Monday, March 29, 2021

Mona by Pola Oloixarac.

Mona by Pola Oloixarac. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. Translated by Adam Morris. $25.00

Review by Ed Meek

In a short 176 pages, Pola Oloixarac combines elements of a mystery, magic realism and an entertaining satire of writers, writing and our current era. The plot, and I use that word loosely here, involves the narrator Mona going to a writer’s festival in pursuit of a prestigious prize while trying to figure out how she got some painful bruises on her body. As the conference proceeds, an occasional dead animal turns up and someone may or may not be following her. The problem is that a mystery is based on logic (see Sherlock Holmes). Logic and magic realism do not exactly mix well.

Nonetheless, the plot is kind of beside the point because Oloixarac’s focus is really on writing and culture. She is very sharp and witty, her observations provocative and often on point. On literary festivals: “That’s all literary festivals are good for: the memory of them is so repulsive, and you end up so disgusted by the writing ‘community’ that you have no choice but to stay home and write. Seul contre tous.”

Her send up of writers is almost a subgenre in fiction that includes The Wonder Years by Chabon (great book and movie) about an aging writer who can’t finish his second book and the cast of characters who show up for the annual literary publication award, Professor Romeo by Anne Bernays about a writing professor who chases his female students, Old School by Tobias Wolfe, in which Ayn Rand, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway visit a private school and get roasted by Wolff. Straight Man by Richard Russo—a hilarious satire of an English Department at a college. Like Michael Chabon, Pola Oloixarac makes you feel smarter just by reading her. At the same time, she lets us know that she is a little smarter than we are. “Mona felt a chill as the phrase fail better crossed her mind. After all, Beckett, like Heidegger, was basically a self-help writer for the intellectual class…”


When it comes to satire, she takes no prisoners. Talking about the roles women have to play in our culture, one her characters, Lena, an obese writer talking to her while nude in the sauna says,

“these distortions are a way of being in the world…that’s why we transform ourselves into drag queens…We’re obliged to incarnate these personae…To be a woman and to write is to be trans. That’s why writing is trans, being fat is trans, and this whole entire performance of being a woman is the most trans thing in the world. Ever since Teiresias, who was of course the first trans person ever.”

A character named Sven quips, “I was a journalist for a while, and there was a time I dabbled in literary criticism, but I realized that I’d lose all my friends if I kept at it…” Sounds like good advice to me...

Oloixarac also raises serious questions. “How do we create collective forms of resistance in the current political landscape? What can we do anymore, besides tweet?... What I’m saying is that the winds of culture have changed entirely. Now that the leftish culture is mainstream, it means absolutely nothing. Think about it: What does it mean to be a leftist? Eating vegan? Marching against the banks and then posting it online with your iPad?”

How many of us marched in resistance to Trump or in the “fight” against climate change? What effect did it have? Then we go home and talk about it online in our safe political silos on FB and Twitter. Meanwhile, the earth continues to burn.

The last section of the book leaves one major strand of the plot unsolved and delves into a disturbing explanation about our heroine’s injuries that made me feel like I sometimes did when watching the show Girls, or the more recent I May Destroy You. Mona’s negativity has her ingesting drugs like candy. Still, like Lena Dunham and Michaela Coel, Pola Oloixarac has her thumb on what’s happening now in our increasingly international and diverse culture. Then Oloixarac plunges into magic realism and mythology in a hallucinatory ending which may leave you thinking: WTF?

Mona is Oloixarac’s third book. Her first, Savage Theories, was a bestseller. When it was criticized in some circles, Oloixarac responded: "[t]he book has sparked verbal violence and a sexist uproar precisely because it doesn't deal with the issues that are traditionally associated with 'women's literature,' but instead contains a sociological critique that is both intelligent and satirical, which are apparently traits solely reserved for men." How you identify may affect how you respond to that. Well, it isn’t always easy being beautiful, brainy and talented.

No comments:

Post a Comment