Whenever I go for a run and cue up a playlist (lately a compendium of tracks I’ve called “What the Fuck Is Happening” that includes pandemic-appropriate songs like “You Make Me Sick” by Satan’s Rats and “So Sick” by Ne-Yo), I experience something that I like to call “dancing in my head.” I’m running, but I’m also paging through earmarked memories from the nine lives I’ve lived before.
I might be nearing the completion of another mile while I’m also reliving, as if experiencing it anew, that time someone stole all of my clothing out of the local laundromat in college, leaving me to graduate almost with no clothes on my back, despondent I’d lost a really important band’s t-shirt that was gifted to me by a ghost from my past. Is what I’m feeling right now the burn of the hill in front of me, or have I opened some mental folder labeled Regret? Maybe it’s a teaspoon of anxiety about some deadline I have to worry about at work next week. This bombardment of multiple layers of thought and emotion is exactly what it feels like to read Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas.
The novel is formally daunting when you first get going with it. I’ll admit it takes a second to realize you are in fact reading the rhizomatic architecture of thought itself. Once you get going, though, it’s a rollercoaster of a run for the main character Antonio, an immigrant from Colombia living in the U.S. who shares custody of his children with his ex-wife living in the Czech Republic. Antonio’s thoughts bounce between how he should approach his work as a writer and his concern for his sister, who appears to be suffering from delusional thoughts: she believes she’s being wiretapped and that Barack Obama is in cahoots with her family against her. He wants to distract himself from having to deal with the tragic state of his sister and the state of his previous marriage by reading, working on his writing, laboring by day at job at an investment company, and finally by seeing women he contacts though a sex/dating site “because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time.” He’s worried if his wife finds out, he’ll stop being able to see his daughters.
The light speed at which this book careens forward can make it difficult to see where the narrator is taking us, but it’s a worthy journey and universal themes emerge. Estranged from his parents, Antonio wonders how to be a man and a father, too. “To learn how to be a father from a movie might sound ridiculous,” Antonio writes, “but how else do men learn to be fathers different from their own monstrous fathers?” Parenthood and how Antonio writes and thinks about it comes up a lot, given that his relationships with women often fail: “The expectation of unconditional love should be reserved for the relationship between parents and children,” Antonio says.
It’s the “as it’s happening” narration style that makes Cárdenas’s new work so innovative and exciting to read. It takes one of the oldest adages about the novel and spins it anew: novels help us understand what it’s like to be inside someone’s head. In this case, Cárdenas takes us inside Antonio’s, quite literally, and while we’re holed up in there we’re asked as readers to parse through his thoughts to try to find the narrative itself. It’s hard to locate, but that investigation is worth the patience it requires. If anything, I’ve learned especially right now, that when our thoughts are muddied–perhaps we’re distracted, our worries accumulating by the day and exacerbated by a news cycle and push alerts–there’s something knotted up inside of us worth finding. When we’re stuck in despairing circumstances, when we want to avoid the pain and trauma of our past, how can we look inside the jumble of our thoughts to find meaning, sense, and structure in our lives?
I’ll say this: I’ll be thinking about Antonio a lot when I head out for my next run.
By Mauro Javier Cárdenas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 3, 2020
Amy Pedulla is a writer and radio producer.