“It all began when the genie came out of the Magic Milk bottle and asked me what I would prefer: to have a Picasso or to be Picasso.” So begins the second story, “Picasso,” in César Aira’s The Musical Brain, a new collection of the Argentine writer’s stories, from publisher New Directions. I mention New Directions because for years they have been championing the prolific Aira — who has over eighty novellas to his name. My first encounter with Aira was through his gorgeous An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: I picked it up for free at a New Directions event and immediately, I was smitten. He is rightly regarded as one of Argentina’s best, a true heir of Borges and Cortázar, though his American fame is relatively recent, with this collection’s title story and “Picasso” appearing in The New Yorker in 2011 and 2014.
The Musical Brain is a beauty, with black cloth binding and a neon hologram cover; inside, the stories are playful, intellectual, neurotic, startling, occasionally tedious, laugh-out-loud funny, and affecting. I can say with confidence, having given the matter some thought, I would rather have a César Aira than be César Aira.
In “Picasso,” our Aira — the stories’ narrator are almost always ‘César Aira’ — makes the same choice, and the genie delivers him a wonderful, heretofore nonexistent Picasso, at first glance “a chaos of dislocated figures, a superposition of lines and wild but fundamentally harmonious colors.” It depicts “a traditional Spanish fable, or rather a joke,” about a courtier tactfully trying to tell his oblivious Queen she is club-footed. He organizes a flower competition, and when the finalists — a lily and a rose — are presented to the queen, he asks her to choose: “Su majestad, escoja.” It's a homophone for Su majestad es coja: Your Majesty is lame.
Throughout The Musical Brain, Aira plays between the vast freedom of choice and a hobbled paralysis that often follows from that same freedom. The limitlessness of choice overwhelms the chooser into a neurotic indecision: Picasso, for example, whose disloyalty to natural forms was so freeing, would often be paralyzed in action, unable to pick a bothersome piece of paper off his studio floor.
It’s like a tiny, incomprehensible taboo, a paralysis of the will, which keeps me from doing what I want to do, indefinitely. Picasso overcompensated for this with his frenetic production of art, as if by painting picture after picture he could make the piece of paper pick itself up.
Aira, a consummate metafictionalist, is conscious of his unbounded freedom as a storyteller, and the startling arbitrariness of the meanings his choices create. His stories often show an attitude of “Why the hell not?” — why not have God hold a birthday tea party with a bunch of rioting apes? There’s nothing inherent that keeps such a premise from succeeding as a story (“God’s Tea Party”). Or how about a story in which the Mona Lisa decomposes into a thousand sentient drops of paint, which escape and go on to live diverse lives, for example, making scented candles in Japan ("A Thousand Drops")? It’s all fiction, it’s all words, words, words— “Words,” Aira writes, in “The Infinite,” are “magical jewels with unlimited powers, and all we had to do, we felt, was reach out and take them.”
“The Infinite” describes a simple numbers game César Aira (or ‘César Aira’) played as a boy with his friend Omar, in which each boy tried to say a number higher than his opponent:
“A hundred and one.”
“A hundred and one point zero one.”
“Eight hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine.”
“Four million and one.”
Even when the boys discover the word ‘infinity,’ the game continues unimpeded:
“Two hundred and thirty million infinities.”
“Seven quintillion infinities.”
Anyway, it gets Aira’s point across, and raises the necessary question: how the heck does anyone win? Translated back to fiction, if literally anything can make a story, how does one define success? Success implies the possibility of failure, which implies a limit, and what possible limit does infinite choice have?
In the story “The All That Plows through the Nothing,” the way to shape a narrative is itself the narrative conflict, as the narrator obsesses over two soccer moms chatting at the gym, who, to his bewilderment, drop bombshell disclosures (“My husband has cancer”) into the middle of their unhurried conversations. This idea of a natural narrative shape is mulled and dissected, in relentless variation after variation — “behind every frustrated vocation,” Aira writes, “lies a desire to sculpt” — until the narrator himself runs out of time without having been able to get to the most important point, the meaning he’s been straining for…
Su majestad, escoja. Su majestad es coja.
There’s another option, of course: that choice itself is an illusion. This idea is the driving conceit of “The Ovenbird,” in which a neurotic ovenbird, paralyzed in indecision over the limitless choices he must make in building his nest, looks with envy at his human neighbors’ infallible automatic instinct, bred into their genes by evolution, which determines exactly when to drink their maté, how to put the kettle on to boil, when to go to the store to pick up more maté, “without wondering if it was the right thing to do or not, without deliberation, just because that’s how it was written in the immemorial archives of their happy species.” There’s a similar idea at work in “God’s Tea Party,” in that even though the ape-ridden party is chaotic, it all is determined: “Every leap, every stain on the tablecloth, the trajectory of every slice of strawberry tart thrown from one end of the table to the other, exactly repeats what happened the time before and anticipates what will happen next time.” Every detail becomes meaningful, inevitable, for having been chosen. Any fiction is radically unlimited in the creation, and yet radically limited in the final form — because “every event is identical to itself.”
But Aira challenges even this idea. In “The Spy” — one of the best in the collection — a character in a spy-thriller play, about to reveal his secret identity to the Committee of the Resistance, becomes vaguely conscious of being overheard by the theater audience. He tries to move the conversation into privacy, through room after room (scene change after scene change), until the very plot starts to collapse around him. Even though the character knows he is ruining the play, his reality, he can’t bring himself to speak the one secret to make sense of the plot.
Why the hell not?
Aira’s stories frequently follow an incremental structure, in which the germ of an idea develops turn by turn, or perhaps, fold by fold. For instance, the conceit of “In the Café” is itself simple: a little girl goes to table after table and receives a folded napkin sculpture from the indulgent patrons, which she promptly destroys as she bounds and waves her prize for all to see. First, it’s a paper boat, then a doll, then a hen, in increasing, and increasingly implausible complexity, until the little terror receives a paper-napkin replica of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and a representation of the arrival of Catherine the Great’s royal barge in the Crimea, complete with barge, empress, adoring crowds, and even a one-eyed General Potempkin. In design, the story resembles César and Omar’s infinity game, in which the only narrative shape is increase, the desire to push higher and farther.
In fact, origami provides a wonderful unifying metaphor for The Musical Brain. The art suggests philosophy: take a blank square, and fold it — any way you want, the available folds are limitless — until a form, a meaning, results. Sometimes, the result is astonishingly realistic, or provocative, or beautiful, or full of personality — and sometimes, it’s a shabby wad of paper. (This happens in The Musical Brain, I should disclose. I skipped “A Thousand Drops” — too quirky, too precious — and did not care for “Acts of Charity” and “Cecil Taylor,” which are both interesting but about 3,000 words too long.)
Origami describes Aira’s incremental design as well, in which a premise is flipped and doubled back, or folded on itself, again, then again, into its most complex form. In “The Musical Brain” — my favorite of the collection, with “Picasso” as a close second — there’s an exuberant sequence around Aira’s high school headmistress, Sarita Subercaseaux, in which the narrator informs us, in swift succession, that:
- One Saturday night, his family was dining at the local hotel, where Sarita Subercaseaux was collecting boxes of books at a small table in the restaurant;
- Aira deduces this must have been a book drive for the public library, which was just being founded around that time;
- Sarita Subercaseaux was the first head librarian, and she always filled out his library card;
- According to his mother, though, Sarita Subercaseaux died before he was born;
- Perhaps he was remembering her daughter, who was the spitting image of her mother and had also been a high school headmistress and head librarian;
- But that’s impossible, because Sarita went to her grave unmarried;
- For Sarita was “the town’s classic old maid: always meticulously groomed; cool and remote; the very image of sterility. I was quite sure of that.”
Elsewhere in “The Musical Brain,” there’s something of a folded sentence, with, by my count, eleven subordinate clauses that redirect the sentence, creating a sensation of falling through eleven successive trapdoors. It’s glorious. It’s frustrating and bizarre. And it works — who knows why. Among the limitless variety of choices available, Aira picked the right one.
The only limit, then, is success, or failure, itself. Or, almost: in several stories, Aira notes it’s impossible to fold paper in half more than nine times. Is there really a limit, after all? Fold and fold an idea until it won’t crease flat? Many of the stories do simply stop like this; others peter out into an implied infinity. The ending of “The Musical Brain,” however, is so perfect, so virtuosically odd — mind, this is a story with a singing plaster brain and a circus-dwarf love triangle — that it’s worth the collection itself.
So please, pick up César Aira. It’s the only right choice.