Providing a Space for Madness: The Millions Interviews Yuri Herrera

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“He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as if made of finer threads. Other blood. The man took a seat at a table and his attendants fanned out in a semicircle behind him.” Thus begins Yuri Herrera’s brilliant and brutal debut Kingdom Cons, a story set on a fraught but nameless border where a young songwriter, drawn into a lethal world full of glitz and death, is forced to examine the meaning of loyalty and artistic integrity. The songwriter (Lobo or “the Artist”) is delighted to have found a wealthy patron (“the King”). He becomes the court bard at the King’s lavish palace, but soon finds out that the price he must pay to stay in this elevated world far outweighs what he receives in return. Kingdom Cons is the Mexican novelist’s first book but his third to be translated into English, and like his other two slim, impactful novels (Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies) the story he tells reaches out its tendril hands in many different directions. Herrera’s novels are at once evocative of royal court dramas, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean romances, old world fairytales, hardboiled detective novels, and philosophical treatises on the power of art and words.

I had the honor of speaking with Herrera recently about silence, power, creation, and translation.

The Millions: I want to start by asking you about the things not said in Kingdom Cons, the unnamed countries, cities, and even characters. The book is set on a border, but the border is not specified, the cities are not named, and most of the characters are referred to only by epithets or roles. The main character has a name that sounds more like a nickname, Lobo, and very quickly he becomes simply the Artist, and he is surrounded by the Girl, the King, the Heir, the Commoner, who in the final pages of the novel becomes simply She. Can you talk a little bit about the power of absence and what you intended by not naming people and places?

Yuri Herrera: I don’t think everything has to be explained in a novel. Silences are important because they are the most eloquent part of a creative work in how it allows the readers to reveal themselves when they fill them. In the case of the novel, not naming certain places helps avoiding clichés and easy formulations of issues that are much more complex than what the mass media and government speakers say. Regarding the names of the characters, these are like that in order to introduce an element of tension: their names as roles create an expectation of what they are supposed to do, and each character is going to define itself by resisting or obeying that expectation.

TM: At one point in Kingdom Cons the news arrives at the Palace that the Artist’s songs have been banned, the DJs get “orders to shut his groove down.” Something similar to this happened across northern Mexico in the early 2000s, city governments implemented bans on narcocorridos, claiming that they would poison the youth by glamorizing the narco lifestyle, a similar critique to one that has been voiced in the United States about gangster rap. The ban in Ciudad Juárez has apparently since been lifted because the new mayor is financially invested in several radio stations and the ban was not good for business, either way it did not really matter because the songs by groups like Los Tigres del Norte only got more popular when they were outlawed. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the popularity of narcocorridos and their influence and what it means for a society when people are banned from partaking in something?

YH: In the case of the corridos, the ban of certain songs is a simplification of a very complex phenomenon. Maybe some singers have worked for criminals, like scores of lawyers, financiers, and architects have done and still do, but the focus of these politicians is on the singers because they are an easy target, it allows them, the politicians, to transfer their responsibility to someone else, to blame artists of their own ineptitude. But corridos are not a genre that emerged with the War on Drugs, it has been around for a long time, and very often has been a way in which stories out of the mainstream have circulated.

TM: I’m interested in the influence of fairytales, folklore, and fables on your writing. Kingdom Cons includes lots of recognizable archetypes that appear in fairy or folktales across the globe—the King, the Witch, the Commoner, the Heir—can you talk a little bit about your choice to use these sorts of stock mythic characters?

YH: In this specific case it is because although I took for my model a very precise space, the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, and a very precise issue, the criminal stupidity of the “War on Drugs,” designed by different American administrations and followed by several Mexican administrations, the craziness of the powerful was not invented by these criminals, the drug lords, it is something that has always been there. The present day criminals are a very explicit example of that, but the need to have your name in golden letters, to proceed following your testosterone, to not listen to other opinions, to believe that artists are there to promote your greatness, that kind of megalomania can be seen very clearly in the old kingdoms, as well as in decaying democracies with spoiled frat-boys-turned-presidents who decorate their houses with animal skins and golden furniture. As for the other characters, it has to do with the role that the King assigned to them, their names signal the tension between what they might or might not want to do and what power expects from them.

TM: You have a very distinctive writing style: charged but very clipped, deceptively simple, with short sentences and not a lot of description. There is a moment in the middle of Kingdom Cons when the Artist is talking about writing corridos and he says “The story tells itself but you have to coax it […] you take one or two words and the others revolve around them, that’s what holds it up. Cause if you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song. Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.” When I read this quote I couldn’t help but wonder if your writing process is anything like the Artist’s?

YH: I think it is a lot like that. For every story I find a core around which the rest of the text is going to proliferate, sometimes it is a tension between characters, sometimes it is a dramatic line, like a transformational journey, sometimes it is an atmosphere. And I try to understand what kind of language, what kind of landscape, what kind of behaviors are organic to that core that generates meaning.

TM: What are your thoughts on big novels versus small novels? All of your books are approximately the same slim size, somewhere around 100 pages. Should more novels be small and distilled? Are big novels just spinning their wheels and wasting everyone’s time?

YH: I always think my next novel is going to be as long as War and Peace, because I have many notes and I think that once I develop them it is going to be a long breadth book, but then I discover that my notes look a lot like how I want the story to sound, or that they require not more development but more concision and more versatility. I like words and phrases and paragraphs that do several things at a time. I guess that is why I can’t write long novels. But I would love to be able to create that kind of respiration, to engage with a tempo that depicts a different pace in which emotions develop.

TM: Your novels were all written in Spanish and then translated, often by the same translator, Lisa Dillman, into English. I’m curious what your relationship is to your translated texts? I’ve never had my writing translated so I have not yet had this experience and I’m curious how it feels to you to read your words in a different language? I’m also curious about the translation process and how involved you are in it?

YH: Translation is a step into the abyss, because it doesn’t matter how “accurate” it is, it will always create a different object, with unexpected meanings. And that is fine, that is something that should be embraced, precisely because it is a way of expanding the life of a text. This is something that has to do not only with the lexicon or the syntax, but with how the new version sounds; sound creates meaning, even if you cannot articulate it in words. So I trust the translators because I assume they know the readership in this other language much better than me, that they know how to activate those new meanings in the text. I participate in the process only as much as they ask me to. In the case of Lisa, we have had a very rich dialogue, with each book we exchanged daily emails for months, and even though I suggested ways to do it, the final decisions were hers, she always found graceful, inventive solutions.

TM: There is one word in Kingdom Cons that I kept coming back to and thinking about in terms of translation: the use of the word “tho” in place of “though.” To me, when I was reading, it was a visual cue to me to remind me that I was existing in Lobo’s world (similar to the way that the verb”‘verse” made me feel when I read Signs Preceding the End of the World.) The use of tho felt slightly off kilter in a really good way and it seemed perfect because Lobo is someone for whom spelling is probably not a main focus—it seems like a wonderful way to show what a slang culture he is living in. I wondered if there is an equivalent word that you used in the original Spanish or is this something that only exists in translation?

YH: There are a lot of words that work as markers of a certain rhythm and a certain character of Lobo, like Simón, which is another word for Yes, but, say, with more attitude. I think this word is a translational device, a compensation, to communicate that same attitude and rhythm, even if it’s not always in the exact same spots.

TM: When the Artist’s songs were banned the King comforted him, “He smiled and his smile seemed a protective embrace that said to the Artist, Why sugarcoat the ears of those fuckers? We know what we are and we’re good with it. Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” When I read this, it reminded me of something that another writer I know, Scott McClanahan, said recently in an interview. He said, “If you’re not asking the question “Could this possibly destroy my life?” then you shouldn’t write it. That’s what I think anyway.” Do you agree with the King and Scott McClanahan. Is risk the main reason to be an artist?

YH: I don’t know if it’s the main reason, but it’s something that you are going to have to face if you truly engage with the creative labor, because art implies creating new ways of looking at familiar subjects, and in order to do that you have to disassemble rules, meanings, certainties, you have to look at the arbitrariness of certain aspects of reality, or at the nonsense of cruelty, or at the complications of love, and in this manner you can not only mess with your readers’ emotional stability, but with your own. And this is a necessary step in order to provide a space for critical thinking, or for emotional discovery, but also for madness.

The King of Shopping Mall Surrealism

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Back in the mid-1980s, while young Scott McClanahan was busy running up and down the mountainside in Rainelle, W.Va., picking blackberries and carving his name into turtles, critics in New York were becoming increasingly preoccupied with defining, and ridiculing, a “new” form of short fiction. Labeled as Shopping Mall Realism, Kmart Realism, Dirty Realism, Name Brand Realism, Diet Coke Realism or “Truth Among the Trailer Parks,” the short stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, and others were derided as being terse, unadorned, and shallow. In a 1986 essay in Harper’s, Madison Smartt Bell described the writing as having an “obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Three years later Tom Wolfe chimed in by claiming that the Kmart Realists had a penchant for “real situations, but very tiny ones” and “disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”

Most critics agree that the idea of Kmart Realism as movement or cohesive style came about after the publication of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) but the style predated her. Ernest Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose might be seen as the Grandaddy of Kmart Realism and Raymond Carver is almost undisputedly the Daddy, and though the term is no longer used very often, the family tree has continued on through writers like Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Tao Lin, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan. But while Mason and others chafed under Wolfe and Smartt Bell’s descriptions, there has been a new trend in this lineage, through the ‘90s and ‘00s, towards a deeper embrace of the “obsessive concern for surface detail” and Novocained nihilism—an embrace that tips towards the surreal, with Johnson’s hallucinatory drug escapades, Bender’s flammable skirts, and most recently Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which just may be the king of Shopping Mall Surrealism.

In a 1985 interview, Bobbie Ann Mason admitted that the characters in her stories are heavily affected by pop culture but, she clarified, this “is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.” Scott McClanahan on the other hand is in full tilt celebration of Mountain Dew, Applebees, and Walmart; in his hands these familiar references are warped in beautiful ways, creating a transcendent meditation on modern materialism. Midway through this novel the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) actually begins living at Walmart, or at least in the parking lot. “I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce,” he muses, “The cops don’t seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance.”

Kmart may have been the backdrop of Shopping Mall Realism, but Walmart, in McClanahan’s fiction, becomes a sacred entity unto itself. From his vantage point in the parking lot, McClanahan’s narrator
watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up their buggies and forget about all their pain […] I got out of my car and walked towards Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. […] I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, porkchops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda. Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids […] I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
McClanahan is not afraid to hold the royal and holy up alongside the mundane and banal. He cups them all together—the high and the low, simple and complex, fiction and nonfiction, present and past—and the result is a book that is as tender as it is fierce. The plot in this “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love, the breakdown of a marriage, and life in West Virginia,” is deceptively simple. It is intensely personal and yet also familiar. But it is not just that the sequence of falling in and out of love is relatable; there is something more than that, a genius in the level of specificity, so tight that it expands out until it contains everything. As one character puts it, “this giant meteor collided with earth and so life began. […] We are all made up of what came here and collided […] but also if you wanted to buy the things that make up our bodies it would cost about as much as a candy bar. And that’s all we are. Candy bars and stars.”

To McClanahan there is no contradiction between the astral and the pedestrian, and throughout The Sarah Book a great electric energy is created by this simultaneous coexistence, the huge emotions that his character feels versus the simple clipped sentences in which they are expressed.

In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “the requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction.” And while McClanahan is clearly a descendant of the minimalist tradition, he does not shy away from profundity, but rather allows it to spring forth from the everyday. A lunch break at the mall results in true love and reunification, or as the narrator puts it: “this is a boring story about how I went to the mall one day and ordered a cheeseburger and my life changed because I ordered a cheeseburger. I didn’t know it then but the story of our lives is the story of ordering cheeseburgers.” Life-changing love and cheeseburgers, candy bars and stars, life is not one of these but both, McClanahan argues.

While he takes on the Hallmark of Shopping Mall Realism—pop culture and consumer goods— McClanahan  is equally as successful at incorporating that other aspect which Smartt Bell described as a “tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among […] people.” In a conversation they have while falling in love, Sarah tells Scott that she believes that “we are only a collection of other people’s ideas about us. We are all a we.” Later, when Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, Scott finds solace in this”‘we.” After moving his belongings out of Sarah’s house, he drives to an Applebees where he is greeted by a hostess who is wearing “the same uniform that someone else was wearing somewhere else […] and make-up that someone else was wearing somewhere too. A woman named Michelle handed me a menu and she had a name like the name of a million different Michelles but she was her own Michelle.” Instead of the modern cliche of disconnection or separateness that we so often associate with box stores and chain restaurants, McClanahan uses these settings to amplify a sense of togetherness, a sort of winking “we’re all in this together.” This twist on the numbing universality of brands is uniquely refreshing, this idea that even in our aloneness (or our identicalness) we are not alone.

In the same way that he asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions about corporate restaurants and stores, McClanahan also pushes his readers to re-inspect our ideas of what is sacred. A Bible is burned, the superiority of the Garden of Eden is brought into question—even the hierarchy of family over pornography is made unstable. The paternal concern that character-Scott is not quite able to muster for his children is perfectly offset by the caring and understanding way in which writer-Scott depicts his own failings. Though this novel chronicles the breakdown of a marriage, it is not an exercise in self-flagellation but rather a revolutionary re-envisioning of what love and family mean. This is perhaps best demonstrated through McClanahan’s treatment of time. In The Sarah Book the falling in and out of love happen simultaneously. A chapter in which Scott and Sarah sign divorce papers is snuggled up beside a chapter in which they get married, and a chapter in which Sarah announces that she is pregnant with their first child comes directly before a scene in which Scott, years later, sells his wedding ring for cash to spend at a strip club. This splicing of the end of the relationship in with its beginning is an exquisite technique that allows the reader to feel the fullness of the lives depicted here. This malleability of time is reminiscent of works like Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth in that it contains a beautiful sense that pockets of the past keep on occurring even in the midst of the present.

While McClanahan’s earlier books have, understandably, been described as “gritty” or “folksy” or “like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you” a story, comparing McClanahan only to Breece Pancake and Larry Brown does not do him justice. The Sarah Book especially, is larger than that. It is not regional fiction, but human fiction, and it is best read not as a zoological window into exotic Appalachia, but as a window into yourself. The very ubiquity of the shopping mall settings is what facilitates and enhances this perspective.

By the end of The Sarah Book McClanahan brings together all of these dichotomous elements—”I,” “you,” and “we;” memory and reality; the stars and the candy bars—into a quietly thunderous and immensely satisfying scene. While reading the final pages I couldn’t help but picture McClanahan as a conductor, orchestrating from on top of Sandstone Mountain with his piles of beef jerky, pistachios, DVDs, and potato chips, pulling it all together into a subtle emotional crescendo, hinging on the plastic lid to a fast-food restaurant cup.