When Pálido Fuego, the publisher that has worked to bring such voices as Mark Leyner and Lars Iyers to audiences in Spain, decided to publish its first book from within that country’s borders, Germán Sierra’s fourth novel Standards was a fitting choice. Sierra is a representative of the “Nocilla Generation,” which introduced stylistic traits associated with late twentieth and early twenty-first-century English and American fiction into Spain’s literary scene. A professor of biochemistry at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Sierra’s prose has the formal precision of scientific writing. His rigorous grounding in literature and neurobiology allow him to avoid both the sentimental clichés of the contemporary middle-class novel and an equally reductive science-worship.
In the opening chapter of Standards, entitled “The Fad,” an Argentine hypnotist sends out, before his suicide, a series of hand-drawn maps that will lead to his dead body, which is perfectly preserved in snow; the accompanying letter encourages his invitees to devour it. His bequeathal inaugurates what will come to be known as “the ice suicide club,” a wink to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer whose reticently uncanny voice seems to hover over the entire novel. The conceit of a group of strangers meeting to indulge in cannibalism serves as a pretext for Sierra’s critique of the vicissitudes of connoisseurship in modern consumer culture; the eating of human flesh becomes one exotic pursuit among many for those who have grown bored with the myriad indulgences capitalism has to offer.
“The Fad” then follows a member of the club to New York, where he passes by the Fifth Avenue Apple store just as a young woman pulls a handgun on her apparent twin. Sierra focuses on the appurtenances of consumer culture: the shopping bags, the apparel, the countless cellphones fished out to record and share the tragedy, or farce—no one seems to know or care which. The crowd’s apathetic reaction invokes the wan curiosity of television viewers watching a series premiere. The chapter closes with a quote from Maurice Blanchot: “It could be said that the possibility of reproduction reveals to us the fundamental poverty of being.”
The centerpiece of the book is a series of chapters presenting a fictionalized history of plastic surgery, reimagined as the quest to abolish human difference. In a key moment, a renowned surgeon is hired to recreate a famous actress from Hong Kong who has died during filming, using another, unknown, actress as a canvas. His success is such that her companions in the film are convinced they are seeing a ghost. Later, the Clones Agency is established, which represents “all those who bear a certain resemblance to a celebrity that they would like to make use of in the labor market.” The physical forms represented by the famous and wealthy become standards, an ideal subject to minor variations that do not admit individuality. Here Sierra cites Francis Ponge’s plea that genius recognizes the limits of the body that encompasses it, but with a keen awareness that these limits have already long been transcended.
The storyline shifts frequently, presenting the reader with a panoply of characters. Dating from the eighteenth century to the present day, this mix of fictional and historical characters are all concerned with transmutations of the flesh or the spirit. There is Giuseppe Sammartino, for instance, who renders flesh into marble with his famous veiled Christ; Mario Maretti, an Italian scientist whose search for the elixir of youth is inspired by the pederasty of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert; the Russian scientists of the Soviet space program; the kinky playboy and assassin manqué Lon Dahl, Jr. They cross paths in a series of rendezvous and complots that recollect the later work of Don De Lillo. However, Sierra’s broader range of references to high and low culture allow the apocalyptic intimations that throb in the background of novels like Cosmopolis to come to the fore, and his seriousness saves the resultant ideas from falling into mere ostentation.
Each page of Standards bursts with references: to the history of robotics, FBI conspiracies, art and literature, and above all, to the neverending cavalcade of proper nouns at once highly familiar and deeply strange—the names of the famous, of luxury brands, of televised events—that have taken the place of ethos as the foundations of identity for a modern class of “people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege,” in the words of Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi. One could criticize the novel for its allusiveness, which occupies so much space normally reserved for sentiment or plot; and yet it is precisely this sort of writing, cool, shifting, and rootless, that is best suited to analyzing the displaced lived Sierra has taken for his subject.