Friday, February 26, 2010

Mexico City Noir edited by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

This almost never happens to me--I actually read a book that came out only a few weeks ago! Someone check my temperature and make sure I'm feeling okay!

This was a library impulse grab, one of my favorite things to do. It's a little hard to tell from the size of the cover to the left of this text, but when you see a skeleton in a wedding dress, it's hard not to just run up to the shelf, grab the book with both hands and shout MINE! shortly before getting banned from the library in question. I resisted the temptation to do so, but not by much.

Mexico City Noir is the latest in a series of short story books by Akashic Books, a small press that states on its website that they want "reverse-gentrification of the literary world." That's a philosophy I can get behind, and it's obvious in the sometimes course nature of the material in this book that they are not afraid to publish work that might not be considered "refined" enough for another publisher.

The stories themselves are set across the landscape of Mexico City, with a helpful map marked by dead bodies giving the location of each treacherous tale. Editor Taibo divides them up into three sections, "Above the Law" (exactly what you think), "Dead Men Walking" (not at all what you think), and "Suffocation City" (not quite what you think). He opens by talking about the worst possible aspects of Mexico City--corrupt police, rampant killings, and streets of crime--but then also mentions the best, such as being a city with more movie theaters than Paris. As with all major cities, Mexico City is a place of grand contradictions. And those that love the city, such as the folks contributing to this anthology, embrace their city, warts and all.

Those contradictions play out in this volume time and time again, right from the beginning of the collection. Eduardo Antonio Parra features a homeless man trying to make sense of his world as it collapses around him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Benardo Fernandez's protagonist is a pillar of the community--and a ruthless killer. Myriam Laurini features a cop who can laugh at a literary pun but also shoves his gun in a suspect's mouth to get a fake confession. In the best story of the final third of the book, Victor Luis Gonzalez's narrator won't off the man that killed Kennedy but refuses to let a man who harms animals go unpunished.

These are writers creating very human characters. You immediately feel sympathy for people who are going to lose no matter what, like the homeless man in Parra's story. There's rage as powerful men like the actor in F.G. Haghenbeck's story (or even the writer who moves crime to another block in editor Taibo's contribution) get whatever they want because of their position in the social hierarchy. These may be fictional creations, living on on the printed page, but the concepts are very real--and not limited to a crime ridden city south of the US border.

I'm a very character-driven reader, so the contributors' ability to make people I could either believe in or relate to made this small (it's only about 170 pages) anthology work really well for me. Taibo definitely worked hard to ensure there was a solid overall quality to the stories. There were no stories I disliked, which is rare for me in a work like this. In addition, the voices of the authors are quite varied. Taibo mentions in his introduction that the writers use various styles, and that's definitely true.

Over the course of this collection, we have a broken narrative, a private eye procedural, a dying man's last few moments of thought, a GOTCHA story (my definition of this being a short story that takes a hard left turn in the final moments), a series of taped interviews, and even a back-and-forth style, to name just a few. Some of these are pretty experimental, too, and require the reader to take time to follow the story. For a small anthology like this to take those kinds of literary chances really impresses me (and makes me want to read more in this Noir series). After all, not only are almost half of the contributions written in a style I'd say was non-traditional, they are in translation to boot!

This is as good a place as any to compliment translator Achy Obejas, who does an amazing job bringing this sometimes challenging narratives into English while still retaining the quality of the material. "BANG!" in particular (by Juan Hernandez Luna) works very well despite the change in languages.

As I mentioned, this is one of those rare times where I liked every story, so I won't do what I normally would in an anthology review, highlight my favorites. If I had to pick the story I liked best, it would probably be Haghenbeck's "The Unsmiling Comedian" because it features a private investigator whose client is only just a bit better than the criminal foe. I'm a sucker for those kind of stories, and he nails the theme perfectly. I wouldn't mind reading more stories with the protagonist from this story in the future.

There's only one minor complaint that I do have and that's the level of swearing and gay slurs. I am not a prude by any nature, and I understand that sometimes you have to be vulgar, particularly in dark stories like these, but there were a few times where I felt it was just piling on. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, be warned. However, there's so much good in this book that I was willing to overlook it. I really don't read a lot of new fiction--perhaps this is just a norm today that I don't know about?

Mexico City Noir is a winner on several levels for me. It's a quality anthology, it features crime stories, and it uses a variety of narrative styles, some of which are quite experimental in nature. I've found a new series of books to love and some new authors to explore. This is an early candidate for my "Favorites of 2010" list, and I definitely highly recommend it to those who like experimental fiction, short stories, or crime books. Those who like all three need to grab this book with both hands right away--and try not to shout MINE! while you're at it.

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