If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The writer on depicting disenchantment, chasing the imagination, and retelling the stories she collected as a child in Mexico.
Chloe Aridjis’s novel Sea Monsters (Catapult) revels in a mode of perception that’s just a little bit off from true. A beach landscape is so perfect it might be cut and pasted from stock imagery, and an untalkative man must be an introspective and artistic foreigner. The main engine of the plot of this memoirish novel is the search for some missing Ukrainian circus dwarfs. Luisa, a seventeen-year-old student at an exclusive high school in Mexico City, has read a news story about their escape from their cruel master. She talks her glum companion and love interest Tomás into going to look for them. They take off for the mystic beach Zipolite in Oaxaca, where Tomás leaves Luisa to her own devices, and she bums around aimlessly, sunbathing by day, sitting in a beachside bar by night. Luisa delights in the improbable but actual. Her chase after the Ukrainian dwarfs is like the journey of an impassioned collector. She can’t miss the chance to see something come to life that seems like a story invented by a tabloid. Sea Monsters is a treasure chest of Luisa’s deftly curated visions.
Angela WoodwardI loved this book so much. I’m really happy to have a chance to talk to you about it. The relationship between Luisa and Tomás is unusual. She describes her first impression of him as “a puppet of wood and cloth slipped over a giant hand.” She pursues him, and scribbles his name all over her notebooks. But ultimately, he doesn’t seem that important to her. The book dwells very little on the tragedy of her romantic disappointment.
Chloe AridjisI wasn’t interested in writing a love story. I was interested in writing about disenchantment, so I had to set up the moments of initial enchantment. That first description of Tomás as a kind of puppet indeed hints at the fact that he’s like an awkward fantasy animated, operated, by her thoughts, and now the remnant of an abandoned game. At that age, desire tends to be very mobile and glides from one receptacle to the next. It’s upsetting for Luisa to find herself far from home with someone she feels little connection to, but before long she finds someone else on whom to project. The working title for this novel was actually very different: The Antikythera Mechanism (playing on the word mechanism, and on what the Antikythera mechanism comes to represent for Luisa, apart from an ancient feat of engineering).
AW I loved that it wasn’t a love story. In an early scene, Luisa stays out way too late at a party where there’s cocaine and iguanas, and when she gets home she’s amazed that she’s completely forgotten about Tomás for five hours. It’s so funny that she’s aware that she’s sort of creating him, turning him on and off, and at the same time not. That seems to be what that Antikythera mechanism is, this kind of intrusive self-consciousness. Tell me more about Kythera/Antikythera, why it fascinates you, how it drove this book.
CA I had just started work on this novel when I learned about the Antikythera mechanism and immediately knew it had to somehow form part of the narrative. The Antikythera mechanism was a tremendously sophisticated apparatus that could map the movements of the cosmos or, in more scientific terms, track the cycles of the solar system. It was retrieved from a shipwreck that lay on the ocean bed for twenty centuries. I read a great deal about it, and about ancient Greek shipwrecks in general, but it took awhile to figure out how to incorporate it into the plot—after all, this was Mexico in the late 80s, not ancient Greece, and the Pacific Ocean, not the Mediterranean. I then reread Baudelaire’s famous poem “Voyage à Cythère” (“Voyage to Kythera”) and sensed that by bringing that into the mix my character could establish some sort of weird daydreamy logic for it all. In Luisa’s mind, the mechanism becomes an unconscious process that is set in motion whenever she feels drawn to someone romantically, with emphasis of course on the prefix anti-.
AW Another mechanism that seems to drive Luisa’s interest is the “thermal inversion.” Luisa and her parents collect these stories of Mexican life. One is about the migrating birds that start dropping dead over Mexico City because of the toxic smog. The government’s explanation is that the birds died of exhaustion. You write:
Each time an event in Mexico challenged the natural order of things, often enough for it to become part of the natural order, my parents and I called it thermal inversion. Thermal inversion whenever a politician stole millions and the government covered it up, thermal inversion when an infamous drug trafficker escaped from a high-security prison, thermal inversion when the director of a zoo turned out to be a dealer in wild animal skins and two lion cubs went missing.
These are actually pretty sickening stories, and yet Luisa seems intoxicated by their aura of fantasy. This is one way Luisa’s vision seems formed by her particularly Mexican environment, even as she’s obsessed with English and American music, with Baudelaire, with William Burroughs, whose former apartment she visits with Tomás.
CA In this sense I suppose she is very much like my younger (and perhaps present) self, formed and informed by both European and Mexican cultures and subcultures. Most of my Mexican friends do listen to English and American music and read lots of foreign writers too. Luisa draws freely on different inspirations without really dwelling on what comes from where. As for “thermal inversion”—sadly, all those examples I mention are true, and the birds dropping out of the polluted skies felt like an early sign of the apocalypse.
A lot in the book is drawn pretty directly from my own experience. El Nueve [a nightclub Luisa visits] was exactly as I describe it, and haunted by those very characters. Nearly everyone who went to the club was Mexican, and many had never travelled abroad, yet deeply identified with this music from overseas. With our skull jewelry and funereal attire we somehow referenced, probably not altogether consciously, elements from pre-Hispanic sculpture and, more consciously, Gothic trends from Europe. There was a theatre to it all, but also a strong sense of community. Wearing black indicated some sort of internal weather, a way of bringing the melancholy into relief. El Chopo is also real, a large counter-culture market frequented by young Goths and punks with stands selling bootlegs, T-shirts, fanzines, and just about every other kind of music paraphernalia imaginable.
AW One of my favorite scenes was when Luisa and Tomás have made their escape, and are on the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Her concern is almost entirely with the music on her Walkman, and the staying power of her batteries. I took that bus myself two summers ago, and saw some of the most astonishing scenery on Earth slide by. Luisa barely notices where she is in the presence of Nick Cave and Joy Division. Is this the blindness of youth?
CA Yes, and a certain mono-vision when pursuing something you want. I do remember on road trips at that age being more concerned about what music I was going to listen to than with what lay beyond the window. That said, Luisa does take in some of the landscape before it grows dark. For her what matters is what is happening within the bus, even if Tomás is asleep much of the time.
AWSea Monsters is fascinating for how it illuminates both Luisa’s blindness and her intense vision. The little scraps and slivers of scenes she notices are so wonderful. I was particularly struck by the passage where she comes home late (she’s still in Mexico City at that point) and sees a homeless woman bathing in a fountain. This older woman is “full of misplaced curves and lumps,” and yet her body is like a pearl in the light. Those couple of paragraphs reveal so much.
CA I suppose all three of my female narrators in the novels are a combination of very observant and a bit withdrawn, with certain blind spots that test them to see whether they’ll acquire more agency if placed in certain situations. Regarding Luisa, she comes from a home where culture is sovereign, so even at moments when she may seem completely immersed in another environment there’s that hum of perception at work and a head full of cultural references that infiltrate her adolescent emotions.
AWThe Ukrainian circus dwarfs instigate Luisa’s trip to Oaxaca. Yet they barely make an appearance in the novel. They show up as a newspaper story, and then as some traces, maybe footprints, the top of a head.
CAI felt it was important to keep the dwarfs within the realm of the imagination, as part of a greater reverie triggered by Luisa’s fantasies of freedom and autonomy. To some extent they are a ruse to lure Tomás to Oaxaca; although she is surprised when her idea quickly acquires substance. It really was a newspaper story we came across at the time, and wondered about for years: what could’ve happened to those dwarfs on the run in Mexico? At moments, in Zipolite, Luisa thinks she sees them, but it may be part of her search for identification with someone, anyone, and a way to justify her trip once she and Tomás fall out.
AWWhat is your language background? Do you have to make a choice about what language to write in?
CAI grew up completely bilingual—English with my mother and Spanish with my father. My school in Mexico was also bilingual, but my university studies were mainly in English.
AWWhat would have changed about Sea Monsters if it was written in Spanish?
CAMy father is a writer, and he writes in Spanish, so it would’ve been difficult had I chosen not only his profession but to write in the same language. I do wonder how this novel would’ve been different had it been written in Spanish—probably more minimalist prose and shorter sentences. The characters would’ve used more slang. Beyond that, it’s impossible to know.
Angela Woodward is the author of the novels Natural Wonders (FC2, 2016) and End of the Fire Cult (Ravenna Press, 2010) and the collections Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc, 2016) and The Human Mind (Ravenna Press, 2007).
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.