“Hell is an incomprehensible sarcasm.”
There is, at the centre of the longest section of Carlos Fonseca’s ambitious and wildly inventive new novel, Natural History, an improbable tower inhabited by poor families, vagrants, addicts and an assortment of individuals who crave the seclusion afforded by a structure barely accessible by ordinary means. It is a strange and fantastic community bound by its own logic, something like the larger fictional work that supports its existence—a daring and intelligent spectacle peopled by a wide and vividly drawn cast, both historical and imagined.
Fonseca is a writer who loves to play with ideas, to set his eccentric characters up, rather like a set of dominoes, and allow them to follow leads, passages and pathways to the most unexpected and impossible conclusions. The tendencies that drive Natural History—a fascination with archival novels, science, and art—can be seen in his debut, Colonel Lágrimas, but here they are observed on a much grander scale. And yet there is a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere that haunts the protagonists who get swept up in this multi-layered adventure.
The novel opens with the neurotic confession of the unnamed Puerto Rican American narrator who works as a curator at a natural history museum in New Jersey. He admits that he tries to avoid facing beginnings by imagining his life is a continual act of imitation, an ongoing repetition of what has already happened. So, when he receives a package containing several envelopes filled with photographs, essays and newspaper clippings, he is not surprised. They are from Giovanna Luxembourg, a recently deceased fashion designer. His inheritance, so to speak. Seven years earlier she had summoned him out of the blue and arranged for a meeting at her unusual New York City apartment. Her interest in him had been sparked by papers he had once published on tropical butterflies and the quincunx, a geometric pattern consisting of five points with the fifth in the centre like, for example, the five on a dice.
They begin to meet. Periodically she calls for him and they talk well into the night about patterns occurring in nature. Afterwards, the narrator typically makes his way through the Bowery and stops into a Lebanese restaurant where he has become oddly obsessed with an older woman who sits with a table full of newspapers. Strange? Yes, well everything is strange. The uncertain attraction between two troubled insomniacs, Giovanna’s strained elusiveness, the narrator’s peculiar behaviours, and his annoyance when the designer suddenly becomes obsessed with masks. However, when Giovanna’s package arrives after her death, the narrator finds clues that will allow him to begin to unravel the truth of her identity, and the unconventional family that she sought to hide from.
Natural History is not a mystery or a detective novel so much as an elaborate construction of facts and fictions that, if it seems loose and slippery around the edges, works as a whole. It depends on having a wide enough sweep to see patterns form, connect and repeat. As multiple, richly realized story lines unfold and individual characters labour after their own obsessions, Fonseca is slowly gathering threads and themes together. As his quest for answers begins, the narrator visits an abandoned mining town where underground fires burn, home to a reclusive Israeli photographer who had once enjoyed a glamourous existence in the New York City of the sixties and seventies. Bits and pieces of the story begin to take shape there. He tells meeting and marrying a dynamic young beauty, their shared fame and their unfortunate decision to head south with their young daughter, the child who would one day become known as Giovanna.
A year later, in 2008, our protagonist learns of the arrest, in Puerto Rico, of a former model and actress, missing for decades, found in the odd, rundown high rise where she’d been living in seclusion. Now in her seventies but still striking, she is charged with intentionally, yet anonymously, planting fake news items which have impacted the stock market. She argues that she was engaged in a time honoured act of performative art. A nervous young lawyer is hired, and a lengthy trial ensues, observed close at hand by the narrator’s colourful friend Tancredo who has been sent to report on the event. Before long, he gets swept up in the entire strange atmosphere, telling the narrator that he’s spent nights thinking of:
all those who… had fallen prey to Virginia McCallister’s madness. He spoke of a great conspiracy that originated not in a human mind, but in a cosmic figure that grew steadily. I recalled my first months with Giovanna, months of exhaustion and delirium, and understood why my friend was starting to rave. Too much rum, too much heat, too many theories.
In this part, the longest and most complex section of the book, a wealth of ideas are woven into the narrative, against a rich tapestry of unlikely and colourful characters. The fourth part carries us back to the mid-seventies to revisit, this time in third person, the journey of the small family—photographer father, actress-model mother and sickly child—into the Central American jungle following a man known as the apostle. A formative and destructive pilgrimage. The final section is another missive from a ghost.
The core story line is filled in slowly, but the overall tale is never slow. The human connections (and disconnections) are real and affecting. The settings, urban and natural alike, are vividly drawn. And there is so much going on. On so many levels. Primary themes—masks, camouflage, the desire to disappear, the nature of art, the quincunx, utopian colonies, ruins, burning—all cross over and multiply in the reader’s imagination long after the book is finished. As well, the steady parade of historical personalities that pass in and out: Comandante Marcos of the Zapatistas; Argentinian artists Jacoby, Costa and Escari who planned and promoted a Happening that did not occur; B. Traven, the popular Mexican-based author whose actual identity remains a mystery; Antonin Artaud; Karl Wallenda; General William Sherman and many more offer a wealth of opportunities for extratextual reading. Of course, to be able to carry all these interwoven elements with ease, a novel must be strong, strange and smart enough. And this one is.
Natural History by Carlos Fonseca is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.