Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis
Catapult Press, February 2019
224 pages / Amazon
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis captures the quiet slowness of adolescence. This is Aridjis’s third novel, set in the 1980s, the plot follows the teenage Luisa. She is seventeen at an elite private school in Mexico City. She’s bored. She’s emotionally curious. And in this cinematic context, she wanders the neighborhoods of Mexico City building worlds within her mind to a soundtrack of new wave and post punk. Her father, an eminent professor of the classics, lives a hermetic life, which Luisa enters only intermittently. There are muted moments, friends drinking beer on park benches, which capture the excitement of youth. And reading it, I remembered long stretches of my own adolescent inactivity, and the play that emerges in boredom.
It’s a quiet novel, about what to do when you don’t have very much to do. There is a scene in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves when Gene Hackman rebuffs an invitation to the cinema, “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” And, for some, the films of Rohmer, the films of Agnes Varda, seem to go on forever. Just as when you’re very young, some summers, or afternoons, spread out into eternity. But in 2019, a piece of eternity is a generous idea. But these quiet moments also crackle, like an illicit wandering in an empty house, or a woman bathing at night in a city fountain:
I was about to turn off onto Orizaba when I noticed a strange scene lit by the streetlamps. Sometimes I saw the street kids from the Insurgentes roundabout splashing in the fountains, they’d leave their caps and shoes on the rim, but that night delivered a far more curious sight. A female figure, well past youth, in one of the fountains…For a split second we locked eyes, and I realized she was the homeless woman who often sat outside the Sagrada Familia…her skirt as petaled and billowy as the rose window overhead.
Aridjis treats these sensations with earnestness, again evoking the candor of young experience.
Sea Monsters is set in Mexico City. It features La Roma, the neighborhood celebrated in Alfonso Cuaron’s latest feature, and then moves farther afield to a beach outside Oaxaca, Zipolite. During this movement Luisa becomes infatuated with a fellow runaway, Tomas, before becoming inevitably disillusioned. It offers a tongue in cheek send up of the bored beach road trip genre.
The novel is formally straightforward. But it throws slightly exaggerated winks and nods to the historical avant garde through thematic material: a circus troupe of Ukrainian dwarves, the literary houses of Mexico City, Frida, Burroughs, Trotsky. Aridjis employs one of the central themes of the historical avant garde, in conversation with the classical world, by drawing on “the sea,” as an organizing metaphor. As Luisa escapes the boredom and monotony of the city, she comes up against the wall of the ocean, becoming fascinated by a man she calls, “the Mer man.” As the Mer man replaces the Tomas in Luisa’s imagination, Aridjis describes the caprice of youth, even as she winks at the enduring caprices of desire.
Obviously, when it comes to “the sea,” it’s all there in terms of significance. But there are different historical and conceptual framings for the metaphor in modernism. Charles Olson wrote about the ocean in conversation with emergent systems of market and body. There’s Drexciya and the heterotopia’s of Samuel R. Delany, the imagined futures of a black Atlantis. Olson, for example, foregrounded some of the initial colonial development of New England in the context of mercantilism.
He described England’s relative proximity to the fishing shoals of Massachusetts as a critical advantage in nation building against Spain, which had traditionally held captive the market from the Mediterranean.
There are various other links with Olson. Most notably Ardijis’s framed story of a group of indigenous girls that wandered into the ocean and died on Zipolite. Olson solidified his practice, in Projective Verse, during his time spent on the Yucatan peninsula studying Mayan archaeology. And from that time, he turned his archaeology towards the idea of American poetics, and open field poetics, famously described in Maximus: “An American/ is a complex of occasions,/ themselves a geography/ of spatial nature.” From that time, he sought to foreground Mayan culture in the idea of American poetics.
This kind of symbolic modernism evokes many great works of experimental fiction. I was especially struck by the apparent homage to Julieta Campos, another terrific Mexican novelist, who foregrounded the sea and desire in her Fear of Losing Eurydice. In that novel, a professor, resembling Luisa’s father, obsessively collects references to islands in literature, jumping off from a Jules Verne story of shipwreck.
In Sea Monsters, Luisa becomes fascinated with a poem from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, “Un Voyage a Cythere,” and the terror of a rocky coast against a dark sea. And so Baudelaire’s sea sets the tenor for Arjidis, (the sea, the mighty sea, consoles our labor!/ what demon endowed the sea?) For Arjidis, the sea describes the historical pull of drowning, or the ending of discontinuous experience within a vast continuity. This is the erotic pull of Kierkegaard’s Merman, who would drag Agnes under the waves to end her life. It’s the classic, “ego death,” of Freud, otherwise called, “the oceanic feeling.” And against this principle metaphor, there is also the notion that worlds and creatures and thoughts reside permanently within the obscurity of the sea; the subterranean, unconscious desires, the inscrutable. Arjidis makes a kind of perverse paradox in the death by drowning of the indigenous women. She suggests there are a great many things that defy comprehension, some deep beneath the surface. This was a rallying cry for the surrealist, with Joyce Mansour’s little langoustine’s, and Dali’s oversized Lobster Phones. And it still rings truthfully when it comes to the limits of language, and the death of human ambition.
Ardijis makes the sea deadly, a keeper of secrets: “The sea. Up until then, my father’s only way of interesting me in the ancient world had been through shipwrecks… listening to my father describe the scenario made me feel I had access to something vertiginously distant and mysterious…his favorite, and soon mine, was that of Antikythera, which had lain at the bottom of the ocean for twenty centuries.”
There are no words to describe the beauty and slowness of adolescence, or the fears we can’t name. This novel is a quiet and quick meditation on the paradox, capturing the vivid, terrifying, and fleeting.