“The Nocilla Trilogy” by Agustín Fernández Mallo
The Nocilla Trilogy by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
pb | 9780374222789 | $30.00
Review by Vincent Francone
Most reviews of The Nocilla Trilogy (written by Agustín Fernández Mallo, recently translated into English by Thomas Bunstead, beautifully packaged by FSG) are comparing the experience of reading the books—with their short bursts of slightly connected stories and abrupt shifts that make tracing a plot difficult—to channel surfing. I’ll not continue that analogy so much as suggest that what’s really going on in this supposed leap forward in the possibilities of the novel is akin to what the kiddies are already used to doing: multi-engagement. Texting, chatting, posting, liking, selfiying, studying, gaming, and streaming all within the same short span of time. If, as we are made to believe by countless think-pieces measuring the decline of our collective attention span, this everything-all-the-time balancing of angels atop an increasingly tiny pinhead is the norm, then why not write a trilogy of books that dispenses with linear structure, character development, and a high-stakes plot? Why not make a book that jumps from subject to subject? If the camera relieved painters of the burden of portraiture, and cinema liberated the novel from the Victorian tradition, then the iPhone can force literature to adapt as well. The real question is, as it always has been: are the results interesting?
I’m going to answer definitively: yes. But that’s me. Decide for yourself. Here are some thoughts to help you make a decision, though reading the damn thing would be better.
The first installment is a series of installments. A bit of bits. This intro to the project is called Nocilla Dream. A bit of research and I learned that Nocilla is a Spanish knockoff of Nutella, which didn’t illuminate any mysteries any more than Googling the phrase “Nocilla Generation” did. This newly translated Spanish trilogy is apparently the central text in a genuine literary movement (though, like a lot of artistic movements, not all participants lumped in appreciate or agree with their inclusion, and most reject claims of a unified vision), one that includes a dozen or so Spanish writers this humble reader has not heard of, though perhaps that will change. What we here in the States need is for some press that focuses on international literature to investigate things further. (Ahem.)
What marks this Nocilla generation’s work is evident in Nocilla Dream: characters working independently of each other occasionally crossing paths, sort of like the cast of a Robert Altman movie; digressions; borrowing from other works; stories that do not resolve; incorporation of technological norms into the novel . . . those sorts of things. (Boilerplate experimentation, some might say, though isn’t that an oxymoron?) What also marks this group of writers is their insistence that the term “Nocilla Generation” is meaningless, though haven’t we heard that before?
Nocilla Dream certainly represents the above listed elements of the Nocilla Generation. The novel (and yeah, it’s a damn novel, fight me if you disagree) contains recurring characters whose lives will go in dramatic directions within the span of a page, characters who will pop up once or twice and disappear like mist, excerpts from other texts, most of them dealing with physics or situationism, which is probably the key to understanding the book. The psychological idea that behavior is influenced by the external is essentially what Fernández Mallo is representing in Nocilla Dream. In this case, the present technology is altering the novel. Traditionalists might scoff, but haven’t we helped take all things literary to new places already? In this era— where a writer has to beg for Amazon reviews (hi, internet! DM me) and take on the additional titles of “blogger” and “cultural critic” and (they hope) “literary influencer,” where they have to amass followers and #bookstagram as regularly as they brush their teeth, where publishing has further divided into micro-cottage industries and The Big Five, where “bookseller” is term for “one who peddles coffee and tote bags”—haven’t outside factors already had an influence on book culture?
Let’s talk about the specifics of Nocilla Dream. At the heart of the somewhat connected chapters (most of them no more than a page long) is a tree alongside US 50, “the loneliest highway in America.” The branches of this tree in the middle of nowhere (well, Nevada) are covered in the shoes of those who have travelled the highway. This is how the book came to be: Fernández Mallo, recovering from a motorcycle accident, read about the highway and wrote Nocilla Dream from his hospital bed, beginning with the shoe tree. From there, the other bits crept in much the way distractions creep into our everyday lives. Only here they are less distractions and more digressive thoughts, representations of the wandering mind akin to what one finds in Joyce or Woolf. But Nocilla Dream is not interested in stream of consciousness narration, as it is written in the third person; this is a novel that mirrors the human brain, with its susceptibility to distraction, its tendency to ruminate, digress, return. Perhaps the novel itself is the central character.
For all the talk of revolution that surrounds Fernández Mallo’s work, Nocilla Dream is not all that revolutionary. While the truncated and scattered stories, and the clinical digressions, may put off readers who favor conventional novels (whatever those are), those who’ve read J. L. Borges and Italo Calvino won’t bat an eye. Both of those great writers are name-checked in Nocilla Dream, and Fernández Mallo’s focus on unconventional architectural movements, the most intriguing being his micronations, for which he provides fake URLs, is straight out of Invisible Cities. The biggest difference is that Calvino imagined the impossible city whereas Fernández Mallo riffs off a very conceivable, probable concept. Which is more absurd, the impossible or the possible? Taking things further is the city made from detritus, the land dumps repurposed, the obsession with trash. Fernández Mallo may be accused of indicting modern society as a technologically advancing culture of waste, but I doubt it. If anything, he sees a purpose for trash. He’s made it part of his book. Because, as savvy readers figure out quickly, anything is possible in fiction.
Despite its multi-inclusionary contents, Nocilla Dream is not encyclopedic. It really centers on a few specific ideas. It just explores them through plurality. I’m immediately reminded that nineteenth century writers made space for omniscient, polyphonic narratives. Is Nocilla Dream really so different?
I might ask the same question of Nocilla Experience. It’s apparent from the get go that the second book in the trilogy is formatted similarly to the first: short chapters, fiction merged with fact, interjections from textbooks and interviews with Beck, Björk, and Thom Yorke, smatterings of imagined encounters with the likes of Julio Cortázar, and stories strewn seemingly at random across 180 pages that move quickly, as flowing over a strong WiFi signal. And they do move quickly, though the feeling begins to kick in—about a quarter of the way through Nocilla Experience—that maybe we’ve seen this trick before. If the second part of the trilogy suffers from anything it’s the feeling that Dream was a surprise, something new, and Experience is less stirring. (But aren’t dreams always better?) The stories are even more inventive and fabulist this time around: a chef specializing in theoretical cuisine; a man who, after consuming every box of Corn Flakes his ex-wife leaves behind (and she leaves behind many), goes for a run across the North American continent. Nevertheless, Nocilla Experience, while a fine installment in this project, feels like a way station before Nocilla Lab.
Before I discuss Nocilla Lab, let’s talk about theories and projects for a bit. A project is based on a theory, or at least this one is. At the end of Nocilla Experience, the author mentions that The Nocilla Project is an attempt at placing his postpoesía (post-poetry) theory into fiction. Without going into the theory directly (more on that in a bit), I want to consider the idea of theories in literature. This is coming from a guy who only took a few theory classes in college, and who would prefer to read Shakespeare before Foucault, but it has long been my belief that while theories are great—vital, even—often “projects” can be more fun to imagine than read. In her chapbook, Poetry is Not a Project, Dorothea Lasky makes a similar point. I would not say that The Nocilla Project is a drag. (It’s quite fun.) Rather, I’m curious if what I’ll remember about the project is the theory and not the contents.
But maybe that’s the point. For a theory to be advanced, it must be tested. Which implies repetition. Which is why Nocilla Experience is not a grand departure from Nocilla Dream. Which is why Nocilla Lab, a considerably different text, is slightly jarring. Gone are the brief bursts of tangentially connected stories, the blending of outside texts. Well, there is a bit of that in Nocilla Lab, but the quotations and intellectual ponderings that stood out in the previous texts are woven in with long stretches of prose (in the case of the first chapter, a 63-page sentence) that circle back to themes mostly dealing with a couple’s dissolving relationship, that is before things take a weird turn around page 96 (from which point things get truly goofy and considerably more exciting). I’m all for this literary playfulness, though, again, I feel I’ve seen it done to better effect in works by writers Fernández Mallo cites—specifically Thomas Bernhard, a writer who, despite penning books without paragraph breaks, consistently intrigues.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy Nocilla Lab. I did, though the hybrid nature of it feels more traditional, and thereby less interesting, than Nocilla Dream, and to a lesser extent Nocilla Experience. Perhaps it’s unfair to measure each book against the others, but this is a trilogy sold as one entity (in a nice slipcase that looks lovely on the shelf—I’m not opposed to owning books solely for their aesthetic qualities), so I feel somewhat justified in comparting the lab to the experience to the dream. That stated, I wonder if I would’ve thought differently of Lab had I encountered it independent of the other Nocillas.
One thing that Lab can boast that the other Nocillas cannot is a continuous narrative, however strange it gets by the end. Even as the closing pages turn into a graphic novel, the effect seems less experimental than Nocilla Dream. That being the case, Nocilla Lab might be arguably more conventional, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your taste. Other readers seem to think Lab is the weakest link, either for its regression back to a more connected form, or for the mere fact that they were less captivated by the story than the previous texts. Judging it on its own, to the extent that I can, I feel safe arguing that Nocilla Lab is engaging enough with a propulsive quality to keep the reader moving toward its final puzzlement. Putting it down, I immediately said aloud, to no one, “What the fuck did I just read?” And then I spent the next few minutes thinking about it. And then the next hour thinking about the trilogy as a whole. And then part of the next day considering Fernández Mallo’s post-poetry theory, the little of it I was able to glean from an internet search. The theory, as I understand it, is that poetry (and the novel) has become too staid, so a fusion with current scientific and technological innovation is necessary for the genre’s development. (Apologies to Fernández Mallo if I fucked that up.) And does The Nocilla Project succeed in moving the novel in a new direction? I can see arguments for and against such a claim. It’s safe to state that the trilogy is different from much of the what I’ve read this year, and that what it does, when it’s at its best, feels innovative enough. Readers eager to remain plugged into artistic movements will surely find something here to champion, though, again, regular consumers of world literature may not be able to avoid comparisons to Enrique Vila-Matas (appearing in the trilogy in spades), the before-mentioned Calvino, Cortázar, and Borges, not to mention Rodrigo Fresán and Jennifer Egan. But there is something singular about The Nocilla Project that justifiably places it in its own category, however ill-prepared I am to define that classification. But really, does it matter how fresh or innovative or revolutionary the thing is? Do the books, removed from underpinning theory, please? They do, at least to this reader. Do they merit discussion? Absolutely, even if the discussion is bound to lead to additional questions, though often this is the aim of art, however cutting edge it is or isn’t.