Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

Sea Monsters: A Novel BY Chloe Aridjis. Catapult. Hardcover, 224 pages. $23.
The cover of Sea Monsters: A Novel

You could describe Chloe Aridjis’s first two novels as mood pieces. Both have a Sebaldian preoccupation with the ways we are haunted by history; both are, as she has put it, “somehow impregnated or overcast with the weight of the past.” Her narrators—one, in Book of Clouds, a Mexican Jew living in self-imposed exile in Berlin, the other, in Asunder, a museum guard idling over London’s National Gallery—are withdrawn and perceptive. They occupy spaces palpitating with the past, with a violence barely glazed over by time, still detectable to those with the wit to pay attention. In Book of Clouds, Tatiana researches Berlin’s Geisterbahnhöfe, the abandoned U and S-Bahn “ghost stations,” silent after the city’s division except for the rattle of West Berliners shuttling across the cut-off East. In Asunder, Marie becomes fascinated with craquelure, the fine ruptures on the surface of a canvas, the results of the inevitable contraction of paint over time. Both novels narrate how history cracks into the present. They ventriloquize the hauntedness that saturates their environments. Little else happens.

At first, Sea Monsters appears to follow a similar path. We meet its narrator, Luisa, in Zipolite, a small beach town on the Oaxacan coast known by its residents and visitors as the "Beach of the Dead” for its lethal tide. During the day, Luisa walks the shore “aimlessly, purposefully, and in search of digressions.” When someone at the town bar asks the reason for her visit, she confesses to being a teenage runaway. No, her parents aren’t evil, and yes, she came with a boy, but why she left home to follow him are both “good questions” with no answer.

The first half of the book shifts between Luisa’s present and the months leading up to her flight. Home is Mexico City; the boy in question is Tomás Román, “a snag in the composition” of Luisa’s otherwise predictable life, “a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning.” She scribbles his name in cursive letters on the margins of her notebooks. She looks for him walking in La Roma on her way to high school. She drops by the bookstore where he works. Her infatuation feeds off her own dissatisfaction with her stifling path: graduation, college, work. Tomás is a dropout, off the path entirely, his disengagement mistaken by her for a kind of freedom.

Punctuating their early encounters are scenes of Luisa idling in Zipolite, where it is clear the two have become estranged. The knowledge of her eventual disillusionment underlines the warning signs in their relationship, which are obvious to the reader, if not to Luisa. When they first meet, Tomás invites her to a lucha and she tells "three lies" to her parents to go. On her way home, she wonders “what would it take . . . to make” Tomás “come just a bit more alive.” Reading this, I cringed with recognition. How many adolescent girls have puffed up men with their enthusiasm into anything other than the wearisome drags they are? Luisa mistakes Tomás’s aloofness as mystique, and even if there is enough game to initially keep their attraction afloat, his disinterest and her eventual disappointment precludes any investment by the reader in their courtship.

As the novel goes on, their lackluster affair gives way to the city as a character in itself. Aridjis suffuses her narrative with Mexico City’s ephemera. She seems to select her references, as she did with her descriptions of Berlin in Book of Clouds, with an intimate respect. I knew about the letrero BACO, an iconic sign advertising a factory of assorted school supplies that floats above the Periférico—“it had been there since I was a child,” Luisa says—but Aridjis’s lovely invocation aroused my memory of the movement of its neon instruments, “the scissors opening and closing, the compass going around and around, the ruler, the lead pencil, each measuring the length and width of days,” all over again. I recognized, too, the song of the tamalero, Luisa’s favorite sound, a “disembodied cry” whose call anyone familiar with the life of the city would recognize within seconds, “a mantra released at dusk like an orphaned balloon.”

Still, these specificities are dulled by the enduring cliché of Mexico as a repository of quirky illicitness. At moments, Aridjis satisfyingly parodies this stereotype, as in a scene where Luisa and Tomás, somewhat mockingly take a pair of American tourists to the house where William Burroughs shot and killed Joan Vollmer. Other times, perhaps despite herself, Aridjis writes the city as a holding pen for a cast of eccentrics. We meet, for example, Diego Deán, a "punk rock singer, draftsman, and occasional shaman”; El Chino, who lives with his blind pet canary; El Pitufo, “a coke dealer who wrote poetry.” Then there are the twelve Ukrainian dwarfs who escape from a circus and, as Luisa learns when reading the newspaper, are reportedly on the loose somewhere in Oaxaca. This plot line straight out of the Magical Realism Bot serves as the instigation for Luisa and Tomás’s ill-fated trip. One afternoon they meet at the bus depot, and head to the Pacific in search of the fugitive dwarfs, becoming teenage fugitives themselves.

Their arrival to the beach comes halfway through the novel. At this point, any remaining propulsion in the story is already languishing under the indifferent coastal sun. Tomás vanishes. Luisa has a chance to call her parents; she wants to, but she doesn’t. She meets an older man at the beach and names him “merman.” They begin sharing a drink every night. She sees two small silhouettes admiring the sky in a “strange tongue” and tells the merman about the Ukrainian runaways. “He simply wasn’t impressed.” They go back to her hammock to a lot of ocean-themed innuendo: “a riding of the waves, a journey to the seabed, a thrust back up to the surface.” Near the end of the book, her father shows up, “his gait tired and disheveled,” to ask his eighteen-year-old daughter the novel’s central question: Why Luisa? Why did she leave? But by then, I hardly cared.

Aridjis’s sentences are frothy enough to buoy Sea Monsters’s sluggishness, although at times their very airiness seems to evince the story’s vacuity of substance. The book assembles an eclectic medley of recurring references—we learn, through Luisa, about the biology of ancient shipwrecks, the Antikythera mechanism, the poetry of Baudelaire and Lautreamont (a high school senior, she is a precocious reader of nineteenth-century French poetry), post-punk music—but what it does with these allusions is flavorless. In her past work, Aridjis was able to ground her narrator’s scattered ruminations with the weight of history. In Sea Monsters, that sense of weight is absent. The beach and the city aren’t haunted as much as they are places where things go to die. But perhaps that feeling of listlessness is precisely the feeling of adolescence: an indolence tinged with anticipation, constantly waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer from Mexico City living in Los Angeles.