Daniel Chacón begins his latest collection of short stories with a metafictional device. He tells us how to read the book. We can read the stories in order or skip around, following themes. The device is borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (translated as Hopscotch), a masterpiece in 155 chapters, the final 99 of which can be read in various orders or not read at all. The Argentinian Cortázar was a jazz fan and some have seen Rayuela as the first jazz novel, written in a burst of improvisation. Similarly, Chacón’s stories seem improvised. The author jettisons the road map and takes us along for a ride, sometimes comical, sometimes mysterious, always surprising.
The jump-cutting device is apposite because Chacón’s is a restless mind. He leaps from theme to theme, and shifts tone fearlessly. The book is also full of philosophical conundrums. One character befriends his younger self at Disneyland. Another asks “Does the Mona Lisa walk the halls of the Louvre at night when no one’s around?” The existence of other dimensions, temporal and spatial, is a recurring motif. And, as with jazz, we hear echoes, images and lines that reappear in later stories: a painting of a horse in a field, a man who dines in his kitchen right next to the sidewalk, the lines “Thanks to the Mother” and “go back to your country.”
If Cortázar is clearly an influence, so too is that other Argentinian giant, Borges, a writer in thrall to labyrinths. Chacón’s labyrinths occur on a less cosmic scale than those of Borges, but the work is similarly playful, genre-bending and time-warping. Facts merge into fiction and vice versa, and characters in several of the stories appear to be stand-ins for the author. The Borges influence culminates in the final story, a terrific homage to – and reworking of – Borges’s Library of Babel, here updated to a Wall which contains all the digital detritus of our lives.
There is much hilarity in this collection, most of it stemming from the haplessness of the protagonists – a series of deadbeats, Everyman losers. Appealing, also, is the mix of high and low culture: Borges and burgers, Kafka and coffee shops, Hamlet and David Hasselhof. A line from Dostoyevsky is smartly followed by Cyndi Lauper (“Girls just wanna have fun!”).
The collection could have used a final round of proofreading. It was Max Brod, not Broad, who rescued Kafka’s work. A typo – alcade instead of alcalde (Spanish for mayor) – at a key moment in one story is unfortunate. Page 72 has two typos in two lines. These are annoying, but overall Kafka in a Skirt is a mind-blowingly enjoyable piece of work. The energy of the prose and the resonance and breadth of the themes give us a fresh perspective on this weird little planet that we inhabit.