Sunday, January 16, 2022

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Movieland (1930)

De la Serna was an avant-garde Spanish writer who seems to be pretty much unknown these days, at least in English.  This reprint is from the always-interesting Tough Poets press; I end up backing a lot of their books and then not reading them, or at least at once, but I read this one.  BAM.  Kudos to the proprietor, Rick Schober (who is definitely reading this--hi, Rick) for unearthing all these interesting books.

I was looking forward to this one especially, and interesting it certainly is.  It's about a conception of Hollywood which may or may not have much of anything to do with the real (or "real") thing.  It does not have a plot, and really, barely characters.  There's this guy named Jacques Struk who comes to the city for the first time near the start of the novel, whom you might reasonably expect to be the protagonist, but he extremely isn't, and more or less disappears from the novel quickly.  There are a few other characters, notably two big stars, Max and Elsa, and an ingenue named Carlotta Bray--but don't expect them to do much or have character arcs or anything.  A lot of the short chapters are given over to a particular type of person who comes to Movieland: "villains," people who are able to convincingly stand around, fat men, and, somewhat cringily, different ethnic types (specifically "Japanese" and--deep breath--"negroes").

It might be a bit much to say that this novel is about simulacra in the Baudrillardian sense, but it does seem to presage it a bit.  The translator makes a big deal about the fact that de la Serna had never been to America--not in a "can you believe he was able to be so accurate without being there?" sense, but a "look what a bizarre phantasia this European is making of this quintessentially American cultural phenomenon" one.  I'm not overly impressed by this myself--sure, it's weird, but to me it's about equally plausible to imagine an American or European writing it.

Regardless, it is, as noted, very interesting.  Sort of makes me think of something like Calvino's Invisible Cities.  I wouldn't call it a great novel--the lack of plot and character doesn't leave you much to hold onto, and I can imagine it getting tedious were it much longer--but I'm always interested in reading old experimental novels, especially ones I had no idea existed.


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