A Sacred Shape
“The ocean is many things, of course, one of them a screen, something we watch from the beach while absentmindedly projecting our thoughts upon it. Or we read a book and when we look out at the horizon the book is projected there too.” —Amina Cain, “Looking at the Ocean”
The first time I saw the ocean I screamed. I was three and with my parents in Key West. I remember a grainy photo of myself in a hot pink bathing suit and my father in navy blue swim trunks. We are in the water, feet deep, and my face is pinched into a frown. My mother said when a wave came through I would panic and scramble up my father’s lanky body as if he were a tree. Does this photo exist?
I remember my mother telling me that the scream confused her. She said I must have had a terrible ocean experience in a past life. An unknown memory resurfacing, breaking the screen of projections.
The act of breaking screens—windows, doors, boundaries—brings me back to the wily fiction of Mexican writer, scholar, and professor Cristina Rivera Garza. Born in the northern part of Tamaulipas, near the border of Brownsville, Texas, and living for a time between San Diego and Tijuana, she currently teaches at the University of Houston, where she founded the country’s first PhD in Creative Writing in Spanish program. Widely recognized in Mexico and beyond, her writing darts between novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, academic and experimental, Spanish and English. Recent English-language translations of two novels, The Iliac Crest (Feminist Press, 2017) and The Taiga Syndrome (Dorothy Project, 2018), provide a fun-house mirror flash of Rivera Garza’s preoccupations: history, language, gender, sex, illness, embodiment and, most of all, borders. The narrator of The Iliac Crest goes to the ocean to escape, and in one scene he has the following revelation:
I suppose all of you remember, just as you moved backward, as you crossed the borders of the real without realizing it, that it was impossible to close your eyes. For all the terror, for all the commotion, for all the unease you feel, you cannot close your eyes. You see.
Her writing does not approach borders as a sharp line in the ground; the border is tethered to a person in motion. We must negotiate all sorts of crossings, though the scales of danger rise mercilessly for those in bodies deemed aberrant or threatening. My mind skips to the human rights abuses swelling at the US border, festered by decades of anti-immigrant paranoia. How they continue a violent legacy marked by an obliterating sense of citizenship and foreignness. How language can corral us into a skewed reality, allowing atrocities to be neutered by phrases like “illegal”, “detained”, “the wall.” The narrator of The Taiga Syndrome observes: “It is never necessary cruelty. Cruelty is.” The line echoes an essay by Adam Server, titled “The Cruelty Is The Point.” Server examines “the adhesive that binds” Trump supports to each other and to the administration’s inhumane rhetoric: a shared joy fed by the suffering of groups deemed “other.” Cruelty is closing your eyes to the incomprehensible violence in exchange for a semblance of reality: “empty ambitions, virtual maps, and animals gone extinct.”
The two novels interrupt our cruelties, privileging intertextual relations between history, literature, being, myth, theory. This play with history is most apparent in The Iliac Crest, translated by Sarah Booker, and originally published in 2002. The novel sets in motion, according to Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, an “intense and fascinating creative evolution,” marked by Rivera Garza’s investigation into the elasticities and limits of fiction, genre, and language. Filtered through the lens of the gothic and metafictional, The Iliac Crest concerns a doctor at a coastal hospital for incurable patients, and the two strange women who have taken over his home. One of the women is his ex-lover, and the other is Amparo Dávila, a fictionalized version of an actual writer. The Iliac Crest makes textual and thematic references to Dávila, the page haunted (and hunted by) the embodiment and disembodiment of her figure(s).
Active between 1950 and 1970, Dávila is known for her short stories that bent domestic anxieties into the realm of the supernatural. Dávila’s writing flits back and forth between reality and fantasy, merrily wedding together supernatural flourishes and psychic states. Is a character hounded by a menacing toad, or is this a figment of hysteria fueled by her husband’s infidelity? The Iliac Crest also recasts Juan Escutia, a historical figure celebrated for defending Chapultepec Castle from invading US forces—he wrapped his body in the Mexican flag and jumped from the top of the castle—as a fictional character, a patient at the hospital infamous for inciting a failed revolt. The presence of Dávila and Escutia deflate boundaries governing what is actual and what is not in favor of a provocative inquiry: how is embodiment limited by our fetishizaition of borders? Or, what is the relationship between reader, writer, and word?
From their first meeting, the doctor itches to know Amparo Dávila—He spends most of The Iliac Crest searching for the name of the bone protruding above the elastic of her skirt. She appears on his doorstep during a terrible storm and never leaves. He was expecting his ex-lover, only known as The Betrayed, as they had planned one final rendezvous to mark their romantic separation. But Amparo arrives first, wet and shivering, claiming to “know [the doctor] from before.” The doctor is aroused by her presence, especially the enormity of her eyes. Comparing her gaze to mirrors and stars, he marvels at their uncanny ability to expand the world into “infinite horizons.” Amparo’s gaze reminds me of the ocean’s vastness—it both affirms and erodes the material body. Her gaze is the refusal of reality, a primordial rupture, a generative space holding the dreamed and the unsaid. The doctor invites her in, blinded by his unshakeable faith in his own narrative. Narrative is its own border, a desire to dictate the perimeters of your world.
Narration is power and its misuse is a tool of domination. To ignore this is to draw a faulty bridge between writer and reader, word and experience. The narrator of The Taiga Syndrome, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, is haunted by the gap between living and transcribing. We follow the unnamed protagonist, a former detective, and her pursuit of a missing couple (sometimes referred to as missing children) into a hostile landscape at the end of the world. The Taiga Syndrome remixes fairy tales, apocalyptic anxieties, and noir into a novel of inhospitable syntax, in which the language situates you in an “unknown place in the sky,” where words refuse our definitions. The prose doesn’t coddle us, or simply regurgitate our received narratives. Published in 2011, the novel stretches Rivera Garza’s investigation on the limits of fiction to its radical extremes—it’s language enters you, abandoning the confines of mainstream plot, character, and meaning. The sentences jump the barrier of the page and kiss you “in a third space,” a duet of interpretation.
“Sometimes the rectangle is sacred shape.”
The above line brings me to a moment in “Siete notas sobre cine,” a featurette wherein Argentine director Lucrecia Martel divulges her formal pursuits. She brings up space travel, and zooms into a philosophical event that occurs after one leaves the earth’s atmosphere and encounters the dizzying infinity of outer space; it is here, stranded among vibrations of blackness, one realizes “we are organisms submerged in something.” In the cinema of Lucrecia Martel, this “something” remains perpetually out of bounds and out of reach, but always present and surrounding, a playful force beckoning you to shift the focus of your empathy. She likens the screen to a pool turned on its side: the projecting images remain two dimensional, an illusion, while the sound waves make contact with the audience, a tactile presence crossing the frame.
I like layering Martel’s thoughts over Rivera Garza’s novels, and observing the mirrorings that arise between them. If a movie screen is a pool turned on its side, perhaps a book is a gaping ocean. If an ocean is a screen of desires, then a book is a pool overflowing. Pools, windows (another type of screen), and the sea repeat and return in Rivera Garza’s novels, ghostly remnants soaking the page, forming their own imagistic chorus. Each carry and flee from an accumulated energy. What comes automatically to mind for me: windows are talismans for viewing deeply, the sea represents cleansing, and pools mark luxury and suburban ennui. But are these associations or borders? Openings or limits? What can a window reveal about the shape of a body?
What does the rectangle mean to you? It transports me to geometry class—my inability to join theory to shape, equation to reality. Even now, only the most basic lessons remain: the rectangle is a plane, a two dimensional figure. How curious that the window, pool, and book all share its shape, and that the ocean exists beyond it. Perhaps this is one reason why the ocean terrifies me to the bones: it laughs at our measurements. In turn, the rectangle is a flatness that privileges the isolated moment. The repetition of the rectangle via windows and pools in The Iliac Crest and The Taiga Syndrome is a dare to cross over to the other side.
“[A]nd maybe, just like him, I had broken the window and jumped into the abyss. The only difference was I was still dying. Am I wearing my own bones?”
Stranded among the fields of interruptions, guided by crumbs of deja vu, I am attuned to the physical digestion of stories: what chokes, what numbs, what imitates. In Rivera Garza’s writing, storytelling isn’t dependent on the smooth, polite transference of imagination to word; here, storytelling is a body catalyzing memory, the plunge through the screen into an ancient ocean or forest unconcerned with our sense of order or logic. Rivera Garza remarks in an interview with Veronica Esposito, “I am less interested in writing about the body and more about working with language to produce the effect of presence and irruption. Rather than merely depicting reality, writing produces reality.” The realities produced are a mesh of hands, a something that submerges us.
“You need the ocean for this: To stop believing in reality.”
The Betrayed eventually arrives at the doctor’s house but falls ill, and Amparo nurses her back to health. Together the guests cast a dark spell over the home, displacing the doctor’s routine with their own rituals. Most infuriating, is their secret language glu, a fleshy closeness he fails to “infiltrate.” He is exiled from place and word. Bewildered, aroused, and fueled by horror, the doctor makes it his mission to crack their riddles. But his obsession to expose Amparo brings him closer to a breathing void: “I had stopped asking what really happened in order to explore the foundation of reality itself. I was in pursuit of something new, something that . . . would change the way I experienced the ocean.”
The doctor’s journey into the foundation of reality coincides with his plot to recover Amparo’s stolen manuscript, an absence threading together the conspiracy of her disappearance, his place of employment (Serenity Shores Sanitorium), the scandal of the rebellious patient plunging from the window of the elite ward (Juan Escutia), and the doctor’s own disappeared selves (his life as a tree). Most explicit here is the question of his gender—Amparo teases knowledge of his secret: “I know you are a woman.” When the doctor tracks down the True Amparo Dávila (living in a cramped apartment in the South; to reach her, he must cross the policed border), she refers to him as “miss” and “querida.” Their accusations infuriate the doctor, driving him to engage in sex acts and tantrums to prove the reality of his masculinity.
In Spanish, genre and gender share the same word: género. The literary and the social collide in a dance of subversion. Genre and gender provide frames of reference, a shorthand that often transforms into barbed fences. We mistake the terms for an unbreakable truth rather than what they are: pools of communication.
Think of the panic when genres touch and when genders misbehave. Think of the ways genre is chained to capital and a hierarchical value system. Or how an unexamined allegiance to the gender binary infiltrates and stagnates expression. The detective novel, the ghost story, fairy tales—all come with their own faultlines around gender, fluidity, and the status quo (femme fatales, persecuted damsels, the big bad wolf). Part of Rivera Garza’s project is to drain “the automatic out of the equation, out of experience,” to refuse the “formulas that we as humans automatically reach for.” Her writing stays close to the experiential, to the body’s embrace of combustible truths, to words entering and escaping the mouth. By keeping writing shadowed to the body secreting language, Rivera Garva subverts writing into a physical experience, a process of activating a corporeal memory. The novels magnify the multiplying borders (geographical, ethical, generative, epistemological), zigzagging exhaustive frames around experience in service of a frightening legibility. Is the border alive or a figment of our horror? To refuse the limits, must we jump ecstatically through the screen?
The inclusion of Amparo Dávila continues Rivera Garza’s complication of genre and gender. Marginalized by machismo literary culture, her fantastical stories fell out of favor in the 70’s, when Dávila began publishing with less frequency. Now in her 90s, there has been a frenzied return to her work, with critics comparing her to Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, and Clarice Lispector. In “Moses and Gaspar,” a grieving José inherits the weeping pets of his deceased brother; when it comes to describing them, language empties out, creating a gap of possibilities. By denying conventions of character and plot, Dávila reminds that narration is but another frame of reality, where the reader gazes through the screen of language, a spectator to the word.
Whenever I read this story, I obsessively pour over Moses and Gaspar, awed and frazzled by my inability to make out their shape. Every image that comes to mind feels incomplete and I revert back to what I know: dogs, cats, perhaps wolves? Dávila’s stories are attuned to the uninvited forces warping the domestic into a phantom of diminishment and control. Her silencing within the history of Mexican literature parallels a wider disposal informed by gender, as evidenced by the steady wave of femicides and the muted reaction to the crisis. Dolores Dorantes’s Style, translated by Jen Hofer, uses poems furiously narrated by Nosotras to reimagine the disappearances, the returning ghosts of state-sanctioned cruelty: “Below and inside we are a sea of girls of ash. We are armed adolescents crossing the border.” The Iliac Crest extends this vengeful crossing, its language protruding from the page, grasping your hand and forcing you to remember “something from beyond memory.”
Perhaps this is where the taiga exists: beyond memory. Whereas disappearances disrupt the doctor’s reality in The Iliac Crest, the absence swells to a location in The Taiga Syndrome, scrambling our reading of plot and setting. The detective (now writing noir novels under a pseudonym and hired impersonator) accepts one last case from a jilted husband in search of his second ex-wife, who ran off with a younger man. She follows, along with a translator, their telegram-crumbs to the end of the world, the taiga, known as a psychic sickness and bruising landscape. Words flail when trying to frame the taiga. Frigid, boreal, a vast interruption. There is also a sex club, a pool in the middle of the forest, a condemned cabin guarded by a wolf and feral child:
That the wolf cub had arrived one morning and planted itself outside the door as if it were the most natural thing to do, is what the translator said later, when the young women with the blonde hair had left and we were lying on the goose feather mattress, unable to sleep.
Many sentences in The Taiga Syndrome open with indirect speech. Reading these sentences brought me to a scene from Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman: well-to-do dentist Vero hits something (the opening sequence hints an indigenous child) while reaching for her ringing cell phone. Dazed, she stops and gets out of the car, but the camera remains canted in the vehicle as the oncoming rainstorm slurs our image of her. What is Vero looking at? Like the detective, I began searching for the missing presence in the spaces between the lines, among the vibrational words, beyond the page. The frame wasn’t satisfying, I was straining to see.
“That” points to something off-screen. The erased clause. “That” is an activation, an invitation to dive into an unknown intimacy at the edge of reality, to listen and absorb the illegibilities. The Taiga Syndrome is obsessed with knowledge-making; it continually asks, what is the journey from speech to writing, from dream to reality, experience to thought? The above excerpt contains blooming layers: the source event involving the wolf, the young blonde woman’s recollection of the wolf, the translator’s translation of the young woman’s account, and the detective’s narration. “That” makes us pause and speculate the “soft screams” we migrate through to arrive at speech, a reminder to be elastic for expression is never a seamless narration.
A line from “Moses and Gaspar” echoes back: “We could have circled around a thousand times and always ended up where we began.” No matter how many times the event is circled, we always end up at the cabin with the wolf at the door, meditating on our inability to fully capture the shape of it. (Just as a camera fails to capture how we see). From experience to memory to recitation to translation to memory to writing—think of all the crossings, visible and invisible, that must occur in order to communicate. In the US we often think of the border as a physical line separating us and them, a badge of exclusion. Rivera Garza expands the border to the mundane and conceptual, reminding us that expression entails a journey, too, a movement from abstraction to language to understanding.
The client is expecting a faithful report, but the detective warns “nothing happens as it is written,” assuring him only of “the great distance between speech and writing.” The client yearns for the romance of a happy ending: a resolution with a beginning, middle, and end. Think of the division between you gazing out of the cabin window and the forest beyond it, trembling in its boundlessness. The window is a tool of seeing, but it also functions as a barrier. Characters in both novels find themselves in contemplation near windows. The False One pressing her forehead against the glass. Juan Escutia leaping from the window of the elite ward. The detective trying to grasp what cannot be described: “And the nostalgia of this, of what’s on the other side, the great beyond.” The novel is an attempt to shatter the glass of fear and plunge through.
And the great distance is a forest to cross. I’m reminded of the forest at the edge of the sanatorium in Marguerite Duras’s Destroy, She Said. How it provokes terror and erotic magnetism. A phantom song emitting from no source is traced back to the unmovable forest, as if the song is its cry (or an unrecognizable grammar), prompting a character to remark, “It has so far to travel, so many barriers to get through.” In The Taiga Syndrome, the forest holds the same space as the ocean, a location where the rules governing our reality ceases to exist. There is a moment when the narrator recalls a scene from L’Enfant Sauvage, the Francois Truffaut film based on the true account of a feral child. Confined in a barn, feet bound, the child:
managed to break the glass of a window. This is what I wanted to get at, the moment when this peculiar romance is established between the feral child, the window, and the spectator.
What is the romance? It depends on who you ask. From one view the border romanticizes a perpetual battlezone, a great distance wrought by fatalist binaries, a desire for punishment, and the lingering threat of war. In this cracked view it is an edge to avoid and resent.
The narrator wants to get close to another romance, the break, where the spectator must dive through the “windows of reality,” in order to communicate with the feral child, meeting “tongue to tongue,” an exchange stripped of ownership and predation. Instead of seeing a person or groups as a screen for our demolishing projections and fears. “The rectangle is often a sacred shape.” Who is the spectator? You. Reading can be like looking out the window, a charged encounter between bodies, a choice to uphold the frames of refutation or to succumb to the unimaginable. The border doesn’t have to be a violence. The border could be an endless ocean. And an erotic collision, a mode of relation marked by its fluidity and deep listening.
Or, the romance could be a return to the “forest inside us,” a wilderness encompassing human and nonhuman expressions. In fairy tales, the forest symbolizes the uncanny and the subconscious, a twilight zone for transgressive behaviors. Rivera Garza has called capitalism “a fairy tale run amok,” and her forest immerses the material conditions of our present over the symbolic resonances of our received narratives. Even the taiga cannot resist greed, leaving the boreal vulnerable to an exploitation that sets off a sinister chain of imbalance and precarity, still reverberating in our now. It can be said that Rivera Garza returns fairy tales to their original shapes, since our sanitized versions displace the primordial terrors lurking beneath them. Hansel and Gretel expresses a profound hunger where the only illogical answer is child abuse, neglect, and murder; in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf signals a rigid lesson around avoiding the unknown to little girls, lest you risk a brutal consumption. Rivera Garza infuses her wolves and missing women with contemporary concerns: climate destruction and uncertainty, escalating rancor against migrants, gendered violence, a scarcity of imagination. I see the wolf at the door as an emissary of the forest inside—attempts to dislocate the fictions of being.
Psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein recounted an incident where she gazed upon herself in a mirror and saw a wolf. Unlike Freud, as Avery F. Gordon notes in Ghostly Matters, when confronted with her own uncanny image, Spielrein spoke back through her fear: “What is it that you want?” I asked myself in horror. Then I saw all the lines in the room go crooked; everything became alien and terrifying. “The great chill is coming…” The lines went everywhere and nowhere, like darting through a window into the cold arms of the ocean. A threshold was crossed, sparking a transformation. The next day Spielrein wrote: “The air was cool, and I breathed in the coolness ecstatically.” The word is a window to a body breathing, as close to a translation of the wolf in the mirror as writing can provide. Rivera Garza’s novels provoke a similar unhinging reacquaintance with the material word, “mak[ing] a dark mirror out of writing,” as Bhanu Kapil observes, a physical space ripe for the breaking. The Iliac Crest is the invitation and The Taiga Syndrome is the aftermath of diving in. One destabilizes language and storytelling, while the other remakes fiction into the pursuit of a remembering body.