Nobody's Perfect

Pola Oloixarac, trans. Adam Morris, Mona

Serpent's Tail, 192pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781788169882

reviewed by Nathan Knapp

Mona, by Argentinian author Pola Oloixarac, has been out in English long enough —15 months in the US and four in the UK — and so widely reviewed that its plot has already been regurgitated dozens of times in as many publications, so we’ll keep that bit short here. What plot there is can be summed up simply enough in any case: Mona, a troubled writer who attends a Swedish literary prize-giving festival, thinks snarky thoughts about the writers there, ditches most of the talks, masturbates often, and uses mood-altering substances oftener. Along the way a deep interior wound makes itself increasingly visible; in the novel’s final pages the cause of that wound and the resulting trauma from it overwhelms all that has come before. At the same time, a primordial or pseudo-mythical flood engulfs the prize-giving festival’s idyllic, Great British Bake Off-esque setting. All of its attendees, including the novel’s titular protagonist-narrator, are subsumed by the earth and sea. Not deus machina so much as deus mare: a thudding end to an otherwise wickedly delicious novel.

There are several things happening worth discussing here. One is the novel’s exploration of gender expression and its relation to sexuality in an erotic sense. The other is that gender expression’s relation to misanthropy. As Susan Sontag bemoaned in her 2001 essay collection Where the Stress Falls, female protagonists are not allowed to be misanthropic in the same way as their male counterparts. Despite the uptick in so-called difficult women in fiction in recent years, a very real resistance to such characters persists. Writing in the New York Times, Sadie Stein complained of Mona’s ‘pernicious thread of . . . self-regard. Indeed, one might call it the most genuine thing about the novel.’ Stein’s review left us wondering: could one write a novel without self-regard? We tried to think of a single novelist — particularly one whose main talents leaned towards the satirical, towards ideas, who adores both caricature and monologue, as Oloixarac does — who would not fail to pass as possessing a thread of self-regard. None came to mind. A humbly ambitious novelist would seem to present either the most backhanded of complements or an outright contradiction in terms.

It probably does not help things for reviewers who, perhaps like Stein, prefer their female protagonists to maintain an aura of modesty with regards to personality, to discover that Mona is not merely bitchy, she’s also unremittingly horny. One of the first things she does upon arriving at the prize festival is to withdraw to her room and watch porn: ‘In her open tab, a buff dude with an American haircut was massaging a redhead’s pussy while a shorter guy ate her ass. She was a consummate professional.’ As she watches, Mona marvels at the limitations of the male genitals versus the freedom of the woman’s. The man is condemned, Oloixarac writes, ‘to physical urgency and being one with his cyclopean phallus.’ To Mona’s mind a woman’s genitals are something entirely else: ‘they could drift, lunge, fill and empty themselves like voracious gluttons':

pussies were philosophical organs par excellence. A pussy puts the body right where philosophers evaded it: it was there innately open, happy to be perforated, grinded on, penetrated, flipped around—all the while the intellect associated with that pussy performed its own secret, personal, and intimate revolution. She thought it was funny how even the #MeToo movement seemed to echo this private sentiment, at least lexically, spelling it out without spelling it out, since ‘#MeToo’ could be pronounced pound me too, which in ‘Colonial’ Spanish would translate to something like dame masa a mí también, destroy me, fuck me, too. But nobody seemed to notice

There, one imagines, might be the source of Stein’s ‘pernicious’ self-regard. None of the sacred cows of contemporary feminism, academia or the lit-world, goes unskewered. Mona has made her literary debut, for instance, ‘at a time when being a “woman of color” in the vade mecum of American racism, began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital. American universities shared certain essential values with historic zoos, where diversity was a mark of attraction and distinction.’ A certifiably Houellebecquian strain of nastiness animates the prose: ‘Later she realized it would have been even more advantageous to add on some kind of physical disability—a slight but evident defect—but nobody’s perfect.’

Midway through the novel, shortly after Mona has been fantasising in the sauna about being eaten out by a man ‘with a hunger emerging from deep inside’, she’s interrupted and verbally accosted by a corpulent children’s book writer named Lena:

You’re a complete caricature of a woman. Have you looked at yourself? You’re completely ridiculous. Covering yourself with that towel, like anyone cares what you’re hiding underneath it. Tell me what kind of woman gets in the sauna wearing fake eyelashes. Or do you think that nobody can tell? With your makeup, your designer clothes, your hyper-feminine affect . . . you think that you’re letting everyone see that you’re a victim of machismo, of a chauvinist culture that—even with its little touches of sophistication, like the literary world!—punishes all things feminine. But that doesn’t annul the total absurdity of your appearance! Don’t kid yourself—you’re certainly not fooling me!

Mona’s mental revenge: ‘Someone as fat as Lena could just roll through society like a Panzer, or else lie in wait for unsuspecting writers at isolated cabins in the woods, like the heroine-reader of Misery.’

Despite all her vape-addled swagger in the novel’s first half, the book’s bungled ending seems to betray a discomfort on the part of the author not for her materials per se but rather for their implications. As if, having opened her protagonist to such criticisms as Lena’s, Oloixarac must let her off the hook by providing her both with a legitimate means of suffering — and then destroying her altogether. Unfortunately, rather than deepen what has come before, this destruction has the effect of declawing it. (Imagine Thomas Bernhard, if you will, giving Konrad of The Lime Works, or really any of his protagonists, a so-called good reason for being the way they are.) All that has made Mona compelling ends up washed away by the exculpating waters of the violence she’s experienced the day before the novel’s action begins and the senseless flood that brings that action to a close.

The late revelation of Mona’s sexual trauma functions exactly in the novel as the theoretical disability might have functioned for Mona’s resumé. It moves her from being a misanthrope, a hater, a scold — ultimately the last bastion of agency in a culture such as ours — to a victim. The effect is ultimately explanatory. Ah, we say to ourselves — though the rest of the novel seems to argue otherwise — now we know why she thinks about sex so much. Now we know why she hates everyone. In being revealed at the last minute as a victim Mona suddenly becomes legible both to herself and the audience, but the move, or so it seems to us, ultimately kneecaps a novel that wants nothing to do it. Mona might desire such an explanation. Mona does not.

Nathan Knapp 's writing has appeared in the TLS, 3:AM, Music & Literature, and elsewhere.