You sometimes hear it said, usually by those looking in from outside, that the literary world is a cosy, circle-jerking kind of place. Oh, if only they knew! Like any human zone where access to power is to be had, the book world is rife with cut-throat careerists, mafia-like cliques, group hierarchies, herd opinions, playground politics, backstabbing, arse-licking and all the other shades in venality’s rainbow. Indeed, it offers up so plump and unguarded a throat, it’s a surprise more blade-wielding satirists don’t lunge in and slit it right open.
Going by her latest novel, the Argentine Pola Oloixarac is a writer whose default mode of interpreting the world is cynicism. While this carries some obvious limitations, it positions her well to dissect her industry’s pretensions and poke fun at its pieties. The success of Oloixarac’s first novel, Savage Theories, propelled her into the arena of world literature with its international festivals, prize committees, calculated postures and erotic intrigues. Her third novel, nimbly translated by Adam Morris, trains its satiric sights on this rarefied milieu.
When we first meet Mona’s titular protagonist, she is numbing herself with Valium and alcohol on a transatlantic flight from California, ignoring creepily insistent messages on her phone and fixing to masturbate in her window seat as she approaches her destination of Stockholm. Her purpose there is to attend an award ceremony for the prestigious Basske-Wortz prize, for which she has been nominated. A Peruvian whose debut novel won her the esteem of the Latin American left and inflated a literary reputation she secretly suspects is fraudulent, Mona has been trying to follow up with a ‘“terrifying, brilliant, and dangerous” second work, but “now the book was starting to eat her alive”.
As she hobnobs in Sweden with her Arabic, Asian, Israeli and European counterparts, Mona reflects wryly on exoticism in both the cultural stock exchange of global literature and American academia (she has a scholarship at Stanford University). She arrived in the US “at a time when being a ‘woman of colour’… began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital”. On her application form, she listed her ethnicity as “Hispanic” and “Indigenous”, then added “Inca” for good measure, well aware that liberal America’s identity fetishism “offered her the opportunity to advance her career merely by being herself”.
There is plenty of this kind of spiky scepticism in the first half of this short, enjoyable and flawed novel. Provocations abound. When each of the prize-nominated authors is invited to give a speech, an Iranian egomaniac named Abdollah Farid devotes his to stripping the figure of the Muslim immigrant of its sentimental ruse, gleefully declaring that it is in fact Europeans who will have to learn to assimilate to Middle Eastern ways: ‘There are millions of us already living here, and millions more on the way… nobody will ever be able to stop it!’ The wind-up merchant Mona goes one further, deciding that the Islamification of the continent is a fait accompli, because no one will be able to convince its women not to keep flooding Europe — “that pregnant slut” — with hot Middle Eastern men.
Mona is driven more by her sex drive than by artistic idealism and her stay at the prize meeting is punctuated by pornographic fantasies and Skype sex. She seems to grow concerned about the consequences of her caustic outlook, suggesting in a pre-coital dialogue that “‘it’s important… to treat each other well. Love each other… You don’t want to be the Mark David Chapman of your generation’s foetal avant-garde.” To which her handsome Nordic interlocutor adds: “I like where you’re going with this. Otherwise literary culture is nothing but a bunch of snipers scattered all over the world, each on their own rooftop, lining up their enemies in crosshairs of arguments and posturing…”
Insofar as she sticks to such lit-world theorising and piss-taking, Oloixarac is on steady ground. Unfortunately, having set the narrative’s wheels in motion, she has no viable plan to guide the vehicle home. The novel’s credibility collapses in the final third. A lazy appeal to Nordic mythology for unearned profundity rings jarringly false, while a gesture towards an exploration of male on female violence never follows through. Grasping for gravitas by appeal to secondhand signifiers and conscious symbolism, Oloixarac overburdens a novel that might more effectively have kept its focus on the egos and libidos of the literary set. In doing so, she falls face first into a condition with which she would be swift to diagnose her characters: pretentiousness.
It’s a shame that Mona is not both more fleshed out and tightly focused. In a literary culture swamped by clenched, worthy fiction and the writer as activist, her satirist’s misanthropy and taste for provocation are a tonic.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is Autobibliography