Tomb Song by Julián Herbert
Julián Herbert’s kaleidoscopic, autobiographical novel Tomb Song is a paean to his dying mother, written in what feels like a real-time bedside scrawl. “I’ve endeavored to draw a freehand portrait of my mother,” Julián, the novel’s narrator, explains. “A portrait garnished with childhood reminiscence, biographical detail and the occasional dash of fiction.” Herbert captures the emotional complexities of confronting grief, as Julián teeters between nostalgic tales from his childhood and self-centered anecdotes about the man that he has become. In embodying the trauma of his mother’s leukemia, Julián ultimately makes Tomb Song about himself. Perhaps a child can never fully understand their parents and the way they lived.
Julián’s mother was a prostitute, and many men drifted through their home. He has a handful of siblings, but never grew particularly close to them, relying instead on stories of their lives and actions. “Every household runs aground at the feet of a domestic myth,” he writes. “It can be anything: educational excellence or a passion for soccer. I grew up in the shadow of a turn of the screw: the pretense that mine was really a family.”
Tomb Song alternates between scenes of Julián’s childhood and those of him at present, traveling through Europe on book tours and struggling with his mother’s illness. His partner, Mónica, joins him throughout these later scenes, and together, as they consider starting a family of their own, they establish an interesting counterpoint to the novel’s memories.
But these two poles — the family of one’s past and the family of one’s future — are not enough to keep Herbert on track with his prose. He’s repeatedly distracted, drawn to tales of his/Julián’s drug activity and sexual conquests. In Herbert’s mind, everything is eligible for intellectual analysis, resulting in an insufferable amount of name-dropping and references. In a memory of walking to high school, Julián sees a sunrise and declares it “[his] way of getting out of Plato’s cave.” In one digression about donating blood, he expounds that the “mortification had been more or less Rabelaisian, although governed by Darwinian and fiduciary logic: I need your blood, give it to me in exchange for that mercantile zone of idealism we term Friendship.” One long chapter describes a past lover who insisted they only having sex via a relatively unconventional method; he describes her:
“She was (and I say this without boasting or with any desire to offend the feminist academics who scorn male Mexican writers, considering us incapable of including plain women in our erotic tales) the living image of Botticelli’s Venus coming out from the water.”
Herbert writes with what Julián describes later in the novel as a “bestial mantle”. It’s an apt term and a perfectly acceptable tone: Tomb Song is a swarthy little book on masculinity and grieving. But it’s not the novel’s manliness that ultimately lands poorly, it is its overwrought intellectualism. He cites porn star Alexis Texas and philosopher Slavoj Žižek, boasts a wealth of cultural references like 12 Monkeys and Pulp Fiction, and clearly knows his literary theory, but there’s an emptiness to all this knowledge, particularly noticeable in Herbert’s inability to describe beauty beyond saying someone looks like a nude in what is widely accepted as one of the world’s most beautiful paintings. Herbert leans heavily on his scholarly knowledge in Tomb Song, and frequently wedges in these asides when he’s unable to find the words he needs.
“Guilt and nostalgia are paltry emotions,” Julián explains in one digression, ignorant of the fact that they’re also the emotions upon which Tomb Song is built. Julián hides from guilt and nostalgia at a time when he needs to face them, and invokes everything he can to transform them into feelings of pride and glory. There’s a way to read Tomb Song as an intentionally tenuous meta-memoir, but it is not easy. to do so would require one to embrace all its shortcomings and contradictions, and revel in the novel’s ability to fail at accomplishing what it seemingly intends to achieve.