Pola Oloixarac’s Mona begins with its eponymous protagonist fleeing the safety of her academic post at Stanford to join a dozen literary prize nominees in Sweden. The story advances primarily through conversation and observation about art, books, sex, and theory—and when characters aren’t speaking explicitly in the language of critical theory we can imagine that they’re anticipating critical theoretical objections to their own thoughts. That said, it’s funny, sometimes very very funny. Mona’s insight into our world may come across as shockingly candid, it might come across as shockingly jaded, but it will not come across as inhibited or overly careful. With her debut Savage Theories, and now here in Mona, Oloixarac reminds us that serious fiction can also be bracingly wild.
“Come thirsty, and bring an appetite for Nordic delicatessen!”
This was the last line of the invitation she’d found in her campus mailbox. The Meeting was scheduled to start on Thursday, but writers traveling from abroad were supposed to arrive the day before. Sweden’s biggest newspaper was organizing a special reception in conjunction with the local chapter of PEN. The occasion for these festivities was the presentation of the Basske-Wortz Prize, the most important literary award in Europe and one of the most prestigious in the world. The dress code for the event was something they called “smart casual,” which probably meant the men were supposed to wear a blazer.
Mona calmly advanced through the crowd at the airport. Behind her sunglasses she wavered between substances, having drowned the pasty residue of Valium on her parched tongue with hot black coffee. Half a pill to cross the United States, another half to cross the Atlantic, and a tiny bit more for the connection from Paris to Stockholm. In California it was impossible to get her hands on any Valium—not unless she went all the way to Tijuana. So her shrink sent regular shipments from Lima. A side effect of the drug was that it seemed to slow her movements—something she thought made her look more elegant.
Can we talk?
Mona wore a beige raincoat, black leggings, and white sneakers. She was relatively tall. Strands of smooth brown hair cascaded from one side of a loose bun. Nobody could have mistaken her for a lawyer or a businesswoman—nothing in her appearance projected that degree of formality. And despite her serious demeanor there was something about her that was just a little off. The only visible trait that identified her as a writer was, perhaps, her terrible eyesight. Mona’s prescription sunglasses were always filthy, but she was so farsighted that she never noticed. She removed them and squinted: her flight was on time, ten minutes until boarding.
Are you at home?
Unanswered texts accumulated on her phone, buzzing like a wasp in her pocket. Anyone watching might have seen her glance over her shoulder several times, as though she suspected someone might be following her.
You can’t just run off like that. I’m coming over.
Boarding began, organized by flyer status. A few minutes later, Mona was in her seat. She loved flying. As the fuselage rose, her thoughts were free to roam the spongy terrain of clouds. She liked the feeling of being trapped in an ocean of air, unreachable, left to her own electronic devices, imprisoned and free at the same time. Takeoff elevated her to a spiritual plane. She couldn’t resist the impulse to say a few Ave Marias: memories of her days as a Catholic school girl suffused her brain like a third drug. (In Lima, all the girls dressed in navy blue. They’d thrown her out of that school, too. Called it a medical leave.) Mona closed her eyes and imagined the aircraft rattled by a hurricane, then descending into the depths, dissolving into the blue immensity before finally exploding underwater. She’d simply cease to exist, with the incomplete masterpiece follow-up to her debut novel marooned on the laptop that would perish alongside her in the icy void. She found the idea relaxing.
Mona slumped back into her seat and massaged her neck. Her nearest neighbor was across the aisle. He resembled a giant toad.
You can’t escape. We need to talk.
Was she escaping? she wondered, smiling to herself as she cracked the seal on a miniature bottle of Stoli. Entering through her earphones, Mina’s “Malatia” (Il Capola voro Collection: Second Part) coursed through her body, the sound disseminating like an additional narcotic. Her phone was calm now, a sleeping animal. Even if a few messages continued buzzing in her head, the switch to airplane mode had begun to have its soothing effect.
One explanation, she reasoned, was that madness had overtaken her. But it wasn’t such a clear-cut case. Her sensei, the chair of the Department of Romance and Ibero-American Literatures, knew exactly where she’d gone. And she was still in touch with her students. Or at least with Raoul, her favorite, who’d written to find out how she was doing. He told her that her behavior—a professor who considered her a threat had called it her “disappearance”—was considered inexplicable. She knew her sensei had written her, too. But she’d given up on her Stanford inbox, which was filling with reminders of her obligations as a foreigner in the United States. Instead she set it to auto-reply: I won’t be reading emails for a while. Not reading emails, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was tantamount to declaring oneself dead. The truth—or, rather, what she told herself at the time was the truth—was that she’d started writing one of those terrifying, brilliant, and dangerous books: a mantis lying in wait for its prey, half camouflaged by its own beauty, poised to attack. And now the book was starting to eat her alive.
Mona had arrived at Stanford not long after the waves she made with her debut novel tossed her onto the beach of a certain impetuous prestige—and 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. By playing the part of an overeducated Latina adrift in Trump’s America, Mona experienced academic captivity as a sort of serene freedom.
North American universities asked all doctoral candidates, upon application, to reveal their “ethnicity.” Mona had clicked “Hispanic, Indigenous” and typed “Inca” in the box underneath. This was Silicon Valley, right? She might as well try to Lean In. Anchoring her identity to a brutal and exquisite empire about which so little was known would provide her with an ideal costume for the university’s tribal masquerade. She’d been born in Peru, but claiming indigenous ancestry in any other context would’ve been outrageous—much like calling herself a “person of color” anytime prior to her arrival in the United States. There was a niche sort of glamour to it, like being a rare specimen of an endangered species—as though her mysterious DNA were a tiara encrusted with rare pearls, and the universities each a massive ark navigating the Great Flood of the United States, heroically fulfilling their mission to save two of each beast. Strictly speaking, Mona preferred to think of herself as more of a mermaid, that cross between the fantastic and the inexplicable whose true habitat was beneath the waterline, among the drowned. She couldn’t help feeling like an outside observer, a mermaid tourist. Anyway, the whole charade was just a bizarre exercise in academic bureaucracy. And besides that, the selection of a racial subtype for “Hispanic” was obligatory.
Mona’s identitarian fantasy was quite well received on campus (it related to her research topic) and offered her the opportunity to advance her career merely by being herself—as much herself as humanly possible. 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.
Even so, Mona enjoyed a unique advantage on campus: her intellectual pedigree was well established by the time she arrived. The august critic Jorge Rufini had called her debut novel a “radical phenomenon” in a Cuban cultural journal of distinction: the literary Chanel of the Latin American left. The journal retained an indelible sophistication for having been founded by Fidel Castro as a cultural arm of the Cuban Revolution. Mona liked to imagine the back issues stacking up in the leader’s bathroom. What Rufini liked about her novel—what he called its “vital commitment”—was its marriage of politics and literature, the sancta sanctorum of the Latin American Boom. Such a commitment, Rufini complained, had become “painfully rare” in her generation. This was an implicit snub of what other critics were calling “micropolitics” and “autofiction”: two among the many intellectual currents that for Rufini (erstwhile editor of Julio Cortázar and beloved friend to many of the previous century’s towering authors) were in fact so micro that they belonged to the category of literary microbes, sub-entities to which no one needed to pay the slightest attention. That was why Rufini offered his services as her Stanford sensei, catapulting Mona to the status of some kind of savior holding down the front lines of literature: the legitimate heiress to the Boom, a young tigress of that feral breed resulting from that marriage of guns and books, scioness of the only respectable aristocracy in Latin America.
There’s no one else like you. Why are you hiding?
But at this exact moment, #rightnow in Mona’s life, the principal subject wasn’t so much the book she’d already written, but the one she couldn’t finish writing—or, depending on the day, the utter falsity of her literary persona and the total lie she was living. “Just a bunch of shit to distract from the real problem, which is that she doesn’t have any fucking idea how to tell a story.” Someone said this about her on Facebook, in the comments under one of Rufini’s posts about her novel. Reading it, Mona could feel the pixelated words burning into her heart even as she instinctively wrote them off, answering only by way of an ironic comment posted under one of her fake Facebook identities—the avatars through which the troll hemisphere of her brain found free expression.
I’m a part of your life. There’s no denying it.
Mona’s trolling profiles all had their own particular appetites, and some could become rather explosive in combination with her cannabinoid repertoire. The dom troll had a taste for White Recluse, a tetrahydrocannabinol of the highest voltage, engineered to hurl the user into an internal maelstrom, where she might better withstand the harsh realities of the year 2017. Mona took the advice of her chief troll and started vaping it daily. White Recluse was designed to obliterate every trace of paranoia, so a puff was enough to keep Mona’s personalities split for six hours straight. She spent the time wrapped in a haze thick enough to get through classes and department events meant to facilitate “networking,” a word Americans used to describe socializing with colleagues, as though they needed a concept to justify kindness and camaraderie at work.
What Mona enjoyed most about vaping was the furtive impunity. From far away, and even up close, it just looked like she was holding a pen. The wisp trailing from her mouth was hardly visible, and if anyone asked, she could say it was just apple flavoring. Mona could vape out in the open, for anyone to see—a behavior that had been definitively prohibited. Getting away with it only confirmed her suspicion that she was completely invisible. Nonexistent.
Mona usually saved her cyber hate rounds for nightfall in South America, when it was still afternoon in Palo Alto, where the California sun beat down upon the land without remorse. Eventually she’d power down her phone and fire up the vape, while in another dimension of collective consciousness—of which she certainly formed a part, and from which she’d never have the guts to escape—her digital self, now rendered defenseless, was thrashed and dragged. Mona nibbled the tip of her vape and hoisted herself back outside, shuffling her feet down the broad avenues, which in reality were street-level highways completely devoid of human life.
You know you can’t just leave me like this.
Sometimes Mona ended up at the Palo Alto Caltrain station, where trains to San Francisco stopped. She’d sit on a bench and watch people get on and off the trains, stare at the empty tracks, and ruminate over the details of her possible demise: there she’d be, flat on her back as the travelers nudged her, checked for a pulse, patted her down, and searched her pockets for ID. They’d call Stanford, her beloved sensei, the academic secretary. And her body? Obviously the most logical thing was to donate it to science: the body of the deceased nonwhite Hispanic-Inca Latina of color would belong, of course, to the university. They wouldn’t just cremate her—would they? Wouldn’t that be a shame, a waste? What parameters would they use to distinguish her body from waste? If she were run over by a train, of course, it would totally destroy her lady parts. Of what use to science could she be in that case? And getting sawed in half under the Caltrain would be a breach of her university fellowship . . . No: it was better to remain a woman, Hispanic, South American, body intact, praise be to Saint Judith Fucking Butler. Mona imagined blond and Indian doctors in their white coats, stupefied by her luxurious but inert tits. Her thoughts segued into an elaborate postmortem orgy at Stanford Medical Center.
After the most recent of these episodes, a sordid sequence that unraveled into a total blackout, Mona had woken up on the platform. The California cannabis she consumed was top-notch.
When I close my eyes, I see you. With me.
She lifted a hand: her hair was stuck to the cement, her head a swamp. She didn’t remember how she got there. Brain fog muddled the furniture, the bar. Light and dark shapes jumbled together, the avalanche after the earthquake. Her hands felt their way down her body: wet and cold. Something had happened, something horrible she couldn’t remember. Her arm ached. She looked down to discover shredded, livid flesh. Her phone let out a hoarse whistle: it, too, was a survivor.
She went home and took a long shower, boiling hot, and hugged herself under the jets. She felt like she’d fallen several stories onto the pavement and absorbed the impact into her body. She stepped out of the shower and looked in the mirror: a violet blotch was spreading across her neck. Her face was intact, but her body looked like it had been rendered by Egon Schiele—or like a figure from one of Schiele’s paintings who’d just crawled out of a car wreck. She didn’t remember anything about a car, or having injected any Egon Schiele into her veins. She didn’t remember a thing.
Maybe the pain was a pupa inside her, Mona thought: an amorphous substance awaiting the formation of a new exoskeleton. She recalled a viral video she’d seen hundreds of times, of a praying mantis slowly shedding its skin. If I go on like this, if I can go on like this—she said aloud—I might transform into something else. Alert to the sound of her voice, Mona’s phone buzzed in reply. It was Google, suggesting that she check in for her flight. How could she have forgotten? The festival. Sweden. The Basske-Wortz Prize, for which she had been nominated.
Mona tied a silk handkerchief around her neck, covering the dark mark. She turned to gaze at her nude profile: at least she looked thin. And if she won the Basske-Wortz? She untied the silk handkerchief and arranged her things on the bed: European passport, wallet, several pairs of underwear (purple, black, green, and red), and enough decent makeup to disguise her Egon Schiele deformities. How long did bruises last? She put on a black bra and pink panties, flounced onto the mattress, pulled her knees to her chest, and twirled her slender ankles, creating spirals with toenails painted in Chanel’s Rouge Radical. Her left foot curved delicately toward the right, her toes lined up like a sinister family of faceless dwarves: Our warmest congratulations, Miss Mona Tarrile-Byrne. The world is yours.