Agustín Fernández Mallo, then a Spanish physicist with one book of poetry to his name, was on holiday from his laboratory in 2004 when he was hit by a motorbike in Thailand. Convalescing in hospital after surgery, he wrote Nocilla Dream and made notes for two succeeding volumes in a trilogy. Nocilla Dream wasn’t the first work of prose Mallo had written, but it was the first to get published – two years later, by Candaya, a smart, independent press in Barcelona. It became ‘a success with readers before its embrace by critics’, according to its translator, Thomas Bunstead. Some attribute this popular response to its imaginative engagement with technology and mass culture. Others point to its formal adventurousness, or to the influence of a network of literary blogs (centred on Vicente Luis Mora’s Diario de Lecturas, and frequently likened to the culture of tertulias in late 19th-century Spain) alongside a resurgence in independent publishing. In 2007 the independent press Berenice brought out fiction by Mora, Eloy Fernández Porta and others that challenged what had for years been a moribund literary culture characterised, as Bunstead puts it, by ‘a knee-jerk reaction to anything that smacked of formal experimentation’.
Writing in the first decade of the 21st century for alternative magazines like Quimera and Lateral, these authors understood technology and mass media as an integral aspect of everyday consciousness. After events held by the magazines on ‘the new’, ‘the latest’, on what they termed ‘mutant narrative’, they became known as Mutantes. Mallo denies attending any of these events. Nevertheless, when the Nocilla trilogy (described by one Mutante as ‘inviting a more daring, less constrained kind of reader, one not afraid to look at the world anew; a reader with new hope’) became a sensation, the newspaper write-ups referred to the Mutantes as ‘Generación Nocilla’, a term of them most would accept, and not only for commercial reasons. Mallo (who, after the first book, sold the rights to the rest of the trilogy to Alfaguara, a mainstream publisher) has denied any affiliation with them – half-jokingly, I guess.
First published in English translation by Fitzcarraldo Editions, Nocilla Dream (2015), Nocilla Experience (2016) and Nocilla Lab (2019) are packaged as a box set by Farrar, Straus in America. They’ve been describing the books as novels. This doesn’t quite fit, but it’s fine. Think of them as three novels at the edge of the form, their manifold narratives folded into each other: all highly imaginative, all fairly unhinged, all methodically interrupted by a range of scientific, theoretical and literary quotations which, as the Iberianist Katryn Evinson writes, propose a kind of alternative canon, in an attempt to ‘uproot Spanish fiction from its self-referential co-ordinates and inscribe it within a wider cartography aware of the current globalised world’. Since the Nocilla project, Mallo has published two more novels, another book of poetry and two books of theory. We can expect a steady feed of translations in the coming years, starting next month with The Things We’ve Seen, Bunstead’s translation of Mallo’s novel of 2018.
The first two books in The Nocilla Trilogy are composed respectively of 113 and 112 numbered fragments, not one of which contains paragraph breaks, many less than a page long – citations included – producing, at the bottom of each dense block of text, an area of blank space. ‘An illustrator named Pere Joan told me the important thing with comics was to know how to read the white space between the panels,’ Mallo writes at one point, and gaps such as these allow the fragments to ‘drift’, as Anne Carson put it in ‘Merry Christmas for Hegel’, ‘in gentle and mutual redefinition of one another’. ‘The so-called obra fragmentada,’ Mallo has said, is ‘usually understood as a collage of more or less erratic juxtapositions’ and
contradicts the very definition of an obra, of a work. To say a work is fragmented is to say that you have not apprehended the internal mechanics of said work. Strictly speaking a wholly fragmented work is not possible; and if one were to exist, the brain could not perceive it as such. The internal logic of the obra fragmentada is guided by non-spatial criteria – that is, semantic, conceptual, metaphorical or analogical relations.
Mallo’s characters are vehicles for perceptual fields, for intensities. In Nocilla Experience, the novel in which absence is most present as a theme and authorial tactic, one fragment describes cameras being implanted into the eyes of the blind by scientists at the University of Southern California. ‘Sixteen pixels are enough for the blind volunteers: the imagination supplies the rest. Our eyes include a point that invents it all; shows that the metaphor constitutes the brain itself; puts things in a poetic order. This “blind point” ought more accurately to be called a “poiesis point”.’ The characters’ paths cross occasionally; more often, they don’t. They tend to have little personal connection to one another. They are often loners – some out of necessity, some by inclination, others on account of particular principles, which they invariably articulate. Henry Darger, the reclusive American outsider artist who left behind a 15,000-page manuscript and three hundred watercolours to illustrate it (‘naked girls frolicking in fields of flowers, complete with gigantic, pastel-shade, gold-edged butterfly wings’; ‘scenes of extreme violence, of girls being impaled, disembowelled and tortured’) is something of a hero for the theorists of solitude who inhabit the worlds of the first two books. These characters tend to be men, and they’re frequently misogynists. They may never share a page, much less a room.
But they cover a lot of ground. Across three fragments appearing over thirty pages in Nocilla Experience, a doctor called Harold, who has suffered a breakdown after a divorce, spends three and a half years losing at tennis to his 1979 Atari, eating every packet of cornflakes in the supermarket that has a sell-by date the same as his ex-wife’s birthday (a premise lifted from Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express), until, one day, he finishes the cornflakes and feels like going for a jog. This feeling doesn’t wear off for several years, by which point Harold has not only jogged across the continent to Alaska, but, in so doing, stopping only to sleep, has become an international news item (‘any prospective interviewer has to run with him’) whose extreme jogging has been claimed as sport, art, even political protest.
Meanwhile, in one of the trilogy’s many overt allusions to Borges, an Armenian cartographer – who by day exploits unpaid migrant labour at his multi-storey pig farm and by night works late at an attic desk with protractors and set-squares, rulers, compasses and pencils, ‘producing a carpet of pig skins that would stretch from his front door to the glaciers of Pakistan’ – appears in three fragments across sixty pages. His story is finally recounted to a character called Steve, an exponent of ‘theoretical cuisine’ who, in a TV interview for Cooking Today, claims that his secret is to cook ‘the skins and the skins only: the skins of all objects, animals, things and ideas are apt to be cooked’. Then there is Josecho, who is shown cruising the streets of Madrid on his Vespa, a camera taped to his helmet, filming a multitude of posters featuring his own face. Josecho’s US publisher, Other Directions, has, in association with Chanel, bought up half of the city’s advertising hoardings (‘a fusion between fiction and the catwalk’; ‘a single, spectacular incursion into just one point of the socio-informational network’) to promote his new book of appropriated material: the openings of famous novels, placed one after the other (Frankenstein, Atomised, The Definitive Swamp) to form a coherent work, a ‘novel’ entitled Helping the Sick. ‘The novelty of the phenomenon would resonate round the globe, and the media response alone would ensure sales.’ Elsewhere, a recently divorced woman drives a wooden car, powered by burning firewood, across the US.
There are scores of characters – hundreds even. Yet it’s not the characters (few of which cross directly from one book to another) that establish what coherence there is in the trilogy. Rather, it’s the recurrence of narratives, themes and concepts such as lifted plots, scholarly citations and people pursuing found photography. The preval-ence, throughout the trilogy, of televisual motifs seems to be a way for Mallo to distance himself from the work’s crude depiction of femininity as a commodity. ‘Kelly strips from the waist up and fastens the bikini catch,’ reads one passage in Nocilla Dream. ‘Her modest 22-year-old breasts weigh down the elasticated fabric. She considers herself in the mirror of her sunglasses, 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 1990s.’ This is routine, systematic.
Nocilla Lab, the final book, is the formal, as well as the ontological, outlier of the three. The first sixty pages (a distinct section called ‘Automatic Search Engine’) consist of one extremely long sentence bundling through time and space, thousands of commas tripped over, a hundred dashes maybe, all upheld by three dozen statements that are repeated every few pages, reassuringly, frustratingly, in varying order, but with more or less similar phrasing, in and out of situations, most of which concern the travels of the narrator and an unnamed woman, a romantic partner with whom the narrator has been working on ‘the Project, our Project’ – ‘this immense thing that hadn’t so much kept us busy as held us hostage, for years’.
The Project appears to be a literary text with interests and structures similar to Mallo’s preceding books. ‘We didn’t mind about this radical change of direction and style,’ the narrator says.
It didn’t bother us, we’d read the Andy Warhol phrase about how it’s crazy to think of an artistic change of direction as a betrayal, and that you should be an abstract artist one week and a figurative or a pop artist the next, an idea we subscribed to wholeheartedly, as we did to the rest of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: B to A and Back Again.
We learn only in this final volume that ‘Nocilla’ is a Spanish version of Nutella, a spread whose ‘thick material fleshiness’ is imagined, on its eventual appearance in Nocilla Lab’s thick material prose, in relation to various things: to the city of Las Vegas (‘this 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, wholly unaffiliated object, a nowhere object, pure unadulterated consumerism’); or indeed, spread across ‘a Proustian madeleine, not baked by his maid but manufactured instead, full of preservatives and flavouring’.
The second section of Nocilla Lab has an entirely different approach to consistency: it is broken up, not just by full stops, but by paragraph breaks and numerals, roman and otherwise. After a series of attempts by the female partner to destroy the Project – repeatedly threatening to set it alight, throwing the guitar case in which it is kept into the sea – the couple turn off a motorway into what is advertised as an eco-tourist hotel, a former prison where they settle down to complete it. But then the woman discovers that the hotel’s owner – the narrator’s doppelgänger and, as it happens, a collector of found photographs – also has a collection of her discarded underwear. So she departs, leaving the Project and taking the car. ‘I couldn’t go,’ the narrator says. ‘I couldn’t leave it like this, abandon the Project.’
It is at this point – after an elaborate and tiresomely literal series of encounters with the doppelgänger – that the trilogy, so filled with ekphrasis, finally begins to reproduce its own images, photographs taken by the narrator of the TV in his hotel room. Of the eight images included in this section, one shows – within the slightly slanted, slightly off-centre frame that is the television screen – a low-angle shot of a white sink with silvered tap and a faint grey grid of tiling. The image is itself a faint reflection: in fragment 26 of Nocilla Dream, a poem by Hannah – later revealed to be a programmer, translator and writer, but for now ‘Hannah, a native of Utah’ – is presented on the page squeezed inside 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.’ In a later fragment, Hannah’s book, Other Directions, is said to be inspired by 1960s conceptual art. ‘These artists would go to a field, paint a white line across it and call the work Sculpture,’ the narrator explains. ‘They’d go to drainage pipes in the edges of sea cliffs, photograph them and call the photographs Monument to a Source.’ Advised to send out a press release about her book, Hannah refuses. ‘She wasn’t interested in reaching people like that.’ Instead she leaves two thousand copies at metro stations and airports, on pavements and under cars, with the dedication: ‘Dear whoever has found this. Now, if you like, you can throw it away. Affectionately, Hannah.’ Later, in Nocilla Experience, a copy is discovered in a bin.