Reviewed by Brian Evenson
We've grown accustomed to using categories -- like "Literature" on the one hand and "Horror," "Science Fiction," and "Fantasy" on the other -- to divvy up the world of fiction into the "serious" and the "not-so-serious." When literary writers David Markson and Graham Greene slipped off into genre territory for a book or two, they called what they were doing "entertainments"; conversely, the renowned crime novelist Georges Simenon dubbed his ventures into psychological realism "hard novels" -- as opposed, one guesses, to his "easier" detective fiction. These writers felt they could move from one world to the other only as long as they gave the reader notice that they were crossing the border.
Contemporary authors are much less interested in keeping that distinction between genres clear. Authors like Kelly Link, Jonathan Lethem, Elizabeth Hand, and John Crowley -- who are capable of writing well within literary and popular genres and who don't hesitate to mix the two -- make distinctions between popular and serious fiction seem increasingly meaningless. Such distinctions tell us almost nothing about the quality of individual works. Others were quicker to recognize this than the American mainstream: indeed, while American critics were dismissing hardboiled and weird fiction as mere entertainment, the French were discussing its power and artistry; while we were deriding comic books as kid stuff, the French, Belgians, and Italians were making it into an art form.
Javier Calvo's Wonderful World -- his fourth book published in his native Spain, but his first to be translated into English -- plows through all sorts of genre lines. This lush, complex novel is part-thriller, part-comic book (without pictures), part-horror story, part-postmodern mash-up.
At the novel's center is Lucas Giraut, a somewhat shell-shocked man in his thirties whose father has died under mysterious circumstances, leaving him with controlling interest in the family antiques firm. This behest makes his severely face-lifted and distant mother, Fanny, livid. She sets about trying to take control of the business by whatever means possible, even if that means arranging to have Lucas committed. Living downstairs from Lucas is his only friend: Valentina Parini, a twelve-year-old girl with an unhealthy obsession for Stephen King. This obsession culminates in a severe breakdown at a book release party for King's latest novel, Wonderful World.
Since no King novel called Wonderful World exists in real life, Calvo has been obliging enough to include three chapters of it here in typescript, at the end of each of the first three sections. The bits we get, of course, are relevant to Lucas's situation and may reveal something about his father's death. Calvo's imitation is not bad -- the novel's subject (alien mind control) is something King himself has tackled in Dreamcatcher -- but they don't mesh well with King stylistically. The sentences are generally choppier than King's, and the progression more mechanical; to anyone familiar with King, this dampens the overall effect of the echoes between pseudo-King's short chapters and the book that contains them.
Calvo's Wonderful World isn't the first book to make use of Stephen King's aura. In Stewart O'Nan's The Speed Queen, a murderer on death row named Marjorie Standiford sells her story to the famed horror novelist. The book purports to be a taped transcript, a record of Marjorie's story as she tells it, complete with directions to King on how he should write certain scenes. But O'Nan doesn't fall into the trap that Calvo does; he knows better than to try to reproduce King's voice.
Trying to discover what happened to his father, Lucas quickly becomes involved with one of his father's ex-partners, a man named Mr. Bocanegra who has a strange predilection for women's fur coats and an obsession with Pink Floyd. They engineer a heist likely either to make a lot of people rich or leave a lot of people dead. Haunted by portentous dreams, the criminal operation holding only tentatively together, Lucas has to try to stay out of an institution himself and to figure out a way to spring Valentina. Complications and eccentric minor characters abound.
If the point of Wonderful World is its plot, it has all the potential to be a first-rate thriller, and indeed there are a reasonable number of stretches in this 480-page novel where things move speedily, almost breathlessly. But for the most part, Calvo is content to let his plot advance slowly while he lingers over grotesque situations or bizarre characters. In one chapter, he details the Atomic restaurant, where customers eat surrounded by "unpleasant or potentially nauseating images" of nuclear destruction. In another, a Russian Rastafarian burglar accidentally rapes his long-lost sister. In still others we meet a torture artist who talks like Donald Duck and a criminal who analyzes his feelings of uselessness while watching his partner have sex with two prostitutes. The situations are often extreme, and Calvo rarely resists the temptation to revel in them; he always chooses to take the long way home, substituting the baroqueness of a bizarre, splattery world for the satisfactions of story. The result is something reminiscent of a Takashi Miike film, or of certain manga or graphic novels.
Consequently, Calvo has little interest in depicting rounded characters; instead he offers types that can be defined quickly as confluences of desires or fears, types more likely to be found in pulp fiction than in life. There is Manta, a hulking criminal henchman who resembles the Thing and who is obsessed with comics. There is Saudade, a well-hung handsome criminal who would always rather be having sex. There is Koldo Cruz, a man with a metal plate where a good part of his head should be. There are two identical twins who never function separately, a disturbed millionaire who never leaves his apartment, a porn star who wants to be a serious actress, a frigid Nordic gallery owner, and many others.
A little past the midpoint of the novel, a Russian heavy comments on the Louis Armstrong song which gives the novel its title:
All that crap about the joy of being alive and waking up to see a new day. Bullshit....No, sweetheart. What Louis Armstrong is saying, like the genius that he is...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.
As dubious an interpretation of Armstrong's classic song as this is, it does capture the essence of Calvo's novel. Wonderful World is a lovingly graphic, over-the-top piece of Boschian carnage by an author who isn't too worried about staying within either bounds of a genre or the bounds of propriety. Is it good literature? Well, yes and no. Is it good genre fiction? Same answer. But it is nonetheless utterly its own animal: flawed and baggy to be sure, but also wonderfully risky and strangely unforgettable.
Books mentioned in this post