First it was Chilean Alberto Fuguet, the author of Mala Onda (1991), a tale of adolescent satiety successful enough to travel northward to its alternative-spiritual birthplace and go into publication in the United States as Bad Vibes (1997). Then came Peruvian TV host Jaime Bayly and his bestselling novel No se lo digas a nadie (“Don’t Tell Anyone,” 1994). In Spain, it was José Angel Mañas, author of Historias del Kronen (1994), a trite if nervy tale which leapt from newsstands onto movie screens across Spain just a few summers after being short listed for the prestigious Nadal Prize.
Throughout the nineties, the “McOndo” authors, as they call themselves, broke sales records, out-fast-tracked the economic integration of Europe and the Americas, won the plaudits of Anglophone critics, and caused the still largely genteel world of Spanish-language publishing to echo what is without question the most noxious U.S. literary trend of the last twenty years.
The antidote Fuguet proposes to these Latino fairy tales is, if anything, even more compromised and derivative.
Fuguet himself, a thirtysomething child of Santiago’s upper-middle class and a vigorous exponent of its peculiarly provincial yet media-saturated tastes, coined the term “McOndo.” As opposed to Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realist “Macondo,” that Latin Yoknapatawpha County populated with blue dogs and flying grandmothers, Fuguet describes McOndo as “a world of McDonald’s, Macintoshes, and condos.” “In a continent that was once ultra-politicized,” Fuguet declared in a 1997 McOndo manifesto published in Salon, “young, apolitical writers like myself are now writing without an overt agenda about their own experiences.”
Fuguet deserves credit for pegging the present-day exponents of magical realism as purveyors of predictable, exoticized clichés, a jalapeño-popper literature dealing in “the cult of the underdeveloped” for North American audiences. But the antidote that Fuguet proposes to these Latino fairy tales is, if anything, even more compromised and derivative: Tales of jaded adolescents and urban cosmopolitanism derived forthrightly from the once-popular novels of Jay McInerney, Douglas Coupland, and Bret Easton Ellis (this last reigning as a sort of muse-in-chief for McOndo’s endless evocation of sated-but-somehow-unhappy rich kids). “Kind of like The House of the Spirits,” Fuguet chides, “only without the spirits.”
Still, Fuguet insists, multiculti habits die hard, particularly those of the U.S. literary scene. In his Salon essay Fuguet complains about the time he spent at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1994, plying a story so overwrought in its imagined victimization by the politically correct that one suspects Fuguet made it up himself: “I was invited, along with other foreign writers, to a welcome reception,” Fuguet recalls, when “one of the program coordinators casually suggested it would be great to see everyone in their ‘native outfits.’” Offended by his hosts’ failure to recognize his cosmopolitanism instantly, Fuguet “went down in an MTV Latino T-shirt (sent to me by a VJ friend), baggy shorts, and a pair of Birkenstocks. The coordinators were disappointed, to say the least.”
This, then, is the whole story of McOndo in a single gesture: The poncho-wearing, bean-munching internationalism of the Iowa Writer’s Program upstaged—faced!—by Fuguet’s sartorially trite but more up-to-date response. Still, there’s something sad about the prefab-hip outfit Fuguet put on to épater the Iowa people in their pre-alternative innocence. (How cool are Birkenstocks and an MTV T-shirt on a thirty-year-old man, anyway? How cool is it really that Fuguet knows an MTV VJ?) And there’s something downright tragic about his guileless conviction—at least as he explains it for the readers of Salon—that the coolness of this stuff is simply beyond question. Fuguet’s outrage at being thought “not Latino enough” also gives us clues into what he means by the “political,” a horror he pretends to flee like the Ebola virus. As Fuguet sees it, the literary world is pretty simple: There are the “Sagas of sweaty migrant farm laborers, [and] the plight of misunderstood political refugees,” which he ridicules; and then there is his story of the Iowa PC police. Politics, for Fuguet, is something that happens to other people.
In North America, of course, we understand “politics” differently, and for Anglophone critics accustomed to hailing whatever sexual practices or consumer habits that irritate Jesse Helms as the latest in “subversion,” the rise of Fuguet and Co. has been a radical development indeed, a triumph of the culture war politics of representation over the plodding workerist fashions of yore. Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta has called Bad Vibes “a revolutionary departure from all the literary norms made fashionable by Latin American writers of the 1970s and 1980s.” David Gallagher, writing for The Times Literary Supplement, has quite wrongly asserted that since McOndo writers “aren’t writing for an international audience,” they “have no need to maintain the status quo of the stereotypical Latin America that is packaged up for export.”
In Spain, the new authors were initially dubbed, after Mañas’s 1994 bestseller, “The Kronen Generation.”
Sadly, the truth about McOndo is that its Latin American status is all that prevents it from being summarily dismissed as the pretentious derivative of the Ellis, McInerney, and Coupland triumvirate that it is. Packed, Tarantino-like, with quotations-in-translation of everything from Prozac Nation to Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer to the Trainspotting soundtrack, each of the McOndo novels chronicles the jaded anomie of the young, the beautiful, the empty, and the rich, providing exact literary analogues for the commercially sponsored alienation that serves as the bait and tackle of the late capitalist shill.
In Spain, the new authors were initially dubbed, after Mañas’s 1994 bestseller, “The Kronen Generation.” Narrated in an overwhelmingly narcissistic first person, Mañas’s Historias del Kronen relates a summer in the life of a disaffected adolescent. This one’s named Carlos, and he randomly drinks, smokes, snorts, and trips his way through the Madrid dawn while casually quoting pop-culture signposts and becoming as sex-addled, emotionally numb, and filled up with repressed violence as a sunburned Big Ten fratboy at Lauderdale.
A typical Mañas ploy, for example, is to have Carlos narrate scenes from his favorite Anglophone movies when the story gets slow. “[A Clockwork Orange] is a classic of film violence,” Carlos tells a female partner in one typically desensitized encounter. “My favorite scene is when Alex and his friends are raping the writer’s wife. Alex cuts open the bitch’s red suit with a pair of scissors while the others hold the writer down, forcing him to watch. Alex is belting out ‘I’m Singing In the Rain’ and kicks him to the beat of the music.” Strangely, Mañas never describes the little punk panting and fingering his assault rifle—maybe to keep his apoliticism viable.
Historias del Kronen, like its genre-mates, shamelessly advertises its debt to American precursors—in this case Ellis’s 1990 novel American Psycho, which is not only said to be Carlos’s favorite reading, but which also seems to have served as a literary model for Mañas as well, to judge by the frequency with which his characters repeat the words of Ellis’s murderous protagonist. The Kronen kids’ listening and viewing material consistently runs to Anglophilic fare as well: Repo Man, Nirvana, “Depesh Mod.” Whether the landscape is Madrid, Santiago, or Timbuktu, it is invariably described as a generic version of a Miami suburb, full of “Pizzajat” (Pizza Hut), “Sebenileben” (7-Eleven) and bars called “Huarjols” (Warhol’s).
Lucía Etxebarria, who won the prestigious Nadal Prize for her 1998 novel Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes (“Beatriz and the Heavenly Bodies”), is arguably the most successful member of the McOndo squad. Previously celebrated for the books Aguanta esto (“Take That”), a biography of Courtney Love, and Amor, curiosidad, Prozac y dudas (“Love, Curiosity, Prozac and Doubt”), Etxebarria fashions herself, both as a writer and public figure, as an Iberian Camille Paglia via the keening of Elizabeth Wurtzel, with the novelizing of Naomi Wolf thrown in for good measure. Irritatingly, she looks and dresses just like Tama Janowitz.
The literary model, though, seems more Rules of Attraction than Less Than Zero. The story of an adolescent whose parents just don’t seem to understand, Beatriz y los cuerpos celestes cuts in and out of geographies like stage sets in a music video. London, Paris, Madrid, and once-dowdy Edinburgh (Thanks Irvine Welsh! Thanks Ewan McGregor!) have never looked so similar. In these uniform cities, Beatriz tries on the various backwards baseball caps of transgression, going lesbian, trading plenty of spit and bodily fluids, partying, taking drugs, and getting violent, all the while prattling on in the easy-listening style of A. S. Byatt about love lost and found and, what else, her dear old mum and dad (“They fuck you up,” you can almost hear Ted Hughes intoning throughout the book).
Indeed, one doesn’t need to read too far before familiar bits begin appearing in the pulp between Etxebarria’s expensive hardcovers. The first page alertly drops a reference to the whiny pop band The Cure, much as Colette might have once mentioned a Liszt sonata. The sense of leaden cliché, of ready-made irony so exhausted it would have seemed tired fifteen years ago, pops up again only a few pages further, as Beatriz narrates an exchange of postcards between herself and her brand new Scottish lover, Cat. “Cat would receive a postcard of The Enterprise which cost me eight francs,” she relates, in what reads like Captain Kirk’s overanxious voiceover. “When I returned to Edinburgh, I found in my mailbox the card Cat had promised me: a portrait of Doctor Spock. I knew then that our story was condemned to prosper.” What’s next, Ms. Etxebarria’s high school poetry?
The most interesting proponent of McOndo is Jaime Bayly. Best known as the host of a Latino imitation of the Merv Griffin Show, featuring an assortment of stars from across Latin America’s uniquely tacky constellation, Bayly also received Spain’s Herralde Prize for his 1998 novel La noche es virgen (“Night Is a Virgin”). Like McOndo literature generally, Bayly nimbly straddles two worlds: He is both a master of international television cheese and a genuine auteur with a glowing critical reputation. Bayly is also where the limitations of a literature spawned by the sad-young-rich-kid narratives of Bret Easton Ellis begin to make themselves blindingly obvious. An account of South American life through the eyes of a nostalgic rich boy, Bayly’s 1994 novel No se lo digas a nadie offers yet another look at the lives of tacky, glutted descendants of European immigrants as they shuttle in and out of exclusive restaurants, bars and country clubs, all the while casting Lima, a one-horse town if there ever was one, in the role of Proust’s Paris or Fitzgerald’s New York. Typical of the genre in its inability to transcend wishful thinking, Bayly imagines Lima as it might be dreamed by some liberal economist or IMF functionary. No se lo digas a nadie displays few traces of verisimilitude; nowhere appears the rough and shoddy, real-life Lima of gated communities and packs of beggar boys. Even the plot seems canned: In place of dramatic conflict, and following the imported lifestyle formula to the letter, Bayly locates his protagonist’s principal dilemma on extremely familiar terrain—a coy, tame, and gilded homoeroticism hardly worth a solo wank.
All this helps to explain what Fuguet, the self-appointed generalissimo of the squeaky-clean McOndo bunch, means when he calls for an “apolitical” Spanish literature. It is also worth noting that Fuguet considers himself a true believer in “cultural realism”—as opposed to the realism of Victor Hugo or the Chilean novelist Manuel Rojas—“a sort of NAFTA-like writing,” as he has actually called it. “This new genre,” Fuguet has explained, innocently, “may be one of the byproducts of a free-market economy and the privatization craze that has swept South America.”
May be? How about as surely as Fuguet lives and breathes his precious passive breaths? The parallel between Fuguet’s McOndo and the socioeconomic model imposed on Chile under the autocratic rule of Augusto Pinochet (and under the pseudodemocracy that followed) is so close as to be stifling. No wonder Fuguet’s celebrity-obsessed and consumer-minded virtuality is so close to the ready-for-export image that Chilean politicians and investment-hungry businessmen have been promoting for the last thirty years. Add a smidgen of alternative cool—just the thing to prove your middle-class credentials—and you’ve got exact Chilean replicas of sated, rebellious, hyper-hip American suburban youth. All you’re missing are sundries like real celebrities, a movie industry, local music scenes, and enough kids with piercings.
Nowhere in Mala Onda do the full third of Chileans living in poverty appear; rarely is there a sign of the country’s rigid class stratification.
In this respect, Alberto Fuguet’s work turns out to be fictional in more than the obvious sense. A short spin around Santiago reveals the absolute absence of an infrastructure of hip, the sort of thing detailed by Ellis in Los Angeles or Tama Janowitz in New York. After nine years of crowing about having joined the ranks of First World economies, Chile’s capital boasts few if any world class restaurants, a single six-mile stretch of highway on which to drag the Jeeps and Blazers Fuguet repeatedly mentions, and a nightlife still stunted from the effects of seventeen long years of curfews under military rule. The urbane, overdrawn vision of Santiago Fuguet presents, from his early short story collection Sobredosis (“Overdose”) to the 1997 English-language edition of Mala Onda published by St. Martin’s Press, is to the reality of Third World Chile as Internet sex is to physical coitus: a pale, desperate and unimaginative rendition of the real thing.
Even Matias Vicuña, the protagonist of Mala Onda, Fuguet’s novel-length crib of Less Than Zero, seems to agree. In one passage Matias achieves an almost Joycean epiphany from an observation of Chilean fast food so inane that it deserves to be quoted in toto: “Pumper Nic is full, like it is every Saturday. The smell of french fries, of grease, engulfs me. I like it. It’s the smell of the United States, I think. The smell of progress. It makes me think of Orlando and Disney World, of Miami, of McDonald’s and Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Carl’s Jr and Jack-in-the-Box. Pumper Nic—even the name sounds pathetic to me, way too Third World. It isn’t all that bad, but it’s a bad copy, that’s the thing. It’s not authentic.”
Besides being an underdeveloped “Pumper Nic” copy of American literary fast food, Mala Onda is a shameless artifact of the culture it coyly pretends to criticize—as innately radical as a Rage Against the Machine album with Che Guevara’s mug on the cover or a car commercial blaring a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. Small wonder then that a book like Mala Onda—a novel set ostensibly in the Ellis-blessed golden age of the early Eighties but firmly steeped in Nineties globalism—appeals to a readership that normally does not buy novels. Its real message is a marketing triumph, a Hispanic repackaging of America’s melding of consumption and cool. Fuguet’s vision is a simple one: ¡El quiere su MTV! His beef is aptly summarized by Nacho, one of Matias’s spoiled friends in Mala Onda. “When,” he demands in the nasal tones of that dude Hamlet, “are they going to start playing the Ramones or the Sex Pistols here?”
Nowhere in Mala Onda do the full third of Chileans living in poverty appear; rarely is there a sign of the country’s rigid class stratification (the arrangement that makes Fuguet’s comfortably apolitical life possible); never are we asked to wonder about the baroque social and cultural layering here that renders the span between the centuries a casual matter of strolling past a horse-drawn cart on the way to the corner video store. No, Fuguet and Co. know it is the duty of art to grace the halls of capital, to prove their country’s bona fides as reliable consumers of global entertainment product. Or in Fuguet’s words, “Pure virtual realism, pure McOndo literature”—an unfiltered reflection of “television, radio, the Internet, and movies which [McOndo writers] send back through [their] fiction.”
Rather than “apolitical,” perhaps the appropriate term for McOndo is “boosterism.” Revel though it may in daring departures like drug use, sexual experimentation, and the inevitable outraged authority figures, one can’t help but think that this is a literature of national salesmanship as surely as “magical realism” has become contrived exoticism for PC Americans. Consider the lengths to which McOndo goes to establish that the Latin cities it describes are in every way the equal of the Northern cities whose pleasures were sung by Ellis, Janowitz, and McInerney. Consider the ways in which its tales of profligate consumption and lifestyle rebellion serve curiously to emphasize the absolute up-to-dateness of the pleasures available to the various conspicuous consumers of Santiago or Lima or Madrid. McOndo reassures us that despite fresh memories of military regimes, these cities suffer no shortage of rule-breaking, hierarchy-questioning junior executive material. In addition to all that, McOndo puts to rest that most gnawing First World fear of all—that we might someday have to do business with people who don’t share our tastes, know our TV references, and worship our brands. Perhaps it can do for Santiago what Sub Pop did for Seattle.
Hey, señor! Want fries or a shake to go with that book?