The Nocilla Trilogy: The End of Literature?

Someone sometime said their paintings represent the end of painting; I think it was Ad Reinhardt. Years before, Piet Mondrian sought to be the world’s last artist. He pursued his objective by creating works of “universal beauty,” a beauty consisting of objectivity, primary abstraction and dynamic equilibrium. But after Mondrian came Reinhardt, and after Reinhardt, Carmelo Arden Quin, Mark Bradford, Yayoi Kusama, and Gerhard Richter. Obviously, Reinhardt was wrong; Mondrian missed the mark. 

Of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the esteemed author Milan Kundera wrote, “I sense that this novel, which is an apotheosis of the art of the novel, is at the same time a farewell to the age of the novel” (Kundera 40). Yet, ten years later, we have Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Americanah by Chimimanda Ngoize Adichie, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, and The Nocilla Trilogy by Agustín Fernández Mallo. Kundera’s declaration: clearly off kilter. 

In the first book of The Nocilla Trilogy, Mallo tells a novelistic story of a journalistic story of a personal story of the sculptor Tony Smith: by virtue of one dark, quiescent night, Smith drove the smooth-black, unmarked asphalt of a suburban New York road under construction. “This drive was a revealing experience,” Smith later recalled. “The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art has never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had about art” (Dream 101). He later called this experience “the end of art,” but he too was wrong about that.

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Fun fact: when Agustín Fernández Mallo, a physicist, penned Dream, Experience, and Lab – the books comprising The Nocilla Trilogy – he joined the ranks of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Lewis Carroll, and Vladimir Nabokov—all novelists nee scientists. Nocilla lucidly reflects this background, deftly interweaving the sciences and the arts and illustrating Mallo’s aesthetic principle that “poetry is every object, idea, or thing in which I find the things I would wish to find in poetry” (Lab 46).

Formally speaking, Nocilla is a lysergically chimerical compendium of original, adopted, and adapted texts. Dream and Experience have minimal plot; they consist of brief fictional chapters alternating with appropriated clips from journal entries, critical reviews, film-editing textbooks, essays, scientific texts, and interviews with musicians. Lab commences with a 62-page interior monologue, blows through 44 chapters, morphs into a series of diary entries, and concludes as a graphic novel. 

(Rehashing what little plot there is) Dream transpires mostly in Utah and Nevada, where Samantha and Sherry, prostitutes in Carson City and Ely, fall in love with a photograph collector; Falconetti fails to hike U.S. Route 50; Hannah, a Utah native, writes a book of poems and dwells in a micronation beneath the desert; the truck driver Humberto finds a dead Mexican atop the shipment of beans he is delivering to Salt Lake City; Jorge Rodolfo Fernández builds a monument to Jorge Luis Borges in Las Vegas; Hans, a beef-butcher-meat-packer, decides to perpetrate serial murder in Carson City; and so on. It all centers around a lonely, shoe-covered tree in the Nevada desert. 

Experience is, for the most part, set in Russia, Nevada, London, New York and Madrid, as Josecho, Marc, and Julio develop theories of solitude science and art, Ernesto fishes with a harbor crane, Sandra studies the Tyrannosaurus rex, Jodorkovski paints bubblegum on the sidewalk, Jack mourns his deceased wife, and Chicho hunts his daughter’s kidnapper. 

Lab is a fictionalized autobiography of Mallo and occurs entirely in Sardinia. 

A trilogy could hardly incorporate more disparate constituents. It is almost indescribable. Odd or not, the best descriptions of Nocilla come from Nocilla itself. In Experience, Marc lives on the roof of an eight-story madrileño building. He inhabits a collagist shed constructed of found iron sheets, oil drums, cardboard and asbestos “all put together in such a way that the 4 walls have become mosaics of chopped-up words and icons—La Giralda olive oil, Repsol lubricants, Drink Pepsi, sanitary ware by Roca.” So is The Nocilla Trilogy: a miscellanea of scientific, philosophical, fictional, aesthetical, instructional, and conversational texts seething around Mallo’s outré and diverse unconnected storylines. Meanwhile, Josecho – also in Madrid – develops a theory of transpoetic fiction. Transpoetic fiction is a genre of “hybrid artifacts somewhere between science and what is traditionally known as ‘literature.’” This perfectly captures the essential form – or rather formlessness – of Nocilla. In one word, the trilogy is cacophonous.

And yet, although it is cacophony it is not kaka-φωνή. Recurring themes, motifs, and occasional plot continuations bind the books into a single albeit nebulous entity. Themes include confusion, aimlessness, fear, disillusion, humor, love, misunderstanding, and – above all – chaos; motifs include frontiers, the aforementioned shoe-covered tree, borders, magnetic poles, experimental art and its creation, travel, trash, panties, skin and – above all – horizons. 

But alongside the trilogy’s novel, experimental glitter and tenuous cohesion, we need examine its Deconstructionist implications. Hugo Dyson said of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” “It means anything or nothing, probably the latter” (Johnson 223). The same goes for Nocilla, considering its minimal narrative, diverse allusions, and babbling snippets of text. How, then, do we receive and ‘interpret’ the trilogy despite or amidst its textual turmoil and apparent incomprehensibility? Does it mean anything or nothing? Everything? Whatever? 

The book seems to offer us a key:

I thought about the messages carved into the very wall of that Azores bar and how, now, they were at the bottom of the sea, but more troubling was the thought of the paper messages… I imagined first the ink that made up the words and next the paper itself dissolving, how it was happening in that very moment, and how the words written there would make sense on reaching their final destination, the sea, and this came like a revelation… the corkboard and all the words it bore taking on a different meaning entirely, a previously unseen meaning. (Lab 7)

It would appear, then, that we must take the text and do what we can with it—that Nocilla has no fixed meaning, rather shapes itself to the reader’s needs and desires. This smacks of Deconstructionism, the theory that “writing arrives before the voice. By virtue of the text, there are traces of that person’s words in that person’s absence…. The present moment of writing, always changing, comes to pass, and in that inscription the present consigns, countersigns itself to its own displacement” (Wolfreys 2). Because of this, “[the meaning of] rhetoric slips and is ‘undecidable,’ has no fixed meaning; so when we read, we inevitably misread” (Bradbury).

According to Deconstructionism, because the “network of traces informing the time of writing” (Wolfreys 2) differs from the network of traces informing the time of reading – and because the act of writing occurs at a different time than the anterior thought of what is to be written – text and reading are inherently subject to difference, misunderstanding, and consequent ‘deconstruction’ when read. Furthermore, due to the discrepancy between word, i.e. signifier, and object, i.e. signified, we can never certainly or accurately comprehend the import of a sentence, paragraph, book, etc. This establishes an inconsistency “between what [the text] manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean” (Norris, 1987, p. 19). On the same note, Mallo is “especially drawn to… the resounding claim… that all words are metaphors, standing in for things that in turn stand in for others, and those others for others still, and so on until one alights upon the arbitrary nature of a no less metaphorical nucleus that will forever remain a mystery to us” (Lab 41). Words, and therefore text, are impenetrable and incomprehensible. 

The literary theory quasi philosophy of Deconstructionism is the apogee, the culmination of both Postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard) and irony, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning” and/or an “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” The Nocilla Trilogy, through its Deconstructionist implications, esoteric abstruseness, and minimal narrative, is the ultimate, ironic critique of the shoddy, failing novel (Experience 145). But as David Foster Wallace so perceptively, almost clairvoyantly writes: “irony… serves an exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing…. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks” (Wallace 183). In other words, ironically critical minimization of narrative must end with narrativelessness. And I fear that Nocilla represents that terminus—the end of the novel. 

For art has tremendous inertia; when aimed at a particular ideal, only colossal forces or monumental events can redirect its course. Now, innovation is the artistic ideal of this age—our age. Artists practice innovation, in medium, identity, mode of expression, subject, object, etc. Critics laud radicalism and jeer consistency. I’m not sure why this is so. I think it’s mostly good because it spurs progress and eliminates dross. But there’s a problem. Here’s a fact: practicing something, if you practice hard and well, results in consistency—the very contrary of innovation. Innovation for innovation’s sake, then, is not innovation; it’s an elaborate joke in which the ‘most-radical-till-now’ invariably becomes the next target, the next ‘barrier’ to shatter. It’s a repetitive and imitative process that has brought blasé consistency to much of the art world. When everyone is consciously innovating, no one is innovating. 

As art’s ponderous inertia constrains artists to engage in the elaborate joke of calculated, predictable radicalism and repetitive, imitative innovation; as it prolongs Postmodernism’s black hole reign of Deconstructionism, irony, and faux-innovation; I fear-to-see yet foresee authors surround The Nocilla Trilogy like pubescent middle schoolers crowded around the redbrick school wall, craning their necks to view the chalk line four feet above: “he jumped way that high, he’s the bestest jumper in our class,” “yeah he can jump way higher ‘an any o’ us,” “be’ ya can’t even jump that high” “bet I can!” I fear that Nocilla will become the high-water mark of experimental radicalism and therefore the record to be smashed: the barrier to be broken.

This poses an imminent danger to the novel. As before mentioned, Nocilla, but for Lab, offers little narrative. Furthermore, this sparse narrative seems isolated, impotent, and essentially meaningless—almost worthless. In fact, it seems like the trilogy contains more nonfiction and memoir than developed, fictional plot. The novelist who wishes to be quantitatively more innovative than Mallo will have to exclude more fictional narrative from their work. Eventually, more equals all. Now think: without narrative, only topic, theme and motif unify a ‘novel’. Think: without narrative, only topic, theme and motif unite a trilogy. Think: this is an essay, a nonfiction book, a multivolume treatise. Ecce—Nocilla is the end of the novel? A trilocular museum of found objects the death of this classic literary form (Dream 12)? 

Answer: it doesn’t have to be.  

* * *

The Nocilla Trilogy obsesses with information and with skin. References to information riddle Dream: encrypting information (Dream 95), decoding information (29), unintelligible information (46), the amount of information inside a PC (63), the amount of information in the air (106), the amount of information required to describe the universe (53), the emptying of all information from the brain (152), and so on. Meanwhile, Experience obsesses with skin—the skin of dinosaurs and immigrants (Experience 19), of pigs (74, 147), antennae (8), and plastinated corpses (36); skin, the largest and most sacred organ (27); skin, the place where “the light reaches” (146); and stained sheets, a second skin (71). 

Gradually and by inference, due to the sheer volume of appropriated informative, nonfiction texts in Nocilla, the reader identifies the entire text of Nocilla as ‘information’. The text supports this reading. Chapter 29 of Experience quotes an article on Turing’s universal machine: “A ‘metamedium’: a medium that [without being one itself], according to the instructions it is fed, has the capacity to simulate other media of the past or indeed media as yet without any physical incarnation” (42, brackets original to quote). Mallo, by this ironic self-reference, insinuates that his novel is a machine bearing and simulating information. Yet more clear is this quote from Dream: “a gas station attendant in the Albacete desert kills time by scrunching up the pages of newspaper into boluses the size of beach balls and throwing them onto the flats on the far side of the road… Clots of paper, information roving erratically around…” (70). Como la luz: that which is written is information.  

Now, if Nocilla were simply superficial information composed of metaphors for metaphors for metaphors, it would be an indecipherable story—a Deconstructionist ink message dissolving into sludge beneath the sibilant waves: infinitely complex, never to be understood. However, understanding lies not in the reams of words or information. 

Lab ends explicitly as a comic book, the story proceeding picture by picture. Implied by this ending, and reached by a reasonable stretch of the intellect, is the comic book nature of the entire trilogy. The short chapters – many only one paragraph – correspond to comic panels; the blank spaces between chapters correspond to the blank spaces between panels. Moreover, “the fact that everything resembles some other thing is a universal law, it is the principle on which mimesis rests as has all artistic creation ever since humankind first began interpreting and making the world anew” (Lab 11). In other words, since all art imitates other art it is reasonable/legal/logical/whatever to read Nocilla like a comic. The consequences of this correlation profoundly elucidate the trilogy. Mallo writes, 

“when I was a teenager and found it impossible to read comics, I could make neither head nor tail of them, found it impossible to follow the thread… and then a friend of mind, an illustrator named Pere Joan, told me the important thing with comics was to know how to read the white spaces between the panels, These silences are what you have to learn to read, he said, they contain everything you need to understand” (28). 

In other words, the key to understanding The Nocilla Trilogy could be the blank spaces between chapters. When reading comics, it is “the white spaces between… the white spaces as the silences that give meaning to the story as a whole” (44). Suppose, to comprehend Nocilla, we must find meaning in the white spaces between chapters. Suppose we must become coauthors. 

Deducing from aesthetics is never sufficient, much less apodictic. But we re-reach our cocreative conclusion by closely studying Mallo’s diction and symbolism. To begin, the blank spaces between comics are borders. Mallo equates borders with frontiers (Dream 84), which he defines as “the overlapping of surfaces.” This re-indicates comics – and novels – because comic/chapter borders occur in the overlap of surfaces, between story panels/paragraphs. Mallo then equates frontiers with skin: he writes of Sandra’s research into the T. rex, “the difficult thing is to find the skin (piel) of that dinosaur, by now nothing but particles and dust, the dissolved frontier (frontera) between it and the world” (Experience 19). Finally, in Experience, an old man amuses himself with “the compositions he intuits in the fabric” of the stained sheets (sábanas) covering his window (98). Mallo terms these sheets a “second skin” (segunda piel). Similarly, it is with Nocilla’s skin, i.e. inter-chapter blank spaces, that we compose narrative and meaning around the framework of intra-chapter stains of information. For though the incomprehensibility of words does present difficulties, one can understand the isolated bytes of information. But story, meaning exist only by the reader’s coauthorship in the blank spaces. For inside the skin, “all is darkness”—information, indecipherable text (Dream 136); but the blank spaces, the skins “are the places the light reaches” (146). 

But if every reader of The Nocilla Trilogy is a coauthor, haven’t we conceded to Deconstructionism? Won’t every reading produce a new story, a new meaning? According to Mallo: NO! He propounds an almost Jungian theory that the minds of writers necessarily return to the hidden threads of literature (Experience 191). In other words, all literature, all art, stems from a quasi-collective unconscious—and moreover from a universal mimesis: “everything, looked at in sufficient detail, is identical to its counterpart on the far side of the world” (Lab 4). In fact, for Mallo, the basic law is that all things imitate or resemble each other (11). 

This has three important corollaries. First, as before mentioned, any artwork necessarily imitates all other art. Mallo facetiously raises the possibility of “singularities” such as Coca-Cola (and perhaps Nocilla?) but humorously bashes this proposition a moment later: “sex and dreams… they’re very much like Coca-Cola, they resemble nothing but themselves… That being so, it means that Coca-Cola does resemble something other than itself, it resembles sex and dreams” (Lab 15). 

Second, art resembles life. For example, just like a novel contains magnetic poles that “attract the plot, become potential focal points for our attention” (Lab 8), or acts like a magnetic pole itself (31, 58), so life contains magnetic poles that attract other objects and animate them (9). 

Third, since any artwork resembles and imitates all art and all life – since all things resemble each other – anyone can understand any artwork. Human life orbits the mimetic like Dream orbits the shoe-covered tree. Human life cannot escape the universal mimesis: if one can know Thing X, one knows All Things. Therefore, the reader, like the writer, can access the hidden threads of literature, the quasi-collective unconscious and thereby accurately comprehend a writer’s intention.  

Although all art resembles life, according to Mallo – who has a very specific conception of life’s nature – certain artworks or styles resemble life more accurately than others. “The world vibrated and flickered, and we were the silence, its silence, the silence between one flicker and the next, frame and frame and vibration and flicker” (Lab 27). Or, “our actions seem analogue, and probably that’s what they’ll turn out to be, but in practical terms they are digital, they proceed intermittently one comic-book panel at a time, in the in-between silences we sow” (30). In other words, life resembles a flickering film—or especially a comic book. The Nocilla Trilogy, with its comic book form, precisely captures and delineates this nature, this resemblance. Therefore, we the readers who are the silence, because we are a thing resembling all things living and partaking of the universal mimesis, can sow meaning in the blank spaces without deconstructing a work. We the silences can understand the silences of Nocilla because we are one with them. We can coauthor because we are one with the author. 

* * *

Artists, novelists: it seems this essay should be our manifesto. After all, this could be the art of the future. To overcome derisive, divisive, destructive irony; to defeat esoteric, erotic Deconstructionism (esoteric because nigh impossible to comprehend; erotic because edgy, revolutionary), we must incorporate the reader, invite them to coauthor our work. For “deconstructive reading attends to the deconstructive processes always occurring in the texts and already there waiting to be read” (Payne 121) and “the deconstructive process comes not from the reader/critic but from the text itself; it is already there…” (Rolfe). To vanquish the Deconstructionist, Postmodern black hole, the, we must erase the process of reading and the necessity of text. We can do that by replacing reading with the process of coauthoring in the white spaces. 

This is Mallo’s solution for relativism, Deconstructionism, and Postmodernism. By the invitation to coauthor he obviates these literary impasses. I suppose, then, we could consider The Nocilla Trilogy the end of Postmodernism. But I’m not convinced. It seems rather naïve to me, to suppose that peoples of different cultures, languages, religions, generations, etc., can all partake of a shared conscience or understanding—that “the skin pores of a Sudanese person are identical to those of an Inuit,” that “there really is nothing between a Buddha figure in Bangkok and a statuette of Christ in Despeñaperros, Jaén…” (Lab 4). It seems very Modernist to assume that all humankind shares an identical intellect, an identical rationality and rational. Moreover, Paul Johnson ascribes coauthorial invitations to the Modernist poetry of T. S. Eliot: 

“It invites participation. The greatest strength and appeal of the poem is that it asks to be interpreted not so much as the poet insists but as the reader wishes…. The poet gives the readers the mood…. The readers, having caught the mood, are then invited to exercise their imagination—they are told (in effect) to clarify, add, expand, prolong, correct, emphasize, and intensify. They are cocreators…. (Johnson 220) 

But then again—suppose a return to Modernist methods, means and modes could constitute the end Postmodernism. 

On the other hand, Johnson writes that the “ability of an author to entice the reader into collaborating with him in expanding, interpreting, and transforming what he has written is a rare gift…. Jane Austen notably possessed it.” So we’re returning to Romanticism. 

And then again: “The content of this poem is / invisible: it exists but can- / not be seen. Even the author / doesn’t know what it says” (Dream 40). And maybe that’s the point


Works Cited

Bradbury, Malcolm. “The Scholar Who Misread History.” NYTimes.com, 24 Feb. 1991, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/01/specials/bradbury-deman.html?mcubz=0. Accessed 3 Apr. 2018.

Johnson, Paul. Creators. HarperCollins.

Kundera, Milan. Encounter. Translated by Linda Asher, London, Faber and Faber, 2010.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Lyotard, Jean-Francois, the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Translation from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.” Faculty.Georgetown.Edu, faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Lyotard-PostModernCondition1-5.html.

Mallo, Agustín Fernández. Nocilla Dream. Translated by Thomas Bunstead, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

—. Nocilla Experience. Translated by Thomas Bunstead, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

—. Nocilla Lab. Translated by Thomas Bunstead, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Norris, Christopher. Derrida. Harvard UP, 1987.

Payne, Michael. Reading Theory an Introduction to Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva. Wiley-Blackwell, 1993.

Rolfe, Gary. “Deconstruction in a nutshell.” Nursing philosophy : an international journal for healthcare professionals 5 3 (2004): 274-6.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. XIII, no. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 151-94.Wolfreys, Julian. Derrida: A Guide for the Perplexed. London, Continuum.

W. Trace Miller

W. Trace Miller lives in Dallas, Texas: a dirty place with masses of mediocre art and superb traffic. Trace is a food, TV and literary critic and freelance journalist who writes poetry on the side.