The Short Version: Orestes (no not that one) is a young man in a big family living in Mexico. After his youngest siblings disappear, he sets off on a picaresque adventure to find them – maybe – or to maybe just better his life. There are political issues, familial issues, aliens, cows, and a whole mess of quesadillas involved.
The Review: Man, this one was a strange one. On the one hand, there are scenes that would be expertly staged by Michael Gondry in a truly, delightfully weird film. There is a detachment from reality that Villalobos digs into here with relish, creating for a very scattered narrative but at the same time a surprisingly coherent image of poverty in modern-day Mexico. I just don’t know that the two things come together to make for a good book.
On the one hand, you’ve got the crazy things like a remote that was meant to alert someone about a medical emergency that begins to control television sets and appliances – so that Oreo (his nickname) can scam folks into fixing them for money. It’s weird, it comes out of nowhere, there’s little explanation as to why it happens – but none of that matters so much. You just go along with it, in the same way that you go along with cats talking in a Murakami book. The thing is, it exists here only as a device to further a particular point of the plot which, in turn, is only there to further a particular point of the biting analysis that underlies the entire book.
I didn’t get this sense so much in Down the Rabbit Hole – but Villalobos is angry. Here, the anger (which is deployed via satire) is directed firmly at the government and at the state of the country – but it gets in the way, for me, of the storytelling. Each event in young Orestes’ life often seems to be there to facilitate another jab at the system, as opposed to springing organically from what came before. Things happen almost without connection sometimes, with no sense of cause/effect. It creates a destabilizing read and one that you really have to fight to get into at times. This may well have been the point – but it made for a less enjoyable novel.
That said, there’s still plenty to recommend the novel – especially if you have a decent grasp of general economics and politics. My favorite moment comes when Orestes is talking about the different types of quesadillas the family eats: inflationary, devalued, normal, poor man’s… to hear him explain what each of the types meant, what their makeup was, all of that, was inspired. It’s a minor econ/history lesson wrapped up in humor. Similarly, the utter weirdness of the family’s new neighbors and their artificial cow insemination is just so wacky and also perfectly pitched to reveal a lot about the scene while slipping behind the guise of humor. It’s just, again, that all of it feels a bit disconnected and fragmentary – the whole picture is never fully revealed except that it’s a poor one.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. As much fun as certain scenes were and as acerbically gifted as Villalobos is, I just didn’t get too much out of this one. It reads quickly but almost despite itself – I would’ve rather had a novel twice as long that felt more connected and coherent. But connection and coherence, again, might not be the point – instead, we’re maybe meant to feel disenfranchised from the novel. Or maybe we’re just meant to open up and embrace the weird.