Mona book cover

Pola Oloixarac’s Mona is a Devastating Satire That Got Blurbed by a Creep

by | March 23, 2021

Pola Oloixarac’s Mona (translated from Spanish by Adam Morris) is a devastating and harrowing satire of the literary world, an alternately hilarious and piercing examination of the culture surrounding books. Mona Tarrile-Byrne is a young Peruvian novelist nominated for a prestigious literary award, the Basske-Wortz Prize. She spends a weekend in Sweden with the other nominees as readings, talks, and convivial commiseration lead up to the announcement of the winner. A multinational cadre of writers weave in and out of Mona’s Valium- and Ambien-tinted experience over the few days that Mona temporarily leaves behind her ordinary life. She’s a doctoral candidate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, having arrived there “at a time when being a ‘woman of color,’ in the vade mecum of American racism, began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital.” Someone named Antonio repeatedly sends her messages, all of which she ignores and just before flying to Sweden, Mona loses consciousness, awakening at a train station covered in bruises. She has no idea what happened and is shaken. The trip to Europe becomes an escape.

Among the cast of characters in attendance is Hava Pinkus, an Israeli poet, who despises the “cultural emphysema” of TED Talks, which she claims are all the same: “Everybody starts by telling some stupid story about when they were a kid. Then some defining events happen to them, and they dedicate the rest of their lives to responding to the needs and inadequacies of the child they once were, and the audience gets all emotional and filled with wonder.” There’s also Abdollah Farid, an Iranian novelist who, after emigrating to Denmark following the revolution of 1978, writes exclusively in Danish. There’s the mononymous Shingzwe, a Japanese poet whose supreme elegance makes Mona feel as if she “possessed all the subtlety of an elephant.” And there’s Ragnar Tertius, a reclusive Icelandic poet who no one seems to know anything about. They comprise an eclectic array.

The novel consists of Mona’s episodic run-ins with these and other figures. She’s at a transitional point in her career. Her debut novel, which led to this nomination, received wide acclaim, but she’s struggling with her follow-up. Mona is also at a pivotal moment in her life: she’s a success as a writer, but she isn’t sure where she belongs. Other writers “[make] her anxious” and the “phony solidarity of having a ‘Latin’ culture in common with other writers was always something that repulsed her.” She feels “much more comfortable in the company of other languages.”

Oloixarac packs her novel with satire. “European writers,” Mona thinks, “were already used to the idea that nobody cared about what they wrote. They were crystal-clear on the insignificance of their role in contemporary society, and it translated to humility in their conduct.” After realizing that a French writer’s lecture has been plagiarized from Beckett, Mona is grateful he doesn’t invoke Beckett’s oft-cited line “Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” which sends “a chill” through her, because “Beckett, like Heidegger, was basically a self-help writer for the intellectual class.” 

Oloixarac also shows that writing about sex needn’t be the ordeal so many writers make it out to be. Mona’s sexual encounters throughout the novel are rendered in mostly straightforward language with occasional flourishes. Some examples include, “His mouth was completely full of her now, his tongue shooting down the middle, digging all the way to the bone” and “She sucked on her index and middle fingers before slowly introducing them to her interior world.” Oloixarac is also willing to wax philosophical on the subject:

And that was why—Mona sighed, settling into some dopamine-fueled theoretical masturbation—pussies were philosophical organs par excellence. A pussy puts the body right where philosophers evaded it: it was there innately open, happy to be perforated, grinded on, penetrated, flipped around—all while the intellect associated with that pussy performed its own secret, personal, and intimate revolution.

It is no accident that Oloixarac opens the novel with “Come thirsty.”

But it goes deeper than that. The ending of Mona revolves around a sexual assault that is deeply painful to read, and this rape recontextualizes all that we know about Mona. Oloixarac keenly depicts the many levels of misogyny that dominate the literary world, rape culture shaping so many of Mona’s experiences in it. These incidents range from condescending comments to a writer pulling his dick out in front of her in a bathroom to the assault described in the finale. One cannot address the publishing industry without addressing this problem and Oloixarac does so with intense and pointed severity and sincerity.

The tone and content of Mona make it all the more baffling that FSG, the book’s publisher, features a blurb from Junot Díaz on its back cover. Numerous women, many of them writers, have accused Díaz of various types of gendered abuse. I’m uninterested in litigating the case here. Instead, I want to note that Díaz’s endorsement may repel some readers, some of them the very people to whom such a damning book might speak. Even the risk that his blurb would alienate these readers seems to me to be not worth it. Under patriarchy, Díaz continues to carry clout, and publishers seem to have chosen his appeal and name-recognition as a marketing device. This gesture is among the most ironic and bitter indictments of the industry Oloixarac so gracefully and brutally depicts. During one lecture, a writer claims that “nobody ever knows how to speak about the present moment.” Oloixarac does; the real question is, Will anybody listen?

Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.