One autumn afternoon in Mexico City, seventeen-year-old Luisa does not return home from school. Instead, she boards a bus to the Pacific coast with Tomás, a boy she barely knows. He seems to represent everything her life is lackingrecklessness, impulse, independence. Tomás may also help Luisa fulfill an unusual obsession: she wants to track down a traveling troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs. According to newspaper reports, the dwarfs recently escaped a Soviet circus touring Mexico. The imagined fates of these performers fill Luisa’s surreal dreams as she settles in a beach community in Oaxaca. Surrounded by hippies, nudists, beachcombers, and eccentric storytellers, Luisa searches for someone, anyone, who will “promise, no matter what, to remain a mystery.” It is a quest more easily envisioned than accomplished. As she wanders the shoreline and visits the local bar, Luisa begins to disappear dangerously into the lives of strangers on Zipolite, the “Beach of the Dead.”
Meanwhile, her father has set out to find his missing daughter. A mesmeric portrait of transgression and disenchantment unfolds. Sea Monsters is a brilliantly playful and supple novel about the moments and mysteries that shape us.
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Imprisoned on this island, I would say, Imprisoned on this island. And yet I was no prisoner and this was no island.
During the day I’d roam the shore, aimlessly, purposefully, and in search of digressions. The dogs. A hut. Boulders. Nude tourists. Scantily clad ones. Palm trees. Palapas. Sand sifting umber and adrenaline. The waves’ upward grasp. A boat in the distance, its throat flashing in the sun. The ancient Greeks created stories out of a simple juxtaposition of natural features, my father once told me, investing rocks and caves with meaning, but there in Zipolite I did not expect any myths to be born.
Zipolite. People said the name meant Beach of the Dead, though the reason for this was debatedwas it because of the number of visitors who met their end in the treacherous currents, or because the native Zapotecs would bring their dead from afar to bury in its sands? Beach of the Dead: it had an ancient ring, ancestral, commanding both dread and respect, and after hearing about the unfortunate souls who each year got caught in the riptide I decided I would never go in beyond where I could stand. Others said Zipolite meant Lugar de Caracoles, place of seashells, an attractive thought since spirals are such neat arrangements of space and time, and what are beaches if not a conversation between the elements, a constant movement inward and outward? Yet my favorite explanation, which only one person put forward, was that Zipolite was a corruption of the word zopilote, and that every night a black vulture would envelope the beach in its dark wings and feed on whatever the waves tossed up. It’s easier to reconcile yourself with sunny places if you can imagine their nocturnal counterpart.
Once dusk had fallen I would head to the bar and spend hours under its thatched universe, a large palapa on the shores of the Pacific decked with stools, tables, and miniature palm trees. It was where all boats came to dock and refuel, syrup added to cocktails for maximum sweetness, and I’d imagine that everything was as artificial as the electric blue drink: that the miniature palm trees grew fake after dusk, the chlorophyll struggling and the life force gone from the green, that the wooden stools had turned to laminate. Sometimes the hanging lamps would be dimmed and the music amplified, a cue for the drunks and half drunks to clamber onto the tables and start dancing. The shoreline ran through every face, destroying some, enhancing others, and at moments when I’d had enough reminders of humanity I would look around for the dogs who like everyone else at the beach came and went according to mood. A curious snout or a pair of gleaming eyes would appear on the fringes of the palapa, take in the scene, and then, most often, finding nothing of interest, retire once more into darkness.
Before long, it became apparent that the bar in Zipolite was a meeting place for fabulists, and everyone seemed to concoct a tale as the night wore on. One girl, a painter with cartoon lips and squinty eyes, said her boyfriend had suffered a heart attack on his yacht and been forced to drop her off at the nearest port since his wife was about to be helicoptered in with a doctor. In more collected tones, a tall German explained to everyone that he was a representative of the German Society for Protection Against Superstition, or Deutsche Gesellschaft Schutz vor Aberglaubenhe wrote the name in tiny German script on a sheet of rolling paper for us to readand had been sent to Mexico after a stint in Italy. An actress from Zacatecas no one had heard of insisted she was so famous that a theater, a planet, and a crater on Venus had been named after her.
And you, someone would ask, noticing how intently I listened, What brought you here?
I had run away, I told them, I’d run away from home.
Are your parents evil?
No, not at all. . . . I was in Zipolite with a boy. I’d run away, mainly, because of a boy.
And where was this boy?
And who was this boy?
Another good question.
But that, too, was only half the truth. I had also come here because of the dwarves. However fantastical it now seemed, I was here with Tomás, a boy I hardly knew, in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves. And if I stopped to think about it for more than a few instants, the situation was almost entirely my fault. It was therefore not surprising that calming thoughts were hard to come by. No calm, but I did feel profoundly numb, as if stuck halfway through a dream, a dream I didn’t seem able to exit.