INTRODUCTION BY GARTH GREENWELL
When we first meet Luisa, the narrator of Chloe Aridjis’s strange and very beautiful new novel, she’s roaming “aimlessly, purposefully, and in search of digressions.” That seeming paradox — aimlessly, purposefully — is a fitting description of the novel’s movement, too, which is dreamlike and sly and urgent. Aridjis is one of my favorite contemporary stylists, not least for the way her sentences are in constant conspiracy with poetry. On the first page of this book, Luisa notices “Sand sifting umber and adrenaline”; boats lift sacrificial throats to the sun.
I can’t think of another book that opens quite like Sea Monsters. But for all its divagation this first chapter also gets down to the business of storytelling. We learn that Luisa is seventeen and that she has run away from home to be with a boy; we learn that this boy has disappeared. We hear about some Ukrainian dwarfs who have fled their escorts (we’re in the late 1980s, near the fall of the Soviet Union). We see the strange, unmoored social world of the beach town Zipolite, “a meeting place for fabulists,” and also, in memory, Luisa’s quotidian life in Mexico City: the bus she takes to school, the restaurant where she listens to music with her best friend, Julián, passing time like adolescents everywhere, “letting all that had sunken well up inside.”
“All appearances are ultimately disturbances,” Luisa tells us. Sea Monsters takes a familiar premise — a protagonist who is caught, thanks to an unfortunate choice, in a situation she has to find her way out of — and works it through wildly adventurous and surprising variations, not so much by means of narrative machinations as through a sensibility so individual and finely tuned that we are brought very close to the surreal landscape of adolescence. Luisa is full of zeal for literature and music, and full of desire for the world to be other than it is, and she has made a mistake with her heart. I loved her and her indelible voice from the first pages of this brilliant novel.
Author of What Belongs to You
Garth Greenwell Recommends “Sea Monsters” by Chloe Aridjis
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Sea Monsters, Chapter 1 Excerpt
by Chloe Aridjis
Imprisoned on this island, I would say, imprisoned on this island. And yet I was no prisoner and this was no island.
During the day I’d roam the shore, aimlessly, purposefully, and in search of digressions. The dogs. A hut. Boulders. Nude tourists. Scantily clad ones. Palm trees. Palapas. Sand sifting umber and adrenaline. The waves’ upward grasp. A boat in the distance, its throat flashing in the sun. The ancient Greeks created stories out of a simple juxtaposition of natural features, my father once told me, investing rocks and caves with meaning, but there in Zipolite I did not expect any myths to be born.
Zipolite. People said the name meant “Beach of the Dead,” though the reason for this was debated — was it because of the number of visitors who met their end in the treacherous currents, or because the native Zapotecs would bring their dead from afar to bury in its sands? Beach of the Dead: it had an ancient ring, ancestral, commanding both dread and respect, and after hearing about the unfortunate souls who each year got caught in the riptide I decided I would never go in beyond where I could stand. Others said Zipolite meant “Lugar de Caracoles,” place of seashells, an attractive thought since spirals are such neat arrangements of space and time, and what are beaches if not a conversation between the elements, a constant movement inward and outward. My favorite explanation, which only one person put forward, was that Zipolite was a corruption of the word zopilote, and that every night a black vulture would envelop the beach in its dark wings and feed on whatever the waves tossed up. It’s easier to reconcile yourself with sunny places if you can imagine their nocturnal counterpart.
Once dusk had fallen I would head to the bar and spend hours under its thatched universe, a large palapa on the shores of the Pacific decked with stools, tables, and miniature palm trees. It was where all boats came to dock and refuel, syrup added to cocktails for maximum effect, and I’d imagine that everything was as artificial as the electric-blue drink; that the miniature palm trees grew fake after dusk, the chlorophyll struggling and the life force gone from the green, that the wooden stools had turned to laminate. Sometimes the hanging lamps would be dimmed and the music amplified, a cue for the drunks and half-drunks to clamber onto the tables and start dancing. The shore-line ran through every face, destroying some, enhancing others, and at moments when I’d had enough reminders of humanity I would look around for the dogs, who like everyone else at the beach came and went according to mood. A curious snout or a pair of gleaming eyes would appear on the fringes of the palapa, take in the scene, and then, most often, finding nothing of interest, retire once more into darkness.
Before long, it became apparent that the bar in Zipolite was a meeting place for fabulists, and everyone seemed to concoct a tale as the night wore on. One girl, a painter with cartoon lips and squinty eyes, said her boyfriend had suffered a heart attack on his yacht and been forced to drop her off at the nearest port since his wife was about to be helicoptered in with a doctor. In more collected tones, a tall German explained to everyone that he was a representative of the German Society for Protection Against Superstition, or Deutsche Gesellschaft Schutz vor Aberglauben — he wrote the name in tiny German script on a sheet of rolling paper for us to read — and had been sent to Mexico after a stint in Italy. An actress from Zacatecas no one had heard of insisted she was so famous that a theater, a planet, and a crater on Venus had been named after her.
And you, one of them would ask, noticing how intently I listened, what brought you here?
I had run away, I told them, I’d run away from home. Are your parents evil?
No, not at all . . .
. . . I had run away with someone. And where was this someone?
And who was this someone? An even better question.
But that was only half the story. I had also come because of the dwarfs. However fantastical it now seemed, I was here with Tomás, a boy I hardly knew, in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs. I say boy, though he was nineteen to my seventeen, and I say dwarfs, though I had yet to see them with my own eyes. In any case, if I stopped to think about it for more than a few seconds, the situation was almost entirely my fault. Calming thoughts were hard to come by, no calm, only numbness, as if stuck halfway through a dream, yet the realization didn’t trouble me.
The palapa held out the promise of one thing while the animated conversation and gaudy cocktails delivered another, and once I’d had enough I would return to my hammock through the sifting black of the beach and watch shadows advance and recede, never certain as to who or what they were. Sometimes I would see Tomás walk past, his shadow easy to pluck out from the rest, and although he kept a certain distance I recognized him instantly, tall and slender with a jaunty gait, like a puppet of wood and cloth slipped over a giant hand.
At some point I would have to explain to myself and to any witnesses how it was that I had ended up in Zipolite with him.
He had started out as a snag, a snag in the composition; from one moment to the next, there was no other way of putting it, he had begun to appear in my life back in the city. And since all appearances are ultimately disturbances, this disturbance needed investigating.
I didn’t even particularly like him at first; intrigued would be a better word. He was a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning. I still remember most details, the pinkish light that spread over the street, painting the tips of trees and the uppermost windows, the shops closed, as well as the curtains on houses, and the only person I’d encountered within this stillness was the elderly organ grinder in his khaki uniform, seated on the edge of the fountain below the looming statue of David, polishing his barrel organ with a red rag before heading to the Centro. harmonipan frati & co. schönhauser allee 73 berlin, read the gold letters down the side, but the organ grinder himself lived in La Romita, the poorer section of La Roma, though he always came to the plaza near my house to polish his instrument, preparing it for a social day outside the cathedral. None of his kind had ever been to Europe but they carried Europe in their instrument, their uniform, and their nostalgic, old-fashioned manner.
And it was as he sat there on the bench beginning his day that I saw another figure appear: a young man in black, tall and slender with a pale face and hair shooting out in twenty directions, who walked up to the organillero and held out a coin — I assumed it was a coin, all I saw was the glint of a small object transferred between hands — and continued on his way. The elderly man nodded in surprised gratitude; he was probably used to receiving alms when music was produced, not silence, and here, out of nowhere, first thing in the morning, had come this offering.
Despite having to catch the school bus at 7:24 I followed the new person as he hurried down streets parallel to the ones I normally took, past mozos sweeping the streets before their employers awoke and tramps curled up in the porticos of grand houses beginning to uncurl. But once he turned off into Puebla my inner map cried out and I swerved around and retraced my steps in a hurry, arriving just in time to board my bus at the junction where Monterrey meets Álvaro Obregón. The quiet of the streets vanished the moment I stepped onto this traveling ship of the wide awake, wide awake thanks to the gang of new wave Swedes at the back. There were four of them, three boys and a girl — sister to one — and they colonized the last row with their blondness and asymmetrical haircuts, always one tuft eclipsing an eye, and trousers rolled up just enough to reveal their pointy lace-up shoes, but above all they colonized the bus with their portable stereo, for they asserted themselves, communicated almost entirely, through their music — Yazoo, Depeche Mode, the Human League, Soft Cell, and Blancmange — and it was in this way, after the first glimpse of Tomás, that I was launched into the day.
In Zipolite the sun seared the sand, and the heat particles, free to roam where they pleased, dissipated in the air. Yet our Mexico City was situated in a valley circled by mountains. High-pressure weather systems, weakened air flows, rampaging ozone and sulfur dioxide levels, basin geography: a perfect convergence of factors, said the experts, for thermal inversion. Ours was a world of refraction, where light curved, producing mirages, and sound curved too, amplifying the roar of airplanes near the ground. And 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. But the real thing existed too, and on some days the air pollution was so fierce I’d return from school with burning eyes, and everyone from taxi drivers to news presenters complained about the esmog but the government did nothing. The clouds over our city were of an immovable slate, granite, and lead, and only the year before, migratory birds had dropped dead from the sky — exhaustion, the officials had said, they died of exhaustion, but everyone knew the poisoned air had cut their journeys short, lead in the form of dispersed molecules rather than compacted into a bullet.
At first I thought thermal inversion was only possible in the city, and then I thought it possible in Zipolite only in the form of the Swiss biker in black leather — his movements constricted by his tight leather shorts and leather vest, he spent all day drinking beer on the sand, his black leather cap surely a magnet for heat, and never entered the water. Yet I soon began dreaming of other forms of inversion, for instance if I could replace Tomás with Julián, my current best friend. Yes, if Julián were there instead, I might have more perspective, somehow, on the given situation, or at the very least a proper interlocutor, be it in silence or conversation.
But Julián was back in the city. He was back in the city, on the top floor of the Covadonga, that was his address, the old Spanish restaurant near the corner of Puebla and Orizaba. The waiters at Covadonga would have cut funny figures in Zipolite, like penguins at the beach in their black waistcoats and bow ties, and the imperturbable expression of those who’d seen a great deal over the decades; the place had been around since the 1940s and some of them, according to my father, had worked there since their youth. On the ground floor was a large spread of tables where old men played dominoes, on the first floor a restaurant, on the second floor a dance salon. Julián lived on the third, used for storage and visiting musicians. He’d become friends with Eduardo, one of the waiters, and, having nowhere to go after deferring university and falling out with his boyfriend, brother, and father, was offered the space on the condition that he vacate whenever the owner, who lived in Spain, came to Mexico, and for any trios or duos or solo musicians who happened to pass through.
The top rooms contained an assembly of half-living objects: fold-out chairs and tables, some in stacks against the wall, a gas canister hooked up to a four-burner stove, its stark metal frame like a vertebra, and a red cooler with the letters cerveza corona in blue. The back room had a cot, where Julián slept under a pile of tablecloths, surrounded by boxes of folded linen and fluorescent tubes. A defunct disco ball, missing most of its square mirrors, hung from the ceiling; the only light was the one that glowed through the windows shaped like portholes. In these rooms I’d spend many an hour with Julián and his stereo, a General Electric that guzzled size D batteries. In one corner was parked a guitar with Camel insignia, for which his mother had smoked her way through two hundred cartons of cigarettes; with the coupons and a bit of cash she had bought it for her son one Christmas. He seldom played it, however, since he felt she had died for that guitar.
The Corona cooler was kept well stocked, usually with Sol or Negra Modelo, and we’d sit back in the fold-out chairs and paint the future, the details changing each time, as we wandered side by side through a landscape of perhapses. Perhaps he would become a sculptor or a rock musician. Perhaps I would become an astronomer or an archaeologist. Perhaps he would partner up with the owner of the Covadonga and one day inherit the place and its four floors. Several days a week I would walk over after school, especially when my parents weren’t home, and sensed at moments that this was the closest I would ever come to having a sibling. Sometimes we’d carry two chairs out to the narrow balcony, from which there was a view of the spire and rose window of the Sagrada Familia, our neighborhood church, though like many city views ours was bisected at different heights by a tangle of telephone and electricity lines. If the day was rainy or overly polluted we’d bring the chairs back inside and listen to the radio. One station played songs from England and Julián kept the dial there, though every now and then he’d swivel it over to a pirate station that offered unofficial news, a quick reality check before we returned to our fantasies, and other times he’d slip in a cassette and we’d listen to the same track over and over, usually Visage’s “Fade to Grey” or the Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes,” and we’d stop talking and just listen, letting all that had sunken well up inside.