Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico
Translated by Esther Allen
New Directions, 2010
According to Deleuze and Guattari, the art of the novella is very different from the art of the novel or the short story. The novel keeps you in the moment and develops a character, merging your psyche with that of another real-feeling person as she struggles through ups and downs. The short story unfolds into the future rhythmically, forever eliding psychology in favor of narrative. D&G sum it up this way: The story asks, “What’s going to happen next?” The novel shows you what is happening, as it happens.
The novella, perpendicular to both, tells you right away what already happened, then asks, “What happened?”—meaning how exactly did these events come to pass, what did they mean at the time, to whom, and what do we take from them now? If a novel is a life and a story a cinematic progression of moments, a novella is only a single moment, seen a la Rashōmon through many lenses.
This tends to make the novella blur into philosophy. A novella is, in some respects, a meditation, and—as much as it sucks us in and delivers a satisfying plot or examination of a theme—it leaves us dazed, our thoughts half-formed, our gushy parts only half-enlightened. We wonder if we’ve missed something. If we’re holding one of the great novellas, we dive right back in.
Javier Marías’s novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico is worth the second dive, and maybe many more. A 56-page work of alternating gravid humor and steak-thick terror, Bad Nature begins with a pages-long digression about what it means to be hunted down and killed, what it means to want to hunt someone down and kill him—propositions turned over carefully, almost religiously, as if we had specifically asked a good friend to explain to us why anyone would ever hunt another human, what the hunted would feel, and why.
[Being hunted down] isn’t knowing that you could be hunted down… it isn’t knowing with absolute certainty that someone would stamp on your hand if it were clutching the edge of a cliff (a thing we don’t usually risk, not in the presence of heartless people)…
The digression—preceding any plot beyond Elvis’s name in the subtitle—is not only tolerable but highly enjoyable, because it springs not from distracting cleverness or the need to delay, but from a typical and remarkable precision on the behalf of its cosmopolitan and prolific author, who is increasingly hailed as the greatest living Spanish novelist. (He’s “the most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature,” The Boston Globe, and “probably the greatest living and widely known writer in the world,” n+1.)
Marías—slyly political, laconically forceful—wastes not a word in seamlessly transitioning from the abstract to the real, and the really funny. Five pages in, Elvis has left the building, has left the United States, in fact, and is in Acapulco with the narrator, Ruibérriz or “Roy Berry,” a Spanish-born translator hired to coach the King into sounding more refined than the Mexicans he’ll be presumably upstaging in his latest plotless sojourn into film.
Roy is always quick to defend the King, who is so earnest and powerful and happy that you barely notice him amid his admirers. When’s he’s around, he’s a city unto himself:
…he traveled—well, “travel” may be an exaggeration: he moved—with a legion at his back, a battalion of more or less indispensable parasites, each with his own function or without any very precise function at all, lawyers, managers, make-up artists, musicians, hairstylists, vocal accompanists…
Here comes the “What happened?” A holiday goes wrong. After a scuffle at a bar with some small-time gangsters, Roy translates what a cool-furious Elvis spits out. And yet Elvis is allowed to go home… Roy is not. And when Elvis is gone, he’s gone, and Roy is left to drunkenly fend off the creatures of the Mexico City night on his own.
So, what happened?
Is Elvis to blame for the violence that ensues? Is no one to blame—is the outcome expected? Preordained? Absurd? Everything in the well-paced back-fifth of the book hangs on what happened when Elvis was in the room, and so—though he’s never really real, never really present or deep or transparent—the King is also never really gone.
Elvis provides, it turns out, half of a frame. The other half—the hunt—returns in the novella’s sewn-tight final lines, thematically landing back on page 1. Without trickery, Marías accomplishes the nigh-impossible. He infuses a meditation with all the life of a story, and he yanks up from the story a fully engaging character.
But, by the end, we realize that the character isn’t Elvis or even Roy: It’s the narrator’s voice, the man behind the curtain, the producer and cameraman and especially the director—maybe Almodóvar meets the restrained–manic Kurosawa of High and Low. Who is this guy, so funny and so hounded? Masculine in tone and childlike in observation?
The guessing game is all part of the happy itch with which Marías and writers of his caliber curse us. And so we read again. Somewhere, it’s always the 60s in Mexico, and Elvis is always at the bar, ordering another finger of rotgut mescal just as the fat gangster snatches back from the newspaperman his crumpled lucky hat…
-Wythe Marschall can be found here.