:: Article

On the Rims of Fiction

By D.R. Hansen.

Photo by Ignacio Valdez, courtesy of the publisher

Julián Herbert, Tomb Song (translated by Christina MacSweeney; Graywolf Press 2018)

Imagine spending your childhood on the arm of your mother, a lifelong prostitute, nomadic and chaotic, touring through Mexico in pursuit of steady work, men and shelter. In the coruscating novel Tomb Song, our writer-narrator Julián Herbert reflects on having been raised in brothels by this woman he simultaneously loves and loathes, who has given him many siblings, every one of them from a different father.

Mamá Guadalupe is on her deathbed, inciting Herbert’s ambivalent remembrance, even furnishes his need to write this novel. Writing in a chair by her hospital bedside keeps him going, to the extent that the very thought of her survival poses a catch-22.

Will this Word file be worth the effort if my mother survives leukemia…? Just asking that question makes me the worst of whores.

Even though they’ve been estranged for years, Herbert rises to the challenge of her illness, which requires masterly orchestration: it is “more like a political campaign than a tragedy”. Between shaking hands, kissing foreheads and picking up medicine, he writes the novel we are reading, “to give form to what I don’t know, and in that way, be more human”. His registers span love and disgust, never short of equivocation. He recalls how he as a child was assaulted by a bully and how Guadalupe had kicked him afterwards, to make sure that the police would believe them and punish the attacker.

Writing may be cathartic. Still, unravelling the twisted knots of memory necessarily leads to Hebert’s own unravelling, the suspense of his writing style resounding delayed traumas. In loose chronology, he goes on drug binges, wrestles hangovers, luxuriates in visions of past lovers, dips a toe into the pool of political activism (he quickly withdraws), but also travels to Europe for the first time to attend a writers’ conference in Berlin and enjoys his time with his pregnant wife Mónica (to whom the novel is dedicated). This is a story infused with dreams of black magic, political unrest, lone flaneuring and hard drinking, but also one of kindness, compassion, sharp humour and a loquaciousness that one usually reserves for close friends.

Similar to the multilayered autofiction recently triumphed by Ben Lerner, Alejandro Zambra and Enrique Vila-Matas, Herbert interrogates the novel medium itself in gerundium – while writing it. This makes for a work that is at once brutally honest and dishonest, as both are compulsory when exposing the artifice of writing and the performative nature of any storyteller. Elsewhere, I have named such works examples of the self-reflexive and reactive ‘new novel’. Like browsing through multiple open tabs, they flicker between various fictions and (ostensible) non-fictions, as a way of grabbling with the human and literary impotence of never being able to seize or write the slippery present. Whenever the writer attempts, he is instantly propelled into the future like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. This concern in temporality is reflected in the novel’s playful approach to structure, and how Herbert’s narrator promises to “always narrate in the present”.

Hebert reflects on Oscar Wilde:

Wilde thought writing autobiographically diminished the aesthetic of experience I don’t agree: only the proximity and impurity of the two zones can produce meaning.

This reminds me of Enrique Vila-Matas’s protagonist in Because She Never Asked (2015):

Since the very get-go, since Cervantes, I told myself, this tension between literature and life is what the novel has been developing all along. Truly, what we call the “novel” is nothing more than this ongoing conversation.

The erudite protagonists agree that time and (hi)story are fabricated through narrative, wherefore any sensible novel must be wedged into the space between the “two zones” of life and literature. Through meta- and autofictional devices, they demonstrate that existence is fragmented and cannot be reduced to a single narrative. If we simplify the past few centuries and say that modernism offered grand narratives, that post-modernism showed that all narratives, personal and historical, are constructed, then perhaps the new avant-garde modernism of 2018 is one of no stories, one that impels writers to navigate the void between fact and fiction, between art and life, between materiality and ephemerality, and capture that distance. A calibration of the interspace, if you will.

Herbert declares early on: “my literary technique is lamentable and the events I want to recall have a veneer of stunning implausibility.” So, I read the novel under this header of blatant and brilliant artifice. Still I stumbled when, after finishing the book, I returned to the first page and discovered that the earliest intimate detail Herbert gives about himself is one that he repeats later, this time applying it to Mónica. The self-announced unreliability of Tomb Song was of course present before its declaration. I had been gulled.

OK, so Herbert is not your sorter of facts. Rather, he is an artist, or, Hartista. He decides so with the anti-hero of his unfinished novel, Bobo, who haunts him through hallucinations:

“Hartista” is a concept that Bobo Lafragua and I coined to give some dignity to the most congruent creative functions of our century: having had enough. We are the opium front men of a vulgarity that, a thousand years ago, was considered sublime.

Hartista. The fed-up artist (harto is Spanish for fed up). This notion seems to be a common denominator in much contemporary avant-garde literature, all rich in references to art and the role of the artist, be s/he writerly, painterly or poetic. Like Ben Lerner, Julián Herbert is also a poet, granting him a rare linguistic aptitude. In terms of artsy references, he mentions the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (which included the now-celebrated Ann Quin’s lover Robert Creeley) and we see Bobo narrating conceptual art as “an emerging literary genre”. When Shaj Mathews says that today’s avant-garde writer aspires to be something of a conceptual artist, this surely includes Julián Herbert.

Similar to Lerner’s auto-narrator in 10:04 (2014), Hebert is writing on a grant. The financial aspect of fiction seems to short-circuit the pursuit of writing for both protagonists/authors – perhaps being paid for the deed fuels the self-consciousness of these novels and the need to declare their fraudulence. Arguably, they view themselves as, dare I say it, whores of their own work, not much different from Guadalupe:

Remember I’m a whore; I have a grant, the Mexican government pays me month after month to write a book.

In fact, it is Guadalupe who indirectly taught her son how to write in his succinct style, permitting him “the intuition that profound feelings don’t allow for strict distinctions between sublime and banal foundations”.

[W]e demand that nothing lack nuances of either the ordinary or the sublime. And what’s worse: demand it to be ordinary without cliché, sublime without any unexpected change of accent. Aseptically literary.

Tomb Song navigates this vacuum between the ordinary and the sublime, against the grain that a story need be either or. In doing so, it deems itself more literary than the norm. It is meta-literary. Which today is more genuine than spending “a few hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal. [sic]”

D. R. Hansen has written for Avidly, L.A. Review of Books, International Journal of the Book, CRUMB Magazine, Copenhagen Post, Curator, among others. Her work has been honoured by the prizes London Writing Competition (2010), the Books, Publishing & Libraries Graduate Scholar Award (2016), and the International Award for Excellence, The International Journal of the Book (2018). She works at the Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies and is managing editor of the journal tripleC.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 17th, 2018.