Format: 224pp., Hardcover; Size:5.93 x 8.48”; Price: 26.99 Publisher: Henry Holt and Co; Number of times skin wrinkles are noted: 9; Number of scenes in which characters simulate sex using household items or substances: 2; Other books by the author: Arte Menor; Juegos de Playa; Representative passage: “For me, those were years of grace, of real thinking (I don’t think now; now I’m too worried about chewing.) Those years were like an offering Someone dropped in my lap out of guilt for all the empty hours that would follow. Empty the way only time spent far from truth can be, a time that’s not even decline or decrepitude but an alien, parallel state where the soul spins, brutally alone. Asteroid 7998, alias Berilia X. Off course since 1969.”
Central Question: How do Americans relate to nature?
Generational experience is something of a shared hallucination. The quality of the big trip varies with the prevailing moods and social conditions of the time—grander versions of what Timothy Leary called “set and setting.” The hippies would learn this the hard way. The older gurus like Leary and the baby boomers they tutored would experience the 1960s as a decade of countercultural exhilaration, sexual availability, joyous music and psychedelia. The paltry self, stunted by the conservatism of the wider culture, could now be chemically dissolved and regrown nearer the nourishing glow of nature. A return to the “natural” was evident in the hippies’ basic presentation (women unfettered by brassiers; longbeards camouflaging the faces of men.) Yet as the hippies aged, as the American culture industries devoured their ethos, as death became harder to deny or delay, the trip would begin to sour. The motherly face of nature would grow fangs and gnash at the terrified flower children who had worshipped it only decades earlier.
This generational narrative is offered to us by the recent novel of Betina González, a well-regarded Argentine writer whose third book, American Delirium, has been translated into English by Heather Cleary. A heavily-plotted social novel, American Delirium transports hippyism from its native habitat in the 60s to the present wilderness where it struggles to survive. A teenaged girl named Berenice searches for surrogate parents after her mother abandons her to join a cult led by “a Finnish mystic and a graffiti artist who refused to give up the lies of the sixties.” These luddites call themselves “dropouts” (echoing Leary’s “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”) and have chosen the simplicity of the wilds over their “civic duties.” A Carribean immigrant who struggles with chronic pain, Vik, must decide what to do with a dropout he finds squatting in his house, stealing viands and the occasional shower. Two aging hippies, Beryl and Smithfield, begin training an elderly hunting party to slaughter the deer that have lately attacked senior citizens around their nameless Midwestern city.
The cockamame plot is most legible as a psychosocial phantasm. Fittingly, its principal movements concern a hallucinogenic flower, called “Albaria.” The dropouts forage and consume it to achieve an infantile tranquility (citizens returned to nature’s innocence), but when the white-petaled flower is eaten by deer, the animals are sent into a frenzied bloodlust (nature’s innocence turned hostile.)
González conjures nature as a mindless and serene omnipresence. For Berenice, alone in her wayward mother’s flower shop, nature manifests as the “silence of the plants….the silence of growth, reproduction, and death condensed into infinitesimal time and space.” Flowers—pungent and fecund; the basis of the hippie’s token—decorate almost every page: grass lilies, forget-me-nots, dahlias, orchids, roses, gladiolas, rembrandts, bougainvillea, cherry blossoms, wisteria, ivy, periwinkle, poinsettia, morning glory, elephant ear, carnations, lavender, jasmine, and “run-of-the-mill” salvia.
Despite its plenty, nature is a source of immense alienation, a transcendent domain whose existence must be inferred from pale and rippled reflections. González’ writing is at its most innovative when showing (often through only juxtaposition) that human beings are the ultimate cause of their estrangement from the natural world. When Americans in particular desire “communion” or “reconnection” with nature, we are, almost as a rule, half serious. We may look to the forests, mountains and taigas of North America as an amniotic haven but would never seek a similar acquaintance with the death and decay a fuller commitment to nature would require.
The tension between these two images of nature—one wholesome, the other malignant—is the seed of this novel’s troubles, and both will often appear in the same scene or context. We learn of a senior who is gored through the jaw by a six-point buck while “squatting over his hundred-percent organic tomatoes” in his vegetable garden. González’ characters frequently spot wrinkles on the bodies of others and their own. Yet they also observe the all-natural “creams,” “oils” and “poultices” that people use to amend these hints of creeping death. An absurd dynamic develops, where “organic” and “natural” goods are sold and used as fixes to the very decrepitude that defines organic tissue, such as the “teas, concoctions, and salves” that Berenice noticed replacing the plant life of her mother’s flower shop.
The interplay of synthetic imagery reminds one of Jean Beaudrillard, who graces the novel’s epigraph. In González’ America, nature has become a simulacrum, an image that has lost contact with its referent. This is illustrated most clearly in the case of Vik, a taxidermist who favors the work of Hermann Ploucquet, a Victorian known for his anthropomorphic depictions of animals—dueling squirrels, boxing mice, etc. Characteristically grumpy, Vik bemoans that the “heyday of taxidermy was coming to an end. Now, all people wanted from a museum of natural history was entertainment, light shows, robots, and mechanical dinosaurs.” Yet Vik’s complaint concerns merely the transition from one simulation to another, not the preservation of a genuine vision of nature, which he can no longer imagine.
The arc of the hippies, and of Beryl in particular, presents the fullest version of this dilemma. Beryl remembers her crunchier days at the “Bridgend Commune,” a shabby mansion where Beryl and Smithfield participated in a “social experiment” after dropping out of college. They convened there with several other hippies to do what you would expect: experiment with drugs, fuck generously, meditate ostensibly, and other activities that allow one to reject the “biggest lie” of society. Beryl revisits these memories with embarrassment and confusion—almost as if there was a performative contradiction in confining a deer in a pen outside the mansion, as one hippie does, to revive humankind’s original matrimony with nature.
With most of their years behind them, Smithfield and Beryl are presented with the dropouts, a nature-worshipping cult who conceive of their rebellion in almost the same terms as the Bridgend commune did. Civilization, for the dropouts, is premised on a “Great Lie.” But the two elder hippies only tepidly sympathize with them, and occasionally cast aspersions.“Young people who don’t know how to be young,” Beryl remarks. “Some beacon of hope they are.” Their attitudes towards the deer—nature’s emissary—have curdled similarly. The animals they so naturally thought to domesticate at the commune now need to be euthanized for the security of the superior animal.
González’ older characters cannot imagine nature qua nature because they cannot accept the one inviolable term in our contract with it; that dread clause of death. Beryl, always at the hilt of realization, wonders, “That might be how we lost paradise. Don’t you think? Once we began to anticipate, scrutinize—and, most of all, try to solve—death. What I mean is, that’s how we lost the last thing connecting us to the beasts.”
But to what end do we attempt to solve death? For González, that which defies our relentless decline is also that which American culture exalts: the self. No one in this novel proves an exception to American individualism. Beryl is quite honest with herself in what her youthful rebellion was all about; in her words, “the pleasure of individuality, the power of the unmistakable self.” Her faith in selfhood was so intoxicating that she believed it would transcend her basic physiologic reality: “Back then… I refused to believe in hormones—I thought that above and beyond genes and anatomy there was a self, a redeeming center that would prevail, that would never be left to the mercy of instinct.”
Because he relies on a cane, physical therapy and painkillers, Vik would be the best candidate to understand humans as necessarily interdependent creatures. Yet he lives alone, disparages the hoi polloi and is enraged by the “idea that someone might see him as a victim.” When considering the dropouts, he reflects on the kind of people he had “learned to distrust a long time ago, regardless of the names or classifications attached to them. People with a cause.” And even young Berenice, now parenting herself in her mother’s absence, concludes that “sentimentality and shared history are deadweight you need to take into account.”
Only Smithfield searches for meaning beyond the narrow dimensions of himself, though he fails to find any. He left the commune to “finish college, and travel in search of evidence” of a “previously unknown tribe from the Caribbean that had reached our shores and mixed with the only ancestors we’d thought we had.” The “Primevals,” as Smithfield named these people, are revealed to be farcical, an ignorant ploy of Smithfield’s that makes him a joke among actual anthropologists. Smithfield, though, never gives up belief in the existence of the tribe, and we learn that they were invented to justify his strange belief that “maybe we also came, in an indirect but real way, from the animals and the woods, and not just from steamships, credit cards, and oil refineries.”
Smithfield desires to bind himself and all Americans in an encompassing nativism so that he might die knowing that some larger social organism both survives and preserves him; a desire that turns to desperation as Smithfield begins losing himself to Alzheimer’s disease. In many ways, neural degeneration is the cruelest possible death for the narcissist, as nature keeps them alive to experience the slow disintegration of the very thing they spent their life cultivating, replacing it with nothing more than a milky absence behind the eyes. In the novel’s present, Smithfield is in his last days, a shell of a man, who, when lucid, subjects his followers to Jungian logorrhea about an “imbalance in the social body.” He cannot even return Beryl’s love. All that seems to remain in him is a need for social meaning at any cost.
An imagined past. Humiliation and fear. A concern with defects in the social body. Smithfield worries Beryl. And you do wonder if González means to imply that the void left by American individualism would welcome the inklings of fascism; which is what Smithfield’s yearnings so often resemble. Like many elements of American Delirium, it strains credulity, but it remains an intriguing suggestion that American fascism would probably necessitate a widespread disenchantment with the American project of self-making. Before that moment, self-regard stands in the way of fascism’s bloody devotions. Beryl, ever the bootstrapper, provides the reasoning:
And anyway, what’s all this about a “social body”? Nothing gives us the right to think we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, much less a body. It’s a deceptive analogy. I learned something a long time ago: if you manage to save yourself, you do it alone.
The exploration of character in American Delirium finally reads like a syllogism concluding that Americans are selfish and terrified of death. How cliched, how obvious, one is tempted to think. But the complaint would overlook the strange capacity of America, as an object of inquiry, as a novelistic habitat, to banalize the most unequivocal criticisms of its culture (no doubt, Baudrillard could have conjured some highflown explanation.) González is probably right to believe that American life is little more than a series of diversions from the primal terror of death, and that many of this country’s cultural rebellions ultimately reduce to expressions of this terror, and yet her novel never once arouses this terror, nor shows any other direction the self could go other than away from it. American individualism crystallized when the frontiersman went West to discover his illusory dominion over nature, engendering an alienation that would intensify over the following centuries. Only another vision of life, something profoundly unAmerican, can return him to the nature of which he was always already apart.