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.