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“The Iliac Crest” by Cristina Rivera Garza [Why This Book Should Win]

First Why This Book Should Win entry for today is from Tim Horvath. Tim Horvath is the author of Understories (Bellevue Literary Press) and Circulation (sunnyoutside), as well as fiction in Conjunctions, AGNI, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. He teaches in the Creative Writing BFA/MFA programs at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, as well as at the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Summer Writing Retreat in Granada, Spain.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker (Mexico, Feminist Press)

In homage to a great standalone section late in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest in which she enumerates twenty-nine things you can do while sick and bedridden, I’ve assembled what I think are twenty-some–odd great things/moments/facets of this book.

  1. How it lurches forward and backward at once. The plot alone is gripping; we’re ushered in on a stormy night and the brusque arrival of a shadowy stranger, who, without explanation, takes over, begins infiltrating the narrator’s life, tending to his ex-, almost-ex (it’s complicated), who the stranger claims has fallen ill. Has she? The questions mount and the plot ravels. There are stolen hospital files, the unearthing of mysterious manuscripts, accusations, and unsettling twist upon twist.
  2. And yet Rivera Garza’s narrative is also continually backward-glancing, questioning its previous premises. Chapter Two opens: “I would’ve liked for the whole thing to have happened like this, but that’s not how it went.” Maybe it’s greatest gift is the word, and more, the concept, of retroceder, which Sarah Booker astutely translates as “to turn back.” As Booker discusses in an afterword, the word seems to cast a wide net: undo, reverse course, gain clarity on the past, and no doubt others.
  3. It virtually out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock. Breathtaking but ominous setting? Check. A remote seaside house that overlooks the sea, suffused with an atmosphere at once “Gray, interminable, dull”? Check. A stormy night, a myterious, bold, alluring, woman who enters and swiftly takes over? Two women who claim the same name and even identity? A Betrayed? A Betrayer? A Sanitorium? Yes to all.
  4. But Cortázar’s spirit presides even more. It was Cortázar’s story “House Taken Over” that sprang to mind immediately, since the stranger, Amparo Dávila, takes over the house in those opening pages, but it is ultimately how Cortázar messes with ontology and language that makes him a looming presence.
  5. But no, turn back—far more than Cortázar, it’s the unjustly neglected Mexican writer Amparo Dávila whose spirit who not only looms over but pervades this text. I was unfamiliar with her work before reading this, but immediately ran to track it down (“Moses and Gaspar” can be found in English translation in the Paris Review). To say that there are multiple Dávilas in this work is about all I can say without giving away too much.
  6. But not only does it pay homage to Dávila, it actually incorporates her work. Not only is she a character (or several), but Dávila’s words wend their way into the text, blurring the border between text and world, in “[w]ords finally like something touched and felt, words like inevitable material.” And this shouldn’t surprise us—as Matthew Gleeson writes in the Paris Review, her writing has a tendency to extrude from the page into reality, much as the the iliac crest, a pelvic bone, does from from the central spine. Much as does The Iliac Crest from its own spine.
  7. The way the book dances giddily past borders of all sorts. We’re constantly at various geographical boundaries, traveling between North City and South, and it seems no coincidence that Rivera Garza herself describes having grown up on the U.S.—Mexico border in the preface. But also we hover at the border between life and death, as the narrator works at a kind of hospital of last resort, which he describes as “cemetery with open tombs,” and at the line between genders, one which is contested throughout the book, and the border between dream and reality, which Rivera Garza prods and ponders at every turn.
  8. Not only borders but bones. “Was I wearing my own bones?” the narrator asks at one point. You might wonder as much about your own as you read this book.
  9. Bones, not only a motif but the makings of a house of prose: skeletal. The chapters are short, the cities only vaguely sketched out, the characters often identified only vaguely, as in the Disappeared and the Wet One, and there’s a sense of things missing—people, assurances. But throughout, Garza’s writing showcases the power of the austere and the pared back; we learn to read the x-rays, negative space and all.
  10. And yet the book can burst into an off-handed eroticism, anything but skeletal, full-bodied, lush and orgiastic, as it does in brief but memorable spurts.
  11. But always gender is in play—like Anne Garreta’s Sphinx, it is a gender-fluid novel, though it calls attention to this fluidity in plot-driven ways where Garetta’s novel, at least in Emma Ramadan’s masterful translation, allows it to be a steady undercurrent. Here there are riptides of disruption.
  12. Indeed, the sea is a constant backdrop in this novel; more than an edge or limit, it’s a respite and antidote for our urge to understand. “You need the ocean for this,” Rivera Garza writes. “To stop believing in reality.”
  13. Because of the chapter that inspired this, which explores twenty-nine things you can do “from a hospital bed.” When Virginia Woolf called for writers to explore the “Undiscovered Country” of illness and wondered at the dearth of writing on the topic, I’d imagine this is the kind of thing she had in mind. Rivera Garza captures so well the relationship between illness and the idea of selfhood which takes shape under the cover and confinement of illness. And we feel in its list-making the sense of growing impatience and restlessness.
  14. While enamored with language, it invents one whole cloth, a language as palpable as rain. The narrator hears phrases like “Oh, glu hiserfui glu frenji fredso glu, glu-glu. ” and struggles to suss meaning out of it. His/her frustration is our delight.
  15. Perhaps we relish its invented words since it does such deft things with existing words, words freighted with historical significance like “disappeared.” Early on, she describes disappearance itself as if it were a disease, contagious and, of course, deadly.
  16. And in this way it anticipates Bolano’s 2666. Rivera Garza, in her preface, mentions the “epidemic” of “women [who] disappear from our factories and our history—from our lives…” Where Bolano’s “Part About the Crimes” gives us the relentless pummel of the police blotter, Rivera Garza finds a leaner, more lithe, but no less potent way of memorializing, of reclaiming the memories of the forgotten, just as she revives the author Dávila for us here.
  17. It is scathing in its portrayal of institutionalization, from the name of the place, SERENITY SHORES SANITORIUM, to the hatred that the hospital workers, right down to the cafeteria staff, come to have for the patients to the way in which the boundaries between doctors and patients are themselves fluid, readily breached.
  18. Because of the way it explores the force of attraction, the way fear and desire can be so intricately intertwined, are maybe versions of one another. This is only one of its many psychological insights.
  19. Because of the way it seems to use the idea of the panopticon—from the epigraph, from Steve McCaffery’s Panopticon to the surveillance that the staff is said to have to the image of a woman holding a glass of water, “perfect, clear, circular,” as sharp and harrowing an image of a panopticon as I can think of.
  20. How for all the book’s intensity, there is a lightness, a mischievous humor. A woman, for instance, who is beautiful only on Thursdays. An italicized word which the narrator urges you to pretend doesn’t exist—“Squint your left eye, turn your gaze to the sky, dance a waltz, have a beer.” The characters Moisés and Gaspar, hospital attendants here but happen to share their names with a couple of rambunctious cats in a Dávila story, “Moses and Gaspar.”
  21. How its closest peers I can think of are books I’ve read in translation from the Spanish in recent years, Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. These books are wildly dissimilar in some ways, but all are mind-expanding while remaining wholly embodied; while compact, each feels as if it remakes reality in its own image.
  22. And demand rereading. Read the book, read Dávila. Go forward, but also retrocedes, reader.


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