Faced with the spiritually truncating demands of modernity, the twentieth-century idealist, as described by André Breton in the “First Manifesto of Surrealism,” was susceptible to complete enervation: “Menace accumulates, one yields, one abandons a part of the terrain to be conquered. That same imagination that knows no limits, is never permitted to be exercised except according to arbitrary laws of utility; it is incapable of assuming this inferior role for long, and at about the age of twenty, prefers, in general, to abandon Man to his unilluminated destiny.” For Breton, the answer was Surrealism, a movement whose aim was to cut through the ossified trappings of realism and, often with the aid of dream imagery, transcribe “the actual functioning of thought.” If that results in paintings of tuba-headed elephants, all the better.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s latest novel, “Quesadillas” comes out of, and playfully riffs on, this tradition is : “Weren’t fantastic, wonderful things meant to happen to us all the time? Didn’t we speak to the dead? Wasn’t everyone always saying we were a surrealist country?” So says Orestes, the second eldest of seven siblings, all packed into a house “like a shoe box with a lid made from a sheet of asbestos.” Orestes’s father is a high school teacher who spends his free time inventing novel strings of expletives to hurl at televised politicians, and his mother is the creator and distributor of the titular quesadillas. The novel is set in 1980s Lagos de Moreno, and the variable amounts of cheese filling reflect the rampant inflation Mexico experienced: “inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas—listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.” The family’s daily ritual is the mealtime scramble for food, as “a shitload of grabbing hands, sixteen hands, with all their eighty fingers,” fight for their right to eat.
The family persists and subsists in this way until a wealthy Polish family builds a tract mansion next door. It is when Orestes befriends the couple’s son, Jaroslaw, that his provincial poverty is put in perspective. In a lyrically hyperbolic section, Orestes wryly observes that in the United States, the streets shine and each piece of trash has its respective bin: “A bin for banana skins. A bin for red fizzy drinks cans. A bin for Kentucky Fried Chicken bones. A bin for toilet paper covered in shit. Some enormous bins for old objects that had gone out of fashion and become an embarrassment to their ex-owners.” The book is at its best during moments like these, when Orestes’s candid and profane poeticism is allowed free rein. At other times, the novel’s playfulness falls flat. The references to Greek literature and thinkers—the siblings are named Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor, and Pollux, and characters are repeatedly characterised as Aristotelian or Socratic—seem to sit on the text’s surface, never sinking in, suggesting only that Villalobos had recently been on a Classics kick and wanted to implement his readings somehow.
Midway through the novel, Orestes and the eldest brother, Aristotle, decide to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the two “pretend twins” Castor and Pollux, who they believe to have been abducted by aliens (for Villalobos, as for Garcia Marquez, characters are very much narrative pieces to be spirited away and dragged back, sometimes infuriatingly, at will). When Aristotle and Orestes get into an argument and then a fight, they part ways. Orestes winds up on a tour of Mexico – albeit one that is glossed over in a couple pages – scamming payments of food from the unwitting with the aid of a device that allows him to temporarily disable electronics and then pretend to fix them. When his scam is discovered by a politician, and this politician then offers him a spot as a sort of lackey, we rejoice. The novel seems to finally be opening up. And then Orestes sees a news report wherein his parents are featured as a couple who have lost all seven of their children. Spilling his drink on the politician, Orestes is (yes, this time infuriatingly) narratively yanked back to his shoe box.
The remainder of the novel unfolds in a cursory manner. Orestes is obligated to work for Jaroslaw Senior to repay the food he and Aristotle stole for the botched journey, and it turns out that the Polish family is in the business of artificially inseminating cows. While this had the potential to be developed interestingly, it turns out to be simply a piece of postmodern fluff that allows Villalobos to title a chapter “Bovine Eroticism” and describe one of Jaroslaw Senior’s promotional films, “Masters of Semen,” “a eulogy to the three best specimens from the Canadian company: you saw them grazing in verdant fields, with snow-capped mountains in the background, and then you saw them furiously attacking artificial vaginas, receptacles designed to capture their precious semen.”
The novel’s finale is a surreal tableau, not unlike Dalí’s fantastical landscapes. All the novel’s disparate whimsies converge: aliens beam a character down from extraterrestrial captivity, a horde of hysterical cows have an orgy, and Orestes wields his electronics-disabling device to materialize a multi-storied dream home. But like so many Surrealist paintings, like dreams seen under the halogen lights of reality, the image is static, indigestible. It allows us no real catharsis. With its false-starts and throw-away characters, “Quesadillas” makes one wonder if Villalobos did not follow too faithfully Breton’s admonishment to “promise so much and perform so little that it will be a wonder.”