Traditional novels create meaning through narrative; each scene means in relation to the story. What if, however, you believe meaning is not so easily acquired, that we are now so connected and disconnected that describing reality using a straight path (plot) is no longer enough, or even possible? Perhaps, then, you might write a novel like Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, one made of 113 brief chapters, many of them extracts from other books, woven from numerous strands and storylines, and set in the debatable lands between fact and fiction.
Ironically, Nocilla Dream’s central image is that of a single road, Route 50 in Nevada:
“…the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260 mile stretch with a brothel at either end.”
Falconetti, the first of over thirty characters to be introduced in this short book, decides to walk the length of it, inspired, he says, by Christopher Columbus. Mallo contrasts the spirit of discovery at the heart of the American Dream with a barren road to nowhere, reversing the westward flow of the pioneers with Falconetti’s west to east pilgrimage. Although Mallo is Spanish, this is a novel which places America at the heart of the modern world, as we can see when he later discusses the way American culture is imported into China:
“Lee-Kung, unemployed, spends a great deal of time cutting out photos from the free North American magazines…She scans the images and saves them onto her Apple Mac before beginning with her modifications, copying and pasting in Chinese motifs.”
A later chapter describes the popularity of surfing in a Chinese province, Tsau-Chee. American culture is referenced throughout: young boy, who first appears in chapter 3, is known as Billy the Kid, and another character as Pat Garret. Even Falconetti has borrowed his name form Irwin Shaw’s novel Rich Man, Poor Man.
The only landmark on Route 50 is a single tree hung with hundreds of pairs of shoes. This image of connectedness (the shoes are a tangled mass) and disconnection (from their purpose) reoccurs throughout the novel. It often appears at points when characters are trying – or failing – to connect. Indentations in the ground are caused by couples making love at its foot: Falconetti finds a used condom hanging on its branches, and Hannah reminisces of a time she and Ted would have “made love under the U. S. Route 50 poplar, watching the sunrise from where they lay.” Relationships, however, can also fall apart:
“Then, a husband, looking for ways to aggravate his wife, throws her shoes to the top of this tree that, like an attractor point, has been gathering hundreds more shoes besides.”
The tree is not the only example of human objects disconnected from humanity: a suitcase full of found photographs and tapes of found recordings also feature. Sokolov, we’re told:
“…was soon to be seen frequenting different Chicago neighbourhoods, going around armed with recording equipment and field mics, discovering all manner of textures in unexpected urban instruments: form the classic clack clack of cars driving across imperfectly fitting manhole covers, to the gushing sound emitted by a graffiti artist’s spraycan.”
Mallo is also very interested in micronations, in particular the Isotope Micronation, “a large subterranean cube, 250 000 square feet in volume: a cement intestine which, if laid out flat, would be almost 400 miles long” originally built by the US government. Though the idea of a micronation would seem to connect people, “the 178 inhabitants can go as long as a month without seeing another soul.”
Loneliness runs through the novel. When characters do connect it is rarely for long. Sometimes there are only a few minutes of conversation as between Fernando, the pump attendant at an isolated gas station, and a group of female surfers passing through. On other occasions, relationships blossom, for example between Sherry and Clark only to end suddenly: Clark, having taken Sherry from one of the brothels which bookend the highway, later abandons her. Other characters, like Falconetti, are solitary by nature.
Perhaps our struggle as a reader to make connections across Mallo’s novels mirrors our struggle to make connections across the disparate elements of modern life. Certainly, we should not look to it for simple answers. It has a cumulative effect, though not one as moving as, say, in the work of David Markson. Intriguingly, it is the first part of a trilogy: it’s to be hoped translator Thomas Bunstead is at work on volume two.