound up becoming a caprice comparable to buildering, playing paintball with the guys from the office, or urban speleology in the sewer tunnels.
Though there are some groups of three or four, it is almost always young couples who pamper themselves with the excitement of the forbidden; large groups are too indiscreet, and in general, they are looked down upon. The clients are not particularly elegant in appearance, and the cuisine is as simple as the setting itself: thin strips of red meat stretched out on a tray of white porcelain over a tablecloth that is white as well. In the center of the table is a grill, so that all may prepare their meal to their liking. No complicated sauces, no sophisticated garnishes, only course salt and a bit of mustard, as with Wagyu beef. Billy Globus (2006) remarks that he hadn’t expected the flavor to be so similar to pork, while Christine Ticq brightens the room with her struck-match smile. The ice is black as leather. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen one another, but unlike Billy Globus, Christine hasn’t gotten fatter in the interim, or lost hair, nor does the skin sag under her eyes, and she hasn’t yet stopped earning her living by exploiting her most noteworthy talent. “Why don’t you play in public?” she asks Billy. “I’m not good enough . . .”
“I have to answer a few mails,” Billy Globus responds to the question that emerges broken from the bed, from among a pile of lavender-colored chocolate shavings scattered over the pillow.
“I have to post a couple of tweets.”
“Cool, Billy, but don’t leave.”
“I need to put a couple of things up on my blog.”
“You can’t do it later? It’s six in the morning.”
He needs to see the number of views his video’s gotten on YouTube. Not too many. His best concert, the one where he played “Woolwood” for the first time in public, and afterward “Improvisation Around Sweet Jane.” Seventeen minutes of video later digitalized, with a soundtrack that left a good deal to be desired. The video is filmed from the third or fourth row, and for that reason, once in a while, it focuses on one of the spectators, and there she is, Christine Ticq, fifteen years younger but exactly the same as today. Billy Globus watches the film without sound, so that she won’t hear. He watches it to see the woman who is lying in his bed, to observe her face while she listens to him play, that concentration, so cold, so inexpressive, as if wishing to prevent the least movement of her face from imposing itself between the music and her perception of the music. A pristine stretched canvas receiving the caresses of the brush. He thinks of waiting a few minute and filming her while she sleeps, but in the end, he doesn’t dare, or he thinks he wouldn’t dare to copy the film later on, that there is something terribly intimate in the face as it is molded by its dreams.
When they go out, the traces of apoptosis can be seen left and right. The dismembered neighborhood stinks of dried trash, and the dead light seeps arterially from the black gashes in the asphalt. “Now we can talk business,” Christine concedes, and explains to him that this is, without a doubt, the prime moment to sell. In a few years, all those properties his father gave him will be worth a third or a fourth of their present value. If he leaves it in her hands, she could get him enough money to never have to work for the rest of his life.
Two young men identical to Brad Pitt are playing basketball in a parking lot, under an enormous billboard with the image of an actress in her forties and the slogan of Morelli Cosmetics: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. They look like two insects of the same species—two beings of the same brand—engaging in a courtship dance. At dawn, one of them will have to go to Sydney, where a photo session awaits him in a restaurant that has just been opened. The other will catch a plane to film a soft-drink ad in Bangkok. Billy Globus hails a taxi to head to his apartment in Brooklyn. “Should I drop you somewhere?” he asks Christine. “No thanks, I’d rather go walking… I’d like to hear you play again some day. Hear you play ‘Woolwood.’” Halfway over the bridge, all the sounds of Manhattan mix together into the usual roar of a subterranean beast. Every city has its chant, the product of the cacophonic compounding of millions od distinct noises, and Billy Globus is capable of listening separately to many of those independent voices as he travels through the streets. In Manhattan there are meridian echoes, those of the great north-south avenues, and parallel voices on the east-west streets; there, in the vestibule of a glass building, a chorus of nearly albino children sings, the chimneys gust, the ladies’ high heels clack against the sidewalk, everyone bellows into their mobile phones, the taxis shake, and the workshops and factories, the printers hum, the air conditioners whistle, the doors and windows creak, some sing, others shout at the drivers and the passersby, the horns honk, the policemen’s sirens wail. The vibration of the subway is like a hairdryer’s blowing on the cords of an electric bass. Hundreds of urban rhythms that people like Billy Globus are capable of turning into music.
In the heart of Manhattan, someone takes a pistol from a handbag, just in front of the glass cathedral consecrated to Steve Jobs, as the clock strikes the hour to shop till you drop. An Austrian, the type that never flinches. It’s now how it was before Giuliani’s reforms, when things like this happened anywhere: now, on this corner, uniformed policemen are calm as they shepherd along this ecosystem of hairdos, hats, and baseball caps. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! But everything happens in an instant. The multitude flows through its natural streambed from 5th Avenue to 58th and 59h Street, the buyers follow the current up or down, rowing against the turbulence with their black bags from Barney’s or Chanel, the brown ones from Louis Vuitton, the white ones from Gucci, the blue ones from Tiffany, origami ones from Takashimaya and the transparent ones from . Only the people closest by can see the weapon, but no one howls from panic or throws themselves to the ground, as is commonly seen in films; on the contrary, they all step away silently with the vectoral coordination of a swarm, a flock of starlings, or a shoal of anchovies, though it is those who are a bit further away and cannot make out which is the woman who is carrying the weapon who are most afraid, at first. She is young, very slender, very succinctly dressed, nailed to the ground by a pair of excessively tall, excessively sharp high heels, an exaggerated mane of blond hair, so straight as to appear starched. Her build seems to fragile for the Glock held with determination in her bony arm, which forms a 90 degree angle to her body; a gesture not evocative of a practiced gunslinger. As we know from television, such a pose makes it nearly impossible to hit the target, no matter how close it is, which means, if she decides to pull the trigger, she could accidently wound a random passerby. Particularly if the weapon happens to be automatic—which seems doubtful both to tourists from the world’s four corners as well as the New Yorkers themselves (accustomed to a great variety of spectacles in the streets) as soon as they realize that the girl with the weapon is walking intently toward her paralyzed counterpart, whom the crowd has slowly pulled away from, and they see that the second girl is identical to the first, and that both are the same person they had all just seen a few seconds before, amplified a hundred times and plastered on the side of a building a little further down on Fifth or a little further up on Madison; at the same moment they begin to become conscious of the situation (hardly a few seconds have passed before the agent closest by begins to react, but he is still unsure which action to take), the hundreds of people surrounding these enigmatic specular antagonists have taken their cellphones and still and video cameras from their cases, holsters, and sleeves and have multiplied the pair of twins, the one who aims and the one who comprises her target, into an infinity of metacopies soon to voyage off through cyberspace. They are the ones, those staring in unison, who are massacring themselves in a circle, depicting the scene and depicting one another like the eye of a pixelated hurricane, simultaneously confirming: 1) that their weapons are faster, and 2) that the copy is not perfect—something already perceived by the most expert shoppers, because, despite their striking physical similarity, while the one is clad in Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Jimmy Choo, the other sports Target and, at most, something from Brooks Brothers. And it is precisely these specialists, aware of this monstrous stylistic asymmetry, who begin to intuit that what is taking place before their eyes may be, not a publicity reel or a scene from a reality show, but an actually unforeseen occurrence; that the pistol, in other words, might be real. And they begin to feel panic or fascination, to make a hollow amid those who are filming and gawking, to slither off (or come closer in order to witness to what was presumably a historic event: a few blocks up, on the other side of Central Park, is where John Lennon had been shot), making way with their bags from Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Gucci, Chanel, Tiffany, and , turning their backs on the scene playing out beneath the reflections of Steve Jobs’s orthogonal bubble, meeting eyes with the officers from the NYPD who head into the center of the whirlwind, trying to warn them that something horrible is going to happen, while the identical but divergently dressed women seemed to hypnotize one another like to venomous beasts conscious of their capacity to annihilate (and it seems irrelevant that only one of them is actually armed). And then, a second before the police can act, the one bearing the weapon lets it fall to the ground and the other approaches and embraces her as if nothing had happened at all, as if running into her mirror image on Fifth Avenue were something completely natural, as if appearing between the sights of a gun lacked the least importance, or had even been necessary, essential in order to insert an asymmetrical element into the composition, s a sign of respect for the original on behalf of the copy.
One might say that the possibility of producing and of being reproduced reveals to us the fundamental poverty of being: that something could be repeated means that this power seems to propose a lack in being, and that being is lacking in a richness that would not allow it to be repeated, Maurice Blanchot writes in Museum Sickness
Germán Sierra is a neuroscientist and fiction writer from Spain. He has published five novels: El espacio aparentemente perdido (Debate, 1996), La felicidad no da el dinero (Debate, 1999), Efectos secundarios, (Debate, 2000), Intente usar otras palabras (Mondadori, 2009), and Standards (Pálido Fuego, 2013). He is also the author of the book of short stories Alto voltaje (Mondadori, 2004). Adrian Nathan West is the author of the forthcoming Aesthetics of Degradation (Repeater Books) as well as the translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature. His writing and translations have appeared in many journals in print and online, including McSweeney’s, the Times Literary Supplement, Words Without Borders, and Asymptote, where he is a contributing editor. He lives between Spain and the United Stated with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
Excerpt courtesy of the author
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