Alicia Maria Meier’s translation of excerpts from Marta Rojals’s nonfiction work We Could Have Studied Less appears in the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again: Catalan Literature Now.
The Renault Clio, introduced in 1990 to the European market, looks immediately dated to today’s consumer. It’s a boxy little thing in the style of the time, all hard angles, with none of the sleek flourishes we’re accustomed to in our modern automobiles. The then-struggling French automaker launched an aggressive advertising campaign to pitch the Clio—which was, at its heart, nothing more than their iteration of the utilitarian two-door hatchback favored by urban European drivers and produced by every competitor brand, that tiny practical vehicle that parked easily in crowded Milan, or Paris, or Barcelona—as the car for the sexy young set, the adventuresome twenty-something crop, the continent’s Generation X.
The suite of ads that BBDO Tiempo made to sell the Clio to the Spanish market in the mid-’90s now feels similarly, almost laughably, passé. One commercial opens on a handsome long-haired twenty-something in the midst of a job interview, arguing over his qualifications with a white-haired curmudgeon before driving off in a Clio. Another is a cobranded spot with Apple—that brand new, apex-of-hip tech company that the target audience’s elders certainly couldn’t grasp. Perhaps the most entertaining of the collection features a pair of girls straight out of a Spanish Clueless—short bangs, midriff tops—driving through some anonymous cobblestoned European city rocking out—and in English, no less—to Squeeze’s “Tempted.” In 1999, Renault even made a special edition of the supermini for MTV. BBDO and Renault had a strategy that was almost too evident for the Clio: These baby boomers don’t get you, you dreamers. This car is for you and not for them. These beautiful young things who spoke multiple languages, who had more advanced degrees than their employers, who were hungry, and prepared to seize what had been promised to them in this world.
Throughout a handful of the Spanish ads, like momentary gruesome flashes in a horror film, for half a second at a time or so the acronym “JASP” would break into a scene in bold white on black. And at the conclusion of each, the tagline: “Clio: Joven, Aunque Sobradamente Preparado.” Clio: young, but exceedingly prepared. Clio: new on the scene, and ready for anything.
The car sold. And the moniker was born for Spain’s Generation X: the JASP.
The generation of Spanish literary writers who might have bought that car, who might have blasted Squeeze’s one-hit-wonder as they drove out to the coasts with their Clios overstuffed with friends, today go by a host of other names. Some call them the Afterpop writers, from the title of an essay by Eloy Fernández Porta (born 1974 in Catalonia) by the same name, or La Nueva Luz, The New Light, the term favored by the poet and critic Vicente Luis Mora (born 1970 in Andalucía). I’ve heard them referred to as The New Gonzos, presumably for the Thompsonesque reporting style favored by Robert Juan Cantavella (born 1976 in Valencia) in his popular satirical text El Dorado. But perhaps most popular among these designations is “the Nocilla generation”—for Agustín Fernández Mallo’s staggeringly brilliant Nocilla trilogy.
These authors, mostly male, mostly from autonomous Spanish regions that speak primarily marginalized languages but who nonetheless choose to write in Castilian and not in Valencian, or in Gallego, or in Catalan, became their own contemporary canon in 2007 when they were published together in the Atlas Literario Español. There was indeed a clear shared aesthetic sensibility among their work: a preference for fragmentation, for the eschewing of norms, which appeared as a shared generational reaction to outside conditions the authors seemed reticent to agree upon, or to acknowledge whatsoever.
Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla, though, may have earned its place as the most popular descriptor for the collective by virtue of seeming the key to understanding the cause of this effect. The first in the series, Nocilla Dream, which consists of 113 chapters—the longest of which runs just over seven pages, the shortest of which registers at just a sentence—expertly connects splinters of narratives following dozens of protagonists living across multiple continents, as well as borrowed quotes on everything from linguistics to astrophysics, and literature within literature, writings by these protagonists themselves, all of whose tales revolve in some tangential way or another around a single poplar tree located on US Route 50 in Nevada where travelers lace abandoned shoes over the branches like pendula. Though Nocilla Dream borrows from various forms it is transparently a novel still, but one with a storyline shattered into so many complicated shards that the reader assumes some thread must be left dangling in the end—and yet each somehow finds its logical conclusion. It is a jewel of experimental construction. It is a bizarre and unique text, and one that can’t not be influenced by its time, or by the circumstances of its author.
Which is to say that while BBDO’s Renault ads sold the lifestyle of the JASP as one of diversion and glamour, the reality of Spain that was already underway when that sleek youthful boy went in for a contentious job interview with a white-haired baby boomer was that of a nation starting to fracture itself. Spain in the ’90s, still fresh from the Franco years, was a country where linguistic and ethnic lines were beginning or continuing to be drawn along the borders of autonomous regions becoming more and more emboldened toward secession, and one whose economic collapse had changed the rules its younger citizens had long expected would govern their lives on a dime—while older generations continued to prosper, and without empathy.
The JASP, essentially, were left without a cohesive narrative, and Nocilla became and remains the text for just that reader. An intellectually elevated novel that might remind them that their multiple tongues and multiple degrees were still worth something even if they couldn’t find work. A book structured to be digested by a brain that came of age navigating quick bits of information online while struggling to hold onto what tethered them together. And something itself penned by a highly-educated scientist, who himself had multiple tongues and multiple degrees, leaving one to wonder what prompted him to turn to storytelling. Did he have another option? Or was he just taking the gamble so many of Spain’s now forty-somethings have since been forced to?
Marta Rojals, born 1967 in La Palma d’Ebre, in rural Catalonia, is too of the age such that she might have owned a Clio. There’s much about her writing that looks like that of her Nocilla contemporaries (though as publishing in Catalan has seen only a recent resurgence, most Catalan-language writers have been left out of that group). No ens calia estudiar tant (We Could Have Studied Less), Rojals’s collection of crónicas—those sort of short stories that reside in a space between fiction and essay and at a length between poetry and prose that tends to make American readers more accustomed to rigid classifications of genre uneasy—is made up of narrative shards that focus intently on the comic, or the tragic, of everyday life in Catalonia. In the selection published here, the reader may gain a good sense of the breadth of Rojals’s skill in the form: “Fragile,” which against the backdrop of Gaudí’s Parc Güell asks the reader to consider his impulse toward the vulnerable, is a quiet meditation on human nature; “All You Can Touch” is a reported feminist indictment of sexual assault at the festival of San Fermín; “False Information in Five Episodes” takes on the political and economic circumstances of the region indirectly through a series of brief observations about retail space in Barcelona. It was “The Faithful,” though—from which the collection takes its title, We Could Have Studied Less—that I found, and continue to find, most striking.
To make sense of why, I’m now obligated to share with the reader some conditions of my own life: as I near thirty, my friends are beginning to marry and have children; we don’t infrequently dine out to toast our promotions, and on the way home from such a celebration I’ve been known to feel confident enough in my finances to stop in to some designy home goods shop in the Village to indulge in that vase I’ve had my eye on. My expensive private girls school, and my expensive private college, and my expensive MFA from an expensive private university in New York City, have, up to this moment, seemed to have served me well: I found myself a well-paying job, and good health insurance, and furnished a lovely apartment in Brooklyn, and my family took some pride in me, and I have long felt, as Rojals explains the expectations of the JASP generation in “The Faithful,” that this was all an inevitability, that I had these things because I had gone through the right paces, and that this was, indeed, something of a creed, even if I was not of a religious stripe. That we, my generation, here in the United States, executed these rituals that had been laid before us; that we succeeded if we did, and that we paid our penance when we erred. Et in sæcula sæculorum, amen.
But the conditions of my life at this moment are not divorced from the uncertain circumstances we all face at this peculiar moment as Americans, and particularly as American millennials. So reading “The Faithful” for the first time in January of 2017, at the very moment an immense uncertainty came to power in this country, was a gut punch. Thinking on Rojals’s descriptions of the fate of the JASP, the notion of privileged, pampered sons of democracy! thundering at me from a right-wing cable news show describing my own generation did not feel unfamiliar. Things have already begun to change for us, and quickly: a friend completing her PhD in Fisheries Science recently had all federal funding for her research pulled out from under her. Many of my fellow MFAs who had relied on or hoped for NEA or NEH funding for their work are now resigned to tending bar a while longer, or forever. Others I know have begun to take those time-buying fellowships—Peace Corps, Fulbright, Princeton-in-Wherever—to fill holes in their resumes with something prestigious in name, if a distraction in practice, while they wait for things to settle so that they can get their careers, their hopes for a family, their lives back on track.
We, my circle of millennials, at least, had learned over some years to tune out accusations that we were lazy or ungrateful or presumptuous, because we had followed the creed. We had studied hard for years and years, we had settled into our niches and accumulated our expertise, we had worked to the bone, we spoke multiple languages, we were imaginative and attuned, and yes, perhaps, we assumed we were owed something for that. Stability. The chance to build a life that looked something like our parents’, as most generations do.
But reading “The Faithful” I saw myself for the first time as what I may well be: one among America’s JASP, awaiting my divine justice. I wondered: what will this country look like in five years, in ten? What will have been sold to me as glamorous today that two decades down the line I’ll think of as a joke? At what point will I find myself at a potluck in Bed-Stuy rolling cigarettes and trolling for work? What will I regret? Could I have studied less?
I have since realized, though, that “The Faithful” has also left me with a curiosity a little less selfish and perhaps somewhat more important: if my generation does become the JASP of the United States, what will those broken promises make of American authorship?
We have, it seems, lost in a way comparable to that of the Spaniards who came before us all ability to construct a cohesive narrative for ourselves: we suffer even worse the attention-deficit of digital writing, the limitations to the character in our thought processes; our nation too has developed specific and immutable fault lines; we are fresh to this upheaval in our circumstances, and cannot see the road ahead. I wonder if we might reflect like Rojals, like the Nocilla authors, by eschewing narrative altogether, by going rogue, by saying fuck it, by creating our own completely new and strange ways of describing our humanity on the page. Or just the opposite—if we might retreat back into the comfort of the linear, making sense of our blown-up world by imposing upon it strident realism and traditional schematics. In either case or any other, will we exhibit as a generation of writers, like the Nocilla generation, the same refusal to acknowledge that our work is born of this disorder, will we have the same Barthesian impulse to kill the author? Or will we own it, like Rojals: that what we expected has been taken from us, and we’ve had to start anew?
I don’t know if I could have studied less, but I know already that mine is becoming a generation of disappointed parents, of frustrated graduates gone too far now to turn back, of an impulse to atone for the pedantic indulgence of believing we have the right to do that which we know and understand and believe at our cores.
I also know, though, that there will be, because there always are, a few bold individuals, like Rojals, like the Nocilla guys, who will refuse to see their education, their facility with language and familiarity with literature, acquired at cost, as merely a bourgeois vice. They will pick up their pens and they will decide and define who we are. I await them eagerly.