As everyone knows, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” is a terrible song, probably the worst music Armstrong ever made. Sentimental in the worst way, well deserving of the dishonor of being the go-to background music for Hollywood romances, “What a Wonderful World” is a genre-stamp, a repetition-guarantee: as soon as you hear those strings, you know what you’re in for.
This song is one of two obvious allusions in the title of Spanish novelist Javier Calvo’s new novel, Wonderful World. The other is to an apocryphal Stephen King novel, also called Wonderful World, several chapters of which interrupt the central story. Right from the title, then, Calvo announces what he’s up to: he’s playing with genre. But that play seems to get the better of him, and the novel is riddled with generic characters, generic storylines, generic parodies.
The story takes place in an exemplary genre setting: the criminal underworld. It begins with Lucas Giraut, a kid with an advanced degree in art history, inheriting his father’s fortune. Lucas always knew his father was a strange man. The elder Giraut had a fear of sunlight. He spent much of his time in a windowless attic apartment and was a founding member the mildly mystical and definitely criminal “Down with the Sun Society.” Over the course of Wonderful World, Lucas explores his father’s criminal connections, discovering more and more about his father’s life and death.
Our sympathies are with Lucas from the beginning—but sympathy is complicated in Calvo’s world. After all, who is more likable? An overeducated rich kid like Giraut who puts his effort into stealing high art—or Manta, a fat thug, a self-hating dupe, who spends his days painfully translating his favorite Marvel comics from Italian into Spanish? Young Valentia, Giraut’s prepubescent friend, might obsess about killing her family and all the children at her school, but she loves Stephen King; Saudade, the utterly gross misogynist, is a connoisseur of pornography; poor, shallow Iris spends a night analyzing the relationships in Friends. Their chosen art forms are expressions of self, and Calvo’s characters mirror their genres. Most disturbing is Saudade, the misogynist, who has a “perfect penis” and love of prostitutes; in her approach to life, Iris seems to believe in the horrendous simplicities of Friends. For these characters, taste is as personal as other politics or philosophy might be to others: something worthy of obsession. It’s a form of rebellion, a way to assert themselves against the symbolic violence of everyday life.
Calvo’s novel is heaped with examples of the abnormal, the “insufficiently serious,” the subcultural—everything that rebels against the dominant culture. But here’s the rub: in Wonderful World, rebellion itself is commodified. The novel is scattered with references to the industrialization of culture, whether it’s the porn set, the art gallery, the bookstore, or the omnipresent billboards for Stephen King. Calvo wants to show that all art is, to varying degrees, exploitation: The bookstore is the endpoint for unpaid labor; the set of Friends was a factory floor.
For a comic novel, the world of Wonderful World is tough, full of violence and humiliation. But it’s not the violence that gets to you—the profoundly sad thing about Wonderful World is that the characters, in their urge to escape, turn to the generic comforts of industrial culture. Calvo seems to dare the reader to make the (somewhat snobbish) connection between culture and character, stooping to unsophisticated arguments against pop culture. Saudade watches porn, so he must be a misogynist prick; Valentina reads Stephen King, so she must be a psychopath. But, as Wonderful World ultimately argues, culture doesn’t determine anything. Genre is symptomatic, less important for what it does than for what it says about the society that produces it. And what Wonderful World says, amid all its violence and suffering, ultimately comes back to the corrupting force of market values.
While he isn’t optimistic about the possibility of an outside to, or an escape from, the market-based culture industries, Calvo sympathizes with the rebellious instincts of the abnormal and the outcast. In playing with genre, though, he dooms his novel to repeat tired generic conventions. The women in Wonderful World, for example, all have long legs and perfect bodies and are humiliated by men in various ways. Iris is a rejected porn actress; Hannah Limus is fucking the misogynist, Saudade; Valentina’s mother is a desperate old “cougar.” Calvo, a literary writer, would probably say that these characters are parodies, winks to the knowledgeable reader. And parody, it seems, means never having to say you’re sorry.