I first became aware of Mexican author Julián Herbert when Graywolf published Christina MacSweeney’s translation of his novel Tomb Songs in 2018. Having really enjoyed that work, I was excited for the opportunity to review this trio’s most recent project, Herbert’s Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino. And, I have to admit, after spending two-and-a-half hours of my life watching the tepid Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the title also intrigued me.
This book is a collection of nine short stories and an eponymous final novella. I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to decide what ties these works together and the answer that keeps coming back to me is that they’re all about creation and death. Which is unsatisfying, because everything is about creation and death. With every moment, every action we make, we are destroying or creating or trying to sustain something we’ve created. What sets these stories apart, perhaps, is that they are hyper-aware of this duality. They focus intensely on the body and how it makes and how it destroys. The devil flashes up quite a few times in these pages and the presence of our impending absence is never far behind.
One somewhat more satisfying answer is that all of the narrators in this collection are paid to be creators: writers, artists, investigators searching for some looming Answer. Another common thread is that they are almost completely told from the first-person perspective. This makes the writer and the reader engage in something intimate. It makes it seem like Herbert, or the narrator through Herbert, is telling you, or maybe confessing to you, how each story unfolds.
I was dubious at first as I began to read the opening story “The Ballad of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.” Mostly I was weary because it is full of dicks – sticking dicks inside “amoeba-infested rectums of some obtuse, melodramatic migrant woman,” “ejaculating before you can actually ejaculate,” “a downy-cheeked priest … sucking the dick of the black guy in the toilets,” and “impregnat[ing] the geriatric crone” of Mother Teresa. Too much dick-talk and I glaze over. I thought maybe this is supposed to be funny or a hyperbolic take on a stereotypical form of masculinity. But I don’t find writing about your dick particularly gritty or daring. It comes across less “badass” and more trying too hard. There is also a hefty amount of gas, puke, and shit featured in this story. In other words, I became worried that this would appeal to a specific audience; the same audience that loves Tarantino’s schlockier moments and his B-movie inspirations.
But that is the author’s point. This story, chosen to be first in this collection, is told from the perspective of a personal memory coach who listens to stories and elaborates on them for his clients. He spins a tale about a man who meets Mother Teresa in a French airport and horrible things ensue. He reminds the reader from the onset that “… that thing you call ‘human experience is just a massacre of onion layers.” This sentiment rings throughout this collection: the violence it portends and the the multifaceted subjectivity of writing and experiencing a story.
The crude “tough guy” posturing is an intentional and an intentionally exaggerative layer. The narrator ends the story by admonishing the reader for being one of those “who adore straightforward literature, with no digressions or contradictions or shortcuts, those adult babies who read as if the story were the nipple of a baby bottle.” This story is a warning against blind consumption and against bringing assumptions inside your reading. The story is more complicated than first glance. The narrator says, “you have to grit your teeth as you write and have a strong stomach … [t]he stomach of a whore.”
From there, the middle stories in some ways soften and delve into different realms. They still contain violence of creation and destruction, but in quieter ways (i.e. less dick talk). Two of particular note are “Caries” and “White Paper.”
Caries means “cavities” in Spanish. This story was written collaboratively with Jorge Rangel, whom I could not find much information on. It is a magical realist story that reminded me of a vignette from the Coen brother’s A Serious Man about the goy’s teeth. In Herbert and Rangel’s story, a conceptual artist named Ramon finds musical notes imprinted in his teeth and writes them down to discover a flesh-outed composition. With several pages devoted to musical compositions, this hybrid story uses the body as its own magnum opus. It is shortly discovered that the song imprinted in Ramon’s teeth was already published by an American musician. It poses interesting and inventive questions about the nature of creation, if the art exists within the artist somehow innately. Herbert lets the reader ponder the question over authorship by showing us Ramon suffer “less from the public tongue-lashing than from what he considered a betrayal by Nature.” The song, it seems, existed in this artist and maybe both artists on a biological level.
My favorite story in this whole collection is “White Paper,” a surreal tale that is more David Lynch than Tarantino. Again, it is an exploration of creation and destruction through the corporeal. The narrator is one of many people inside a house that is a crime scene. They are investigating what happened but are unable to leave, held inside by a menacing music outside. Instead of blood, the home is stained in white splatterings. Like Herbert’s other stories, White Paper is filled with beautiful sentences and complex philosophies. We see the creator, the narrator, as victim also, stuck inside a violence they must recreate to understand. The narrator tells us that “[l]ogic is not sufficient to avoid confusing our own frustration and angst with the victims” and that “[m]adness is the nearest thing to being a ghost.” The investigators eventually decide to dismantle the crime scene “until not a single brick [is] left standing … a procedure with no juridical basis but infused with perfect logic: destroying the residence is the only viable strategy for halting the degradation of its evidence.” This dream-like story poses two paradoxes in very little space: 1) how creation can be a destructive act (“Destruction has its own music”) and 2) how the creator finds themself at the point of creation without understanding exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. (“Soon we’ll be free: when the walls fall and the ceilings of the crime scene we’re investigating finally give way and descend on our heads. We’re ashamed to admit it, but we’re content: our science is beginning to evolve into a religion.”) It is a beautiful work that speaks to how we create from unknown inspirations, traditions we have to examine, and ultimately dismantle, in order to understand what we make.
The last story perfectly bookends this collection as a Tarantinoesque narrative that juxtaposes theory and practice. In alternating vignettes, the film critic narrator poses academic film analysis against Pulp Fiction-like tale so that the resulting interplay allows you to delve further into the action. He reminds us that “the main function of criticism is to misread everything,” which is again Herbert inciting us to ‘peel back the layers’ of this violent narrative. The titular story is so conscious of the author that it talks about the meandering POV and becomes a meta-fictional examination of his own story.
It begins with the narrator standing in his kitchen making coffee, like Quentin in his PJs. The narrative has incredible acts of violence while ordinary life carries on around it. Two men blow up the front of his house and drag him to an underground bunker of a renowned Mexican gangster who just so happens to be a Tarantino doppelgänger. The academic asides in the questions the nature of the sublime and whether or not it attainable in a work of art. The reader is meant to apply this theory and ask these questions of the following section that further the story. He introduces a huge list of theorists, writers, filmmakers, and other artists in his scrutiny of the sublime. The ‘story’ sections are propelled by fast-paced dialogue and random bursts of violence. So it’s half Tarantino spin-off, half theory-based meta-fiction, reifying the onion analogy from the very beginning.
The last story spends a lot of time contemplating the sublime, which is not merely the “grandiloquence” of a Michael Bay but rather the heightening of a certain sentiment or thought. Herbert is concerned with whether or not sublimity is achievable in art. He asks, “[Y]ou can’t be the fire and light it at the same time. Or can you?” This collection is filled with sharp, surprising prose and tinged with enough magical realist elements to make it unpredictable. To me, the best parts of this book are ones where Herbert creates a dream-like environment and lets us wander through that space. The questions he asks about creation, tradition, violence, and ultimately destruction ring the clearest there: “A good story should be a question, not an answer.”
Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino, by Julián Herbert (Translated by Christina MacSweeney). Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, November 2020. 176 pages. $16.00, paper.
Jesi Buell is a librarian and the head of KERNPUNKT Press, a home to experimental writing. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and beautiful daughter.