an extract from Fractals in a Box
The Year 2028
Wake up, Alice, says Alfred. He caresses her face gently to wake her.
No, let her sleep if she wants, says Trilcinea—defender of the insubordinate, loving Cerberus of Alice Mar’s dreams.
A mechanical angel rises in the night and watches. It sees a handful of men walk the darkness, an endless void that touches all four directions, fallow land, abandoned gates and new streams, spontaneous forests and grasslands, every conceivable vine all but swallowing the few bonfires and cook stoves that knit the night from light – clearings that, here and there, wage a losing battle against the forest, superficial cracks where wooden tools have barely scratched the arid soil; from the sky you can see these gaping, vacant pastures deserted for one year, two years, three years, sometimes more, so that the soil recovers its natural fertility – huts made of cinderblock, wood, and tin with solar panels grouped in villages surrounded by barbed wire and gardens; sometimes, inside the enclosure, you can see an outbuilding with a campfire kitchen on the side; villages dispersed in between entire towns in ruins, returned to the foliage, business districts repurposed as fortresses or deserts, the skeletons of the edifices of American companies that abandoned the island as soon as commerce went to shit, streets in ruin, churches at the center of town—churches more than 200 years old that now serve as shelter; in the plazas, empty for decades, now there are blacksmiths, carpenters, dressmakers, and artisans; endless trails; mountains and valleys of loneliness and ruin, until you get to the city, the only place with electricity, overpopulated, with lights that wink from the darkness, that cloak the outskirts; in the suburbs it watches a dozen rich families hidden behind guarded walls, a whole militarized town sealed off from the rest of the population; and beyond: the urban chaos overflowing, accompanied and measured by constant blackouts, rhythm and reminders that this world of petroleum will end, the cough of an organism old before its time barely surviving on a respirator.
The mechanical angel is a drone. And it watches from the skies above Puerto Rico in the year 2028.
But it’s no good if she sleeps there, Trilci. Look at her toss and turn.
Alice wakes up. She goes to the bathroom, powders her nose, and comes back ready. She even wants to go dancing. They’re in sort of a semi-decadent hipster bar in Santurce just a few blocks from their place. Alice and Trilci tell Alfred to come dance. Alfred, who just arrived after preparing tomorrow’s lectures, doesn’t want to. He tries to put on a serious face.
Chicas, I’m a bit preoccupied.
And who isn’t!? one of them screams.
It isn’t because of the blackouts, or the lack of food, but because he’s hearing voices again. He ignores them both. Alfred wanted to stay home and read. Alice, who starts work at a bar just a few blocks from here in a couple of hours, didn’t want to go out either. Trilci, who goes to work tomorrow at 7:30 a.m., and who has a gringo boyfriend who hates Puerto Rico and prefers to stay home and read, didn’t want to go out either. In the end, none of the three wanted to go out. But that’s what unites us.
So Alice convinced Trilci to go out because she didn’t want to have to fight with Alfred alone, all the while knowing that Trilci was looking for any excuse to get out of her house. But Trilci, who’d lived with Alfred years earlier, couldn’t deal with Alfred’s bullshit for more or less the same reason that she — victim of a litany of gringo boyfriends — was incapable of putting up with the righteous solitudes of her latest. And so it was that Trilcinea called El Jefe and invited him to hang out, promising him two things: first, that Alfred is in a bad way and needs him (she didn’t know this for certain, but figured it was true from Alice’s tone of voice); and, second, that Alfred would want to have another of his recording sessions in which, continuing the tradition of his deceased friend O, they would work on a book of conversations about what they called, pretentiously, Conversations on the Collapse of Modernity. All three of them had convinced themselves it was blackmail. Not me. I know they all tell themselves that, but they just wanna get along during the blackouts. Trilci knows, of course, that they love Alfred just as much as El Jefe does. It’s just that El Jefe hasn’t loved him as long as they have, and so he puts up with more of Alfred’s bullshit.
Alfred opens his mouth again. They come from little places. For example, I opened the medicine cabinet this morning at 6 a.m. and the voices spilled out.
Oh Alfred, I always hear voices in my head at 6 in the morning. I just ignore them, says Alice.
Sometimes an intervention is necessary. Friends tend to repeat the same conversation until someone tries to stop the inertia. Trilci, expert in the dynamics of their relationship, changes the subject. Alice, how are you? This change must be strange for you. A whole box of changes — big changes and little changes — but fuck, you’re working in a bar full of drunks on this strange island.
Well, it’s fun. And besides, I make more money than Alfred.
Alfred, defeated, goes to the bathroom to powder his nose and comes back with small, individual baggies for each of the girls. This justifies his pathetic sense of manhood (though he would never utter that word). If he can’t be attractive to the woman he loves and the woman he loved, at least he can provide other substances, be a man of substance, in his way. And the island is overrun with drugs. From the Colombian cocaine, to the heroin that the soldiers brought back from Afghanistan, to the marijuana produced locally, to the pharmaceuticals, all that cargo en route to the United States stayed there without a buyer when the ports closed. In fact, drugs are the only thing in abundance on that panoptical island.
Trilci comes back from the bathroom in the darkness of another blackout. She complains that the coke is too strong, that she doesn’t like it (of course, though she always says she doesn’t like coke, she finishes half the baggie in one snort), and starts to roll another blunt. They talk about the school where Alfred and Trilci work, about poetry, about the stubbornness of Puerto Ricans who keep writing poetry as the island drowns. Alice tells Trilci that she admires how much she reads young writers, that to her it’s too much work, that she loves the chapbooks she keeps putting out on her little DIY press in spite of the fucking mess of everything, but that it’s hard for her to read them because there’s something she doesn’t understand, something that makes her sad. Literature for what? she says to herself more than to Trilcinea. They talk about what’s happening in Bolivia and New York. Alfred wants to talk about the teacher’s strike that’s about to happen.
Trilci and Alice say the strike’s not gonna work if they close the cafeterias, that the cafeterias have to stay open, that the most important thing about education right now isn’t education or the labor conditions of the teachers, but that the children have something to eat. It occurs to Alice that at the next union meeting they can propose that the teachers could become cooks for the duration of the strike, and that she can help in the kitchen, and that this will win the support of the people, that what they need is direct action, not protest: take all the food that gets lost in the refrigerators during the blackout and serve lunch in the school cafeteria to everyone who’s hungry — that this would be a true form of civil disobedience. Trilcinea and Alfred love the idea more in the way they keep thinking about it than in anything they say.
Alfred hears voices. Alice cooks. Trilcinea smokes weed. These are all ways to keep the horror at the perimeter — forms of survival, some more admirable than others. Or better: these are ways of marking the perimeter. And this is exactly what Alice says to Alfred. “Alfred: Go mark the perimeter.” And like an idiot he takes her seriously. He leaves the bar and walks around the block to make sure everything’s alright. Only when he gets back does he realize that he has no idea what “mark the perimeter” means, but that it sounds like something military. How do you mark the perimeter? Piss on every corner? When he comes back, Trilci and Alice, dying of laughter, demand a report from the perimeter. Alfred tells them that he divided all their remaining money and cigarettes among the vagabonds in the neighborhood, and that one had asked for a light, so he gave them their lighter. Alice remembers that she could never trust El Jefe or Professor O with the homeless because they’d just give them everything. One time, O came back into a bar without shoes after smoking a cigarette because a drifter he knew had convinced him he didn’t need them while El Jefe, like an asshole, went along with the story.
Ladies, forgive me if I interrupt you. But I really need to tell this to someone. Every day is worse. Right now, while opening this beer, I hear them again. They interrupt my life. How can I teach, how can I participate in the protests if I’m going crazy?
Alice takes a jar of pickled eggplants out of her bag and tells Alfred to trade them for beers while she divides the rest among the other tables because... well, people are hungry. Trilci takes a deep breath. She thinks about her gringo boyfriend alone in the house, probably hungry, obstinately reading Plato. Later, while Alice talks to the strangers with whom she shares her pickled eggplants, Alfred takes the opportunity to confront Trilci.
I know Alice is sick of me, and doesn’t want to listen to my shit, but what about you? Don’t you ever worry about me? Maybe you’re not my friend?
Fine. Go ahead. When did you start to hear the voices? When O died, I guess.
Got it. I’ve solved your problem. You’re in pain, and that’s it. You read Freud. Do the work.
No, it’s not that simple.
Yes, it is that simple. The only thing that isn’t simple is that you, in your melancholic narcissism, abandoned Alice. You brought her to Puerto Rico a year ago after she abandoned her life to come this putrid, shit-hole of an island in the middle of an energy crisis. She doesn’t know this place, and it’s falling apart, and I haven’t seen you help her once. The only thing you do is give her drugs and complain about your fucked up head. Look at her, dumbass—she wants to do things, make friends, have a life. And all you do is complain about everything. Alice’s jarred foods are going to save the world and your narcissism is killing us.
Fuck you, bitch.
After he insults her, Trilcinea passes Alfred the blunt, which he gladly accepts with affectionate silence. What you pickle, what you dry, what you guard beneath the soil so you can eat in the future. Those who preserve something for tomorrow, the salt of the earth, and so on. There’s salt in the conversations. Salt to preserve something in the midst of the mayhem.
And from the darkness, El Jefe, looking confused, appears among the tables, looking for his friends. He melts into a hug with Alfred. He, O, and Alfred studied together at Pueblo de la Princesa, but he didn’t finish his dissertation, went back to Puerto Rico, and went to teach at a school in Río Piedras. He has the advantage that his parents were doctors and were able to leave him some money. Money that no longer has value in the crisis, but that allowed him, after his parents died, to build a refuge in Isabela called The Cathedral where some of his colleagues and lots of students live. The Cathedral is one of those groups that voluntarily renounce electricity and receive special contributions and resources from the military to become independent from the state and its economy. But I’m not running it well, admits El Jefe, frustrated with himself, with an almost autistic frustration, as though he were talking to himself, looking at the ground, not at them. The group is dedicated to disseminating knowledge about practical engineering for all. El Jefe teaches science and math, and was one of the first to warn people to sell their cars before gas prices spiked. He’s mixed-race, tall, athletic, and, unlike most of his friends, lives a healthy lifestyle. Trilci and Alice shower him in kisses. Alfred wants to be jealous, but can’t.
El Jefe’s not interested in keeping the horror at the perimeter. Escape routes aren’t his thing. He gets bored with his activist friends even though he’d never admit it. When Alfred accuses him of being cynical, his response is always the same: All I do in these groups is lose my idealism. I go to the protests with my compañeros to kill my idealism. Alfred gets pissed every time he says it. So am I not your compañero? Only with them, his friends, and not with his activist comrades, can El Jefe talk about the things he doesn’t understand. And only with them do the things he doesn’t understand cease to cause him anxiety. Which is to say that, anxious as he is, he feels relaxed among his crazy friends there in the midst of “the collapse of modernity.”
El Jefe takes a small drag off Trilci’s blunt and goes to the bar to trade a few pounds of yuca with onions for a bottle of rum. He comes back to the table with the rum and what’s left of the yuca. Alfred starts to drink as if the world were ending this very instant. Alice and Trilci are too coked up to eat, and share what’s left of the pickled eggplant with the rest of the table.
How are you, Alfred? El Jefe asks — a How are you? that actually means something. The How are you? that’s pure comfort.
Not so good, Jefe. I think I’m losing it again.
¡Deixa o cara falar, porra! Let him speak, fucker.
Alice reverts to Portuguese when Alfred exasperates her. El Jefe, nevertheless, has more patience with his friend. El Jefe has something of the wide-eyed child at the zoo in him when he talks to his friend.
What is it, brother?
I don’t know. It’s been days out of orbit and I’m hearing voices again. I’ve been writing down the things they tell me in this little notebook. And sometimes they don’t even speak so much as suggest images like this one — look:
El Jefe watches Alfred take two mysterious pills to keep himself, he presumes, from getting any more discombobulated. Alfred doesn’t bother explaining.
El Jefe grabs Alfred’s notebook and begins to read it with great interest in the light of an oil lamp. He understands, not without patience, that Alfred’s craziness is a show — his way of making himself interesting, of conjuring the angel — his way of making literature and living it. He knows that the little notebook is a box in which he’s piecing together a novel, or something better...
Don’t listen to him, Jefe, seriously. I’m telling you for real that there’s no end, Alice warns him.
Yeah, don’t listen to him, bro, Trilci chimes in. Fuck that! Give me a break!
El Jefe also knows that Alfred’s stories aren’t all fictions. Or, more to the point: that Alfred suffers his fictions, and his suffering converts those fictions into realities. It strikes him as curious that Alfred calls the voices Smurfs, and that those Smurfs tell him that Gargamel died, and that while he was alive the Smurfs hated him, but, now that he’s dead, they miss him. Despicable dwarves with nostalgia for their oppressor. El Jefe remembered that Professor O always talked about the Polish Smurfs before he died.
Together, Trilci, Alice, Alfred and El Jefe reconstruct the history of O’s story of the Polish Smurfs, each one providing key facts — disorganized, pixelated facts. It all began in the 80s in Poland, they remember. At the time, to confront the communist regime in Poland required great valor and ingenuity. Without it, one would almost certainly be thrown in jail for life, or worse. With no small amount of effort, the four friends manage to recall that the name of the Smurf group was Pomaranczowa Alternatywa (Alternative Orange) — half-punks who brought creative absurdity and meaninglessness to political protests. And, finally, after reconstructing the details and the context, they remember that Alternative Orange got their start by painting Smurf stencils on top of the blobs of paint on public walls that had been painted to cover up the anti-government graffiti. The dwarves appeared all over the city like they were breeding. It wasn’t long before they became symbols of Polish dissent come to life, and hundreds of people dressed up as orange Smurfs began to show up in the streets demanding the resignation of Gargamel. In this way, through the use of allegory and metaphor, saying it without saying it, they managed to carry out dozens of protests without running the risk of being arrested, or, at the very least, of being detained without the authorities of the regime becoming laughing stocks. Of course the police were more than welcome to go right ahead and arrest as many protesters as they wanted for “participating in an illegal gathering of Smurfs.”
When they’re done reconstructing the story, El Jefe understands the obvious, which Trilci already understood: Alfred misses his friend O, the only one as nuts as him. Friends don’t need much to understand one another, and El Jefe brings the conversation full circle:
Alfred, brother, are you smoking too much weed? Nossa! Fuck me! Trilci and Alice crack up.
Well, yes, but only because it helps with the voices. The drugs aren’t the problem; it’s the drinking that’s no good for me.
And while he says it, he downs another bite of yuca and onions with a shot of rum, talking — troglodyte! — with his mouth full. Wise as ever, El Jefe changes the subject without changing it, getting to the point.
Do you guys remember that manual that O wrote, How To Never Be Sober Without Fucking Up Your Life?
Everyone cracks up and Alice remembers how the absent-minded O had tried to email the manual to his friend, “La Chilena”, but accidentally sent it to his boss, a Chilean, who was looking for any excuse to fire him from the university. Alfred pisses himself laughing as he remembers all the times O sent emails like that to the wrong person, as though his unconscious had its own secret agenda. And the truth was, in that case, O wanted nothing more than to get fired.
And so, in that blanket of hospitality that friends knit when they tell stories about long- lost friends, Alfred feels comforted. He takes out his old cassette recorder and asks El Jefe, there in the socialized darkness of the bar, to help him organize his thoughts. Alice and Trilci keep talking about O, about the school cafeterias, about how Alice hasn’t heard from her family in Brazil for months, and, in the end, about what, in spite of all the tumult, classifies and orders reality.
El Jefe tells them about a community in Ecuador that’s organized by an algorithm. They’re lucky enough to have a cashless barter economy based on its available resources and run by a computer that has an algorithm to determine the priority of needs for those resources among the community members. Surveys are taken every two days. The software then evaluates the surveys and adjusts the priorities of the resources and jobs. But a strange thing happened, El Jefe tells them. One day, the software approved only two projects. The first (and most absurd) required that the community begin to set aside a small amount of resources so that in 600 years all members of the community could have the right or the option to die in a black hole. The second project (more realistic, but just as insane) was to build a cathedral. The algorithm arrived at these conclusions on its own by evaluating the information that each of the community members had uploaded. It realized that the people are fascinated by black holes — that black holes swallow so much material, light, and time that they also swallow the curiosity of human beings. The computer, by way of the algorithm, had also detected an unequivocal religious desire among its users, even though the majority of them would describe themselves as atheists. That quasi-religious desire — the anticipated death in the black hole — would give unity and cohesion to the group. The idea came from physics. Following the theories of Leonard Susskind, one of the proponents of String theory, if you enter a black hole and then immediately turn to look back out just before being torn to pieces and destroyed by the gravitational pull, you would see the most incredible thing in the entire universe. Inside the black hole, the laws of physics break down. Neither time nor light can escape. The very fabric of space-time turns into something for which our minds have no architecture, though we intuit it in the quantum universe of our own atoms. In that moment — that instant, which could also be eternal, just before death — we would see the galaxy without time or space, the totality of the universe, its past, its future, all compressed into the same picture, like an Aleph. The algorithm thinks/knows this. It utilizes the knowledge of physics to which its constituents have access to offer a mystical experience, but described in the atheist values of science.
It was La Chilena that told me about this group. She spent months obsessed with black holes and other diversions on the universal. She devours documentaries about physics that seem to her much more hallucinatory than science fiction. She’s become a junkie, Alfred. And not just for documentaries, but also for news about black holes, which is how she found out about this group. It’s ridiculous. The interesting thing is that it isn’t the algorithm that unites that group, even though it’s very effective at managing the community’s resources; it’s the fascination with the black hole that keeps them together, that stupid dream that in 600 years their descendants will enter and turn around to see them, dreaming, from the timelessness of the black hole.
Alice and Trilci drop in and out of the conversation. They hear the whole thing about the community in Ecuador and their algorithm, and think they would have preferred that La Chilena had been there to tell it. Certainly she would have told the story better than El Jefe and with more enthusiasm, and less sarcasm. And certainly with more (and better!) blunts, even though joints were more her thing. We would have thought about that death as the birth of an angel. We would anticipate, if it’s going to happen in 600 years, that whoever volunteers to die would be watching us/is watching us right now, would be/is their past, and would sympathize/is sympathizing with us in a tear that would never end/ends as it falls from our eyes.
Alfred pretends to be bored. Alice laughs. Trilci makes a little girl face, like she’s in love with everything El Jefe says, but her thoughts are elsewhere, like all of ours are.
Alice asks Trilci about La Chilena’s recent obsession with physics, and Trilci explains the precise circumstances that turned her into a junkie for general interest documentaries about quantum and astrophysics. That the documentaries help her with her depression, that they’re a kind of therapy, that they make her feel small, and that her personal problems seem small compared to the problems of the galaxies.
And what’s all this bullshit about the cathedral? Alice asks El Jefe.
Who knows? Maybe it comes from whatever it is that makes anarchists idealize medieval cathedrals.
El Jefe always talks about anarchism as though the whole world obviously knows every detail of the anarchist tradition. Alice appreciates that — that El Jefe doesn’t try to come up with some mansplaining bullshit, that everything for him is simple — things that anyone could understand. And he begins to talk about the cathedrals, but Alfred interrupts him to ask for a lighter for his pipe.
I don’t have one, but here’s some matches. Alfred thinks the word “matches” is funny.
El Jefe remembers a book he read by George Duvy about medieval cathedrals. The idea of the crystal cathedral — the stained-glass windows, the design — would suggest that it was a never-ending project, that we have to keep adding levels to the cathedral, its form being that of toolbox that never ends, and on and on El Jefe goes with his medieval abstractions that drown all of us in mental architectures. Alice, who was a fanatic for all things medieval, follows him for a while. Trilci looks Alice in the eyes and tells her that whoever invented the sonnet is better than Shakespeare. She says it because Alice is writing sonnets and keeping them secret from Alfred. Only Trilci gets to critique Alice’s sonnets.
Ignoring Trilci and Alice, Alfred takes advantage of the situation, grabs a ballpoint pen, makes a drawing, and shows it to El Jefe.
What could this be, Jefe?
An atom, no?
Obviously, but what else?
Pfft! It could be a bunch of things. Where are you going with this, Alfred? It could be a stained glass window in a cathedral, or a temple, a nuclear bomb, two boxers in a boxing ring, a kiss, the movement of sewing, a snowflake, a cornflake, a diamond.
Fucking hell, man, it could be whatever — a dance floor, a ham, Scooby Doo fleeing a phantom, a medieval symbol for anarchism with the A inside the O, it’s DaVinci’s man and woman, it’s a monarch butterfly — it can be whatever you want, and if you look at it that way, it’s nothing. It’s an excuse to see whatever you want to see.
How do you suppose that I can understand what you’re telling me about The Smurfs if those images refer to everything and nothing? Alfred barks in frustration.
El Jefe doesn’t know what to say to console him. He knows there’s something to Alfred’s suffering, but the harder he tries, the less he can see. And in that same moment, as if she needed El Jefe’s strength (and she needed it!) to see something of the truth in the craziness of their friend, Alice sympathizes with Alfred’s desperation.
She knows that he’s not made for the coming world (El Jefe knows it, too, and Trilci knows it, but doesn’t think Alfred knows it). Alice rubs her hand on Alfred’s back and tells him its normal — take deep breaths, take it easy, that she totally gets what’s making him feel this way, that what he’s seeing are fractals, that lots of people are seeing fractals these days, that the world reveals its fractals when it mutates, its seams when it’s metamorphosing, when it reinvents itself. Alfred stops the tape recorder, then a few seconds later there’s another blackout.
And any one of us thinks/knows that only that which mutates provides continuity. And that which is static — fixed — doesn’t become, doesn’t happen. The static is artifice, fantasy, because there’s nothing in the universe that doesn’t change.
And with this final blackout their gathering comes to an end for they are no longer so young and must shoulder the burden of the world they inherited and tomorrow there’s work. Alice and Trilcinea don’t want to leave. Alfred doesn’t either, but El Jefe, the youngest, says goodbye and leaves. He walks down Manuel Fernández Juncos and crosses Ponce de León to Río Piedras. It’s a long walk, but he’s not alone. There are scores of other walkers — some with candles, others with lanterns — who form groups around conversations, then break up. But all of them pause for long looks at the stars that have, just in the past two years, begun to reappear around San Juan — lost for so long — after decades of starless skies. Scores of walkers whose footsteps drown out the sound of the cars of a few shameless drivers. Legions. El Jefe walks with the legions of young people at 4 in the morning from Santurce to Río Piedras, full of hopes in a time, on an island, that enters into its slow and foreseeable collapse, legions enjoying the conversation and the long walk. El Jefe’s eyes fill with hope in these legions. It’s a hope inherited, given. He knows it’s something that wasn’t made by them, and it surrounds him. A membrane that imposes itself and vibrates. He sees a hidden light in those walking feet. It’s not the Puerto Rico of his childhood. And, at the same time, it’s better in its way. Even though he knows there are people who’ll die, who are dying, and who’ve died walking, they walk, and we’ve always known that the dead walk — we who know ourselves to be peripatetic phantoms.
Two weeks later, during the teacher’s strike, which takes on national significance due to the popular support for the occupation of the school cafeterias, a handful of terrified police begin shooting into the crowds. El Jefe rushes in to help carry the corpses and gets shot in the back. He dies a few hours later surrounded by strangers who love him nonetheless. In that moment, they love him to the spine, to the entrails, to his final breath and without angel, anonymous lovers, like loving the moon or the sun, like loving a book or a good meal, they love the body that dies for having stood with them.
Alice, Trilci, and Alfred, destroyed and ashamed that they weren’t there, for not having El Jefe’s bravery to believe in a new world, come to terms with that disastrous reality of life: our friends die.