Chloe Aridjis is not a novelist who appears to care about plot, so let’s get the story of Sea Monsters, her third book, out of the way. Its protagonist, a moody, Morrissey-loving teenager named Luisa, meets a boy named Tomás and lets him persuade her to run away from home. The two take the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, where they camp in a beach town called Zipolite and where Luisa rapidly loses interest in Tomás, replacing him with a silent, mysterious-seeming figure. After a while, her father tracks her down, and she returns to Mexico City.
These events are less plot, in truth, than scaffolding. Sea Monsters derives little energy from what happens to Luisa, or from how she changes during her travels. Instead, it works like a poem, gathering steam through image, repetition, and metaphor. Aridjis deploys set pieces the way a poet might, and seems particularly attracted to performances: peacocking Goths in a nightclub, a man building an elaborate sandcastle, lucha libre fighters soaring through their choreographed moves. She riffs like a poet, too, letting each image twist and grow into the next.
These tendencies aren’t surprising, given Aridjis’s background. Her father, Homero Aridjis, is among Mexico’s most celebrated poets, and the surrealist writer and painter Leonora Carrington was a family friend. Aridjis curated Carrington’s retrospective at Tate Liverpool in 2015 and writes art criticism in addition to fiction. Her art writing leaks into Sea Monsters, though not as forcefully as it may have into her graduate dissertation, which compared the autobiographies of 19th-century French magicians to the symbolist poets who were their contemporaries. In Sea Monsters, both of those influences are equally clear. Like a magician, Aridjis is obsessed with elusiveness; like a symbolist, she far prefers imagination and metaphor to plain sight.
Aridjis alerts readers to this preference early and often. Sea Monsters begins with Luisa on the beach at Zipolite, contemplating the ancient Greeks, to whom she returns often. She muses that they “created stories out of a simple juxtaposition of natural features … investing rocks and caves with meaning.” Aridjis does this, too. Nature comes alive in her hands. She reserves her fullest imagistic powers for the water: Early in the novel, Luisa watches the surf “write and erase its long ribbon of foam,” and later, in an image I have found impossible to shake from my mind, the waves become “rows of muscular men with interlocking arms that came closer in with each roll.”
Aridjis tends to wear her influences lightly, but she makes an exception for Baudelaire. Before Luisa runs away from home, her French teacher assigns Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. Luisa latches on to “Un voyage à Cythère,” a bleak poem in which Aphrodite’s native island transforms into the deserted site of a hanging. At first, Luisa, wanting an airtight explanation, tries to explain the poem: “The poem’s heart was a carbonized black, and Kythera a somber rocky place where dreams got dashed against its shores.” But her teacher steers her away from that reading: Better, he suggests, to focus on what lies beneath the text. Or as he puts it, better to remember that “events were the mere froth of things, and one’s true interest should be the sea.”
If there is a moment when Aridjis herself appears in Sea Monsters, this is it. From this scene on, she adheres fully to the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s dictum that literature should “evoke little by little an object in order to show a state of soul, or inversely, to choose an object and release from it a state of soul through a series of unravelings … There must always be enigma in poetry, and the goal of literature—there is no other—is to evoke objects.” In Sea Monsters, Aridjis translates this idea effectively from poetry to fiction. As Luisa roams Zipolite, Aridjis invests her full literary powers in sketching the beach around her. She rarely writes about Luisa’s emotions explicitly, but her descriptions slowly guide readers into Luisa’s “state of soul.”
Perhaps the most important descriptions in Sea Monsters are of seashells. When Luisa arrives in Zipolite, she learns that its name might be Zapotec for “‘Lugar de Caracoles,’ place of seashells, an attractive thought since spirals are such neat arrangements of space and time.” Later, she recalls a party in Mexico City with “a large spiral of white powder … [its] whorls so thick it looked like the ghost of an ammonite.” At that party, Luisa achieved a state of happy suspension in time, a state she struggles to summon in Zipolite. As she roams the beach town, hunting for shells and examining crushed toads on the sidewalk, it’s clear that she’s not content. But by only letting Luisa express her unhappiness obliquely, Aridjis evokes dual longings: Maybe Luisa wants time to pass more quickly, or maybe she wishes to no longer care whether time is passing at all.
This duality of meaning squares well with Mallarmé’s disdain for single interpretations. In an 1891 interview with the journalist Jules Huret, the poet claimed that writers who “take the object in its entirety and show it, lack mystery; they take away from readers the delicious joy that arises when they believe that their own minds are creating.” Luisa seems to pursue that same joy, but the narratives she creates are personal. Twice in Sea Monsters, she falls briefly in love with a man, or rather, the idea of a man. First, there’s Tomás, with whom she travels to Zipolite, but once there, he bores her. Then there’s a man she spots at a beachfront bar, “a ring of silence around him,” who she imagines is a merman. When Luisa discovers that he’s a local boat operator named Gustavo, her interest again fizzles out.
This, then, is Sea Monsters’ true arc. A moody, Morrissey-loving teenager named Luisa sees magic everywhere. Repeatedly, the magic dissipates, but she doesn’t mind. Here, we can see the 19th-century magicians’ influence in two ways. A magic trick is meant to elude its viewer, and it isn’t meant to last. One trick should give way to the next, and, later, to a vague but lingering memory of amazement. Luisa views her trip the same way. On her return to Mexico City, she has no regrets, no real desire to talk about her time in Zipolite. She’s happy to let it float away.
As a result, the novel’s satisfactions come not from character growth or plot resolution, but from the evoking of emotion through symbols. As Luisa wanders through Zipolite, she returns to a handful of images: iguanas, breaking waves, shipwrecks, the island of Kythera, an ancient Greek predictive device known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Each one shifts in meaning, like the seashells, and tracking their evolving significance pulls readers deep into the novel’s interpretive project. Few novels operate this way, but many poems do. I found that Sea Monsters frequently conjured Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” with its rapt attention to the fish’s real and imagined body. The victory at the poem’s end comes not from catching or keeping the fish, but from having beheld it. Observation and beauty create meaning.
The same holds true for Sea Monsters. Often I wished to watch it, or examine it like a canvas. Sea Monsters would lend itself beautifully to movie adaptation, and yet on film, Aridjis’s gifts of evocation would be lost. A shot of waves could not bring the same pleasure as those “rows of muscular men with interlocking arms.” Hearing the word Kythera is no match for Luisa debating whether she prefers “the cackle of Kythera or the sorceress C of Cythère.” The novel’s strength lies in its ability to turn to the next magic trick, the next detail, the next sight. Those sights are all the more impressive when conjured solely from language. By opting out of fiction’s conventional prioritization of plot or character development, Aridjis foregrounds her ability to develop images and metaphors. The result is seductive in its multiplicity. Mallarmé would be proud.