In the middle of the Nevada desert stands a solitary poplar tree covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes. Farther along Route 50, a lonely prostitute falls in love with a collector of found photographs. In Las Vegas, an Argentine man builds a peculiar monument to Jorge Luis Borges. On the run from the authorities, Kenny takes up permanent residence in the legal non-place of Singapore International Airport, while the novelists Enrique Vila-Matas and Agustín Fernández Mallo encounter each other on an oil rig. These are just a few of the narrative strands that make up Fernández Mallo’s The Nocilla Trilogy—Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, and Nocilla Lab. A landmark in contemporary Spanish literature, these multiple narratives of people and places reflect America and the world in the digital age of the twenty-first century that fuses fiction with non-fiction. The entire trilogy has not been available in English until now.
Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket’s trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. But seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modeled more closely on the human brain.
B. Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot
Indeed, technically its name is U.S. Route 50. It’s in Nevada, and it’s the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260-mile stretch with a brothel at either end. In conceptual terms, only one thing on the entire route vaguely calls to mind the existence of humanity: a cottonwood tree, the only one that found water, with hundreds of pairs of trainers hanging from its branches. Falconetti, an ex-boxer from San Francisco, had decided to walk the length of it. He’d filled his green army rucksack with several gallons of water and a tablecloth to spread in ditches when it came time to eat. He went into a shop in Carson City, a supermarket with five foreshortened, ridiculous shelves. Stumps, he thought, if these five shelves were fingers. He bought bread, a large number of freeze-dried packages of jerky, and some butter cookies. He set off, passing through the city limits, leaving them behind; a silhouetted plateau rose up before him in the distance. The asphalt, fleshy, sank down in the 37ºC midday heat. After a time he came past the Honey Route, the last brothel before the desert commenced, and Samantha, a dyed brunette who was doing her toenails in the shade of the porch, acknowledged him in the same way she always acknowledged passing cars, trucks, and pedestrians, simply wishing them luck, though on this occasion she also said: If you see a guy on his own in a red Ford Scorpio, and he’s going to New York, you tell him to get back here! Falconetti pressed play on his Walkman and pretended he hadn’t heard. Instinctively he quickened his pace, his feet sinking farther into the 37ºC asphalt. He’d left San Francisco almost a month earlier, after the army kicked him out. There, while still in the army, he’d read the history of Christopher Columbus, and, captivated by the man’s audacity, had the idea of doing the same as him but in reverse: going from west to east. He’d never been outside of San Francisco before.
As soon as he saw it he felt sure that it wasn’t a good thing, though it didn’t necessarily seem bad, either. Strange. It was a shoe, a shoe thrown into the middle of the asphalt expanse. Neither 2 nor 4 nor 8, nor any other even number, but the odd number par excellence: 1. Billy the Kid, making the journey from Sacramento to Boulder City with his professional mountain-climber father, was used to traveling in the back bed of the truck among the 11- millimeter ropes, the Petzl harnesses, and the large assortment of carabiners. The father, just Billy, had improvised a harness for the child, cinching carabiners tight on either side of the belt so he wouldn’t go flying on the curves. Billy the Kid was beaming. They’d left early that morning to be in time for the Third Boulder City Rock Climbing Competition: his father was taking part. They had breakfast at the first gas station they came to— the classic, deep-fried peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and coffee—and Billy the Kid, swirling the dregs of his decaf coffee, pictured his mother a few hours earlier when, on the threshold of the house on the outskirts of town, and possessed of a beauty that to the child seemed definitive, she had drawn his head to her breast before giving him a kiss. Like every Sunday, Drive safe, she’d said to his father after also kissing him. Billy the Kid slept in the back and when he woke, in the distance, stock-still on the asphalt like a rabbit without a litter, paralyzed by the uncertainty that is a magnet to solitude, he saw it, a high-heeled shoe, brown perhaps from the desert earth, or perhaps actually brown. Neither 2 nor 4 nor 8, nor any other even number.
Love, he thought, like trees, needs tending to.
Love, he thought, like trees, needs tending to. He couldn’t understand, then, why the stronger and sturdier the poplar grew in its 70.5 acres, the worse things became in his marriage.
It’s logical that in a brothel there are all different kinds of women, and even more so here in the Nevada desert, whose monotony, the most barren in the whole of the American West, makes necessary certain exotic palliatives. Sherry’s having makeup applied in the ad hoc backstage out back, beside the now-dry well. She doesn’t trust the light-bulb-frame mirror they provided her with and, as when some client shows up unexpectedly, she glances in the rearview mirror of a rusted, broken-down Mustang. The sun and snow have been eating away at the vehicle since a man who was never seen again left it there. His name was Pat, Pat Garrett. He showed up one November evening, just as the temperature was about to drop, asked for a girl, the youngest they had, and Sherry stepped forward. Pat’s thing was collecting found photos, anything as long as it was found and featured a human figure; he went around with a suitcase full of them. When they were lying in bed together, as he gazed up at the wall he told her how he’d worked in a bank in L.A. before unexpectedly coming into an inheritance, at which point he’d quit. His penchant for the photos came from his time at the bank, from seeing so many people; he always found himself imagining what their faces would be like, and their bodies, in a context beyond the teller window—itself somewhat akin to the frame of a photograph. But after receiving the inheritance money, his other penchant, gambling, had seen him lose almost the entire sum. Now he was headed east, to New York, in search of more photos. Here in the West, he said, it’s all about landscapes, but there it’s all portrait. Sherry didn’t know what to say. He opened the suitcase and began passing her photos. Picking one from the deck, she was confronted with the unmistakable visage of her mother. She was smiling, with her arm around a man who, Sherry understood, was the father she had never met. Her head subsided onto Pat’s chest and she held him tight. He stayed on for several days after that, during which time she stopped charging him, cooked his food, and neither of them set foot outside the room. The night Pat left he couldn’t get the Mustang started, but he managed to thumb a truck headed for Kansas. The next day, having discarded the possibility that he had fallen down a well or gone to Ely for cigarettes, she sat and waited until nightfall with her sight fixed on U.S. Route 50’s last divisible point. When she couldn’t take it any longer she wept, sitting on the hood of the Mustang. She checks her lips in the rearview mirror and the makeup artist gives her the call, One minute till we’re on air! A Nevada TV news show is doing a special program on freeway prostitution. Into the microphone they ask: What are you proudest of, Sherry? Love is a hard job, she says, loving is the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life.
At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen-and-a-half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skeletowns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency—the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially on the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colors (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkeling flippers, ski boots, baby booties, and booties made of leather. The passing traveler may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about anymore, but beyond the body—and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve. Bob, the owner of a small supermarket in Carson City, stops 100 feet away. From the nearest to the farthest thing, he enumerates what he can see: first the very red mudflat, followed by the tree and the intricacies of its shadow, beyond that another mudflat, less red, dust-bleached, and finally the outline of the mountains, which appear flat, depthless, like the pictures they had in the Peking Duck Restaurant across from Western Union, which shut down, he thinks. But above all, as he looks at these overlapping strips of color, the image that comes most clearly to mind is the differently colored strata formed by the horizontally layered offerings on his supermarket shelves. There’s a batch of bacon fries halfway up that is always delivered with a little gift-like offering of round Danish butter cookie tins strapped on with sticky tape, the lids of which feature a picture of a fir tree with baubles on; he doesn’t know this. Both trees are beginning to stoop.
One of the biggest problems faced by hotels is the theft of small objects. It’s estimated that, annually, the large hotel chains lose over half a million towels, a loss they simply have to factor in, as they do with the disappearance of pens, ashtrays, shampoo, sewing kits, toothbrushes, and all manner of bathroom supplies. But dinnerware and cutlery also disappear, and door knockers, towel rails, mirrors, bedding sets, designer lamps, flower arrangements that make excellent last-minute presents, plants and their pots, rugs and telephones. In exchange, clients forget watches, parrots that speak various languages, urns containing the ashes of loved ones, earrings, necklaces, high-quality lingerie, orthopedic braces, contact lenses, inflatable dolls, books of all kinds, an array of adult toys, reports on the secret services of various nations, and even live crocodiles inside crocodile-skin suitcases. The Houses of America chain, after calling an amnesty on everyone who in the company’s 62-year history had left with some object in their suitcase, has decided to try recovering its property peaceably, and to that end has created the first Museum of Found Objects, with headquarters in Los Angeles and Chicago, though the catalogue can also be found online. There, a permanent exhibition is held of all the objects forgotten by their clients, so that those who might have some stolen object or other in their houses may choose what they want from the catalogue and in this way permute the one for the other. But, and the sun began to set in the lobby of the hotel. Until the penumbra [synthetic repetition of night only accessible by interior phenomena] united the emptiness of the vestibule with the bodies of the people coming in and going out. It took the bellboys by the hand. It procured death. The death of the novel.
Deeck is an internet user from Denmark. Not that this matters, internet users belong to no country.
Deeck is an internet user from Denmark. Not that this matters, internet users belong to no country. Born and brought up in Copenhagen, at the age of 18 he moved to an industrial town on a peninsula farther to the north, a place supplying manpower to the largest cookie factory in the country. He does the late shift, spending the rest of his nights online or designing websites for himself—with nothing in mind beyond his own amusement and satisfaction. To him it’s very serious. He lives alone. Now that the smoking ban has come in, he’s become an enthusiastic smoker. He set up one site as a place to exhibit the pictures he makes by sticking masticated pieces of chewing gum onto a canvas. His work divides along two aesthetic lines:
1. Nordic landscapes: snowcapped scenes featuring, at most, the archetype of a city, or a figure in the far distance. The best thing for this, according to him, was technological chewing gum, flat, almost abstract it’s so completely flat, sugar-free, such as mint-flavored Trident, which once masticated turns near-white, with a slight cream tinge for the dirty snow of the high plateaus, and mint-flavored Orbit, pale green after 3 minutes’ mastication, for the grass clumps that stipple the snow or the evergreens in the background. Or the special spearmint-chlorophyll-flavored Trident, which after 4 days’ mastication goes a shade of brownish green; the way it turns granular is also perfect for figures that require texture, such as human figures or the cities suggested in the far distance.
2. Explosive blondes: for these a thick kind of chewing gum does the trick, the kind you buy at a newspaper stand, the very sugary kind, for kids (herein the secret of young boys’ liking for blondes, he thought one day before bed). Thus, among the primary materials used most frequently were: the banana-flavored Bang Bang, hardly masticated, for the blond hair; the Sour Strawberry Chew, much masticated, for the skin on the chest; both together, barely placed in the mouth, taken out almost as soon as the saliva reaction has begun, for the most crimson of legs; and the Coca-Cola flavor for the lips, eyes, and nipples.
A Technical Data link on the site where he exhibits the pieces provides access to all of this information. But this and all the other sites he’d made he gradually began to abandon in favor of what has since then become the only thing he spends his free time on: found photographs. People from around the world send him pictures over the internet, anything as long as they feature human figures, and as long as they are found photographs, specifying their names and where they came across the photographs. He gets out of bed, it’s 2:00 p.m. He skips the shower so as not to be late for his shift, which starts at 3:00 p.m. He sits in the kitchen, the Formica of the chair is freezing; he’s already put the coffee on. He looks at his boots. He didn’t even like them when he bought them. He takes them off and throws them onto the fire that’s burning in the hearth. After a time all that remains are the bent bits of metal that keep the soles rigid. He pulls apart one of the cookies they make at the factory, and dunks a layer in the coffee; they’re so buttery a floating archipelago of mirrors appears on the surface. He closes the tin. The lid is marked with an enbaubled Christmas tree. He lights a cigarette.
The binary system of numbers, 0 and 1, is employed as a means of calculation in digital computers and as a means of controlling a considerable variety of machine tools . . . Its precursors were Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752– 1834), who designed a system of binary-coded punched cards for operating looms . . . The great value of the binary system is in operations that are binary by nature: on or off, open or closed, true or false, go or no-go and so on. A given electronic component of a computer is either on or off . . . That is why the binary system lends itself so effectively to the rapid calculating done by computers . . . Binary code means that the fabrics that commonly go to make up the clothes we wear, and electronic circuits, share certain similarities. In woven fabrics, the binary element is the warp/weft: the warp threads run lengthwise, the weft threads crosswise; the binary relation at a given point is whether a horizontal thread or a vertical thread is on top. The binary relation in the electronic circuit is whether a given area of an element is conducting or not.
F. G. Heath
Now she finishes making the beds, and as she clears the breakfast table she keeps on glancing at the clock in the kitchen. She’s put on matte-red lipstick to match the print on her dress. Her high heels, brown, recently purchased, pinch her feet. She sits down in the vestibule and waits. Paul shows up half an hour late in the company GMC. He drives two blocks farther along and waits for her, engine idling; the town development is in its third phase there. This is the best place to wait for you, the bricklayers aren’t working today, he says as they pull away. Like every Sunday, they go and eat at a city on the Nevada border called North River, where you can get the best trout in the West. With a mound of fried fish before them, eating with their fingers, they tell jokes, anecdotes from the week, and neither of them laments not being able to live together. Afterward they kiss and the grease on their lips is a reminder that for her will last the whole week and for him until he uses the napkin. They’ve driven a different way today and instead of following the meal with a trip to the small hotel on Washington Street, they decide to go a number of miles south to take a look at a spectacular canyon on the outskirts of the town of Ely and soon Paul exclaims, Look! The shoe poplar! They pull over. They try counting how many there are, but the sheer quantity, and the tangle, make counting impossible. Get me down those movie star shoes, she says, or even better, those ski boots, for when we go skiing. If you want, says Paul, I’ll get you these ones down, they’re nearer. No, she says, not more climbing boots, no thanks. He looks at her and asks, How’s little Billy doing? Really good, she says, he’s such a joy, even more as he gets older. He and his dad have gone to Boulder City for the rock-climbing competition. A familiar silence between them descends. Then he slaps her on the back, by the clasp of her bra, and with a Let’s get out of here! he takes her by the hand and leads her to the car, and they continue to the canyon. With the windows down and the radio on, says Paul, lighting a cigarette, the GMC’s like the spaceship out of Star Trek. Sure, she says, with a bad-tempered flick of the hand: she’s got blisters from her shoes, she’s undone the straps. Reclining the seat, she thrusts one leg out of the window. The wind hits her foot and carries away the shoe. They both laugh. Out in the middle of the asphalt, like a rabbit without a litter, the brown high heel is lost almost immediately in the desert dust; neither 2, nor 4, nor 6, but 1, the odd number par excellence. She stares at Paul for several minutes as he hums a version of a version of another version of a Sinatra song.
She stares at Paul for several minutes as he hums a version of a version of another version of a Sinatra song.
To the south of Las Vegas Boulevard, as you cross the several-mile stretch above the casino part of town, just when you look back and see the last casino glimmering on the horizon in the rearview mirror, like in Green Flash, you find yourself in front of a two-story building, a Budget Suites of America aparthotel. A poster announces discounts for anyone staying a week or longer, sheets not included, and there’s also the news of a teenage girl from Puerto Rico who had to have three toes amputated from her right foot after they froze the previous winter; it seems she was made to regret having used a very expensive varnish to paint her nails the previous day, one she’d bought in Puerto Rico with the idea of looking radiant at her job interviews. Had she been Japanese, this attenuation of the foot would have signified divine intervention, the kind only geishas have access to. Had she been a New Yorker it would be a sign of immense wealth, like that of the Fifth Avenue ladies who maim their own little toes so they can fit into an extremely pointy pair of Manolo Blahniks [placing the results of the mutilation in formaldehyde, or something similar, to show off to any visitor upon whom they want to impress particularly clearly their socioeconomic status]. There’s a scattering of station wagons and mobile homes in the parking lot. It’s turned into a small settlement by now. Every day poses new challenges to the promise that all these people, one way or another, made when they arrived here: that they would prosper in Las Vegas. The welter is equivalent to the wagon trains of those pioneers and dreamers who would draw together and form a circle at nightfall. In the last five years this place has become the real frontier: beyond this point you’re in the promised land. The whole place is so saturated with dreams that it’s turned magical. Rose looks after her three children in a 30m² bunker. Each day she goes around the church food halls and the cut-price casino buffets. The utensils they eat with, and the assortment of items that goes to make up the dinner set, were found in trash cans. One of the boys, Denny, was working in a photocopying shop for sex-trade flyers, but got the sack for masturbating too much on the job; the others haven’t got jobs. The oldest sister, Jackie, had done all right for a while, when she was living with an ex-boxer called Falconetti. He’d blown in from San Francisco, having just been discharged from the army, and was taking a chimerical route on foot, inverting Columbus’s expedition. He stayed with Jackie for a couple of months and before he left she gave him a tatty pair of Nikes as a memento of the day they met, when she’d been wearing them; they’d both been hitchhiking on opposite sides of the highway and began talking because no one was coming by. In this, the definition of a postmodern city, where, as is obligatory in everything that is post-, even time is unanchored from history, the percentage of adolescents involved in crime, drug addiction, and sex has risen to 30.75 percent in the past three years. At Las Vegas Boulevard the roads break off in a hundred different directions, flourishing outward arborescently into the desert, and, as they unfurl, those magical aparthotels sprout along them like a sort of fruit. They’re watching TV and Denny reaches a hand into his pocket and takes out a small newspaper package he found in a trash can. His mother and siblings look on as he opens it and lays three toes out in the pool of lamplight, a sparkling, opalescent purple hue to them, and nails painted red.
Augmented Reality: via the appropriate combination of the physical and virtual worlds, the missing information can be obtained, as happens in the re-creation of the view of an airport that a pilot would have if it weren’t for the snow.
A long time ago [so long it seems like centuries] there was a very important and famous author called Italo Calvino who invited us to imagine a very beautiful city formed solely of water pipes. A mess of snarled piping that [according to Calvino] rises vertically where the houses should be and spreads out horizontally where the floors should be. At the ends of the pipes white bathrooms can be glimpsed, showers and bathtubs where women luxuriate in the water. The reason [according to Calvino] is that these women are nymphs and these pipes were for them the optimum means of getting from place to place so as to live free and unobstructed in their natural aquatic realm. What he did not invite us to imagine was that within each of us another, even more complex city exists: the system of veins, vessels, and arteries around which blood circulates; a city with neither taps, nor apertures, nor drainage pipes, only an endless channel whose constant return consolidates the “I” we hope might save us from the fatal scattering of our identity across the universe. We all bear inside ourselves a desert, something immobile; a period of time that has mineralized, is at a standstill. Hence the “I” may consist of an immovable hypothesis, one assigned to us at birth and that, until the last, we’re seeking to demonstrate, unsuccessfully.
Agustín Fernández Mallo was born in La Coruña, Spain in 1967. Before devoting himself full-time to his fiction and poetry, he worked for many years as an experimental physicist. His collected poems were published in Spain in 2012. He is the author of the Nocilla Trilogy: Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Lab, Nocilla Experience, Limbo and Antibiotico.
Thomas Bunstead has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Yuri Herrera, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Juan Villoro, and his own writing has appeared in publications such as >kill author, The White Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.