(George Braziller Inc, 2017)
Before Malcolm Lowry found himself in Mexico, drunkenly unraveling his life to reshape it, he was an eighteen-year-old kid from England who pursued dreams of becoming a sailor. Lowry’s autobiographical novel Ultramarine dwells heavily on the desperation to be accepted by his crew mates, as the protagonist Dana dreams of performing feats of heroism and is haunted by the cook’s taunting declaration of hatred for “those bloody toffs who come to sea for experience.” The epigraph for Juan Villoro’s satirical novel The Reef consists of a passionate quote from Ultramarine that is driven by Dana’s desperation to be accepted as a man among men: “But one day I shall find a land corrupted and depressed beyond all knowledge, where the children are starving for lack of milk, a land unhappy, although unenlightened, and cry: ‘I shall stay here until I have made this place good.’”
The quote resonates ironically throughout The Reef because no one in the book seems to share this view of Kipling-esque imperialism—except in part for one “gringo” who is found murdered in the opening pages, due to his belief in “those idiotic stories where the heroes won.” Villoro’s Mexico is a land that exists outside of logic and justice, but what attracts Anglos is not the opportunity to save it but the rush of danger. The action in the novel takes place around a resort called The Pyramid that, if advertised in the New York City Subway system alongside typical images of a tropical paradise, would probably look like a case of culture jamming. The coastal resort’s entertainment options include mock cartel kidnappings, guerrilla warfare, and snakes that resemble venomous corals unfurled on the guests. When a real-live hurricane disrupts the programming and sends everyone inside, the management keeps the patrons stimulated with a display of innocuous purple smoke engulfing the grounds, said to be fumigation for a sudden onslaught of killer bees.
Villoro’s sharp humor penetrates The Reef’s overall melancholic, foggy tone with bursts of clarity that made me wonder why more of his work has not already been translated into English. His name has come up with Bolaño’s, though his voice is subtler, and he rewards the patient reader with a blend of empathy, ambivalence, and drollness. Tony Góngora, the narrator, is endearing despite being a washed up, four-fingered bass player who carries the name of the 17th century Spanish baroque poet but offers no poetry of his own. The biggest moment of his rock career was either when his band Los Extraditables blew an opportunity to play a show with the Velvet Underground or when he was on tour with a Japanese pop singer and threw his bass into Hiroshima Bay to emulate his idol, Jaco Pastorius—not in technique but in gesture.
Tony’s point of view is an effective one to render the strange fictitious environment of The Pyramid—and the possible connections between the British owners with the region’s real-life drug running operations that may have led to the murder—because Tony’s cognition is often partial, and his memory is full of holes. In this respect, the texture of the book is occasionally reminiscent of the lighter Pynchon novels, Vineland and Inherent Vice in particular. There is even a Pynchonesque setting for one of the scenes of Tony’s haphazard investigation into the death of his coworker at a bar called The Crafty Bishop. A detective claims the name came about from the place’s chess-playing owner, then reveals himself to be a clergyman on the side, and the play on words enhances the dreamlike atmosphere of doubles and coincidences.
Tony is often at the mercy of Mario, his old friend and former bandmate who now manages The Pyramid and gave him a job. Mario mediates Tony’s memories, emotions, and circumstances from the novel’s beginning to end, sculpting a narrative for Tony to suit his own purposes. To call Tony an unreliable narrator would be missing the point because he reliably and convincingly portrays a situation of confusion and obfuscation in which Tony is held captive by Mario’s illusions. He may question Mario’s more extreme inventions for The Pyramid’s entertainment and wonder whether or not Mario is telling Tony the truth, but the fact remains that they are childhood friends, and it is Mario who knows him the best. Additionally, Mario seems to be onto something with his theories about the intersection between the needs of first-world tourists and Mexican identity: “If they’re afraid, it means they’re alive. They relax by feeling fear. What is horrible to us, is luxury to them. The Third World exists in order to rescue Europeans from their own boredom. … Here I am, committed to recreational paranoia.”
Mario is the man behind the curtain, putting on the show, but the idea for The Pyramid came from an American named Peterson, a boomer who came of age with the anti-trauma of never having made it to Vietnam. The regret he feels for missing the war leads him on a nihilistic path through life, and he believes he is destined for failure. He created The Pyramid with the expectation that it would collapse, so when the resort becomes a hit, Peterson slips into the background. His disaffection seems to come from the same source as the guests’ enthusiasm and falls into the realm of what Sebastian Junger sought to address in his recent book Tribe: “War feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it.”
Junger’s claims may encompass genuine emotions, and his book was ultimately an argument for the basic human need to be a part of a small, tight group rather than live in comfort and isolation, but by romanticizing war, Junger's book propagates America’s cultural drive to interfere with the rest of the world for its own fulfillment. This dynamic is one of the many layers of America’s complicated relationship with Mexico, and it looms in the background of Villoro’s agonized, impassioned portrayal of his own country.