Adventures in Cultural Consumption

The Black Minutes, Martin Solares: There's a dearth of critical vocabulary for things in the middle of cultural experience. Praising something to the skies is easy, and though there's a fine art to panning something bad, it's an art that the internet has helped to spread democratically. There's a variety of cultural defense for the thing one likes that others might not--'taste'--and another for the thing enjoyed even when it is known to be bad--the 'guilty pleasure.' In grading terms, three of these are As, and one is an F.

The Black Minutes is a Mexican crime novel whose weaknesses are all in its choice of genre. The narrative borrows from film noir and paranoid-style movies of the 1970s (The Parallax View, say, or Z more than Three Days of the Condor). These require the reveal at the end of the story to be suitably big and surprising, and confirm the worst assumptions of the protagonist we have been aligned with. But the narrative fails to bite: the killer is a minor character and the political stakes insufficiently developed to achieve even a Chinatown-level condemnation of business as usual, which appears to have been the aim of the novelist. So in these respects the novel has to be judged a failure.

But I am still inclined to think positively of the book as a whole despite its obvious shortcomings. The protagonist is well-drawn, and avoids being a stereotype; the plot is advanced with fluidity; the writing is assured and neither showy nor clunky. Reading more by the same author seems like a good way to see whether his good aspects or his problematic aspects develop. So in this respect, the novel has to be judged a qualified success.

One additional note: it seems apparent to me that we've reached a point of overcorrection in Latin American and Spanish literature. If the appeal of "El Boom" was high modernism and magical realism, making of Latin America a place of magic and enchantment, and if the appeal of the second wave of the same literature was to replace that picture with scrupulous accounting of political, legal, and social realities in light of decades of fascist and dictatorial rule, done in a postmodernist style, then we've hit a saturation point. That Latin American politics bears the scars of decades of postcolonial abuse, poor rule, and a descent into perpetual warfare is known. The clinical description of horrific violence can only retain its shock value for so long before the violence must become even more pronounced or the bodies themselves become statistics. There's an evident need to do something new.

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