Wonderful World, Javier Calvo (trans. Mara Faye Lethem). Harper. 480pp, $27.99.
Early on in Wonderful World, Javier Calvo’s sprawling comic novel set in the seamier and sillier reaches of Barcelona’s criminal underworld, we meet the minor character Pavel, a low-level Russian thug who experiences great difficulty putting his avowed Rastafarian beliefs into practice. “He knows that Rastafari have to work biblically, universally, and spiritually for the redemption of humankind,” Calvo writes, gleefully taking aim at Pavel’s hypocrisy. “And yet, every time he meets up with some representative of humankind, all the universal concepts fall apart.” Rather than spreading the love, Pavel instead gives into his cynicism and runs unsavory errands for his criminal masters, whose plan to steal a valuable piece of art sets the novel’s elaborate plot into motion.
The heist’s unlikely mastermind is Lucas Giraut, the antique-dealing heir to a minor corporate empire. As the novel opens, Lucas discovers that his late father’s business activities had served as a cover for a variety of criminal enterprises. Intrigued by his father’s double life, Lucas decides to immerse himself in it, enlisting the assistance of one of the elder Giraut’s underworld associates in a scheme to swipe a series of apocalyptic paintings by a medieval Celtic monk. As the heist moves forward, Lucas becomes caught in an intergenerational morass of intrigue and deceit, and finds that he cannot extricate himself without first confronting unpleasant truths about his father’s past.
Although Giraut is the novel’s central figure, most of its length is given over to the exploits of low-on-the-food-chain criminals like Pavel, the Rastafarian gangster from Russia. Like a repeating character on a late night sketch comedy show, Pavel is dimensionless, but also inherently funny—he’s a walking punchline, capable of eliciting laughter simply by entering a scene. Throughout Wonderful World’s 480 long pages, Calvo trips along from gag to gag with unfailing energy, audacity, and timing, squeezing every drop of comic potential out of a large cast of similarly one-dimensional characters. Along the way, he launches scathing comedic assaults on a wide variety of targets—greedy art dealers, slimy movie producers, shallow actors, corporate drones, and the idle rich among them. No character in the novel escapes being called out for his or her stupidity, moral laxity, and general repugnance. “In Pavel’s opinion,” Calvo declares, “the civilized Western world is a giant ocean of shit where everybody ends up drowning sooner or later.”
To all indications, Calvo’s view of humanity is, if anything, even dimmer than Pavel’s—and whether readers are likely to enjoy this book will almost certainly depend on the degree to which they share Calvo’s unrelenting, all-encompassing misanthropy. Calvo’s characters are not merely uniformly unsympathetic, but uniformly loathsome, and every page of Wonderful World drips with the author’s venomous disdain for the lot of them.
Unlikeable characters have a long history in great literature—but even the most cynical writers tend not to write off the whole of the human race. Nabokov grants Humbert Humbert just enough humanity, decency, and kindness to suggest that such characteristics do, in fact, exist; Calvo, on the other hand, seems determined to prove that human beings have no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. By insisting so strongly on the utter depravity of everyone, he comes off as an odd species of moralist—like a preacher who damns his whole congregation to hell from the pulpit while laughing bitterly in their faces.
One scene that comes not long after Pavel’s first appearance in Wonderful World might serve as a litmus test for the novel’s appeal. During the course of badly botching a criminal errand, Pavel unexpectedly encounters a young Russian woman, high on heroin and possessed of “painful sexual appeal.” Recognizing her vulnerability, he decides to take advantage of it by raping her—but then he stops midway through the act, having suddenly recognized her as his long-lost sister Anya. This is a well-timed, carefully constructed gag, in which an elaborate set-up leads to an unlikely and extremely embarrassing case of mistaken identity. The passage offers testament to Calvo’s ample comedic gifts—as well as to the full depths and utter repugnance of his cynicism.
A rape joke, no matter how well executed, is a rape joke all the same. And Calvo’s treatment of this subject matter is especially appalling—Anya’s rape, after all, is nothing more than the means to the end of a condescending joke about a low-class criminal’s incompetence and stupidity. It’s just a passing detail, one incidental piece of evidence among many of Pavel’s moronic boorishness, and by extension, that of the whole human race.
Most of the humor in Wonderful World is, in fact, every bit as ugly as this. One might defend Calvo on the ground that he works in a satirical mode, and that pitch-black humor is an important tool of the satirist’s trade. And although that may be true, Calvo’s novel is entirely devoid of the most important element of any successful piece of satire: a sense of righteous moral outrage. From “A Modest Proposal” to The Daily Show, the best satire has always depended on the condemnation of hypocrisy and unethical behavior from a position of incisive moral clarity. For Swift, Stewart, and other masters of the form, the point is not merely to speak the truth about people and institutions deserving of criticism, but also to establish a bond with the audience on the basis of a shared conviction that people can and should expect better. Calvo, on the other hand, condemns all of his characters as equally and absolutely corrupted, and does not suggest that any human being might be capable of anything other than the worst kinds of hatred, greed, depravity, and violence.
For Calvo, Pavel is a laughable figure not because he strays from his professed beliefs, but instead because he was so foolish as to have believed in anything in the first place. Lucas Giraut, in contrast, behaves with a consistently cool amorality throughout the novel, and Calvo treats him with greater respect than any other figure in the book. Giraut makes no attempt to judge the character of the people with whom he interacts; instead, he evaluates “a man’s psyche and the way he perceives his place in the world” by carefully examining the kinds of clothes he wears, and then decides how to deal with him accordingly. Part of the point here is to poke fun at Giraut for his shallowness. But in the end, Lucas’s “suitological analyses” generally prove correct, and permit him to navigate the Barcelona underworld with a clear head, unclouded by the need to make ethical judgments and undistracted by any false assumptions of depth and complexity in the people around he encounters.
Similarly, twelve-year-old Valentina Parini, who harbors psychotic schemes to rain death upon the classmates who have ostracized her, earns as much empathy as Calvo has to offer. Like Giraut, Valentina makes no pretense of behaving in an ethical manner, and thus avoids Calvo’s cardinal sin of hypocrisy. When Valentina’s notebook full of murderous fantasies comes to the attention of school authorities, her homeroom teacher calls her “sick” to her face, and expresses her shock and horror that “these atrocities came out of your head.” Animated by a sense of moral outrage, the teacher condemns Valentina for her inclination toward violence—but then does nothing to stop Valentina’s mother, “her face transformed into a toothy mask of rage,” from grabbing her daughter by the ear and twisting until she screams in pain. Calvo sees Giraut’s cool amorality and Valentina’s violent anger as rational and honest responses to the amorality and violence they encounter in everyone around them. They are the novel’s heroes not because they attempt to counteract the reprehensible behavior of others, but instead because they do not pretend to justify their own actions via appeals to authority or bogus, skin-deep morality.
Calvo, then, is a satirist who ultimately sides not with the righteous and just, but instead with the villains. Since every last human being is fundamentally self-interested and immoral, he argues, ethical behavior is merely foolish. No one really acts morally, and the most intelligent people (like Giraut) recognize as much, and behave accordingly. All others are hypocrites, at best, and imbeciles at worst—and for Calvo, they deserve nothing but derision. The problem with Wonderful World, then, is not just that Calvo wants readers to laugh at a rape joke; it is that he also expects them to feel comfortably superior for doing so.
Any reader willing to wade through Calvo’s relentless misanthropy will also find elaborate metafictional trappings in Wonderful World. He claims that the novel “was written by the ghost of Charles Dickens”—though he seems to have entirely forgotten that Dickens’s misanthrope Ebeneezer Scrooge learned the error of his ways and opened up his heart in the end. He does, however, frequently toy with the recognizably Dickensian technique of giving characters physical characteristics to match their personalities and temperaments, which gives him room to offer sly commentary on the conventions of character development in both literary and genre novels. Far more tediously, he also frequently interrupts the novel’s narration in order to self-consciously comment upon the ways in which his book follows the conventions and clichés of genre fiction—a pointless gesture, pointing out nothing about literature that would not already be apparent to any contemporary reader.
The novel’s flashiest and most unusual metafictional device, however, is its inclusion of the text of several “chapters” of an invented novel by Stephen King—which display no traces whatsoever King’s energy, imagination, or deep commitment to his material. The premise of the King novel within Calvo’s novel is also telling: it involves a world in which ordinary people have been replaced by omniscient alien “angels,” who use their psychic powers in order enforce a regime in which everyone is eerily well-behaved. For Calvo, the ultimate source of horror seems to lie in the idea that other people might actually start acting according to some kind of set of ethical standards—and that they might also be able to look directly into the hearts and minds of those few who hold out against those standards, and judge them wanting.
Ryan Michael Williams is a librarian and freelance writer. His reviews have previously appeared on PopMatters, and are forthcoming from Rain Taxi and ForeWord. He also blogs on books and other topics at GoodReadings.
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