The Nocilla Trilogy: Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, Nocilla Lab  by  Agustín Fernández Mallo  tr.  Thomas Bunstead  (Fitzcarraldo, 2017–2019; FSG, Feb. 2019)   Reviewed by Nick Oxford

The Nocilla Trilogy:
Nocilla Dream,
Nocilla Experience,
Nocilla Lab

by Agustín Fernández Mallo
tr. Thomas Bunstead
(Fitzcarraldo, 2017–2019; FSG, Feb. 2019)

Reviewed by Nick Oxford

Could we call Nocilla Trilogy a revolution? As radical as the term seems, it’s hard to deny that Agustín Fernández Mallo’s text represents a radical shift within a body of contemporary Spanish-language fiction that has yet to fully surface in the English-speaking world. And even so, this shift almost feels inevitable in the nearly totalizing wake of the Latin American Boom’s grandiosity and penchant for miraculous tales underpinned with political barbs. Rebellions against this burdensome influence have been underway for decades: in the 1990s, two major literary movements crystallized and sought to break with the Boom’s aesthetic. On the one hand, the Crack’s writers criticized the Boom novels’ failure to engage the reader in plot while arguing against national origin as a prescription for their art’s subject. The McOndo movement, in contrast, emphasized more realistic narratives with nods to current events, brand names, and everyday living. Rather than try to invent a third way, Mallo blends both these aesthetics by referring to low culture gewgaws and, just a few pages later, quoting such extraneous influences as Thomas Bernhard. The trilogy, which improbably takes as its name Franco-era Spain’s equivalent to Nutella, experiments with an aesthetic method while drawing on punk music and television as genuine artistic forms worth grappling with. And, rather than retreating to the cozy traditionalism of the nineteenth-century novel, Mallo’s trilogy seeks to address contemporary issues in science and technology: the real-world philosophies of the early twenty-first century.

The first two volumes, Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience, are both composed of short fragments that range from short scenes between occasionally recurring characters to extended quotations from novels, movies, and interviews with musicians. The final volume, Nocilla Lab, presents itself as a more formally straightforward narrative before spiraling, in its second half, into typographical experimentation, more explicit fourth-wall breaks, and even, in its final chapter, a comic. The novel includes accounts of Mallo writing Nocilla Dream and Nocilla Experience—and describes their methodology. Mallo wrote Nocilla Dream while in a Taiwanese hospital for twenty-five days: “I ran out of paper and started writing on the little notepads you get next to phones in hotels, and in the margins of my books, and on napkins, and on our return plane tickets.” This rushed delirium, paired with several explanations of an anti-metaphysical materialism and the trilogy’s fractured, rhizomatic style, are all explored in Nocilla Lab and matches the variegated details and fragmented stories of all three novels. This whole edifice amuses in reading and dazzles those enmeshed in finding the many ideas one could arrive at in exploring this abundant trilogy. Agustín Fernández Mallo has miraculously built an organic map of our world that illustrates the scattered but latticed state of the contemporary mind that every scholar of the weird should begin mapping.

True to its name, Nocilla Dream is a labyrinth of elliptical texts and interconnected stories. And, like a dream, the one or two pages of each chapter are filled to the brim with a heterogeneous welter of ideas and images. Such an unrelentingly fragmented style could easily reduce the book to a set of questions about order or narrative, but Nocilla Dream comprises many characteristics that almost force a reader to construct a multifaceted interpretation. Mallo’s insistently contemporary praxis mocks casual readers with his fetishization of low culture’s waste and his rejection of easily interpreted images or ideas that reverberate through the whole trilogy. It’s true that all three books deal with the slipperiness of human understanding and draw attention to the human consciousness’s desire to order events, perceptions, or anything, into a narrative. At one point, one of the protagonists mentions that the army taught him to “redefine the absurd to suit [his] own ends.” The images that repeat throughout Nocilla Dream, such as the horizon or a tree with items hanging from it, are presented as red herrings to mock unprepared readers. Both of these particular images serve as palimpsests, images that themselves illustrate the malleability of images. Early in Nocilla Dream, a brief note on the Pekingese “road movies” that another character, Heine, is making describes horizons as integral to road movies, signifying “something in and of [themselves].” Mallo then posits that horizons signify different ideas in different cultures: in European cinema they denote loss or sadness, while in American cinema they convey hope. Such malleability, here, serves as a part of Mallo’s hypothesis for the Nocilla Trilogy.

The Nocilla Trilogy seems to be Mallo’s attempt at creating a new novel or art that can somehow work within the constraints of what he sees as an outdated medium. Even though the inherent loneliness and difficulty of Mallo’s creative endeavor—as well as that of any practicing artist—shines through clearly, the success of his trilogy in reconfiguring and recreating the world around him manages to inspire hope. Such a change or revitalization, however, is fundamentally a displacement: a reconfiguration of the existing landscape that is analogous, in Mallo’s thinking, to the nearly quixotic endeavors of Land Art. If the planet and everything natural or man-made is just a jumble of husks that can be reinterpreted at will, then, perhaps the most radical aesthetic is to take these physical husks and arrange them into a new belief, a new understanding. Or a new story.

Nocilla Dream is concerned with relations between, well, everyone and everything. Mallo often embraces the Transhumanist idea that inanimate objects “are in constant collaboration.” But the novel draws on Jean Baudrillard to explain an inauthentic dislocation or falsehood created by Capitalistic forces. This is where the first novel gets its name:

The new capitalism, twenty-first century capitalism, doesn’t only offer products that enable the experience of status or of dream states—we’ve gone beyond that now—it creates an authentic parallel reality that, through mass media, sets itself up as the only reality.

This mono-reality is at a remove from other, more complex realities; it is, in essence, a hollow and plastic attempt to relate to others. And despite its emptiness, Mallo makes clear, this reality still influences people’s thoughts. On the next page, a note informs the reader that the poem in both English and Spanish on the same page can only be correctly understood “in the equation of the two combined.” Mallo’s background in physics suggests that this is an idea inspired by Dark Matter. He also returns again and again to familiar binaries of light versus dark, physical versus spiritual, and living versus dead in order to shatter the divide. How can such contradictions be reconciled? Mallo offers one way by declaring that humanity and reality encompass both sides of the dichotomy.

While Nocilla Experience revisits the questions presented in the first novel, it also goes further in pitting ideas or binaries directly against one another. The novel goes deeper in explaining some of the Nocilla Trilogy’s foregrounding aesthetic tenets. Where Nocilla Dream introduces many of Mallo’s enduring concerns, Nocilla Experience gives them emotional weight: the malleability and frailty of networks of understanding, communication, and how that wounds personal relations between human beings. This view or algorithm of understanding weaves through everything physical, abstract, human, non-human, and so on. Opposite this drive to establish a narrative is an immense chaos, an acceptance of the universe’s unpredictability and constant flux. For much of the novel, these forces of chaotic reality and tidy narrative collide and leave the reader grasping for clear understanding. However by the book’s end, Mallo offers some small hope that the infinity of time and abstract possibility can perhaps repair our inelegant existence. The second volume’s epilogue illustrates this with aphorisms from a potentially real book, The Way of the Samurai, that inadvertently confirm the universe’s absurdity through seemingly paradoxical koans like “Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” Other citations seem to be arguing for a unified view of the world: “It is bad when one thing becomes two” and “There is surely nothing better that the single purpose of the moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment.” Wisdom literature such as what Mallo quotes here is generally held in disrepute, but the magic of Nocilla Experience is in how Mallo underscores its similarity to more generally reputable writing, such as a description of Einstein “eras[ing] gravity at a stroke” with his theory of relativity. As Mallo pits these ideas in opposition with his doubts about totalizing systems of thought, he underscores the problematic assumptions underlying so many commonly held beliefs, leaving us to wrestle with what an appropriate way forward should be.

Amid the many fragments of the Nocilla Trilogy, image of nomads recur, and in so doing provide a description of those trying to understand the world while remaining rootless. The question, at moments, seems to be which reality is actually rootless: “They live, indeed as nomads do, in a between state, though their particular frontier is the one that divides liquid, solids, and gas, and they, clinging to the rocks, are not the ones that move, rather it is the true frontier of the world-made-water that becomes nomadic.” This is true even of firmly rooted characters like Sandra, who, despite living in well-trod London, “hat[es] the feeling of being disoriented” and feels an urgent need to bring a compass with her whenever she takes the Tube.

The trilogy is rounded out by Nocilla Lab, a volume that becomes metafictional as it embroils the reader in the ideas and influences Agustín Mallo explored during the scorching writing process of Nocilla Trilogy, which he started and finished in a single year. The final volume continues several ideas and images explored in the previous novels but then abandons the assorted vignettes for a story centered around Agustín Mallo and one of his girlfriends. After a vacation in Las Vegas, the couple is transfixed by The Music of Chance, a strangely absurdist novel by Paul Auster that Mallo stumbles across and that envelops him and his partner in a kind of trance. Mallo writes that they’re “possessed” by the book, and it sets them on a journey that illustrates Mallo’s creative process, especially the texture of his psychic strain and relation to his art. The couples’ quest is referred to as the “Project,” but it is never directly or fully explained. Instead, as with the previous novels, much of the novel indirectly nods toward the impetus driving Mallo to work. Nocilla Lab seemingly reiterates the true story of how Mallo’s hip was broken while vacationing in Bangkok and the twenty-five days he spent in hospital where he wrote what would become Nocilla Dream. Then, he would spend another five months bedridden at his home in Spain where he wrote Nocilla Experience.

The order of the novels leads to a myriad of interpretations. Perhaps this simply subverts how living things consider the order of life, within the Nocilla Trilogy, birth replaces death as the end point. Or is this an attempt to utilize a less fragmented, more standardized narrative form to illustrate how ideas previously explored like hyper-reality, epistemic craters, and interpersonal lacunas could find their way into a more traditional novelistic form? A great deal of the Nocilla Trilogy’s charm comes from this construction, an anti-hierarchical system that attempts to open itself to as many interpretations as possible. However some possibilities always close when one makes a choice, infinite options cannot be maintained once pen and paper meet.

Interestingly, Mallo describes his writing locations, the hospital in Thailand and his apartment as “inhospitable” and reveals that his resolve to continue living stemmed from the will to continue the life of his notes. Without him to edit, rework, and submit them to a publisher, they would just end up in the trash. Mallo’s mind chose to build and order these fragments and thoughts into the bound works the reader holds. Self-reflexivity seems to be the ultimate destination of Mallo’s creative process, from his inquiry into the borders of where a text begins and ends, to his serious consideration of the difference between notes in the trash and a printed book. This sense of documenting life and art being inextricably tied to one’s thoughts, experiences, and their limited state is summed up in Mallo’s repeated use of the word “ruin” to describe creating an artwork or monument to a specific, limited time that will not occur again. The threat of mortality drives Mallo to create something that will outlast him.

It is this same urgency that impels his characters to bounce desperately between two points in the wasteland of the desert. The couples’ first major stop is the “Lone Star” campsite where they stay for a month. Several details from the campsite highlighted by Mallo hint toward the inevitable mixing or filtering that human consciousness makes of reality—in other words, how the artist and the art are two sides of the same coin. One night Mallo overhears the father of a family telling his wife and son about a writer who “spent the previous two years gradually ingesting his computer” in the belief that this might allow him to gain new insights and language, “the miracle of a perfect recombination of words.” (One can only imagine what parallels Thomas Bunstead, who has spent more than three years gracefully translating this trilogy into a thoughtfully attuned, crisp English, found in that proposition.) Such a premise is an illustration of Mallo’s insistence that poetry and fiction embrace changes in technology and science as a way to challenge new problems. It also illustrates the Deleuzian, rhizomatic aesthetic Mallo attempts to utilize over all three books: a constant recombination with no clear center or hierarchy that makes this whole project a palimpsest that can be interpreted and reinterpreted endlessly. The very next scene has Mallo saying that he was “reading and writing by the prospect of not reading and not writing: the idea of having an intention and then changing course.” Duality appears throughout the trilogy, but in these segments it encapsulates a paradoxical tactic designed to address the historical moment Mallo finds himself in—a space that is beyond postmodernity. Such insistence on the malleability of every event, every image, every conversation, every piece of art, and even each individual word, such insistence on how each of these elements can commingle and stick to every other aspect of the work feels radically contemporary and perfect, just like the unexpected, sticky, yet delectable admixture of hazelnut and chocolate that gives the Nocilla Trilogy its name.

After traveling through a few small towns, Mallo and his partner stumble across an old prison currently being run as a hotel. What begins as a comforting and solitary stop quickly becomes a place they themselves are locked inside. The owner initially appears charming and cordial, but is later absorbed in an obsessive work routine by the mysterious project that he claims to have discovered on the beach. Mallo and his partner become alarmed when they suspect the owner of having investigated their room and are further alarmed when they discover the owner’s name is also Agustín Fernández Mallo. After a tense few days, Mallo’s girlfriend decides to leave the hotel with the couple’s car, and Mallo is left to study and obsess over the writing project he began working on alone earlier in the novel. However Mallo becomes entranced by the project from afar and after trying to steal it back, uses some of his typewriter’s keys to lock the door in case his double comes looking for him. This ends our protagonist’s written project and he begins working with photographs, which are reprinted in the novel. This stressful chapter ends with our protagonist murdering the hotel’s owner and having “committed, for the first time ever … something not meant as publicity.” What are we to make of this destruction of the author’s double? This could be read as a Thelma-and-Louise-style final escape from the dreaded monoculture of mainstream society—but where the iconic film ends with a freeze frame of a car in midair, sending the protagonists to their death, the novel keeps going. The next chapter contains our protagonist’s writings while he was in the cell with his typewriter, while the last depicts a comic book in a kind of dream sequence where Mallo meets Enrique Vila-Matas and is told what appears to be a parable about existence.

If we are to read these final scenes as a kind of positive force against the recursive onslaught of media and exploitation the life of every artist faces, then perhaps we’re to accept our own reading of these pages as the next chapter. Perhaps, in the same way that the artist and his art have blurred together, we as viewers have similarly become part of the artwork, forging onward to better understand the networks and strangeness of human existence in the twenty-first century. Mallo’s aesthetic of fragmentation, brand names, and meta-textualization of his life push him into an aesthetic at once embracing the demands and fragmentation of certain past writers, while also pointing to the information overload and difficulty of writing a novel in the present. The Nocilla Trilogy not only tells the creation story of a new novel, but of a new reader.


Nick Oxford is a former English major trying to write something important.