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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Border Novel Depicts the Haunting Landscapes of the ‘Disappeared’

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By Mesha Maren

Mesha Maren’s novel “Perpetual West” follows her praiseworthy debut, “Sugar Run,” and is delivered in the same measured yet stunning prose. It starts with a repeated phrase, “they came by way of … ,” which creates a strong musical cadence, guiding the reader through the opening passage like a river current. And a river is a crucial part of “Perpetual West,” as the novel mostly takes place on the fraught border between Mexico and the United States, along the Rio Grande. This is the terrain of Cormac McCarthy, Pat Mora, Roberto Bolaño, Cristina Rivera Garza and the Mexican poet Jorge Humberto Chávez. Maren’s original descriptions of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso richly add to this literary heritage. In the beginning pages, we see the two cities imagined from above, “hip to hip, spine to belly — the one going dark and curling quietly in on itself while the other unfurled in lights and night movement.”

The novel takes place in 2005 and features two young newlyweds from West Virginia who have enrolled as students at a university in El Paso: Alex, a Mexican adopted as a baby by an American family, and his wife, Elana. Their lives are changed when they meet Mateo, a Mexican wrestler who goes by the name El Vengador del Norte (Avenger of the North); via Mateo’s story line we are introduced to the delirious world of lucha libre in Mexico City, where the sport has been infiltrated by the country’s dangerous criminal mafias.

Through the symbol of the wrestlers’ garish masks, we begin to see how the characters in “Perpetual West” show and conceal their identities: “A masked wrestler’s most important possession was his identity. No one outside of the business could know his real name. And so, as El Vengador del Norte was becoming famous, Mateo slipped through his days unnoticed.” Alex’s contact with Mateo compels Alex to confront unresolved aspects of his sexual identity, which leads to his disappearance. In this part of the world, the sudden disappearance of people — especially women — is an everyday reality.

Some of the best-realized parts of the novel describe the intellectual friendships and conversations that develop when Elana and Alex meet a group of Mexican artists who embody a familiar oxymoron: cynical idealists. This conceit is particularly evident in the friendship between Elana and Viviana, a Mexican mixed-media artist and photographer whose images of the border terrain are titled with the names of women whose corpses have been found in the Chihuahuan Desert: “After your eye had taken in the grandeur of the landscape, you noticed there, half-hidden beside the ocotillo bush, a glistening, bloody knot of heart muscle; and there, in the tawny shrub grass, a pale circular collarbone; and at the base of the cliff, a set of slick pink lungs.”

Viviana’s artwork — and her discussions of it with Elana — underscore the novel’s fascination with the landscapes of the disappeared, both metaphorical and real. After Alex goes missing, Viviana reads notes he’s left behind evoking the legacy of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who famously disappeared in Mexico in 1913, where he had gone to observe Pancho Villa’s army: “This idea that, for those Americans who are still caught up in some form of the frontier thesis and manifest destiny, Mexico is the final and perpetual frontier, a place of eternal contrast that America can always compare itself favorably to. Mexico as the ultimate crucible for the formation of individual identity, a great plow to break yourself against and find out who you really are.”

Ultimately, “Perpetual West” is a meditation on a place where the prospect of disappearance and death is a constant fear. The novel is a rebuke to those — especially from the United States — who would romanticize these dangers, or see in the border culture primarily a means of self-discovery. In this respect, “Perpetual West” is a forceful addition to the literature of the U.S.-Mexican border and its ongoing history of tragedy and joy.

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