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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Mona

by
Pola Oloixarac


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Mona



Title: Mona
Author: Pola Oloixarac
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 176 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Mona - US
Mona - US (Spanish)
Mona - UK
Mona - Canada
Mona - España
  • Spanish title: Mona
  • Translated by Adam Morris

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Our Assessment:

B- : fine bits, but doesn't come together

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/3/2021 Sadie Stein
El País . 25/11/2019 Carlos Pardo
World Lit. Today . Summer/2021 Taylor Hickney


  From the Reviews:
  • "There are moments so casually well observed -- hat-tip to her translator, Adam Morris -- that you're almost eager to prolong the conference beyond its antic and hallucinatory (in a bad way) conclusion. Clearly, this is a world the author knows all too well, whose vanities she despises. (...) Mona is able to face the trauma in her recent past and, in theory, casts the events of the novel into sinister high relief. But after 170 pages of relentless, knowing brittleness, this climax has the feeling of a deathbed conversion to some older model self. Mona's defensive irreverence has cheapened what could have been real tragedy into a jarring piety." - Sadie Stein, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Es innegable el talento de Oloixarac para colocarse más allá de lo políticamente correcto, la agilidad de su escritura, sus expresiones afortunadas y los fogonazos de sabiduría narrativa; pero en Mona estas cualidades sirven a una historia demasiado pequeña y tosca. La narración oscila entre dos elementos que no casan bien: la burla berhardiana del mundo literario y un ejercicio de autocompasión empático con la protagonista, casi alter ego de la autora" - Carlos Pardo, El País

  • "The predictable plot follows the schedule of the conference, but the novel takes advantage of that natural structure in a delightfully absurd ending. (...) Mona is a critique of the literary community and publishing industry, and, on a broader level, capitalism and self-centered leftism in an era of technology. (...) There is something to be gained by unraveling the narrative's craft decisions, especially the use of intertextuality and the resourcefulness of subverting a plot that built itself simply by existing. However, there are inconsistencies, perhaps even hypocrisies, tied up in the ethics of this novel." - Taylor Hickney, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mona of the title is Mona Tarrile-Byrne, a young Peruvian author who scored a major success with her debut. She currently lives in California, a doctoral student at Stanford (after doing her masters at Princeton), where she also teaches and is working on her second novel.
       Mona is structured as a literary festival-novel, an author-at-a-gathering-of-authors story. The occasion is the awarding of the (fictional) Basske-Wortz Prize, "the most important literary award in Europe and one of the most prestigious in the world", worth a tidy €200,000. Mona is one of the thirteen finalists, with all the authors expected to participate in: "four days of lectures and pleasant conversation at an exclusive resort in the Swedish countryside" before the winner is announced.
       The texts and e-mails are already piling up as she departs, including some short, insistent ones -- "You can't escape. We need to talk", for example -- but Mona comfortably settles down in the plane in airplane mode, her response only in her mind: "Was she escaping ? she wondered, smiling to herself as she cracked the seal on a miniature bottle of Stoli". Escape of sorts seems to be on her mind -- she imagines if she won the Basske-Wortz Prize: "she'd ditch Stanford for good and make straight for the jungle" -- but for now the form it takes seems mainly narcotic; she's taken to vaping ("White Recluse, a tetrahydrocannabinol of the highest voltage"), sucks on slivers of Valium, and enjoys her alcoholic beverages; indeed, for much of the novel she is various stages of haze and daze.
       Phone and laptop make for global connection, and even as she settles in in Sweden she is bombarded by efforts to get hold of her. She welcomes the Skype distraction of a Franco, but does everything she can to avoid an Antonio, who keeps trying to connect: "Mona didn't want to think about Antonio. She'd banished him and anything having to do with him to total ostracism, perpetual airplane mode". Soon, however, the in-person experiences in Sweden, with her fellow authors, come to dominate her time.
       Oloixarac has some good fun with the soft target of authors at such literary gatherings, presenting the usual variety of types and opinions. There are some amusing observations -- "In general, European writers were already used to the idea that nobody cared about what they wrote" -- and the different characters, from around the world, offer quite a variety of more or less plausible literary types and acts. With reminiscences of other such literary gatherings as well, Oloixarac captures the literary circuit atmosphere reasonably well.
       Mona is also quite drenched in sex, past and present. Mona is a physical person, and enjoys physical experience; she's frequently fingering herself, as well as engaging with others.
       There are also some darker clouds in the narrative. For one, there are the bruises she has, whose origins she seems unclear about and about which she wonders how long they will last. There are the dead animals she keeps finding here in Sweden. And there's also that news story from her native Peru that Mona is following, the apparent disappearance of a girl named Sandrita -- a case where initially it seems unclear whether or not the girl simply ran away from home or whether something terrible happened to her. Oloixarac uses this, and Mona's interest in the story, effectively; it's no surprise when eventually it becomes clear that there is much in the disappeared girl's story that mirrors Mona's own.
       The literary festival comes to a spectacular surreal close -- with what is possibly: "the embodiment of all the literature of the infinite past" rearing its head -- but it's not an entirely successful turn. Here Mona finally also confronts what has been weighing on her -- a not entirely surprising reveal, either, but certainly one that explains a lot. Oloixarac's treatment of the subject-matter -- specifically, how she has had Mona handle it, until it all comes bursting out, is reasonable enough, but it is oddly situated, with the four-day countdown to the prize-giving naturally making for some distracting competitive suspense.
       The literary prize and festival would seem to offer considerable potential in juxtaposition to Mona's real-life issues, beginning with issues such as the control the artist has in shaping his or her fictions, but Oloixarac doesn't really utilize it much. The literary festival and the literary-related talk do feature prominently, and Oloixarac gets in a variety of amusing observations, from Latin American authors' enthusiasm for imitating Thomas Bernhard to observations such as: "After all, Beckett, like Heidegger, was basically a self-help writer for the intellectual class" to writing in adopted languages. But this only goes so far -- and notably absent is any real discussion of Mona's own writing.
       There's only a vague sense of what her debut might have been like, and she's not faring well with her second novel (indeed, it looks like Gallimard will pass) -- and what discussion of it there is is all generalities, or publishing-practicalities, with no sense of its substance, much less plot. Mona's French translator complains about this work in progress, finding that: "the writing is dead". That's not so much the problem with Mona -- even if much of this novel's vitality rests on all the sex -- but the pieces here do make a somewhat uncomfortable fit.
       It all also feels a bit lazy -- as do many novels in which the protagonist is frequently in a mind-altered state thanks to drugs and alcohol and mental anguish, justified or not ..... Here perhaps the best example is in the use of a Latin phrase, as early on we hear of the: "marriage of politics and literature, the sancta sanctorum of the Latin American Boom" (something a critic appreciated in her first novel). That's fine -- but then there is a scene in which she recalls how a writer had: "got right down to eating her sushi -- that was how she referred to her sancta sanctorum", and elsewhere, too, this "interior world" of hers is referred to as her sancta sanctorum. The one use -- either one -- is understandable, but both ? No connection is established (as also is the case with other aspects of the book), and so the different uses of the phrase -- glaring in its italicized Latinity -- are just (pointlessly) puzzling.
       The subject matter -- Mona's trauma -- justifies Oloixarac's focus on the physical and sensual, but there isn't enough of a connection of this with the writing-focused part of the novel. The literary talk -- and there is quite a bit of it -- focuses on different issues, while there's no clear picture of the (creative) writing itself, especially Mona's. It makes for an oddly and unsatisfyingly bifurcated novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 March 2021

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Links:

Mona: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Pola Oloixarac was born in 1977.

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© 2021 the complete review

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