Home » criticism, Fiction

Mystery Balls

By (July 1, 2009) No Comment

Wonderful World

By Javier Calvo, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Harper, 2009

These two guys are sitting in a bar in Barcelona. Though they aren’t just regular guys. They’re both connected to a Russian organized crime ring running in the city’s underground. The first guy is threatening the second guy, who has potentially sold out the Russian organized crime ring to the other, Barcelonian, organized crime ring in the city. The way the two guys have organized their respective appearances is: the dominant-looking one oozes both the odor and the grime of mechanical grease, while the other one is tall and skinny and blonde with his blonde hair done up in dreadlocks so that he looks about like Bob Marley in 1973 on the cover of his album Catch a Fire. The greasy guy is Leon and the Rastafarian guy is Pavel. Pavel is at this moment thinking he’d rather be in Jamaica. On the beach. Dressed in shorts. Sitting on a wooden beach chair in the sun. With a cocktail that has one of those little umbrellas, to make it elegant. The whole of which would be better than sitting in this bar, listening to Leon’s threats about Donald Duck and Koldo Cruz.

The above paragraph represents, roughly, the style of writing Javier Calvo utilizes in his where-the-hell-is-he-going-with-this? novel, Wonderful World. If you were completely put off by my approximation of Calvo’s style, Wonderful World certainly isn’t a book for you. If, however, you were remotely intrigued you would be justified in giving the book a try; and you would be equally justified in being weirded out and disappointed once you finished.

Wonderful World traces the attempts of Lucas Giraut, an antiques dealer, to discover who sold out his father, Lorenzo, to the police thirty years earlier, a selling-out that ruined the already-perhaps-borderline-psychotic father. The two likeliest suspects are Leon’s two former friends, the enormous and menacing Mr. Bocanegra (who has a fondness for wearing effeminate fur coats) and Koldo Cruz (who wears an eye patch and a metal plate in the side of his head because of a bomb that was detonated in his house years ago).

Bocanegra, Cruz, and Lorenzo Giraut, were members of what they termed the Down With The [sic] Sun Society; Bocanegra and Cruz each head crime rings in Barcelona, Bocanegra’s comprising Spaniards and Cruz’s comprising Russians. Lucas Giraut enlists Bocanegra to steal the set of apocalyptic medieval wooden paintings known as the St. Kieran Panels – the same set Lorenzo had been in the process of acquiring when he was sold out to the police – from a gallery in Barcelona. Meanwhile, Lucas’s plastic-surgery-obsessed mother Fanny and her creepy lawyer Fonseca assemble evidence for a trial to force Lucas to cede control of the antiques business to them. And for some reason there are a lot of Pink Floyd references.

The problem with Wonderful World is best exemplified by a speech Leon delivers in the scene I mentioned above; the speech grafts a tantalizing spark onto an ounce of profundity before it fizzles into a mess, dragging any hope of meaning or deeper characterization with it:

“Of course, what people say Louis Armstrong’s music means is stupid,” says Leon. While he moves his head to the rhythm of the song. The rocking of his head and hand is that stereotypical rocking that people associate with classical music lovers listening to chamber music in the smoking salons of their houses. “All that crap about the joy of being alive and waking up to see a new day. Bullshit. It’s not about birdies in the sky and the joy of living. You just have to go out on the street. I don’t see much blue skies or birdies singing or happy people frolicking. The truth is the weather sucks and the birdies are dead. No, sweetheart. What Louis Armstrong is saying, like the genius he is” – he makes a pause obviously designed to create a certain sense of mystery or paradox about to be revealed – “is that the world is wonderful because the world is horrible. And therein lies his great wisdom. The crazies who get on a bus with a bomb and kill all the passengers. Or that gigantic wave that was on every TV news show. Those are the things that make the world wonderful.” He nods and begins tracing arabesques of cutaneous grease with the tip of his hairy and vaguely phallic index finger on the dirty glass screen of the jukebox. “A world like us. For us.” He looks at Pavel’s face. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

This speech of Leon’s has a kind of thrust to it that makes it feel like it’s tapping a vein, and not just a vein within the novel, but a vein of being. The first time I read this paragraph, I felt a little bit of awe, because maybe it helped to explain a good deal of the novel itself, and because maybe it helped explain something about the rest of the world. But the second time I read the paragraph, that glimmer of awe evaporated. I think I was deceived by the set-up in the middle: “he makes a pause obviously designed to create a certain sense of mystery or paradox about to be revealed” could lead the trusting reader to imagine that a mystery or paradox is actually about to be revealed.

While the song “Wonderful World” obviously gives Calvo’s novel its title, it does nothing further for the book, which is so flat that its characterization of the world in general falls solidly in the middle between “wonderful” and “horrible.” The song surfaces briefly only to be pushed aside by something else, despite the cues in the scene that would seem to make it into something deeper and more thorough, a solid theme for the book.

And the entirety of Wonderful World is just that: a sleight that doesn’t hold its own, the unfulfilled promise of “a certain sense of mystery or paradox about to be revealed,” a pause before a revelation that never comes. Which isn’t to say that the slighting isn’t curiously enjoyable, because Calvo has hoarded an impressive collection of curios and knick-knacks of storytelling. For starters, there’s his Acknowledgment:

This novel was written by the ghost of Charles Dickens, summoned and questioned using the system of Enochian magic created by John Dee and Edward Kelley. During the process of its conception and creation, Stephen King published the following works: The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla; The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah; The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower; The Colorado Kid; Cell; and Lisey’s Story. May this humble book be an homage to the Most Enduring Genius of Our Times.

If you read Wonderful World and have any idea what Dickens, or Dee and Kelley (to say nothing of Dee’s magic, or Pink Floyd) have to do with the book, please let me know. The tribute to King is clearly facetious, but I really couldn’t say why or to what end. For Wonderful World is the title both of Calvo’s book and of an apocryphal novel by Stephen King, three chapters of which exist in Calvo’s book. It’s also the raison d’etre for one of Calvo’s few fully-sketched and really intriguing characters, a twelve-year-old girl named Valentina Parini who is the self-declared “Top European Expert on the Work of Stephen King.” Valentina herself sums up the fake King novel in a particularly apt way:

“It’s the story of a man that wakes up one day and discovers that everything around him has turned perfect The neighbors that used to hate him now give him baseball tickets. His coworkers are friendly to him. His ex-wife, too. Everything has turned perfect. The world starts functioning flawlessly. Wars end. Politicians turn smart. Which means something’s going on.” She’s not trying to sound mysterious or showing any traces of preteen excitement. She’s just using the natural, confident tone of someone who knows she’s the Top European Expert on the Work of Stephen King. “Something alien. Something that is controlling people’s minds.”

The chapters of King’s novel present Charles Kimball, a man strangely unaffected by the colonizing race of aliens called the Captors – who have taken over the minds of most of the other people on the planet – as he escapes to Boston to find his son, then joins the Boston Resistance Movement, then marches (with other members of the Movement) on the White House. We never discover the ultimate result of Kimball’s efforts, though we’re left with a couple of clues I won’t divulge here. Let us turn instead to the people in Calvo’s story… most of whom have absolutely nothing to do with the fake King novel, which itself seems included simply to set a tone and to provide a frame of reference for the book’s chronology (i.e., there is the day the advance excerpt arrives in the mail, the night the novel is released, and a countdown to the release date).

Valentina Parini, for whom the fake King novel is very important, is herself a peripheral character; she, along with one or two other ostensibly peripheral characters, are the interesting and sympathetic people in Calvo’s Wonderful World. Valentina, herself an unhappy child bored at school and prone to fantasizing about horrific, Columbine-style attacks on her classmates, is so much a ridiculous outcast, and so complicit in her being a ridiculous outcast, that when she is eventually committed to a mental institution and falls ever further into a delirium having to do with the King novel, she easily arouses pity in the reader.

Aníbal Manta and Juan de la Cruz Saudade, both henchmen of Bocanegra, are also far more fully-conceived and fascinating characters than any of the so-called major players in the novel (which include father, mother, and son Giraut, Koldo Cruz, and Bocanegra himself). Saudade remains a firm bastard throughout most of the book, as he wantonly cheats on his wife, ignores his child, taunts Manta, destroys property, indulges in lewd fantasies involving ice cream and hookers, and on and on and on. Yet in the last section of the book he receives a truly wonderful (possibly the most wonderful thing in Wonderful World) comeuppance, as he gets thrown out of his apartment by said wife, is mistaken for Lucas Giraut at precisely the wrong time, and winds up helpless before Manta’s delicious and righteous rage. Saudade is the sort of character you love to hate, and Calvo gives you ample opportunity to do so.

Javier Calvo (photo from Edward Champion)

Aníbal Manta, on the other hand, became one of the main reasons I didn’t abandon Wonderful World: large, unwieldy, possessed of a “paradoxical grace,” in therapy, and a great lover of classic comic books, Manta is the most carefully-drawn and conflicted figure in the novel. The extent of his interiority is best demonstrated in a ridiculous chapter in which Manta and Saudade travel to Italy to obtain the services of an art forger:

“You’re a fat fuck and a retard,” says Juan de la Cruz Saudade from the door of the corner store in downtown Rome where Aníbal Manta is flipping through Marvel superhero comics translated into Italian. Looking closely at the panels and trying to decipher the accompanying dialogue. “What kind of forty-year-old man reads comic books? What does your wife think about you reading comic books all day?” Saudade pauses and eats a spoonful from the cup of vanilla and strawberry ice cream in his hands, leaning on the doorjamb of the store’s door and blocking the entrance with his back. “And what does she think of that potbelly so big you can’t even see your own cock? Doesn’t she complain when you can’t find it? But I guess it doesn’t matter. She’s probably busy screwing the neighbors while you read comic books. She still screwing the neighbors?” He makes a taunting face while brandishing the little ice cream spoon. “What kind of a man are you?”

The answer to Saudade’s question is that Manta is a dedicated superhero fan whose therapy sessions have led him to attempt to place himself in the position of tortured superhero:

The desire to break someone’s nose begins to spring to [Manta’s] mind. Aníbal Manta knows perfectly well, since it is one of the main themes of his therapy, that the violence that he employs against others during his fits of rage is actually violence against himself. It’s the same idea of oneself-as-one’s-own-worst-enemy the characterizes many of Marvel’s tormented superheroes, except that his personal case seems to lack all epic or admirable connotations.

Once the two men reach the forger’s quarters, they have a look around as they wait for the man to return. Saudade keeps needling Manta about Manta’s weight and affinity for comic books:

“Like this guy,” Saudade is saying, as he points to a character in an Italian Fantastic Four issue. “Why the fuck is he blue? What a load of crap. Have you ever seen a blue guy walking down the street? And this other guy.” He snorts and points at another character in a different panel. “This guy is made of bricks. And he’s wearing underwear. Hey.” He examines the panel carefully and lets out a chuckle. “This brick guy looks like you. Did you see?”

Aníbal Manta is well aware, as is anyone in his line of work, that the only really effective forms of personal attack are not heralded by any type of previous warning or maneuver that can give any sort of clue about the attacker’s intentions. Which is why the sequence of events that happens next in the living room…in downtown Rome is the following: 1. Aníbal Manta gets up from his armchair and leans over the small table covered with comic books; 2. Aníbal Manta punches Saudade, breaking his nose; 3. Saudade stares at Manta with that expression of perplexity typical of someone who has just had their nose broken so fast that they had no time to do anything; and 4. A stream of blood comes out of Saudade’s nose.

Manta spends a good bit of the rest of the book trying to reconcile his therapist’s rationalizations about his own pent-up rage with the satisfaction (undoubtedly more of a satisfaction than any personal revelation) an expression of such rage would provide him – and in the process he comes across as if not a likeable, at least an understandable real person. As we’ve seen, understandable real persons are relatively rare in the world of this novel.

What’s interesting about Valentina’s description of the fake Stephen King novel – that the sign that things are wrong in the world is that things appear to be right in the world – is how much it has to do with Leon’s conjecture that the wonder of the world isn’t in its beauty or its friendliness but in its brutality. The very fact that the world could at some point be peaceful and harmonious is grounds for suspicion. Herein lies the tenuous thread that binds Wonderful World to Wonderful World: in both cases, for anything about the world to be pleasant or good or happy or kind would mean that the world has gone horribly wrong. But Calvo has employed far more imagination in his creation of the fake King novel than he has in his detailing of a fair-to-middling world in Barcelona. (I would have liked to have more of the fake King novel.) The Barcelona populated by gangsters is rather ordinary – which would be fine if realism were what Calvo were aspiring to. The number of riffs, however, and the dangling bits of potentially fascinating material and outright creepy moments undercut any sense that this could be the case. Take the creepy moments. They fall into two kinds of creepiness: first, a sort of horror-film eeriness, a sense of suspense; second, the uncanny, in which something about a character or an event is revealed that seems too real, or too familiar, not to unsettle.

A good example of the first kind of creepy is a moment near the middle of the book, when Bocanegra’s crew is in the middle of stealing the St. Kieran Panels and when Valentina sneaks off to buy her copy of King’s Wonderful World at a midnight release party. Aníbal Manta and another of Bocanegro’s men, Eric Yanel, are disguised as exterminators and have entered the gallery:

The Night of the World Launch of Stephen King’s New Novel is extremely cold and triggers that feeling of distress you get in the seconds before a great disaster…. Everyone notices it, although just during a few seconds of confusion. Objects are more defined than normal. The fine hair on your skin stands on end when touched, with the exacerbated sensitivity of a high fever. The same empty gallery that on any ordinary night would be placid suggests imminent catastrophe. Like those things that hunt children in their dark bedrooms. Those nameless, shapeless things.

The chapter in which Yanel and Manta undertake the stealing is itself a master class in trippy suspense, with a description of the gallery as “an underwater world” in the nonreflective flashlight lights Yanel and Manta carry, and a sense of a collective held breath as Calvo briefly lists other characters and their interrupted activities during the “feeling of distress.” And then, to make things worse, out go the lights:

Everything is going well, in spite of the vague, general sensation that everything is going badly. Then something happens. The two intruders [Yanel and Manta] look at each other. At first it’s just a slight trembling of the outlines of things. It takes them a moment to realize that it’s the light flickering. Or, better put, the lights. The pilot light of the gallery’s security circuit. The glow of the streetlights that enters through the gallery’s skylight. Even the light from the flashlights attached to their heads. Everything blinks for a second. And then goes out.

Aníbal Manta and Eric Yanel remain in the dark for a moment. Listening to the noise of their own breathing. Even though they’re at least three feet away from each other, the darkness is so complete that they can’t make out each other’s movements. The world seems to have just disappeared.

“What’s going on?” says Yanel.

“It’s a blackout,” says Manta.

Neither of them mentions the fact that their battery-powered flashlights have also gone out. They deliberately don’t mention it.

Yes; yes, that is creepy. The chapter just prior to this one ends with Valentina experiencing a similar sort of unease, and then the lights inexplicably going out, while in this chapter we are allowed to trace the unease as it leads to the blackout. Even when the electricity returns, the readers and characters alike remain on edge. Yanel observes to Manta after they’ve absconded safely with the panels that “[T]hat thing that happened in the gallery…wasn’t a normal blackout.” After some thought, Yanel realizes what it reminds him of:

“I’ve seen that before,” says Yanel, jogging a bit to keep up with Manta. The speed makes his wave of blond hair undergo a new rhythmic, vertical waving. “The exact same thing. I didn’t know before what it reminded me of, but I just remembered. And you should remember, too. I bet you’ve seen it in your comic books.” […]

“I remember it from movies about aliens.” Yanel uses his index finger to push the nonprescription glasses that are part of his disguise back on his nose. “When the spaceship passes by. You know. And everything stops working for a moment.”

The scene of the theft takes place roughly halfway through the book, after the first (and arguably the creepiest) of the three chapters of King’s Wonderful World has been presented. Given the general sense of directionlessness Calvo’s novel has been exhibiting until this point (i.e., the only goal to present itself in the first 200 pages is the stealing of the panels, which has just occurred; there is no clue as to the purpose of the handful of other, non-heist-involved characters or indeed the other half of the book), I think I can be forgiven for hungering here for something really otherworldly, for wanting Yanel’s conjecture to come true, even though Calvo hasn’t hinted at anything like an alien attack thus far. I wanted something to cling to, something dark and scary that would make the moment of weirdness and the blackout and the references to the works of Stephen King and the description of the apocalyptic St. Kieran’s Panels amount to more than foam at the top of an undulating ocean of failed attempts at wonder.

I should have been so fortunate.

At one point Calvo writes that the events of part of his story “unfold like the images on the surface of a mirror ball” at a night club: “With the same flashing combination of simultaneity and succession. Warped into a mosaic of distorted fragments that appear and disappear with a blink and reappear every time the ball completes one of its rotations. Without any one of the images taking center stage for more than the infinitesimal instant it takes for it to be absorbed in your consciousness.”

This is very much the experience of reading the book. There was entirely too much simultaneity and succession, warping and distortion, and not enough of any one thing taking center stage for long enough, for this book not to end up a grand mess of potentially-fascinating fragments.

Consider, too, the other sort of creepiness I described, that of the uncanny, the imagined thing too close to reality to be comfortable. Wonderful World at times follows its own dream-logic (or lack thereof), with events, words, objects, or people resurfacing in new and strange ways after their initial appearances. There are the actual dream sequences of Lucas Giraut, which (I imagine) are meant to shed light on his father’s relationship with the other members of the Down With The Sun Society. In the first such sequence, a bandaged and bloody mummy sits at a table with a young Lorenzo, Bocanegra, and Kaldo Cruz; in other parts of Wonderful World, the mummy transforms into the devious Doctor Angeli (in the King novel) and, later, Fanny Giraut. A passing pedestrian wears a T-shirt advertising the Biosphere park early in the novel; later the park becomes the stage for a (not entirely unexpected) twist of fate. People in rabbit costumes make regular appearances. The smoking salon which houses a theoretical classical music lover to which Leon is akin in the first section of Wonderful World becomes an actual meeting-place later in the novel.

Flotsam and jetsam such as these scenes and objects are pervasive in the novel, but what they accomplish beyond evoking an atmosphere of futility and creepiness isn’t at all apparent. Symbols without meaning are piled upon themselves. The result is not a little psychedelic – but it’s more akin to a colossal inside joke that’s funny enough for you as an outsider to laugh along with for a while, but then you wonder why you made the effort in the first place.

Beginning this fall, Lianne Habinek will be an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Bard College.

Join the Open Letters facebook page!

Return to the Main Page