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Gluttonous Genre Mutations

An essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books

The following long-form book review was published by the LA Review of Books in April 2018. Link to the full article is below.

FROM THE BOOM of César Aira mini-novels published by New Directions (15 to date) to the emergence of Spanish-Argentine powerhouse Andrés Neuman (two novels, a travelogue, and a story collection) and the recent debuts of fantasist Samanta Schweblin and futurist Pola Oloixarac, the international literary scene has yielded a bumper crop of Argentine writing translated into English over these last few years. But nothing quite compares to what’s being built at Open Letter Books. There, within an international list spanning works from Iceland to Israel, a revolución rioplatense is under foot. To wit, so far, and in no particular order: five books by Juan José Saer, three by Sergio Chejfec, and one each by Macedonio Fernández, Guillermo Saccomanno, Neuman (the story collection), Damián Tabarovsky, and — until this month — Rodrigo Fresán. Now, Open Letter, which published The Invented Part in 2017, deepens its Fresán shelf by releasing The Bottom of the Sky, another of the author’s 10 novels and the third translated into English as well as the second to be translated by Will Vanderhyden. (Open Letter also plans to release a translation of Fresán’s La Parte Soñada in 2019.)

Born in Buenos Aires in 1963, Fresán arrived on the scene with great fanfare in 1991 when his debut, Historia Argentina (Argentine History), leapt onto the best-seller list and refused to decamp for months. The book is a genre-defying “pop” novel-in-stories that on its surface depicts 1970s Argentine life — and does so with the rebellious swagger of rock and roll — but which is about much more than the ’70s. To quote a version of the jacket copy, the novel’s peripatetic ambitions encompass:

"apparitions, disappearances, professional and amateur kidnappers, Mickey Mouse, Eva Perón, coups d’état, depressive states, the United States, stormy weather, thunder and lightning, hyperconductivity, Gurkhas, Lawrence of Arabia, first person, third person, minimalist gauchos, Goldberg variations, street gangs, rock & roll, Mozart’s skull, biographical inaccuracies, exact sciences, dulce de leche, hard drugs, yuppies in decline…"

And so on.

Another thing it’s about is a Latin America fully engaged in the mess that globalization had wrought. In Chile, Alberto Fuguet called the new pop-culture landscape McOndo — a McDonald’s-ization of García Márquez fictional town Macondo — and published a 1996 anthology of stories by that name to herald the beginning of a post-Boom Latin American literature uninterested in a romanticized past, picturesque village life, or quaint folktales. Included in that anthology with Fuguet, co-editor Sergio Gómez, and a handful of other Bright, Young Men was Fresán.

When Historia Argentina was rereleased in Spain to celebrate its 18th birthday in 2009, Spanish critic Ignacio Echevarría, looking back across Fresán’s career, called it “a manual of instructions from which to devise the pattern of a mutant literature” and a novel that “contains the germ of all [Fresán’s] subsequent books.” That same year, Fresán (by that time himself living in Spain) published The Bottom of the Sky — a novel as uninterested in Latin-American village life as it is interested in mutating the genre DNA of science fiction.

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