Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons condenses myth into vibrant narco noir

Yuri Herrera’s new novella Kingdom Cons condenses myth and archetype into concrete, brutal noir. Gritty and visceral, but also elegant and surreal, Herrera’s prose bristles with cinematic energy in a tale of blood magic and the relationship between power and art.

In Kingdom Cons, our central protagonist Lobo is a singer of corridos, ballads he improvises in dive bars for a few coins to survive on. Herrera paints Lobo’s backstory in quick but rich strokes that evoke a hardboiled, hardscrabble life:

The next day his father went to the other side. They waited in vain. Then his mother crossed without so much as a promise of return. They left him the accordion so he could make his way in the cantinas, and it was there he learned that while boleros can get by with a sweet face, corridos require bravado and acting out the story as you sing. He also learned the following truths: Life is a matter of time and hardship. There is a God who says Deal with it, cause this is the way it is. And perhaps the most important: Steer clear of a man about to vomit.

In one of these cantinas Lobo encounters “the King,” a Mexican drug lord. Lobo is instantly smitten by the King’s power; or, more precisely, by the aesthetics of power that attend the King. Lobo sees himself as a reader of blood. Indeed, he’s survived the streets by

…learning blood. He could detect its curdle in the parasites who said, Come, come little boy, and invited him into the corner; the way it congealed in the veins of fraidycats who smiled for no reason; the way it turned to water in the bodies of those who played the same heartache on the jukebox, over and over again; the way it dried out like a stone in lowlifes just aching to throw down.

Lobo believes he detects magic in the King’s blood, and vows to become a retainer in the King’s Court, which in time he does. There, in the Palace, he takes up a new mantle. He becomes “the Artist,” a singer of narcorridos he composes to flatter his patron, the King. In the Court,

The Artist realized that people saw him only when he sang or they wanted to hear how tough they were; and that was good, because it meant he could see how things worked in the court.

The Artist’s personality is quickly subsumed into this archetypal Court, which includes the Manager, the Journalist, the Jeweler, the Doctor, the Girl, and the Heir. There’s also the Witch and the Commoner, agents who bring the plot of Kingdom Cons to its climax. There’s a cinematic, page-burner quality to the plot, a briskness that perhaps disguises the novella’s heavier themes of art and power.

Herrera weaves these themes into their own subtle climax. The Artist is initially spellbound by the King, whose very “smile seemed a protective embrace” to the singer. The narcobaron urges the Artist to tell the truth in his corridos, even if the truth is brutal: “Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” And yet in time the Artist begins to parse the layers of distinction to “truth,” and to see the complicated relationship between truth, beauty, and power. He grows into a new art, a new blood.

Indeed, Kingdom Cons is a subtle, spare Künstlerroman, in which Herrera’s hero’s quiet, internal observations lead him to a new artistic outlook. Regarding a slain narco’s corpse, the Artist thinks first that the man probably deserved his death, before appending the notion: “if there’s one thing we deserve, it’s a heaven that’s real.” When the Artist recognizes himself in a “an ashen boy coaxing squalid notes from a trumpet,” he laments “It’s as if there is no right to beauty.” The Artist seeks to create a right to beauty, to secure a heaven that’s real, but his tools are limited—and thoroughly mediated in violence, in blood. Herrera pushes his hero “to feel the power of an order different from that of the Court,” a power that emanates from “his own sovereign texture and volume. A separate reality.” Herrera’s skill as a writer evokes that “separate reality,” first by creating a mythical-brutal narcoland noir, and then by evoking the consciousness of an artist trying to navigate that violence and find his own power through art, through words.

In its finest moments—of which there are many—Herrera evokes his hero’s consciousness in action. Consider the following passage. The Artist has sneaked out of the Palace to return “to the cantina where he’d first met the King”; there, he observes again, becomes eyes and ears that will channel grimy reality into artful storytelling:

…he heard the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack:

The wetback who’d been deported by immigration and was unwanted on this side as well. They’d told him to sing the anthem, explain what a molcajete was and recite the ingredients of pipián to see if he was really allowed to stay; his jitters made him forget it all so they kicked him out too. The narco-in-training who sent bindles of smack over the river with a slingshot and then simply crossed over to pick them up, until one day he got a wild hair and hit a gringo in the head with his whiterock crackshot, and tho that was the end of his business, he still got a kick out of calling himself an avenger. The woman who, to free herself of her cheating husband, sold the house to a much-feared loanshark and left hubby with no house, no wife, and no peace. The boy who faked his own kidnapping to wheedle money from his parents, who believed the ransom note was real and replied, You know what? We’re tired of that bum, how about bumping him off for half the price? And the boy, out of utter sorrow, said Okay, collected the cash, spent it on booze and then kept his word.

The force of storytelling leads the Artist to an epiphany about the King—and, more significantly, to himself as an artist capable of creating a “separate reality.”

I can’t help but think of Kingdom Cons as the third part of a loose trilogy that also includes Herrera’s previous novellas Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. All three are published by And Other Stories and all three are translated by Lisa Dillman, who conjures magic in translating Herrera’s neologisms, slang, and mythical tone. Kingdom Cons extends the mythic-noir mode that Signs initiated and Bodies continued. Herrera is a writer with a voice and a viewpoint, an author whose archetypal approach shows the deep significance to contemporary life’s concrete contours. I wrote “trilogy” above, but to be clear, I’d be very happy if Herrera, Dillman, and And Other Stories kept putting out these fine novellas. Highly recommended.

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Sixteen books I wish I’d written more about in 2016

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I read a lot of great books this year but had a hard time writing full reviews for all of them. These are some of the ones I liked the most.

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard

I finished Woodcutters just the other night, reading most of it in three sittings. (Actually, I was lying down. And it was very late at night, each time. I couldn’t pick the book up during daylight hours). Anyway, I finished Bernhard’s novel just the other night, so maybe I’ll muster something on it, but for now: I think this may be my favorite Bernhard novel so far! I can only think of a handful of writers so masterful at mimicking the operations of consciousness, of replicating consciousness (and conscience) reflecting on consciousness. (I even had to stop and do a too-hasty read of Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck, a plot point of Woodcutters). What happens in Woodcutters? A man sits in a chair remembering things. It’s fucking amazing.

White Mythology, W.D. Clarke

White Mythology is comprised of two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. The first and longer novella, Skinner Boxed, takes place over a few days in the life of a psychiatrist; it’s a zany zagging yarn, crowded with MacGuffins and red herrings (a missing wife, a bastard son, a new anti-depressant drug, etc.). Oh, and it’s a Christmas story! Did I mention that? (Skinner Boxed takes its epigram from A Christmas Carol…and another from Gravity’s Rainbow). Love’s Alchemy is a kind of time-arrangement, or locale-arrangement—a story in pieces that the reader has to assemble. I enjoyed White Mythology (especially Skinner Boxed, which, typing this out, I realize I’d like to read again).

The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin

The Franchiser, Stanley Elkin

Somehow I’d made it to 2016 without reading Elkin. I read these two back-to-back. The best parts of The Dick Gibson show are as good as anything any of those other big postmodern dudes have written. (Okay. If not as good, nearly as good). I didn’t review The Dick Gibson Show because Elkin basically did it for me in his Paris Review interview. The Franchiser is a comic tragedy—or do I mean tragic comedy? It does all that inversion stuff: high-low/low-high. A novel of things and colors, both mythic and predictive, The Franchiser feels simultaneously ahead of its time and yet still very much bound to the 1970s, when it was first published.

Bear, Marian Engel

This slim novel is somehow simultaneously lucid and surreal, conventional and bizarre, romantic and ironic, heady and dry. And wet. A bibliographer travels to a remote island in Ontario to index an old library. I’m going to read this one again.

(Oh, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear. Like, a real bear. Not a metaphorical bear. A real one).

Collected Stories, William Faulkner

I didn’t read them all because I’m not a greedy pig. I read a lot of them though. Lord.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I will read Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden again in the first quarter of 2017 and I will write a proper Thing on it. I read it in a two-day blur, drinking up the sentences greedily, perhaps not (no, strike that perhaps) comprehending the plot so much as sucking up a feeling, a place, a mood, a vibe. But there’s so much history reverberating behind the novel’s lens. Like I said (wrote): I need to read it again, which will kinda sorta be like reading it for the first time. Which is a thing one might say of any great novel.

The Weight of Things, Marianne Fritz

I read this really early in the year and I only remember the impression of reading it—not the plot itself, but the language—I remember horror, cruelty, pain. And this is why I need to write about the books I read.

The Inheritors, William Golding

A colleague told me to read Golding’s account of telepathic Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. I’ll admit that I’d unfairly written off Golding as YA stuff, but the evocation of a prelingual (and postlingual) consciousness is fascinating here. It’s also a ripping quest narrative starring the Holy Fool Lok, who laughs in terror and joy. What stands out most in my memory, beyond the premise, is Golding’s concrete prose. I’m glad my colleague told me to read The Inheritors.

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

I read Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies in a blurry weekend (sensing a pattern here) and enjoyed it very much: Grimy neon noir poured into mythological contours. Lovely.

The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa

This was the best novel I read in 2016 that I’d never read before. So good that I reread it immediately (the only two books I can recall doing that with in recent memory areBlood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). It was even better the second time.  The Leopard is the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily who witnesses — and takes part in — the end of the old order era during the Italian reunification. Fiery and lascivious but also intellectual and stoic, Fabrizio the Leopard is the most engrossing character I read this year. Di Lampedusa’s novel takes us through his mind, through his age—places he himself isn’t fully cognizant of at times. I can’t recommend this novel enough: History, religion, death, sex. Sense and psyche, pleasure and loss, crammed with rich, dripping set pieces: dances and dinners and games of pleasure (light sadomasochism!) in summer estates. But its plots and poisons and pieces are not the main reason for The Leopard—read it for the language, the sentences, the sumptuous words. Its final devastating images are still soaked and sunken into my addled brains.

The Absolute Gravedigger, Vítězslav Nezval

I wedged these poems into the end of my third proper trip through Gravity’s Rainbow; I was also dipping into Rilke’s Duino Elegies and the Rider-Waite tarot. It’s all crammed together in a surreal web in my memory: shimmering horror, broken badlands, entropy and degradation—but life.

Cow Country, Adrian Jones Pearson

Cow Country (not pictured above because I listened to the audiobook) is a bizarre, disjointed satire of community colleges in particular and educational administration in general. (And: a satire on our slavish sensibilities of time ). It’s also a wonderful send-up of dialectical methodology—or rather the dialectical impulse to, like, resolve things. And by things, I mean Jones Pearson (or is it AJP? Or Adrian Ruggles Pearson? Or A.J. Perry? Or—nevermind)—Our Author (whoever) breaks down the way that all of our breakdowns breakdown under any real scrutiny.

Hilda and the Stone Forest, Luke Pearson

I read all of the Hilda books this year with my kids. And I read them by myself. And my kids read them by themselves. More than once. Hilda and the Stone Forest is the best one yet—richer, denser, funnier, and more devastating than anything Pearson’s done yet. The Stone Forest is stuffed with miniature epics and minor gags, and the central story of Hilda and her mother in the titular stone forest is somehow both bleak and heartwarming. Great stuff.

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

I actually wrote a lot about Gravity’s Rainbow (probably a major reason I didn’t write more about other stuff)—but I still wish I’d written more. I will write more. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for my fourth trip through.

Marketa Lazarova, Vladislav Vančura

Strange, violent, funny, and ultimately devastating, this Marketa Lazarova is a medieval tale of family loyalty, kidnapping, and love. Nothing I can do here would be a substitute for Vančura’s vivid, surreal voice—a voice that guides the story cynically, ironically, but also energetically, buoyantly. One of the best things I read all year.

The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun | Yuri Herrera interviewed at 3:AM Magazine

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Yuri Herrera was interviewed by Tristan Foster at 3:AM Magazine a few weeks ago. Herrera’s new novella (or “new” in English translation by Lisa Dilman, anyway) is The Transmigration of Bodies and it’s really, really good. I read most of it in one sitting a few months back, and I owe it a proper review. Herrera’s previous novella, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was one of my favorite books published last year.

From the interview:

3:AM: Despite both the seriousness of its themes and the apocalyptic backdrop, Transmigration is full of an absurd kind of fun. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the scene at the strip club; the strippers have taken off everything except for their facemasks, but they use the allure of removing the masks to excite the men watching. Is this writing fun? Is fun crucial to this kind of writing?

YH: The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun. To create your own paths in a room without light. Of course, this sometimes is also frustrating, when you just keep bumping into things, most commonly into my own very clumsy self. Eventually you discover that you have not been walking completely in the dark but with some sort of intuitive sense of direction, some creative spine. But until you discover that, you alternate between the joy and the anxiety and puzzling with words.

I conclude now I have no inner resources (Reading/Have Read/Should Write About)

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For twenty years now Berryman’s line I conclude now I have no inner resources has been plinking around the inside of my dumb skull. The line is plinking like crazy lately, as I shuffle final exam essays into some kind of order (what order?) that might align with my ability to offer the student, the writer, some meaningful note, some suggestion for improvement, some revelatory remark. Plink plink plink. No inner resources.

It is bad to start with a complaint so I will dress up the preceding paragraph (I dress it mentally) as an apologia. (Why the hell did I decide to write about books online?!).

I’ve been reading some really great books lately, folks. People, yes, you, listen. It’s not true that I have no inner resources. I am unstuck as a reader. I’m all gummed up with what I’ve read. Well-fed. And yet I go to scribble out a, like, review and plink plink plink. Nothing.

But like I said, the reading’s been really good. From the bottom up:

Let me strongly recommend American Candide by Mahendra Singh. I recommend this book for people who enjoy laughing at tragedies that should otherwise make them weep. You can and should purchase this book from Rosarium.

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Illustration to American Candide by Mahendra Singh

Above American Candide in the stack so lazily pictured above is Yuri Herrera’s neon noir novella The Transmigration of Bodies, which I also highly recommend. I managed a few words on it here.

If you were to describe Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle 1956 book to me, I might politely decline with a small gesture of my hand. It’s about a guy who takes mescaline and writes about the experience and he draws these pictures and then he later takes “Indian hemp” and compares it— you might say to me, you, knowing as you know that I dig weird books, but I would cut you off at with an em dash, polite but firm, Not interested in drug novels these days (and besides dude, you know that Aldous Huxley did kinda the same thing at kinda the same time). And then you, having the book with you might press it into my hand, declaring, No, look

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—and I would say Thanks and consume the book in two sittings.

And so after a few years of false starts, I finally broke through the second chapter of Stanley Elkin’s satire The Franchiser. The many years of recommendations, exhortations (and scoldings) to read The fucking Franchiser were correct and good and now appreciated, as I work my way into the novel’s rich fat middle—but I admit it was Mr. William Gass who finally sold me on a commitment. I read his introduction published elsewhere—in A Temple of Texts—and that was that.

Thanks to Jon for sending me Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection The Language of the Night. The collection collects the collective introductions to Le Guin’s so-called Hainish collection, which I read this winter, and wrote about here. Not one of my editions featured the reflections Le Guin (or more likely her editors) called “Introductions” in later essays, and reading the Hainish intros is, in a very slight sense, like rereading those books. Lovely.

Last and never least: Tom Clark’s The Last Gas Station and Other Stories. I’ve thought often of Clark’s poems as stories pretending to be poems so maybe these are poems pretending to be stories. Or maybe I have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. (Plink plink plink). I read most of them except for the longest one, “Incident at Basecamp,” which I will save save save for the future, an old habit, maybe a bad habit, that, to read all but one story in a collection, to maybe keep the collection afresh somehow or not wholly discovered—eh? Plink plink plink. Wag.

Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (Book acquired, 4.16.2016; consumed 4.17.2016)

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I was a big fan of the last novella I read by Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (also from publisher And Other Stories, and also translated by Lisa Dillman). So I was psyched when his newest offering (in English translation) The Transmigration of Bodies arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters this weekend. I read the first half of Transmigration yesterday lying in the hammock, just enjoying the hell out of it. Herrera’s style condenses the mythic with the real; Transmigration begins with a surreal plague, flies buzzing over blood—or just some other filth?—and our (anti-)hero, a fixer who goes by The Redeemer. (Everyone in Transmigration gets a hardboiled name: The Dolphin, Three Times Blonde, Unruly, Neeyanderthal. Etc.). Anyway, the book isn’t out until July, so I’ll wait to do a full review until then, but here’s And Other Stories‘ blurb:

A plague has brought death to the city. Two feuding crime families with blood on their hands need our hard-boiled hero, The Redeemer, to broker peace. Both his instincts and the vacant streets warn him to stay indoors, but The Redeemer ventures out into the city’s underbelly to arrange for the exchange of the bodies they hold hostage.

Yuri Herrera’s novel is a response to the violence of contemporary Mexico. With echoes of Romeo and Juliet, Roberto Bolaño and Raymond Chandler, The Transmigration of Bodies is a noirish tragedy and a tribute to those bodies – loved, sanctified, lusted after, and defiled – that violent crime has touched.

Romeo and Juliet, Roberto Bolaño and Raymond Chandler” — yes, absolutely — and I would add Nicolas Winding Refn to that list. Herrera’s vivid neon noir is of a piece with Drive and Only God Forgives, and the grime here recalls his wonderful Pusher trilogy to me. I dig it.

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is sharp subterranean fiction

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Yuri Herrera’s sharp, thrilling novella Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with calamity. A sinkhole — “the earth’s insanity” — nearly swallows our hero before we can properly meet her:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

This opening passage sets the tone of Signs Preceding the End of the World. Makina will repeatedly plunge into and out of danger as she treks from her village in borderland Mexico into the weird world of the Big Chilango–the United States.

Makina crosses the border to find her estranged brother, who left the village years ago with the dubious plan of claiming some land (supposedly) owned by his family. (Reader, mark the symbolism there). Makina’s mother prompts her journey, but she’s also aided by a trio of adversarial gangsters—Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, and Mr. Q. At the end of the first chapter of Signs, Mr. Q summarizes Makina’s impending quest (and the novella itself) in terse but eloquent language:

You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate, of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.

Mr. Q plays seer in his short monologue, just one example of the novella’s mythic overtones. Or maybe the word I want is undertones: Signs Preceding the End of the World opens with the earth swallowing victims; underworld mobsters send a hero on a night-quest over rough waters and alien terrain; aided by an underground network, Makina must traverse labyrinths and mazes and dark spaces; and, yes, the book ends underground. This is subterranean fiction. Continue reading “Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is sharp subterranean fiction”

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

All of this is basically reading around/between/over Gravity’s Rainbow:

Rereading Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas again. (I reviewed it here on this blog over five goddamn years ago). I want to read 2666 (yet) again, so this is…I don’t know…a staving off against that urge?

Yuri Herrera’s excellent novella Signs Preceding the End of the World also makes me want to read 2666. You should read this book (Signs, but also 2666). I will write a Full Goddamn Review—but excellent. Get it from And Other Stories.

Reading GR interspersed with short (often very short) stories from the collection Africa 39—two hits, a miss, and a shrug so far. More thoughts to come.

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. Like a palate cleanser. Wait. Not the right term. I mean, like, a sorbet—tasteful, tasty, snappy, bright. There are some longer pieces at the end, I see, that I will not get to for awhile. More to come—but let’s get real, you either like what Davis does or you don’t and your indifference, like all indifference, is uninteresting, but not boring or damning, let alone an indictment of your beautiful character. Chill.

David Winters’s collection Infinite Fictions. Damn him! Not really. This book is great—the book I wish that I had written.

I have tried and failed to write about Jason Schwartz’s first book A German Picturesque four goddamn times now.

I don’t think I will even try to write about Gravity’s Rainbow. (Unless I do try).

Signs Preceding the End of the World (Book acquired, 2.13.2015)

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Yuri Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World is forthcoming from And Other Stories. It looks pretty good. Their blurb:

Signs Preceding the End of the World is one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.

Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world.  Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.