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Julián Herbert

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco in 1971. He is a writer, musician, and teacher, and is the author of several poetry collections, a novel, a story collection, and a book of reportage. He lives in Saltillo, Mexico.

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“Deeply observed; a welcome arrival by a writer worth paying attention to.”

– Kirkus Reviews

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Tomb Song: A Novel

Tomb Song: A Novel by Julían Herbert

02/25/18

Julián Herbert’s mother is dying from cancer in the Saltillo University Hospital. He sits by her side, keeping notes, remembering her life as a runaway and a prostitute, cataloging their family’s slow ascent into the middle class, sharing, at times, in her fever dreams. His bedside thoughts become the novel Tomb Song, a piece of lucid autofiction that finds its structure in association and metaphor more than in any conventional plot. In one chapter, we move from the history of the small fighter squadron Mexico committed to World War 2, to the construction and architecture of the University Hospital itself, to eavesdropping on two orderlies having sex in the morgue in the present day. In Tomb Song, the present serves as more than a framing device, it constantly resurfaces with acute descriptions of Julián’s mother’s failing body and the machines attached to it, of the Kafkaesque hospital bureaucracy, of Julián’s own excursions around the complex. Though any small association can lead from the present to a memory, or story, or dream, we always return, eventually, to the reality of the hospital room, the helpless son, the dying mother.

The primary point of departure from other contemporary autofiction like Knausgaard or Lerner, is Tomb Song’s willingness to abandon the truth. Specifically, Julián seems interested in the corrosive effect that narcotics and fevers have on both actual and narrative reality. During an opiate binge in Cuba, we are introduced to a degenerate artist named Bobo Lafrauga, who Julián follows to a bar called El Diablito. We later learn that Bobo was the intended protagonist to a novel that Julián scrapped when his mother fell ill, that Bobo and El Diablito are aborted fictions blurred into autobiography. In one breath, Julián will describe a prolonged, heated affair with a television weather woman and in the next he’ll claim that none of it was true. Fiction and non-fiction intersect in this way throughout much of the novel and Julián is always present to help or hinder the distinction between the two.

The associative propulsion from one tangent to another, from the real to the unreal, is often smooth but, due to the distractibility of the narration, topics are sometimes dropped before they have a chance to develop into anything substantial. Micronarratives start off focused then wander. In one instance, Julián remembers what he characterizes as his complicity in the death of a neighborhood boy and how this complicity has haunted him. He then steps back, describes how his family had come to live in the area and only later mentions that the extent of his involvement, in what turns out to be an accidental killing, was that he was there when the murdered boy’s brother bought the gun. There is little reflection here to guide the reader to understand Julián’s self-blame. The benefits of fiction could be used, in instances like this, to enhance these tapering anecdotes or to better calibrate suspense.

Early in the novel, Julián takes stock of the state of fiction while setting a challenge for himself, saying: “we demand it (narrative art) be ordinary without cliché, sublime without any unexpected change of accent.” The real achievement of Tomb Song lies in Julián’s solution to this paradox: his narrative voice. Throughout Tomb Song, we have access to Julián’s lucid, honest, perspective. His voice provides continuity and allows for beautiful and unusual motifs (including a particularly strange sea cucumber metaphor). Though the subject matter is often clinical and bleak, and though he is far from the first narrator to wax poetic by the side of a deathbed, Julián provides so many fresh perspectives, analogies, and turns of thought as to make avoiding cliché in such weighty moments seem simple. It should be noted that it is Christina Macsweeney’s excellent translation deftly brings Julián’s pin-point word choice to English.

In Tomb Song Julián Herbert draws unexpected associations between dozens of disparate topics, stories, observations, and dreams. In the last chapters, from this kaleidoscopic fabric, a larger picture takes shape, a unique perspective on life and the living of it. Readers looking for a current, honest, and unique novel or fans of Ben Lerner, Michel Houellebecq, Samanta Schweblin, and even Roberto Bolaño, will find a lot to love in Tomb Song.

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