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Shantytown: A tangled and tricky book that plays with preconceptions

The book is a thriller about a drug ring in Buenos Aires shantytown, but it’s also an experiment in storytelling.


Cesar Aira
New Directions
128 pages

Anyone who has ever taken or taught a creative writing class should be familiar with a few rules: "show, don't tell," "write what you know," "no Lolitas," etc. Such simplifications might be necessary when trying to teach folks how to write, but they're also symptomatic of literature's turn toward the insular and industrialized: these maxims have become so ubiquitous that their influence extends beyond writers to reviewers, editors and readers. So, in the chain of production – which seems now to conclude with a customer, rather than a reader – the dogma of the workshop is no longer just a toolkit for the budding craftsperson, but also the terms by which books can be evaluated, and even celebrated, for how well they adhere to convention.

The late Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz parodied the similar industrialization of cinema, with both his relentless output (over 100 films) and resistance of accepted wisdom for what makes a good movie. One particular bee in Ruiz's bonnet was the predominance of "conflict theory" – protagonists want something; antagonists obstruct – in the production of narrative art. "To say that a story," wrote Ruiz in his Poetics of Cinema, "can only take place if it is connected to a central conflict forces us to eliminate all stories which do not include confrontation." He traced this need for conflict to a formatively American mode of thinking, a "presumption of hostility" so intrinsic to that nation's identity and propagated globally, in form and content, by Hollywood.

In Ruiz's movies, insignificant objects conceal characters' faces at key moments and the logic and causality of plot are more or less thrown out the window. Basically stuff happens, if you can make it out, then more stuff happens – or it doesn't. Parts are incomprehensible; other parts are often boring. But by abandoning the rigour and literality of craft, Raul Ruiz hoped he might unlock the more ephemeral, spiritual magic of "a secret film," one that exists between and beyond the images on screen, and one that will be individually distinct to each viewer.

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If Ruiz has a kindred spirit in literature, it is the Argentine writer Cesar Aira, whose newest novel, Shantytown, is a characteristically sly palimpsest of one type of story through which sparkle multiple others. Like Ruiz, Aira is stunningly prolific, having published close to 90 books in his native Spanish; Shantytown is his tenth novel to appear in English translation. These include Ghosts – part supernatural coming-of-age story, part ontological treatise on architecture – and Varamo, in which a civil servant paid in counterfeit bills responds, incongruously enough, by writing the definitive poem of Latin American literature.

If we are to believe the cover copy, Shantytown is a crime story about a drug ring that operates amid the slums of Buenos Aires. Certainly this is a fair description of something that happens, albeit vaguely, in the book. But we are also treated to ruminations on poverty and class ("The sole and dubious privilege of the middle class [is] not to learn from experience, to go on making mistakes, covered unconditionally by maternal insurance"), a walking tour of Argentina's capital and a study of the jealousies of young friendship. And yet the novel is not definitively any of those things, either, but glances at potential classifications, only to go bounding off in some new, surprising direction.

For those who might think he doesn't know what he's doing, Aira offers metafictive winks: amid the various, unlikely manoeuvrings of the story's absurd final act, one character complains, "This is too much! If there's one more twist in the plot…" Yet plot twists in a Cesar Aira novel are less thrilling than capricious, and his work is almost impervious to criticism for how gleefully it defies what should and shouldn't be done – at least by standards of plausibility and consistency – within the pages of a book.

Like all of Cesar Aira's novels, Shantytown is a multifaceted parody: a parody of a detective story, a parody of contemporary literature and a parody of parody itself. The novel only feints toward instruction, offering no takeaway or distinct target for ridicule, and its aphorisms are nonsensical. (Aira himself has admitted to often having little idea, nor caring about, what he's trying to say.) One struggles, for example, to parse this epigrammatic nugget: "In waking life, simple forms are very intellectual or abstract, but in the world of dreams they are simply practical or convenient."

Shantytown seems most invested in fracturing the reader's expectations of the book we think we're reading. As such, the novel inhabits the same ironic space as Aira's The Literary Conference, in which a translator named Cesar's scheme for world domination relies on producing an army of Carlos Fuentes clones. The plots of both books unravel through their own incongruities, resulting in stories that feel more experiential than narrative: what happens, they suggest, ultimately doesn't matter, nor is it the point. Instead, the text, like the images of a Raul Ruiz film, seems to be intimating another, untold story, which each reader will respond to differently.

Reading Cesar Aira can be liberating – even antidotal, considering how generic so much of contemporary literature has become. There are a great number of books out there that follow the rules: characters develop and change, stories obey strict arcs and pretty similes scatter the pages (like pearls!). But for readers who might seek a different brand of storytelling, one that isn't so much read as discovered, which unfolds and erupts from the page only to reinvent itself again, few novels this year will achieve such a thing as effectively – or strangely – as Shantytown.

Pasha Malla is the author of People Park and The Withdrawal Method.

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