This book is an absolutely extraordinary achievement from a writer at the height of his powers. Carlos Murillo takes themes hinted at in other works and here develops them into magna opera. Although nominally a play collection, The Javier Plays belongs on the metafiction shelf between Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Quite simply, with this effort Murillo has redrawn the boundaries within which we expect a collection of plays to operate. He disavows linear narrative to create an associative world, and places scenes in one work that are only contextualized in another. The radical nature of Murillo’s structural choices fully destabilizes both the reading experience and any assumption an audience might hold regarding the constitution of a play. As Tamsen Wolff says in her essay about one of the plays in the collection, A Thick Description of Harry Smith (or Do What You Will Shall Be the Whole of the Law), “It’s disconcertingly hard to know if you know what you think you know.”
While The Javier Plays contains three interrelated theatrical works—Diagram of a Paper Airplane, the aforementioned A Thick Description of Harry Smith, and Your Name Will Follow You Home—these are but the leitmotif. This paean to a forgotten America is further explored through a number of bonus materials: an essay about Murillo’s career; two academic and one performance-based analyses of the works mentioned above; an essay by the other main theorist to work on the fictional playwright Javier C., in the form of an academic presentation about that theorist (presented as a transcript of Modern Language Association talk taken from a faulty recording device); and a photo essay that meanders throughout the book. By including academic, creative, and theoretical work within the same collection, Murillo lays claim to a place for himself within a specific Latinx tradition, exemplified by Gloria Anzaldúa in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. In that seminal work, Anzaldúa engages with multiple literary forms, giving them all the same valence to make a larger point about the way form both mediates and serves as a key to understanding non-dominant cultures. As The Javier Plays repeatedly returns to themes surrounding drifters, grifters, con men, and those surviving by their wits alone, Murillo can be understood as not simply carrying on the Anzalduán project, but expanding its reach to include cultures shaped not just by ethnic commonality but by economic commonality as well.
Through his insistence on formal multivalence, Murillo troubles commonly held notions regarding spectatorship. With the exception of the recent immersive theatre phenomenon, most theatrical experiences are passive: A play feeds us information regarding characters and given circumstances, and through that process we make decisions about the piece being watched. Was Hamlet thoughtful or indecisive? It depends on who you are and what your ideology is. After enough information, the spectator imposes their own belief system on the piece and fashions their own narrative, which overlays whatever the playwright might have intended. Rather than letting one make a choice based on given information, Murillo’s unique structure forces us to make a decision before we reach the first play.
For example, in the opening essay Murillo, after explaining that the story he is about to tell took place in the mid-’90s, introduces us to “Nicole,” whose name is in quotes because he’s not sure he remembers it correctly. By immediately introducing the issue of memory loss, Murillo problematizes the trope of author as authority, thereby bringing his own veracity into question. In doing so, he has cracked the fundament upon which most written works rest. Further on in the same essay Murillo mentions that he is an ex-satyriac and kleptomaniac. Why is this important? Because “Nicole” is the one who has discovered the long-lost New Dramatists application of Javier C., and with the permission of Todd London, the company’s then-artistic director, takes it home with her. One evening, after a social event at New Dramatists, Murillo and “Nicole” go back to her apartment. The moment the sex is over and Carlos admits his kleptomania to “Nicole,” she allows him to take the envelope containing the application.
So now we are faced with an author who suffers from (supposedly since corrected) character deficits and memory impairment. As readers we are confronted with a decision. We can choose to believe Murillo’s story, accepting that Javier C. and “Nicole” are real, and therefore so is everything that follows, and that decision determines our reading of the work. We can decide that Murillo is a fabulist, that none of the contextualizing information is true, and that this is a simple play collection attached to an elaborate hoax. This choice would prove determinative as well. Finally, we could decide that there is both confabulation and truth, expertly woven together. I don’t think it matters which choice you make, and I don’t believe Murillo does, either. What is important is that you make a decision, and in doing so turn yourself from a spectator into an actant. This thesis is borne out in a scene from A Thick Description of Harry Smith (or Do What You Will shall be The Whole of The Law).
VICTOR DEALER: VV-830-X Credenza Victor Talking Machine –
This elixir can be yours for 300 pre-Depression Dollars…
Listen: this’ll knock your socks off….
MERRY ANDREW: Dealer slips a 78 on the turntable,
Lays the needle on the grooves…
A loud pop. A symphony of eggs frying. MERRY ANDREW closes his eyes in eargasmic reverie. A song begins: “You Must Be Born Again” by Reverend JM Gates. The recording, scratchy, ghostly, unnerving, sounds impossibly ancient, yet terrifying in its immediacy. It plays through the scene.
MERRY ANDREW: Listen to that… Reverend JM Gates…
You see Mister:
Your iPod might hold quarter million songs in a box smaller’n a pack of Lucky Strikes,
But this Machine,
un-portable as she is, ain’t no dummy.
Lasts longer too – no built-in self-destruct-in-four-years mechanism…
Yep, she features the latest in Orthophonic sound reproduction technology,
Developed in that great laboratory for advances in science, business, art and Democracy:
World. War. I.
Yep: 20 million corpses not only made the world temporarily safe for democracy,
All them bodies made possible the accurate, affordable reproduction of sound
to enjoy in your living room.
No 20 million dead, no Elvis.
No dead, no Bobby Dylan.
No dead, no Sly and the Family Stone, no Hannah Montana.
ANNIE: Hannah Montana?
MARLOWE: It’s what he said.
MERRY ANDREW: Ready for the test?
MARLOWE: Uhhh –
MERRY ANDREW: Good: Now
Some folks, Mister,
Call it the Death Machine
Unrepentant Murderer of American Music…
Others kneel in reverence,
Pronounce it Birth Mother of American Music.
Others’ll tell you it’s The Wicked Messenger
Abomination against the Creator and all that is Holy…
MARLOWE: Is there like a… question you want me to answer?
MERRY ANDREW: Yeah, I got a question… Where do you stand?
Merry Andrew goes on to explain, at much greater length than can be reproduced here, how each of those opinions about the invention of the record player helps to create and define groups of people. The nut of the entire work, though, is right here: “Where do you stand?” In an era where you can not only find any piece of information you want on the internet but any fact—whether or not that fact is in any way related to the reality of the situation it describes—Murillo engages in the exact same sort of faction (a portmanteau of fact and fiction). He thus destabilizes our current cultural positioning. No matter how tenuous the ground underneath, no matter the amount of misdirection, no matter the linguistic flights of fancy you must negotiate, or the nonlinearity of quotidian existence, Murillo says, it still comes down to you. Not only do you have the power to make your own decisions, but, as there is no absolute truth, your decisions, that which form your truth, are all that matter. You can birth any world you want, live any existence you desire, but to make that choice meaningful, you must first attempt to understand yourself and let that understanding lead you.
I know this thesis is not for everyone, and as much as I would like to tell you all to run out and buy this book, I realize that it is not for everyone either. I drowned in this book more times than I care to admit. However, if you are willing to be challenged, both literally and philosophically, if you are open to traversing an American cultural underground that has just about disappeared, if you can accept that you no longer know whether you know what you know you know, this book will take you on an extraordinary journey.