Book Review


Literature for Nonhumans, front cover

The Guilty

Juan Villoro
George Braziller, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-80760-013-9
140 pages, $15.95

Reviewed by Trena Machado:

The Guilty by Juan Villoro is the only book of fiction translated into English by this Mexican writer of short stories, novels, plays, essays, screen scripts. He has been given the Herralde Award in Spain, the Anton Artaud award in France and short-listed for the Reezzori Prize in Italy. In this book of short stories, the individual is in the new global world order, navigating the culture of signs, copies, media, signifiers of commercial production. Each story is told from a first person point of view, but the “I” does not belong to a specific character with a name, the “I” a transient “I” living in the world through image-manufactured phenomena. Each male “I” has little personal history to locate him as someone who belongs to or is from a specific place. Rather he lives his life from day to day ensnared within commercial contracts and images that determine his life. The females these males deal with are strong and unpredictably self-determining.

  In Mariachi, the musician says, “[…] I’ve never made a decision in my life. My father took charge of killing my mother [accidentally when he was two years old], crying a lot, and making me into a mariachi. Everything else was automatic.” He lives his life without roots or belonging anywhere, “Women seek me out through my agent. I fly a private jet when the commercial liners can’t take off. Turbulence. That is what I depend on.” “Turbulence” is what each “I” in each story is caught up in, social life an indeterminable flux, mostly orchestrated by media events.

  In Holding Pattern, the “I” works “for a company that produces the best tasteless water in the world [and…] it weighs less in your mouth.” “I’s” life cannot find grounding just like the plane he is traveling in must keep circling:

The plane leans into a leisurely curve. We’ll circle like fruit flies until a runway opens up. The lovely autumn light makes the lawns below us shine, with the Thames sparkling like the blade of a sword and the city scattering toward inconceivable limits.

  Villoro keeps us in the present with a writing style in which everything comes out of the blue as inscrutable fact—life lite—nothing inherently connected, this happened, then this, then this, then this and one can easily imagine this is what life always was from the moment each of us was born: a new cosmology constructed mirrors the ineffectual agency of lives corralled by corporate-made processes. In The Whistle:

I remember the day they came to visit me with the case of beer. “We rise like foam,” they’d told me. They were younger than me. Their bodies had swollen up as if they knew they wouldn’t live very long. All three of them, as if they had made a pact to inflate together. […] “The board of directors needs new recruits. They put a price on my contract.”

  The “three” men appear from a shadowy financial authority, that could be stockholders or the drug cartel. They have power to control his life which they do and then the story moves on leaving the “three” unexplained, as indeed, from one sentence to the next events are singular and isolated, then strung together leaving a sense of no connection. The identity of the “I” from one time to another is a vacillating multiplicity. Reality itself can be manipulated where the false is real, the real is false. Depending on the situational intention, everyone does what is necessary to let them get what they need. In Amigos Mexicanos, a New Yorker magazine journalist kidnapped and held for days, an imprisonment he thought was real, had been given “an experience” his Mexican contacts thought he wanted of “authentic” adventure to provide an article for his New York editors. This is one interpretation in an ambiguity of possible interpretations.

  There are shadows of remembering that the “I” has lost something with the demise of the old social order, but it is gone and they are left responding to the manufactured reality of the new, homogenized global culture forming. The “I” in Mayan Dusk with the failure of a love affair, says, “Everything had been wrong from before we’d entered the car, or from a moment before that, already irrecoverable. What design were we fulfilling when we shared our breath and believed we could search for ourselves in two bodies?” The ability to ask this kind of question is the quiver of humanity to keep searching for itself even as it is inundated by a world order avid to control the individual’s interior by collecting endless data on each person and using the information to control and shape the individual’s awareness (and purchasing choices). Villoro has given us a look at the unease of individuals enmeshed in manufactured images and the power of corporate institutional webs with which they are forced to deal. The stories have multiple meanings, the individual a revolving weather vane of viewpoints…this, then this…. Villoro’s impeccable and fresh language effectively expresses the effect of globalization of commercialized culture on the individual and society.

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