Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lost in a Labyrinth of Ideas: Hotel Juárez

Hotel Juárez (Arte Público Press), by Daniel Chacón, is a mesmerizing collection of stories fluctuating between the past and the present, imagination and reality. These 39 short-short stories are linked by details, memories, and obsessions. Certain questions permeate Hotel Juárez: Can imagination relieve childhood guilt and violence? What is the relationship between singularity and abstraction? Do drugs and alcohol stimulate creativity, or destroy it?

In “First Cold,” a boy explores several imaginative loops in his head, from visiting the Tarahumaras to racing through a galaxy of supernovas. The most poignant is imagining he comes back as a respectable man to his startled mother, to tell her everything will be okay in the future. Back in reality, the boy is but twelve-years-old, three years before she commits suicide.

The son of Zachary and Angélica, in “The Framer’s Apprentice,” retells their first meetings, somewhat romanticized.  Then the son remembers his mother screaming at him as a seven-year-old, “You’re the reason!  You’re the one!” that is, the reason she got married. This happens a year before she also kills herself. Meanwhile the young son escapes the present by making his own mathematical symbols, living in his mind.

This ‘living in the mind’ dwells on the messy relationship between singularity and abstraction. In “Green-eyed Girl on the Cover of National Geographic,” the narrator is a young American man studying art in Paris who falls for a Moroccan clerk. The out-of-place Chicano guards against over-thinking the details because this leads to a “singularity of meaning.” What we find out in a later story, “Centinela!  Centinela! What of the Night?” is that the father is telling this Parisian story to their daughter, Mari, but withholds details of their night dancing, because this would “limit the possibilities.”

The reverence for imagination and abstraction and the disdain for details come to a moral head in “The Puppy.” A lonely assassin buys a meek, somewhat frightened puppy, and goes about taking care of Snorkel. He plays with Snorkel, and loves him apparently, until he gets a call to do a job in Mexico City. The assassin then drowns Snorkel in the tub, knowing the dog is only “species first and then breed.” When the assassin is back in town, he’ll buy another dog.

The moral crisis, whether or not Chácon explicitly says it or realizes it, is that over-abstraction can easily lead to inhumane behavior, to not ‘seeing’ the individual in front of you. That is an old problem in Heidegger’s philosophy of being-towards-death, for example, the problem of fetishizing abstraction to such a degree that you start thinking of your death as the only thing that matters in your life. Of course, that’s crazy, or another, more philosophical way to put it is that human beings are more than just minds: they are bodies, they are individuals, they have particular characters. That’s what matters in the moral world.

These issues come to the fore in several stories where drugs or alcohol spur the imagination from a “dull life.” In “Mujeres Matadas,” a fifty-year-old El Paso man is listening to death metal music surrounded by twenty-somethings, when a young guitarist, Mari(a), invites him to see “something really evil” in Juárez, at an underground club. In an old maquila factory, the “viejo” is transported to another world. But was it the music and the spectacle, or the “red pills” they took before she steps on stage? Again, in the last section “Hotel Juárez,” a professor of literature buys crack cocaine and is pursued by his imagination and three boys. He ends up in a seedy hotel room, “his head expanded into a universe of voices and images.”

The literary and philosophical issues at the heart of Chacón’s excellent stories are how imagination can save us, but also condemn us, and how too much abstraction can encourage us to lose ourselves in the beautiful desert world at our feet.

(This book review originally appeared in The El Paso Times on June 16, 2013.)