A psychedelic slog through the pleasures and mysteries of slacking off and not measuring up.
Rodrigo, the central character in Daniel Saldaña Paris’s Among Strange Victims, slogs along in a life that doesn’t seem to be his, writing press releases for his job as a self-proclaimed “administrator of knowledge” at a local museum and then, on his off days, either masturbating or looking out at the vacant lot behind his Mexico City apartment. He lives a depressed, inert life, referring to himself, in the novel’s opening paragraph, as something disembodied:
First, I’d like to state that my head floats about two inches above the top of my neck, detached from me. From that position, it’s easier for me to observe the irritating texture of my days.
Rodrigo’s head is of course attached to his neck, but his self-description accounts for how he experiences life as something that happens—sometimes to him—while he watches from a critical distance. The “irritating texture of his days” is self-created:
In the end the only thing that matters to me is conserving enough clarity to be able to articulately criticize what I see; if some illness stopped me from doing this, nothing would have meaning anymore.
His intelligence and worldview do not depend on “books or people” or relationships, then, but on living a comfortably removed middle-class existence that affords him the misanthropic comfort of critique without engagement, of narcissistic and clichéd riffs on the drudgeries of office life and middle-class life and on the general stupidity of contemporary life. This is a self-impressed, self-obsessed narrator stuck in a common, post-1960, upper class, and male literary rut.
Saldaña Paris seems aware of enough of Rodrigo’s strange position, and Among Strange Victims explores what kind of life, if any, a character like Rodrigo can live. Is it possible for a cynic who dissects his days to come to love them? What would it take for him to place himself firmly within life, to live within it as opposed to above or outside of it, and anyway, what would this life look like? The novel teases and revises questions about how to live a meaningful life with agency by turning them into a thought experiment that Saldana Paris handles with formal invention and a Millennial twist. It goes something like this: Look, we all know the world sucks, that our parents lost the ideological fight in the 60s, that life now is a boring routine, but is this really all? Is it possible anymore to be happy?
A series of events, which seem to happen against Rodrigo’s will, upend his life. First, he finds himself—literally—married to Cecilia, a coworker, after he agrees, without really agreeing, to marry her. They live a boring, domestic life in Rodrigo’s apartment above the empty lot, where one day he finds a chicken clucking amongst the weeds and trash. The chicken is a relief from his monotonous days and he becomes obsessed with it until one day he climbs into the yard to see it, takes a blow to his head, collapses, and recovers, but on waking can’t find evidence of who or what attacked him. He goes back into his house to discover yet another mystery—a perfect coil of shit on his bedspread.
The mystery of the shit's origin drives Rodrigo further into himself, into a riff on the meaning (or not) of life, and perhaps (or maybe not) of narrative itself:
Either the poo has meaning or it doesn’t. If it does, then it can be thought of as a sign and is waiting happily in its loathsome image for me to venture onto the course of its exegesis. If it has no meaning beyond that of perturbing me, it can feel satisfied with itself, can pull up its pestilential anchor and set sail for other, more fragile sensibilities.
From here, the novel launches into its second narrative line, which shifts between Marcelo Valente, a Madrid academic with a PhD in aesthetics, and his object of study, the avant-garde artist Richard Foret. Marcelo’s “capacity for enjoyment . . . is clearly dampened by his love of analysis,” while Foret is cast as his opposite: an artist who lived like a nomad but whose “joy was always incomplete, like a sort of addiction that in seeking satisfaction, constantly required greater stimulus.” The one is comically academic while the other is comically artistic. Marcelo travels to Los Girasoles, Mexico, to begin a book on Foret. In this outpost, stuck in a terrible apartment in the middle of nowhere, he decides he needs a woman “who would open doors for him and explain the codes of conduct in this barren place, who would carry him away . . . in some oasis that would isolate him from the surrounding hostility” and, by implication, grant him that “capacity of enjoyment.”
That woman is Rodrigo’s mother, who is the pretext that brings Rodrigo and Marcelo together. In the third and fourth parts of the novel, Rodrigo travels to see his mother in Los Girasoles, where he meets Marcelo and a gringo American artist, Jimmie, who, with his beautiful and underage girlfriend, Micaela, precipitate a chain of events that awaken Rodrigo and cure his misery. The cure involves hypnosis and time travel, and a return to the question of the mysterious shit. Rodrigo, during a hypnosis session, returns to his bafflement over the shit on the bedspread to learn that he was the one who left it there, that maybe the question of shit is inexorable from the question of one’s self, and that if there cannot be an escape from mundanity and inertia, then there could be life or agency in the arbitrary, in moments when inertia gives way to chaos and the unexpected.
The novel reads like a psychological case study of upper-class, overly educated men, all of whom seem to be versions of each other. These are men who live through thought but find that their thoughts are crippling them. It’s a maddening and frustrating world, and to read this book is to be immersed in this consciousness. But Saldaña Paris rarely enacts or dramatizes his character’s lives or inner worlds. As a result, much of the novel feels like a slick surface, full of clever riffs and asides, but nothing holds. We are given perspective without insight. MacSweeny’s translation underscores the novel’s awkward, strained prose, which mixes high and low language and some forced metaphors to create a language that seems to waver between dissertation and fiction. Sentences strain for a poetry the characters cannot achieve.
The prose captures the consciousness of these male characters who can’t connect to their respective lives and worlds. While Saldaña Paris is concerned with these men, he is unwittingly concerned, too, with the women at the novel’s periphery: Cecilia, Rodrigo’s mother, Bea (Foret’s girlfriend), and Jimmie’s girlfriend, Micaela. Each of these men seek out in these women what is missing in their lives––agency, connection, happiness, and meaning––so that we end up in an unfortunately familiar and clichéd place where women are meaning and happiness, but only when they are reduced to supporting roles. In the novel’s epilogue, Rodrigo, coming out of hypnosis, walks out into the sun with the beautiful Micaela:
Outside, the sun shone down on all things, leaving no shadow.
With a woman by his side, there are no shadows for Rodrigo, or for any of these men. At least, not as long as she remains in her own shadow, as a function of his happiness.