The Novel as Drunken Tennis Match: Álvaro Enrigue’s Brilliant ‘Sudden Death’

“The main things in the film are between the shots,” the filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge once told an interviewer. By this he meant that any self-commissioning spectator would construct the meaning of the film, or even its events, during the imperceptible moments of dark time that occur between the frames. He also recognized that any film is shaped by what it leaves out, elides, or rejects — as much as by what it contains.

It’s a powerful way of looking at form, one that cuts against the prevailing view, which tells us that art is defined by what it contains — its content. When artworks are made in the way Kluge describes, we call them “difficult” or “challenging” because they ask us, for just a moment, to remember the world outside of the work. The content view, on the other hand, wants us to believe that everything is on the screen. It shows us everything we need. It asks us to forget. When a work of art is like a chicken nugget, and everything you need is nestled within its skin, you’re more likely to binge.

The same can be said about novels. When a novel contains everything you need — let’s say the entirety of one man’s struggle, or another man’s completist notions of purity or freedom — we call it “crack,” or we turn it into a TV series. The other, difficult books just wither on our shelves like cabbages.

Once in awhile, though, it so happens that a crack (or chicken nugget) novel is really a cabbage novel. In these cases, such a book will give us some things we want (sex, humor, violence) during the chapters, while still demanding a great deal of our imagination between them: to understand the meaning or the story, you have to bring things to the book that aren’t on the page. Not willfully difficult but rather necessarily so, these books are the way they are because they have something to say about the world outside of the book. Also: more often than not, at least in recent years, books that are “fun” but “challenging” seem to be written in Spanish.

One of these is Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, published this month from Riverhead, and painstakingly translated by Natasha Wimmer, whose years spent translating Roberto Bolaño have rightfully earned her a reputation as a tastemaker. This is to say that if Wimmer translates a novel, there is a good chance that it is a good one. Sudden Death is a very good novel.

The novel’s “content” is easy enough to describe: it is the story of a violent, sex-crazed, drunken, olden-style tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, intercut with dense, masterfully written bits of narrative about various things, most notably: Anne Boleyn’s beheading and its aftermath, Hernán Cortés’ ravaging of an empire and its aftermath (including the founding of Mexico, where Enrigue was born), the persistent misdeeds of clergy, and the lives of artists — especially Caravaggio — rendered with a deep fidelity to the materiality (and sometimes brutality) of art’s production.

Of course, when attention is paid to art’s production, it sometimes leads to metafiction (because the novel itself is a work of art and the novelist produced it). This is happening enough now in contemporary fiction that we can call it a “happening,” but of course someone will say that it “always happens” (as if we live in a Parmenidean universe). Anyway, it’s a good thing — it’s the best kind of metafiction. Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, published last year, allegorized the labor of art in a way that I’d never seen. So, too, recently, did Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, to name just a few of many examples. (And these books come to mind even if Sudden Death reminds me more of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot). Here’s what metafiction looks like (in one case) in Sudden Death:

As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match. Nor is it a book about the slow and mysterious integration of America into what we call “the Western world” — an outrageous misapprehension, since from the American perspective, Europe is the East. Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book’ maybe that’s what all books are about. A book with a lot of back-and-forth, like a game of tennis.

It isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, and Galileo and Pius IV. Gigantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void. Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic.

Enrigue here is pointing out that even if the novel’s contents are easy to describe, its meaning is elusive, and it’s elusive because it exists in the gaps between chapters, in conference with the reader’s imagination and what’s on the page. When I put it down, I wasn’t thinking about how funny it is, or the number of erections it contains, or the Counter-Reformation. Instead I began to worry about my friends who are writers and artists: their sometimes clashing spirits, the imperceptible ways they demolish monuments, the threat of political violence that hangs just over the horizon line, like a burning tennis ball.