:: Article


By Daniel Marc Janes.

Brenda Lozano, trans. Annie McDermott, Loop (Charco Press, 2019)

Loop is a useless novel. This is not to disparage it. It is a meditation on uselessness; a manifesto in its favour. ‘I worship the margins, the secondary, the useless,’ writes the unnamed narrator, who awaits the return of her boyfriend, Jonás, from Spain. The more useless something is, the more fascinating she finds it: ‘I’d sooner buy a kaleidoscope than a vacuum cleaner.’ These objects, she believes, are ‘the triumph of fiction’, a philosophy she develops in the book’s fractured, free-floating sentences:

The more useless something is, the more subversive.

Let me unravel that.

The more useless something is, the more independent it is from reality.

Oscar Wilde is one of Brenda Lozano’s touchstones. Though never mentioned, his famous dictum, that ‘all art is quite useless’, looms over the text. The question is not whether Loop is useless, but whether it is trivial. It is and it isn’t; but when it is, it is trivial in the right ways.

Born in 1981, Lozano is one of a number of female Mexican authors gaining stature in the Hispanosphere. In 2017 she was included in the Hay Festival’s Bogotá39 list of outstanding Latin American writers; her compatriots on the list included Valeria Luiselli, who is well-established in the English-speaking world, and Gabriela Jauregui, who is less so. Provision for this kind of thing in English is always spotty; once again we can thank Charco Press, Edinburgh’s miniature powerhouse of Latin American translated literature, for plugging the gap. Although a section of Lozano’s novel Todo nada appeared in the Hay Festival’s México20 anthology (trans. Rosalind Harvey), Loop, originally published in 2014 as Cuaderno ideal (Ideal Notebook), is her first full-length work to be published in English. The extremely talented Annie McDermott, who so effectively conveyed the intensity of Ariana Harwicz’s prose, returns to Charco with a very different kind of challenge. In Harwicz, time quickens and accelerates into delirium; in Lozano, time is suspended and gives way to contemplation.

Ideal is a brand of notebook formerly popular in Mexico. It is dubbed ‘the Mexican Moleskine’. In its most iconic form it is pocket-sized, blue-lined on the inside and candy apple red on the outside, both on the cover and edges. Ideal notebooks are incredibly difficult to find. Our narrator discovers this early on, chancing on one at a stationer’s in the Condesa district of Mexico City. With Jonás’s trip to Spain stretching out interminably — his Spanish mother has recently died and he is visiting her family — the narrator is in limbo. As she reckons with her thoughts, the notebook gains in significance. It is a fetish object, a talisman, the central item in her life. In these lined pages, her thoughts unspool. They are rarely more than a paragraph at a time, sometimes as short as a line. All are separated by white space. These are fragments of thought, like transcribed marginalia; a literary doodle. 

Loop is a novel of waiting. Waiting transfigures the mundane; it encourages useless thoughts. Her mind runs riot; she fixates. Her notebook conceptually comes to life. The lines become animated, take different forms; items of stationery have conversations with each other. The notebook as stand-in for the imagination. This is a strength of Lozano’s: as an anatomist of the everyday. She is good at tactility (‘Now that everything’s done on computers, perhaps I could be a saint. The Paper Saint. The Holy Virgin of Stationery. The Xerox Madonna’). 

She also is a noticer. A sharply dressed dwarf on her block prompts a recurring meditation on scale.

What makes a story big or small, important or unimportant? Who decides this? What is the average? ‘If there’s a miniature scale for people and for notebooks, is there a miniature scale for stories?’ Here Lozano explores myth. The narrator compares herself to Penelope, weaving and unweaving a shroud to bide her time until Odysseus’s return. On the surface, her story is small-scale. Waiting wastes time; wasting time is useless. Waiting rooms display the paraphernalia of uselessness: useless decorations; useless magazines advertising useless products. The mundane is tiny. But add myth and it becomes something oceanic. Stories don’t come bigger than Homer. ‘Tragedy is a change of scale,’ she reflects. Jonás ‘feels misunderstood. Feeling misunderstood seems to make him a different size.’

Beneath these carbonated thoughts bubbles a meditation on writing itself. Our distance from reality; our transformation of time and experience. Lozano’s literary forebears crowd the text, become the supporting cast of Mexico City. Fernando Pessoa, patron saint of the beautiful and the useless, appears queuing at a fruit stall; Marcel Proust, squanderer of time, has a double in the form of a twenty-four-year-old student with a black eye. (‘Proust’s the fucking man,’ this man says. ‘He’ll go on for fifty pages about any old crap.’) Early on, the narrator, taking her cue from the brand, imagines an infomercial for the ‘ideal’ notebook. This doubles as a mischievous statement of intent:

Overworked your writing in your creative writing workshop? Do you write novels you think are shit, compose prose you think is crap? How many balls of paper do you throw in the bin without managing a single line? Then it’s time to buy an ideal notebook! To hell with Second World War novels, sir; to the devil with historical fiction, madam; forget all those stories about middle-aged European men. Plots come and go, action is secondary. The voice is what matters. Listen to your voice, however it sounds. Practise in the bathroom. Jump up and down a bit first. A-E-I-O-U. Practise in your notebook. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Do it again, only this time with your words. One word after another. You don’t need to move from your kitchen, all you need is a chair and a table. In fact, you only need the notebook. Dare to pick up that pen.

At the heart of Loop is a defence of the imaginative flight of fancy. There is an expression Lozano likes: viajar en sillón, ‘to travel by armchair.’ Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Some novels flow; others overflow. Loop is a veritable deluge. That’s the way it should be. In some ways it has less in common with a novel, a thing of incident and design, than with an amiable, free-associative, slightly stoned conversation. It keeps you company. As a friend, it is stimulating, precocious, sometimes exhausting: a browser with too many tabs open; the hypertext when you hover the cursor. It is not, in a narrative sense, satisfying. But nor is waiting. In form it resembles the notebooks the narrator so adores, a compilation of found thoughts: never whole, always playful, the liberal effusion of an unoccupied mind.

Daniel Marc Janes is deputy editor of Review 31.


This is the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month for September 2019. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 26th, 2019.