American Dirt II

american-dirtThe recent and ongoing controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt concerns the politics of literary representation and taste, publishing and canonization. Why should a non-Mexican author whose grasp of the detail of Mexican culture is sometimes precarious be rewarded with both financial capital (with a seven-figure advance) and cultural capital from the arbiters of literary value and media prominence (Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, and so on) for a text that distorts Mexican reality by serving up gringo fantasies of the country’s trauma and pain?

These are important issues, and the critique posed to the book (and more broadly to the media and publishing business) is timely and significant. But amidst all the fuss it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that the novel’s heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez, is, before she is forced to flee the threat of narco violence, herself a bookseller. Moreover, her relationship with the antagonist, a narco boss named Javier Crespo Fuentes, is structured through their common appreciation for the written word. As such, this is a text that in some ways anticipates some of the criticism it has received, and that outlines its own vision (which may equally be subject to critique) of the role of literature in depicting or mediating social antagonism.

Lydia sells everything. As a bookseller, we are told, she is well aware of the basic tension between what the market wants and literary value. But she tries to maintain some kind of personal integrity (however unseen or invisible) by stocking her store not only with “books she wasn’t crazy about but knew she would sell” (let alone the para-literary ephemera of “notecards, pens, calendars” and so on) but also with “books that she loved” (24). This latter category includes “her best-loved secret treasures, gems that had blown open her mind and changed her life [. . .] that she stocked anyway, not because she expected she’d ever sell them, but simply because it made her happy to know they were there” (25). She sells books, in other words, as though they were any other commodity, but within this mechanism of merchandising she quietly insists on the presence of a stubborn countervailing logic, a sort of silent protest against the market.

In other words, Lydia somewhat quixotically (against her own interests of profitability and commercial success), clings to other measures of literary value and purpose that are not reducible simply to exchange. As the novel explains: “Now and again when a book moved her, when a book opened a previously undiscovered window in her mind and forever altered her perception of the world, she would add it to those secret ranks.” Yet her efforts go unrecognized, unappreciated by a public that cares more for the best-sellers and notecards: “In the ten years she’d been doing this, only twice had Lydia experienced the pleasure of a customer approaching her counter with one of those books in hand, unsolicited” (25). Still, she persists.

There is already enough here of the fantastic: Lydia’s habit is obviously enough a compensatory device that enables and obliquely justifies the work in which she is mainly engaged as a bookseller, which is precisely that of the commodification and trivialization of the aesthetic project. It functions something like ideology, though at no point is Lydia deluded about the quality of the goods that she is mostly purveying. But there are also at least two other fantasies encapsulated here: either that one day there might arrive another reader appreciative or worthy of this other set of texts, this restricted canon; or, implicitly, that a book might turn up that would somehow transcend this divide by both “open[ing] previously undiscovered window[s],” altering our “perception of the world” and selling in quantity to the public at large.

Within the novel, it is that first fantasy that (briefly) comes true. A customer enters Lydia’s shop and picks not one but two of her secret list of non-marketable titles. She is dazzled and seduced by this unheralded event, and invites him to linger or return to discuss the books further, though he immediately warns that “sometimes the experience of reading can be corrupted by too many opinions” (26). Yet the source of the corruption here is elsewhere. We soon learn that this ideally receptive reader, one in a thousand or a million, is the feared capo of the cartel that has recently taken over the city. And it is he, Javier Crespo, who is responsible for the massacre of Lydia’s extended family with which the book opens. So much for the civilizing power of literature!

But is not American Dirt itself, at least as packaged and advertised for our consumption, an instance of the second fantasy, of the best-selling book that might also “open [our] mind and change[ our] life”? Of the book that would combine critical and commercial success as so few other texts have? (It is telling that a later communication between Lydia and Javier comes via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the few that might be said to have achieved this same “magical” feat.) Hence the extraordinary blurbs from figures such as Sandra Cisneros: “It’s the great world novel!” Hence the choice to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. This is a novel that aspires to combine the accessibility and readability of the thriller with the transformative aesthetic power associated (again, however fantastically) with high art.

But hence also the controversy. It is not hard, after all, to puncture such fantasies. If it had aimed for just one or the other goal (either a thriller for the masses or enlightenment for a limited readership), it would not have attracted such attention. But attention it has, and the book’s critics are keen to point to the tension between its success already as a commodity (that million-dollar-plus advance; the forthcoming movie deal) and the high-minded ambitions to which the text implicitly or explicitly aspires (“But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” [382]). No wonder Cummins has received such grief. Who does she think she is? Not that some of her justifications or protestations have helped her case much. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it is easier for an author’s characters to be eloquent than for an author to be so.

As for the real value, if any, of American Dirt–not that it is up to the critic to determine this, and such judgments are the least important and most banal of critical interventions–it is surely not that it depicts the “truth” of contemporary Mexico. But how could it? It may, however, reveal something, even despite itself, about the reasons why we might ever imagine that a literary text could or would disclose such truths. Like many other similar texts, it may tell us far more about its readers, and their hopes, fears, and desires, and about the impact that they envisage reading can or should have, for better or for worse, on themselves and the world around them.

But for those contrasting the work of going elsewhere and experiencing otherness with simply reading about such alterity, Javier Crespo already has a warning: “Books are cheaper than traveling, but they’re also more dangerous” (24).


Beyond the fact that they make for a rather more attractive package, the many illustrations in the Norton edition of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation rightly turn our attention to the poem’s obsession with things, with physical objects.

On every other page, facing the text itself, are bowls, ships, goblets, shields, arrows, helmets, jewelry, chainmail and the like, all lovingly photographed for our visual pleasure. The pictures neatly reflect and resonate with the poem’s own concern with objects that are sometimes so distinctive that they even earn a name for themselves–such as Hrunting, the weapon lent to Beowulf before his fateful encounter with the monster Grendel’s frightful mother. Hrunting is described as “a rare and ancient sword,” an “iron blade” whose “ill-boding patterns had been tempered in blood” (1458, 1459-60). It fits well with the warrior’s “mighty, hand-forged, fine-webbed mail” and his “glittering helmet [. . .] of beaten gold, / princely headgear hooped and hasped / by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders” (1444, 1448, and 1150-52).

In the gift-exchange economy of Dark Ages Europe, heroic deeds and political alliances lead to the accumulation of still more stuff. Once Beowulf has slain the monster and his mother, a grateful King Hrothgar promises that “for as long as I rule this far-flung land / treasures will change hands and each side will treat / the other with gifts” (1859-61). And good as his word, he showers the young prince and his men with artifacts of the highest quality so that by the time Beowulf heads for home he is “glorious in his gold regalia” and their ship is “cargoed with treasure, horses and war-gear” (1881, 1897).

Beowulf has already himself presented Hrothgar with a thing of considerable value: not merely the service he rendered in ridding the land of its demons, but also the hilt from a sword that he had grabbed during the melée in the mother’s watery refuge. If anything this “relic of old times” is even more impressive and fascinating than Hrunting, with its “rare smithwork” and its “rune-marking correctly incised” and its engravings in gold that tell the story of “how war first came into the world / and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants” (1688, 1679, 1695, 1689-90). This is an object that can be read to reveal something of days long gone by. The weapon’s adornment is more than mere decoration or ostentatious display; it recounts the history that makes the weapon necessary in the first place.

Likewise the hoard guarded by the dragon in the later sections of the poem also comes from an epoch long before the time when the action the narrative describes takes place. It is buried by the last survivor of a once-great civilization who realizes that, with the community that gives it meaning gone, “his joy / in the treasure would be brief” (2240-41). Interring “all the goods and golden ware / worth preserving” this last survivor consigns them to the earth, from which the raw material had originally been taken: “It was mined from you first / [. . .] I am left with nobody / to bear a sword or burnish plated goblets, / put a sheen on the cup” (2248, 2252-54).

In pre-capitalist societies, treasure is not fully fungible. It doesn’t circulate with ease–only as the result of either heroic action or as pillage of war. When the community founders, the meaning it confers wavers and is soon lost. Indeed, when Beowulf in turn dies, he has nobody to whom he can bequeath his armour. With his funeral, his treasure will be consumed as “his royal pyre / will melt no small amount of gold: / heaped there in a hoard” (3010-12).

All that is left is the rather more precarious medium of speech and song, the lament of the woman mourner who cries out in “a wild litany of nightmare and lament” (3152-53). And of course the poem, Beowulf: passed down orally for a couple of centuries before it is transcribed somewhere around 1000AD, whose one manuscript copy is almost itself consumed by fire in 1731, and which now survives, a precious object in its own right, in the British Museum. As the Museum website explains, “the manuscript remains incredibly fragile, and can be handled only with the utmost care.”

Fortunately, mass production and the publishing industry ensure that the text and this beautiful book now circulate freely, if at a fairly hefty price. A New York Times bestseller and sumptuously illustrated edition, this is a coffee-table book of distinction. No doubt more displayed and admired than read, it shows that cultural capital and presumed status still adhere to and are conveyed by objects as stubbornly today as in feudal Britain.


Francisco Lombardi is undoubtedly Peru’s most important director, having made a dozen or more feature films over the past twenty-five years. Moreover, the best of them, such as La boca de lobo or No se lo digas a nadie, have won international acclaim and rank at or near the top flight of Latin American cinema. What’s remarkable is that Lombardi has achieved this status almost single-handedly, and with an output that has offered a vigorous critique of successive governments and just about every section of Peruvian society.

Caidos del cielo posterCaídos del cielo (“Fallen from Heaven”) is an ambitious, accomplished, and very dark black comedy let down only by some less than stellar acting performances. It tells three loosely related stories (script-writer Giovanna Pollarolo has observed that with a little more daring it could have been the Amores perros of its time): a couple of elderly landowners, laid low by economic conditions and reformist politics, are trying to gather enough money to build themselves a marble tomb that would keep their remains in the style to which they still aspire; they give their now blind former housekeeper a pig that proves to be more trouble than it’s worth as the effort to fatten it up destroys what little family the woman has; and one of the couple’s tenants, who is presenter of a relentlessly optimistic radio self-help show, tries to put his own counsel into effect when he saves a young woman from suicide.

The self-help show’s title is “You are your destiny,” and it encourages its listeners to believe that fate is always in their hands. But its presenter Humberto comes to realize that, for some at least, this is far from the truth. When he starts to change his tune, telling his listeners that in some cases their wounds will never heal, he’s promptly sacked: such negativity is not what people want to hear.

Lombardi has no such desire to placate or patronize his audience. In Caídos del cielo there’s more emphasis on the fall than on heaven. Here all roads lead to death, which is the only thing certain in life. (In Peru at least the other great certainty doesn’t hold: the publicity for Chicha tu madre claims that of 28 million Peruvians, only 140,000 pay taxes.) At least the down-at-heel aristocrats achieve their dream of ensuring that their cadavers will be laid out in one of the finest mausoleums in the cemetery, but the price they pay is that what remains of their lives becomes more of a living death. Still, their fate is several notches above either that of the suicidal woman, whose name we never learn but whose terrible and irredeemable secret is what brings Humberto down from his lofty gospel of feel-good salvation. And the lowest of the low are represented by the blind grandmother and her two urchin grandchildren, who eke out a living on the garbage dumps of Lima’s beaches. And if Humberto seems to learn that niceness is not enough (with perhaps some last-minute and far too late regrets over this lesson), the aristocrats and the urchins alike have long since abandoned even any pretense of politesse.

Caidos del cielo stillThe film is set during the years of rampant hyperinflation that characterized Alan García’s first presidency. Its implication is that as all sense of economic value vanishes, as a tomb comes to be more valuable than a mansion and budgets turn into worthless pieces of paper, so also good intentions become little more than ratings-driven lies and a champion pig’s life comes to be worth more than a child’s. Some dream of escape: the mistreated grandchild, for instance, declares he’ll make his way to the States in the steps of his mother. But in the end Lombardi seems to agree with the nameless young woman who believes that the only way out is to jump off one of Lima’s seacliffs.

YouTube Link: the film’s first ten minutes.


Here’s material for a meme, no doubt: what was the worst book you ever read, and why?

A quick search around the web, however, turns up several lists of notoriously bad films (e.g. Wikipedia’s “Films considered the worst ever”), and indeed there’s an annual award for bad films, the Razzies, but I can’t immediately find anything similar for fiction.

There is the Bad Sex in Fiction Award; and also the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, “wretched writers welcome.” But nothing for entire books, so far as I can see.

[Update: I now see that The Observer started such a discussion a couple of years ago, though even in starting the debate Stephanie Merrick (who picks Wuthering Heights) notes that “if favourite books are subjective, nominating the ‘worst’ books is even more so”. The ensuing comments, over 1100 of them, can be found here.]

Of course, a document such as the Vatican’s Index librorum prohibitorum tried to establish some theologically-validated consensus on what makes a bad book. But not only is the question of moral danger rather different (if not altogether so) than the issue of aesthetic failure; also even the Vatican eventually gave up any attempt to distinguish between bad and good when it comes to literature.

Perhaps that’s because there are just so many more books–and therefore so many more bad books than bad films. There are too many contenders. But perhaps it’s because there’s much less unanimity on what makes for a bad book than on what makes for a bad film.

Here’s my contender for at least one of the worst books I’ve ever read… and what makes it even worse is that it’s a trilogy.

Many years ago a co-worker and friend lent me Robertson Davies‘s The Cornish Trilogy (which consists of The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred In The Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus), telling me I must read them. And read them, I did; every word. Perhaps my effort to continue through these three thick tomes indicates some kind of masochism. Because almost every sentence I found ponderous, overwrought, and yet strangely banal.

I’m really not sure why I persevered in the effort. Maybe I thought that at some point Davies simply must turn the corner, that things had to improve. But no: the oh so slow trainwreck of language and plot continued inexorably, each sentence and each page as poor as the previous one. The trilogy was long; it was tedious; it was pretentious. And it gave no pay-off whatsoever.

Fortunately, I have repressed almost all memory of the books themselves. I only have the memory of the execrable experience I spent reading them. An experience I would be loath to repeat.

Meanwhile, I now find myself in a land in which Robertson Davies is a literary hero. The Canadian Encyclopedia declares that he is “acknowledged as an outstanding essayist and brilliant novelist”. And I should admit that a couple of my other contenders for worst books also emanate from the Great White North–not least Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though that at least has the benefit of a decent title and a commendable brevity.

But I should assure my Canuck hosts that there’s no Canada-bashing here: I love the novels of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje, for instance. But Robertson Davies? Forget about it.

Crossposted to Long Sunday.