Nevada Days by Bernardo Atxaga
Nevada Days is Bernardo Axtaga’s barely-fictionalized novel chronicling his stay as a writer-in-residence at the Center for Basque Studies in Reno, Nevada. Outside the campus library, there’s a stall where they make coffee to go, so you can take it with you to class or to your desk. They’re served in plastic cups with a lid on top, so that they don’t go cold. If you find this summary of details boring and unnecessary, let that serve as a litmus test for the experience you will have with Nevada Days’ 300+ pages. It feels like this jumble of content was really only assembled out of obligation to prove that Atxaga did walk around and do stuff in Nevada, a sorry attempt to validate the Basque Center’s writer-in-residence investment in him. Marketing this as a “novel” is dishonest and selfishly risks smearing the medium’s good name.
A novel about a writer-in-residence just might be the lowest form of story imaginable. A reasonably successful author is offered a grant to live in the area and write, and the novel he eventually creates is about a writer-in-residence just kind of hanging out in Reno with his wife and children, describing what he says and does. Knowing that this hall-of-mirrors content in itself would be minimally engaging, Atxaga shoehorns into the novel a through-line “plot” about a rapist-murderer who seizes victims in and around the campus community. Why we should care is never established, nor is the literary value of this plot thread ever evident. Axtaga attempts to jam in some indirect metaphors about spiders in jars, as well as the sympathetic beast “he knows not what he does” concept, as applied to King Kong. But it’s clumsy and unnecessary at best.
A writer-in-residence plot shouldn’t always be off limits, but you have to at least give it an engaging arc for readers to invest in. Richard Powers did just this with Galatea 2.2, his novel about a writer-in-residence who gets involved with the robotics department’s experiment to teach an AI unit critical thinking and language skills, by reading it various works of literature. Nevada Days is jarringly insufficient when stacked up against Galatea 2.2, so it’s all the more uncomfortable when Atxaga alludes to it by including a character known only as “C.” (Powers’ novel prominently features an identically named character.) Blurbs about Atxaga’s catalog mention he is very fond of allusions. He entertains himself by showing off to readers how many different books he’s read, without ever truly writing one of his own. Knowing that a certain quantity of these allusions will fall upon deaf ears only highlights how unequipped they are to carry a novel-length work.
Because what inhabits the rest of Nevada Days’ pages are an imbalanced mishmash of scattered subject matter. Atxaga relays plenty of not-horribly-written impressions of Reno’s geography and cultural mindset, but occupying a nearly equal amount of pages, are random stories and memories of things that occurred in his past, totally unconnected to his present endeavors. The past and present are shoddily stitched together by embarrassing anti-segues that could be paraphrased as, “As I gazed unto the mountains, I started thinking of this unrelated thing that happened to me at age 8…” The entire novel really just feels like a dumping ground of short story b-sides that had been sitting on the shelf, included here to pad the length of a novel “about Nevada” that wasn’t substantial enough on its own.
It could be this novel was compiled and published out of obligation, so there was something to show for the Reno Basque Studies Center funding the lifestyle of Atxaga’s entire family for a few months. Since this 2018 novel is set in the ‘07-’08 era of Obama’s breakout presidential campaign, Atxaga may have spent the last decade agonizing over how to make this book work, reshuffling its content for so long that publishing it now leaves the Obama/Clinton aspects feel stale and awkwardly dated. The rest of the subject matter comprises an uninspired potpourri. Viewing mountains and driving through the Sierra Nevada, ghost stories, boxing legends, and a story of a cripple in his hometown. About halfway through the book it grows evident that most of the Nevada locations Atxaga visits, and the things he does, aren’t rooted in genuine interest or purpose, other than to see and do different things that he can write about. That’s why it’s especially offensive when he drives a significant distance to attend the funeral service of a fallen soldier he has never met nor shared any mutual friends with, solely to mine it for material. Even worse, he comments that listening to all the speeches tires him, and wanders off to look at photographs. This oblivious disrespect perfectly attests to Atxaga’s self-absorption.
Atxaga very clearly wants to be Karl Ove Knuasgaard. He includes long descriptions of things he cooked, complete with their ingredient lists. He relays play-by-play summaries of discussions and debates at dinner parties. He talks about purchases at bookstores, very few of which he will follow through on reading. There are far too many minor acquaintances that come and go without the reader having any reason to care. Don’t forget about the aforementioned exposé on the coffee cups and their lids’ function. The list goes on, yet Atxaga didn’t even have the courtesy to include an allusion where it is so desperately due! Knausgaard, for all his brilliance, never thought other people would be interested in his writing about himself. Which begs the question, why did Atxaga? The realistic target audience is limited to faculty members at Reno’s Center for Basque Studies, plus Atxaga’s own friends and relatives. Even they will be really disappointed by this unfortunate and meandering “novel.”