Nocilla dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo was the first literary work to go viral in Spain. The second was Nocilla experience (2008). The third, Nocilla lab (2009). A Mallorcan physicist with three books of poetry to his name, Mallo had been on vacation from a laboratory in which he worked when, in 2004, on a hospital bed in Thailand, convalescing after surgery following a motorcycle crash, he wrote Nocilla dream as well as notes for the rest of a trilogy. It wasn’t the first work of prose fiction he had written, but the first he managed to get published—two years later with Candaya Narrativa, a smart independent press based in Barcelona. Nocilla dream was to become ‘a success before its embrace by critics’, according to its translator Thomas Bunstead writing in the Paris Review. Some attribute this popular response to its imaginative engagement with technology and mass-culture; some credit its breathtaking formal adventure; while others still point to its championing by an active network of literary blogs (centered around Vincente Luis Mora’s Diario de Lecturas; and customarily compared to the culture of tertulias in late 19th-century Spain) alongside a resurgence in independent publishing throughout the peninsula. In the year before the 2008 financial crash, Editorial Berenice put out three books—Mora’s La luz nueva, Eloy Fernández Porta’s Afterpop, and an anthology, Mutantes: Narrativa Española de última generación, co-edited by Juan Francisco Ferré and Julio Ortega—challenging what for years had been seen as a moribund, conservative literary culture wherein presided, so Bunstead calls it, a ‘knee-jerk reaction to anything that smacked of formal experimentation’.
‘Digital computers are superb number crunchers,’ begins The Nocilla Trilogy’s first fragment, one of 113 that constitute its first book, Nocilla Dream; citing into anachronism an article from a 1999 issue of the Scientific American by B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot, the fragment goes on: ‘But seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading hand-writing, have been devilishly tricky to program.’ Right from the work’s very get-go, in other words, machines are everywhere in operation amid hiatuses and ruptures, breakdowns and failures, stalling and short circuits.
Nocilla dream (2006); Nocilla experience (2008); Nocilla lab (2009) are the names and the dates of the original Spanish editions—Nocilla Dream (2015); Nocilla Experience (2016); Nocilla Lab (2019) in the English. On back-covers and end-pages, they are all described as novels. This is fine. Three novels at the edge of the form, with myriad narratives, and more characters than I’ll ever care to count. For it isn’t the characters (few if any of whom cross precisely from one book to any other) that establish what coherence there is here; but rather, the doubling of motifs: the relations of connection, disjunction and conjunction that recur across the discrete layers of reality in Dream, Experience, Lab.
The motif of an unknown face, for example.
In Experience, the menu in Steve’s Restaurant depends entirely on the mood of the experimental chef and owner, Steve. The dish he serves most is ‘furtive Polaroids of the customers taken through a hole in the kitchen wall, then fried in egg batter’; so that, ‘as the batter is parted, the photos, and the people’s transformed faces, are revealed.’
I first read Dream in 2015.
At the time, I was not aware what the term ‘Nocilla’ meant. I recall one afternoon sitting in a park with a friend, a secondary park in the centre of Dublin (not only a park, in fact, but a graveyard as well) where, having failed to give a satisfactory explanation as to what an ‘arborescently-structured’ novel could possibly be (as is written on Fitzcarraldo’s back-cover of Dream) I told my friend ‘Nocilla’ had something to do with vampires (Nocilla → Nosferatu → Vampires).
See you move through Dream and Experience without seeing the term ‘Nocilla’ anywhere else but the acknowledgements. Not till Lab does the unknowing reader learn that ‘Nocilla’ is a brand of chocolate spread made in Spain, a Spanish version of Nutella—the hazelnut chocolate spread which, as a global consumer product, is a typical, indeed archetypal object of discourse for narrators across the trilogy, its ‘thick material fleshiness’ imagined, on its eventual appearance in the thick material prose of Lab, in various relations: to the city of Las Vegas (‘that pleasingly adulterated consumer product, generator of paradoxes, entropy, life’); to a bottle of Coca-Cola (‘the first consumer product produced out of nothing, out of the very need to consume a truly new, unaffiliated object, a nowhere object, pure unadulterated consumerism’); and indeed, inevitably, spread across a Proustian madeleine, ‘not baked by his maid but manufactured instead, full of preservatives and flavourings’. Could we think of Lab as fugal sludge spread across the manufactured surfaces of Dream and Experience?
I’ve been thinking about this trilogy for some years, its architecture having foreshadowed (first in the form, later in the syntax) the fragmentation and distance that was to become prevalent across literary works, my own included, in the decades after its release.
Can I recite it by heart, in the original?
Look, I’ve written two responses already.
In approaching the crux of the matter, I return to my proper form—essaymatography. To return, I must first run us off course a little.
‘Have you reread any of Raymond Carver’s books?’ Daniel Johnson is asked in a 2005 Rockdelux interview—one of Dream’s two epigraphs.
‘Read?’ he replies. ‘No, no, I don’t read.’
[He bursts out laughing.]
‘I watch a lot of DVDS.’
Q: What sentence did US director David Lynch post to his Twitter in 2014 to announce the return, after 25 years, of TV show Twin Peaks?
KB: ‘That gum you like is going to come back in style.’
Yes, yes: Twin Peaks. Given the scores of influences explicitly cited, not just in quotations, but also in the plotlines (Enrique Vilas-Mata, Mallo’s elder, appears as a character in Lab; just as Marguerite Duras, Vilas-Mata’s elder, appears in Never Any End to Paris) the fact that Twin Peaks remains unlisted throughout represents one of several conspicuous withholdings. Sticking even just to form and motif, the correspondences ring out clear—and only all the more so since Twin Peaks: The Return came out in 2017, much of it set in Las Vegas. Like Nocilla, Twin Peaks is now a trilogy; a trilogy which—with its prequel film and intertextual books like The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Diane (a collection of recordings made by Agent Cooper to Diane, a figure who remained faceless and voiceless for so long that many had speculated she bore no reality beyond these recordings, prevalent from the get-go, when, early in the pilot episode, he asks her to find out the names of the ‘fantastic trees’ surrounding the north-western town, where he’s due to investigate Laura’s murder)—overfloweth.
But surely, I ask myself, the shared first phoneme of ‘Nocilla’ and ‘Nosferatu’ was not the only thing that had me guessing ‘vampires’ when my friend asked, in the graveyard, what an ‘arborescently-structured’ novel might be? It will be useful for our purposes to think now in reverse. When I think of vampires, I think in the particular of the 19th-century Anglo-Irish absentee landlords at whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula took aim. Then, I think of rent and of landlords in general. And when in general I think of landlords, I think of my own faceless landlord; and then, since I mentioned it above, the landlord in Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris—that is, Marguerite Duras. ‘To write,’ she writes, Duras, ‘is to attempt to know what we would write if we were writing.’ This is Dream’s second epigraph.
‘But surely arborescent means relating to trees?’ said my friend in the graveyard, the day I said ‘vampires’ in the park. ‘Is the book... like a tree?’ Ahead I stared dimly, at a large sycamore. Is the book like a tree? I repeated, watching leaves in the wind of the graveyard, waving.
It’s in Dream’s second fragment—right after the citation of B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot’s article about what computers are, and are not, capable of recognizing—that the first of its plotlines begins. The scene is U.S. Route 50, ‘the loneliest highway in North America’. Here we find Falconetti, an ex-boxer from San Francisco who has decided to cross America on foot (like Christopher Columbus, he thinks, ‘in reverse’) passing through semi-mountainous desert: ‘a 260 mile stretch, with a brothel at either end’, writes the narrator, evoking a polarity which at the other end of the trilogy, in Nocilla Lab, will reverberate when the narrator, in the Las Vegas hotel room he has been sharing with his partner, lies reading Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance in a language, English, that neither of them know more than the rudiments of—‘the subterranean river of whose pages poured into our minds and gave rise to the Project, a Project that was in some way already in there’—a copy of which he says he acquired on ‘a midnight shopping raid, when she bought a bikini’. Overlooking the desert—‘that dry raddled nothingness’—the narrator imagines CCTV cameras sending image-residues of his partner, whom he’s upset has not returned to him yet, ‘to a bin at the ends of the desert’.
Look, is Dream like a tree or not?
That would be a Deleuzo-Guattarian matter.
Yes, yes: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, for whom this word, arborescence, refers to any and all linear conceptions of knowledge; characterized by continuous binary cuts, resulting in arborescent thought: that is, hierarchical, vertical, unidirectional thought. In its place, the philosophical duo proposes the rhizome, any horizontal conception of knowledge, allowing for multiple entry and exit points in representation and interpretation (where any point can be connected to any other); resulting in rhizomatic thought. The Nocilla Trilogy is a vast network of subterranean encounters with the duo’s work. Not until the final book, Lab, are they named, and only once; but in the recurring image of a solitary poplar tree which has somehow found water in the Nevada desert, these encounters are evoked and metaphorically elaborated. With the tree’s name firmly rooted in the idea of public space—and with its wood used for the panels of most paintings of the Renaissance, including the Mona Lisa—the poplar tree in Nocilla Dream (‘this American poplar’) standing 125 miles from Carson City and 135 miles from Ely is described as ‘the only thing on the entire route that vaguely called to mind the existence of humanity’: not so much because of its survival against the odds, but rather, the ‘hundreds of shoes’ which hang from its branches thanks to a custom of passersby to give or take, or both. ‘For those who live near U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about anymore, but beyond the body—and the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve.’ Depending on the atmosphere on any given day, the shoes flit between stasis and a form of motion likened to a tidal wave. ‘Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points in balance.’
Of 113 fragments in Dream, 23 are citations. Between the first of these (by Copeland and Proudfoot) and the last (by Italian film theorist, Silvestra Mariniello) about the influence of cinematic montage on viewers’ perceptions of an unchanging, impassive face, not even one more of them concerns (or even features) the human body, let alone this more specific motif, the human face. Focusing instead on computational structures, organizational systems, laws of physics, coding and languages unknown; except for one, near the middle, about American minimalist art, the rest, interestingly, are all by men. With two brothels, two bins, and now, two female-authored citations at either end of, respectively, this book, a desert, and another desert, a system is at work in which a binary distinction between genders is, beyond page-one, embedded in its narratives, as well as its citations.
Indeed, unless they keep themselves entirely out of view—a feat which Hannah, a poet and translator who refuses to publicize Other Directions, her book inspired by 1960s conceptual art and dedicated to 2000 strangers, almost succeeds in doing—Dream’s female characters are usually hailed into being through a reified femininity, a femininity that is fixed to the body, produced under the commodity, by TV and, the pun of surfing suggests, the internet: ‘Kelly strips from the waist up and fastens the bikini catch. Her modest 22-year-old breasts weigh down the elasticated fabric. She considers herself in the mirror of her sunglasses’—reads one pointedly Lacanian line—‘which magnify her breasts. Like Pamela Anderson, she says to herself. The TV lifeguard responsible for transmitting the Californian surfing bug since the beginning of the 90s.’ In Dream, at least, women tend to be depicted as subordinated subjects, as objects of exploitation. Recurring in fragments set in a brothel, a character named Sherry has fallen for a passing client. Not only has she ceased to charge him, before he left to buy cigarettes she was cooking all his meals. Now in vain she awaits his return. ‘One minute till we’re on air!’ the fragment abruptly swings to a complexifying frame, closing on a note of sympathy; a hint of systemic critique; of subjectivity. ‘A Nevada TV news show is doing a special programme on freeway prostitution. Into the micro-phone they ask: What are you proudest of, Sherry? Love is a hard job, she says, loving is the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life.’
In a grotesque send-up of the imagery produced in this arborescent world, ordered by sexual imbalance, Mallo draws upon a motif that will be doubled and transformed upon its recurrence in a narrative in Experience. That is, chewing gum. Or in Spanish, chicles. Introduced in the eighth fragment of Dream, Deeck—a Danish internet user who works for a company that makes cookie dough with an image of a tree on its packaging, who has set up a website to exhibit images he creates through ‘sticking masticated pieces of chewing gum onto a canvas’—is one of the trilogy’s solitary male characters. Before the indented list that sits embedded in the middle of fragment twenty-two of Dream, an ekphrasis placed near enough to the start as to function as kind of overture—a fragment within a fragment presenting a brief catalogue of archetypes deployed across Dream—describes the gum-on-canvas images that he exhibits as dividing ‘along two aesthetic lines’: first is Nordic landscapes (‘snowcapped scenes featuring, at most, the archetype of a city, or a figure in the far distance’); second is explosive blondes (‘Coca-Cola flavor for the lips, eyes, and nipples’). In Mallo’s original Spanish, no less than in Bunstead’s translation, this phrase, chicles masticado, the very material with which Deeck produces his images, is punningly sexualized. ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, the male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly,’ wrote Laura Mulvey in 1973. Uncited in the trilogy, her work applying psychoanalysis to the cinematic image and apparatus remains an important touchstone for Mallo: ‘Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.’ As with its descriptions of Deeck’s unpeopled landscapes, Dream embarks here on a socially and psychosexually suggestive description of the materials (plus the process that they undergo) used to depict both the primary and secondary sexual organs of Deeck’s 'explosive blondes’, connecting the sugariness of his materials (‘the kind you buy a newspaper stand’) to ‘young boys’ liking for blonds’.
‘Deserts, like the sick, are objects,’ says Dream: ‘though living, they are on the edge of everything, undergoing a process of consumption, and are fundamentally gaunt’. In fragment fifty-five, somewhere in the Albacete desert, a ‘lone pump attendant’ kills time by playing the Knight Rider theme song and scrunching up ‘clots of newspaper into boluses the size of beach balls’ and throwing them onto the flats on the far side of the road. ‘It will be more like the American desert this way,’ this lone pump attendant thinks, ‘with its tumbleweeds.’
Aside from the correspondence that a bolus of chewed gum suggests with the ‘anti-metaphysical nature’ of hazelnut-chocolate spread in the mouth of Lab’s narrator, we can say that, like many tropes and citations that uphold the trilogy, chewing gum is a recycled material.
‘The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film,’ Mulvey continues, ‘yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.’ Erase, if you like, the word ‘erotic’ from the final clause here—though the ‘lone pump attendant’ might suggest reason not to—and Mulvey could as well be describing how citations function in Nocilla Dream and Experience.
Citations freeze the flow of action in a moment of contemplation.
Their literary function—ostensibly at least—is, as Mulvey describes that of womanhood in Hollywood film, ‘extradiegetic’. Similar to the recurring motif of the television screen, citations speak without necessarily being registered by any character, any narrative. Here, detailed information is at once introduced and not introduced into any proximate narratives. Here, an author can reside, detached, faceless, incidental to the narrative terrain yet central to the readerly one.
‘It’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped,’ writes the narrator, about the poplar tree in the desert, ‘potentially on the cusp of moving.’
Somewhere near the middle of Nocilla Dream—67 fragments after Diane Proudfoot’s citation; and 45 fragments before that of Silvia Mariniello—is a citation concerning the foundation of American minimalist art by critic Phyllis Tuchman, a 1966 article in Artforum about Tony Smith, the ‘grandfather’ of American minimalism, who, one dark night, some-time in the 1950s, drove along ‘a freeway on the outskirts of New York’, still under construction: an unmarked ‘ribbon of black asphalt’. Attempting to explain the ‘ecstasy’ that he felt during this experience, one he would later define as the end of art, Smith is quoted: ‘The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art has never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from the many views I had about art. It seemed that there was a reality there which had not had any expression in art.’ Between this citation and the work at large, a double correspondence is sounded: the first through the shared practice of creative reappropriation, citation, and American minimalist art; and the second (by way of American minimalism) of Phyllis Tuchman and Hannah, the poet, translator and programmer from Utah who refuses to promote her minimalist-inspired pamphlet.
‘These artists would go to a field, paint a white line across it and call the work Sculpture. They’d go to drainage pipes in the edges of sea cliffs, photograph them and call them Monument to a Source.’ Advised at least to send a press release out about her book, Hannah decides against it. ‘She wasn’t interested in reaching people like that’. Instead she leaves 2,000 copies at metro stops and airports with the dedication: Dear whoever has found this. Now, if you like, you can throw it away. Affectionately Hannah. In Experience, in Madrid, a copy is discovered in a bin.
Oddly, the first sentence of Tuchman’s citation, printed on page 101 of Nocilla Dream, refers directly to itself—to its status as an article, as well as the name and publication date of the magazine where it first appeared. (‘The magazine Artforum, in its December 1966 issue, ran a piece on the journey/experience of Tony Smith.’) This original piece, we can read online. Yet searching for the phrase ‘an almost ineffable situation’, we find zero results; likewise with ‘ribbon of black asphalt’. Even a solitary word such as ‘ecstasy’, the machine fails to locate. In its place, we find the word ‘epiphany’. Given the discrete meanings of these two terms, both of which arrived into English and Spanish by way of Ancient Greek, it is hard to read this as a mistake, a mere accident of translation from Tuchman’s English, into Mallo’s Spanish, then back into English through Bunstead. Indeed, on closer inspection, not a single phrase in the cited version appears in original. Here, again, we detect a practice in operation: one resembling that of the passersby, giving and taking from the poplar tree; or the male gaze, projecting its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In the context of a reappropriation so radical that, finally, not a trace of Tuchman’s vocabulary or syntax is left uneffaced, the transition from epiphany (with the sense of revelation) to ecstasy (with the sense of to step outside of oneself) is a telling one. But it isn’t even the primary erasure here. Dream’s citation omits to mention that, on the night in question, Smith was in the car with three of his students; and also that, several years previously, a serious motor accident—not unlike Mallo’s in Thailand—had ended Smith’s career as an architect. Between Tuchman’s original and Dream’s citation, meanwhile, ‘the New Jersey turnpike’ morphs into ‘a freeway on the outskirts of New York’. From turnpike to freeway—that is, from a road you pay a toll to use; to one that is free at the point of use—is a significant alteration. Perhaps it is here, in this, that The Nocilla Trilogy signals how its literary practice, based in appropriation—like the work of the poet, translator and programmer Hannah—gets around (bypasses) current systems of intellectual property: by the distorting hand of an author.
‘Digital computers are superb number crunchers,’ The Nocilla Trilogy starts up, let’s remember; ‘but seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading hand-writing, have been devilishly tricky to program.’ It is apt that in Dream’s sixth fragment, it should be zapatos (with their close etymological link to sabot; thus sabotage) that cause this arborescent machine, the poplar tree, ‘to buckle’. Right from the work’s very get-go, let’s repeat, machines are everywhere in operation amid hiatuses and ruptures, breakdowns and failures, stalling and short-circuits.
Q: What sentence did US director David Lynch post to his Twitter in 2014 to announce the return, after 25 years, of TV show Twin Peaks?
A: ‘Friends... this is happening again.’
I ain’t, it turns out, a good quizzer. But let’s talk about ‘that gum you like’ regardless. One of the iconic motifs of Twin Peaks, recurring across various layers of reality, the particular association of this gum with the Man From Another Place and the Log Lady has caused many critics to note that (in addition to evoking a 1985 Doublemint advert, starring twins) the substance of gum—like the engine oil said in the show to open portals into other realms—is produced from the bark of the sapodilla tree, whose Spanish name (la zapota), though it shares no etymological root, is a near-homonym of los zapatos that hang from the poplar tree in Dream, swaying. This might explain the periodic translation of zapato not as ‘shoe’, but as ‘trainer’: implying learning, practice—Dream, let’s recall, is the first novel Mallo published)—but also, given the recurrence of ‘gum’ across the text, the word gumshoe, which—alongside the Raymond Carver reference in one of its epigraphs—evokes the detective, the detective novel.
We must take as an established fact that this metamorphosis of the city is due to a transposition of the setting [Roger Callois wrote concerning the detective novel in 1937, cited by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project‘s chapter on ‘The Flaneur’] from the savannah and forest of Fenimore Cooper, where every broken branch signifies a worry or a hope, where every tree trunk hides an enemy rifle or the bow of an invisible and silent avenger.
In the spiritual and semiotic economies of Twin Peaks, no less than The Nocilla Trilogy, trees are a ubiquitous marker. The morning after his arrival in town, Cooper sets to work in Ghostwood National Forest. Pointing to his chalkboard, with a map of Tibet on one side and on the other side an all-caps list of potential suspects, each with a name beginning with ‘J’, he recalls to four members of the local police force, that on the day Laura Palmer died, she had noted in her diary that she was ‘nervous about meeting “J” tonight’. Instructing the bewildered but already enchanted Sheriff Truman to read each of the names out slowly, one at a time, briefly describing their relation to the victim, Cooper shuts his eyes momentarily so as to open himself up to intuition, before launching a rock towards a bottle on a tree-stump in the distance, taking the accuracy of each throw, or lack thereof, as a clue. Though Cooper has explained to the group that this method was revealed to him in a dream, a dream relating to Tibetan Buddhism, what this casting of rocks as diviners evokes, in cinema, is the cloth-bound metal nuts thrown by the titular figure in Tarkovsky’s Stalker to navigate the Zone, a supernatural dreamscape in a film often compared to one of Lynch’s favourites, The Wizard of Oz: whose motifs are referenced constantly throughout Twin Peaks.
The characters of the childish imagination and a prevailing artificiality hold sway over this strangely vivid world [Roger Callois goes on regarding the detective novel, in 1937, cited in a different chapter of Benjamin’s Arcades, entitled ‘Exhibition, Advertising, Grandville’]. Nothing happens here that is not long premeditated, nothing corresponds to appearances. Rather, each thing has been prepared for use at the right moment by the omnipotent hero who wields power over it.
So we’re unsurprised discovering that when Dream prints a citation by Thomas Bernhard, extoling the beauty of the word building over architecture, the passage, with the exception of some notable ellipses, is untouched (un-Tuched). The same is true of eighteen other citations with male authors, including B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot’s joint opening entry. As for the work’s concluding citation by Silvestra Mariniello on Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s early experiment in montage, however, we note her words as well have been significantly altered. Just as Tuchman’s citation articulates its own transformation in the movement from the word ‘epiphany’ to ‘ecstasy’, so this final citation contains its own network of telling alterations. Whereas in fact the forty-six-second film shows a series of brief sequences in which a close-up of a male actor is joined with shots of, respectively:
1. a bowl of soup
2. a dead child lying in a coffin
3. a beautiful woman in dreamy repose on a psychoanalytic-style divan, her diagonal gaze soaring across of the frame;
in Dream it is written as:
1. a bowl of soup
2. a dead woman
3. a child at play
In order to resurrect the child, in other words—the becoming-child of the author, let’s say, or the experimental chef—Mallo upholds the time-honored arborescent tradition of turning the woman, this early figuration of spectaclized femininity in the history of film, into a corpse. ‘The spectator,’ says Bunstead’s translation, ‘experiences an alteration in the expression of the actor, though it doesn’t in fact change. Registered in the impassive face, in order, were hunger, pain and tenderness.’ Given the correspondingly extradiegetic function of spectaclized womanhood in the history of cinema and of the swaying citations in Nocilla Dream (both freezing the flow of action in a moment of contemplation), the replacement of the word desire with the word tenderness is notable; especially so, in fact, given that Mallo deftly foregoes Spanish here, using not sensibilidad, with its suggestion of ‘sensibility’, preferring a Portuguese word: ternura, which, like the English, is etymologically rooted in the French tendre, a verb whose multiplicity (to tighten [corde, fil]; or, to stretch [elastique, peau]; or, to extend [ressort]) has resulted in the even greater polysemy of tender.
1 showing gentleness and concern or sympathy
2 (of food) easy to cut or chew
3 requiring tact or careful handling
4 Nautical readily inclined to roll in response to the wind
verb [ with object ]
offer or present (something) formally
offer (money) as payment
make a formal written offer to carry out work
offer to carry out work, supply goods, buy land, etcetera
1 a person who looks after someone else or a machine or place
2 a boat used to ferry people and supplies to and from a ship
3 a railcar coupled to a steam locomotive to carry fuel, water
Though no female character is murdered or even ‘killed off’ in any of Dream‘s narratives, there is one representation of sexual violation, which, in its depiction of a man’s hand ‘clamped’ over a woman’s mouth, suggests itself in metaphorical relation to the systematic misogyny of the intellectual violations underpinning the work’s practice of appropriation. As a metaphor for literary appropriation, the scene asks, is aggravated sexual assault ‘appropriate’? Mallo walks a line here. Told in Kuleshovianly impassive prose, this scene depicts the ‘violation’ of an overtly sexualized teenager (‘una preciosa adolescente china de minifalda con estampados de comics occidentales,’ writes Mallo; ‘a gorgeous Chinese teenager,’ Bunstead translates, ‘wearing a miniskirt with patterns from Western comic books’, gesturing with bare irony to the Orientalism of the representation, echoing Falconetti’s ‘Christopher Columbus in reverse’) by a stranger, a stranger known to us as Heine, an Austrian journalist and amateur filmmaker introduced in a previous fragment, who for six years has worked as the ‘Peking correspondent’ for a Viennese newspaper (in which detail we are invited to read the scene as a dramatization of the Freudian understanding of the literary and photographic ‘take’ as a form of fetishistic violence) whose title, Kurier, designates the figure of Heine as a messenger—such as in the Chinese stories of Kafka, for example; or in the old saying, Don’t shoot the messenger. Echo though she will across Dream (somewhere between the beautiful woman and the dead woman, the dead child and the child at play in Mariniello’s original and ‘violated’ citation; and then, critically, in Experience, in Henry Darger’s ‘scenes of extreme violence, of girls being impaled, disemboweled and tortured’; and the manga that Jodorkovski [‘call me J’] later gifts to his girlfriend) the teenager does not reappear as a character. In fact, beyond a metonymic miniskirt in Mallo’s original—and in Bunstead’s translation, the verb ‘wearing’—the teenager is phrased-into-being in such a way as to be, to the letter, acorporeal. In Mallo’s short, even snappy, matter-of-fact sentences, one struggles to detect any pain for this figure. Nor in any but the narrowest sense of ‘requiring tact’ could we—could I—describe the prose as tender. Can a pun be tender? As in Kafka, the message—beyond the medium—is suspended. Filmed (that is, shot) by a live-broadcast TV crew for a reality show specializing in ‘disgraceful’ material, Heine’s violation is interrupted in the process of its own mass-reproduction. Right from the get-go, let’s repeat, machines are everywhere at work amid hiatuses, ruptures, breakdowns, failures, stalling, short circuits. ‘Among the prisoners,’ the fragment ends, like many of them, with an all-new context, ‘there’s a custom Heine finds strange: like an offering to a god—one that offers a better horizon—they work on a sculpture, attaching pieces of their dried shit via silk threads to a gingko, the millenary tree out in the yard. [His wife] Lee-Kung had once told him: this is the tree we get ginseng from.’
1. plant tuber credited with medicinal properties, esp. East Asia
2. the plant from which this tuber is obtained
mid 17th cent.: from Chinese
rénshēn, from rén ‘man’ + shēn, a kind of herb (because of the supposed resemblance of the forked root to a human figure).
‘Their eyes met, and that was all it took,’ writes Mallo, describing Heine’s sexual assault: ‘he went over, pushed her up against a wall, and, left hand clamped over her mouth, violated her’. Fine: the grammar and the phrasing—though not quite dephallogocentric, especially in Bunstead’s translation (‘he caught sight of her’)—is literally non-genital. Sure: implicitly by hand, Heine’s violation is thus related back, per Heidegger, to writing, to cropping, to thought itself. Yet the messenger: he prays for some other way to think about this question. Not only insofar as their names sound alike, but in their relation, as psychoanalysis conceives them, as the subjects of violation (forked though this relation may be—prongs of the real and symbolic, let’s say), it is given to us to imagine Heine as connected (phonically, spiritually, analogically) to Hannah, introduced a few pages earlier. But when in the fragment after Heine’s violation the forked root of ginseng is echoed and augmented by the ‘three-pronged fork’ in the hand of the owner of an Ely steakhouse—Stevenson (foreshadowing Steve, the experimental chef), who is relaying a story about giving to and taking from the poplar—we look for a third H, only eight pages later do we find ‘Hans’, a butcher in Carson City who, every lunchbreak, can be seen reading Chuang Tzu’s 3rd-century BC tale of Cook Ting, in a translation that was published, says Dream’s bibliography, in 1996—and thus, when Dream was written, in 2004, like Heine’s victim, una preciosa adolescente china. A citation from this book, included at the end of the fragment, reads:
When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the openings, and follow things as they are. I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint. An ordinary cook has to change his knife every month, because he hacks. A good cook changes his knife annually, because he slices. I stand holding the knife and look all round me, satisfied and reluctant to move on. I wipe off the knife and put it away. The activity has transformed and has moved onto a higher plane. This is the concentration one must follow in every activity, however mundane it may be, in life.
‘Everyone knows that to write is to have died,’ Marguerite Duras goes on, in one of Lab’s epigraphs. ‘Only death makes a clean copy of life, and it is only death that, at such a distance, can rewrite it.’ In contrast to the visual consistency of the first section of Nocilla Lab (one eighty-page sentence, ‘Automatic Search Engine’) the second (‘Automatic Engine’) is broken up, not just by periods, full stops, but also paragraph breaks and numerals, roman and otherwise, above fragments which (unlike the English translations of Dream and Experience, though not their originals) do not each hold their own page. It is here, in the second section, set in a nearly empty hotel in Sardinia where after a series of attempts by the partner to destroy ‘the Project’—repeatedly threatening to ignite it, throwing the guitar case into the sea—the couple turn off the motorway, into what is advertised as an ecotourism hotel, a former prison, where they settle down to finish this Project. Later, on discovering that the hotel owner—the narrator’s doppelganger, a collector (as Deeck in Dream becomes) of found photographs by the name, same as the narrator, of Agustín—has been compiling a separate collection of her discarded underwear, the partner finally departs the scene, leaving the Project, taking the car. ‘I couldn’t go,’ the narrator writes, ‘I couldn’t leave it like this, abandon the Project.’ It is here, after an elaborate series of narrative encounters with this doppelganger (who eventually murders the narrator with a knife, replacing him inside the narrative ‘I’, thus erasing all trace of the partner and co-author of the Project, beyond her stolen underwear) that this work, this trilogy so full of ekphrasis, at last begins to reproduce its own images, black-and-white photographs said to be taken by the narrator of a TV in his room—that is to say, in his cell. Of the eight images included, one shows, at the centre of the frame, in a slightly tilted, off-centre, surrounded-entirely-by-darkness interior frame (that is, the television screen), a low-angle shot of a white sink with three silvered taps (the central one of which is distinct in its materials and handle) and a faint grey grid of tiling behind it. The image is an echo of the trilogy’s early graphism, a fragment of Nocilla Dream in which the first poem by Hannah—later revealed as a poet, translator and programmer; but for now simply ‘Hannah, a native of Utah’—is squeezed into a small rectangular box:
[The content of this poem is / invisible: it exists but
can / not be seen. Even the author / doesn’t know what it says.]
Kevin Breathnach is the author of Tunnel Vision and Morphing. 'Pareja' will appear in Issue Ten of The Tangerine, which you can pre-order now.