Have you ever wondered what internal monologue might accompany the characters in a Hieronymus Bosch painting? What are the couple copulating upside down in the middle of that pond thinking? Or the man with flowers sprouting from his ass? Or the poor fellow being killed by a fire-breathing creature which is itself impaled upon a knife? I would venture to guess that their voices would sound something like the writing of Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor.
In her new novel Hurricane Season (New Directions), Melchor tells us a tale as wondrously grotesque and captivating as a Bosch triptych narrated by a raunchy female Cormac McCarthy. It is a story of small-town homophobia set against a backdrop of government corruption, globalization and cartel violence in Mexico. It is also a murder mystery.
The body is found on the first page, floating in an irrigation canal. The victim is The Witch, a local pariah, daughter of a woman who took up with a land-rich man and who herself was deemed to be a sorceress after the death of her lover and his sons. The events that led to The Witch’s death are narrated by a breathless chorus of voices that circle around the crime from various angles in Rashomon style.
Melchor’s technical skills are wildly impressive. She has crafted single sentences that run effortlessly for up to three entire pages, sliding at times between third and first person in a quicksilver wink at conventions. The prose is lucid, lyrical and seems to take joy in its own construction. Melchor’s craft is the stylistic opposite of the clipped fragments offset by white space that seem to have become so popular since the publication of books like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. In all 220 pages of Hurricane Season, there is not a single paragraph break.
Though most of the book is written in a semi-omniscient third person it has the close-to-the-throat feeling of a private confession. The town itself seems to want to vomit out its guilty defense in a torrent as long and muddy as the canal where the body was found. The chapters circle in on themselves, returning to certain key moments and phrases the way that a witness in a trial might track back to a memory and then catch up and push the story forward. The weight of obsession is a current throughout and voice is what carries the reader along, the voices of young women saddled with their mother’s sorrows, their grandmother’s devastations, their own body’s betrayals, and the voices of men pinned down by the panopticon of hyper-masculinity and homophobia.
In many ways, the terror at the heart of Hurricane Season is the terror of living inside a human body, the desperate terror of all the needs, desires and thrills of the body, the terror of our corruptibility both emotionally and physically. We feel with such depths. We shit, we bleed, we bruise, we palpate. We emote such shining love and such splintering hate. And maybe most terrifyingly, we need each other so very much.
The parallel I see between Fernanda Melchor and Cormac McCarthy is not necessarily a stylistic one as much as it is a thematic one. In Blood Meridian McCarthy writes of a “nameless rage,” a death-urge that has gone on forever, as is evidenced by his epigraph, a quotation which claims that a “3,000-year-old fossil skull […] shows evidence of having been scalped.” McCarthy demonstrates how this nameless rage is bigger than humanity, it is overarching and underlying, existent in man, nature and even God himself. Though man takes part in this violence, he never truly controls it or understands it and eventually it will consume him, just as Judge Holden consumes the kid.
The characters in Hurricane Season suffer the same consequences, swept up in a tide of violence, they think they are the authors of their own actions but the reader sees their pawn-like roles in the overarching battle. While McCarthy brought this framework to bear on 19th-century American expansionism and the Mexican-American war, Melchor uses it to illuminate the current state of post-NAFTA globalization that leaves ordinary small-town communities just as vulnerable to modern day scalp-hunters and bloodthirsty capitalists in all their various forms.
By Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
New Directions Press
Published March 31, 2020