Picture an urban dystopia, where disparate gangs of marauders own the streets, armored taxis are the only safe mode of transportation, and lock-down gated communities and 24/7 personal security guards are the norm for a struggling middle class. Bunkered inside their own homes, a citizenry that is both numb and on perpetual red alert watches The Suicide Channel and waits for something bad to happen. Meanwhile, a for-profit government stays afloat by kidnapping elderly people, liquidating them of all their worldly assets, and whisking them away to jail-like convalescent homes, never to see the light of day again.
This is Ana María Shua’s Argentina in Death as a Side Effect. Our man in Buenos Aires is Ernesto Kollady: jilted lover, son of a man who hates him. That man also happens to be dying of an intestinal tumor. In this slim, visceral novel, Shua takes the reader deep into Ernesto’s life as he grapples with the responsibility of his father’s fate. It’s a sociopolitical satire, it’s a thoroughly modern (and realistic) dystopia, but above all things – a distillation of what truly cuts through the novel – it’s a love story.
Forgive me for being cynical, but an original, realistic, gut-wrenching love story, completely devoid of sap, is hard to pull off these days. But Shua does it.
We never meet the object of Ernesto’s affection. We know she’s married, and that her long-standing adulterous relationship with Ernesto is over. And we know that it’s her absence that defines Ernesto, not the relationship he had with her. In that way, we don’t really need to know anything more about her.
The novel is essentially an unsent letter to this disappeared lover: Ernesto’s desperate attempt to become real to himself without her. “For many years I lived to tell you what was happening in my life, and my every action or thought was transformed, at the very moment it was happening, into the words I would use to describe it to you.”
Without this relationship, Ernesto is haunted by questions, but not for his lover, for himself: “What did your absence demolish, what did it leave still standing among my emotional possibilities?”
I wouldn’t call it obsession, or even longing. I’d called it physics. The pain his lover’s physical absence causes for Ernesto: it is both the frame of his life, and everything inside the frame. He cannot separate himself from it. Even as he goes digging through his dying father’s things, Ernesto is looking for her:
“I searched among the remnants, among the traces of his life, for proof that he, too, was human, inconsequential, weak, proof that he has once had a moment of madness or passion…I was searching for you. Once again, as always, I was searching for something or someone that could have meant to my father what you meant to me: something absurd, unsuitable, a crack. I found nothing. I’m sorry.”
Ernesto’s mother is senile, his sister ridiculous, so when his father is sent to a convalescent home, the decision rests on Ernesto’s shoulders: let him die in a rundown medical prison, or rescue him to die in dignity, and risk getting in serious trouble. But what is the risk of trouble when you don’t know what you’re living for? One of the interesting parallels between Ernesto’s love story and the scope of a dystopic narrative is the cheapening of life, the slackening of identity that results from these arcs. “What’s crazy is the stupid logic that insists identity must remain the same through time and misfortune: as if, without you, I were still the same person.”
As the end approaches for his father, Ernesto worries about what will come next. For, as complicated and difficult as it is to watch your father expire slowly and painfully, for Ernesto, at least it’s a distraction. But what after? “Free at last of the image of my father drowning in pain, I’ll be thinking of you again, as usual: once again, as usual, I’ll imagine your face, contorted with pleasure; again, as usual, I’ll feel your female form in the hollow of my hands in the fleeting visions of my insomnia. My father will have died a happier death than he deserves. And once more, as usual, my life will have no meaning.”
But finally, as he barges ahead with an insane plan to give his father the death he deserves (I won’t ruin that one for you, but it’s good), our man finally gets it. He finally discovers, by doing it, the one thing his lost lover can’t take from him: his words.
“I don’t know what your life is like; I don’t know what I’ll find when I see you, but I know I’m going to look for you to find something you won’t be able to deny me: so that all this writing will have meaning. So you will read me.”
Maybe Ernesto’s deluding himself, thinking he’ll be free if only he can tell her, if only she will hear him out. But I hope not. I don’t think so. I think, more likely, as he looks for her, he’ll realize it doesn’t have to be she who reads his words. It can be anyone. Ernesto is a writer, looking for a reader.
Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.