Jesús Carrasco's debut is a tale of psychological brutality that is as rich as it is slow.
If you were born in the '80s or '90s, you may relate to the experience of picking up a videogame -- one frowned upon by the gaming community for being too difficult or frustrating -- and finding it delightfully to your taste, as it recalls the unwieldy and impractical adventures you grew up with. Such a game, you might feel, belongs to another age.
I could say the same of Jesús Carrasco's debut novel Out in the Open, the original edition of which caused quite the sensation in 2013, when it was first published in Spain. Reading it now, in Margaret Jull Costa's translation, feels very much like reading a book from another age, with a pace and a sense of focus that are quite unlike those of most published fiction today.
Out in the Open
At least I don't need to worry about spoilers, as the book barely has a plot to speak of. It's about a boy who must cross a drought-stricken terrain as he escapes from his native village -- and that's pretty much it. We don't know the name or age of the protagonist, nor the exact country or time period when his flight is set (although there are guns and motorbikes to frame it in modernity). There are only a handful of characters, they too nameless, all of whom converse in terse, minimalist lines of dialogue that are, let it be said in passing, masterfully executed.
The rough outline of Carrasco's story is nothing new, and indeed, his premise has been explored in much post-apocalyptic literature (although in this case there's no specific apocalypse to serve as a backdrop). What makes this novel stand out, as mentioned, is the unusual pacing and the indulgent style of its prose. Novels that become surprise hits nowadays tend to be page-turners, with the opening chapters in particular designed to suck you in as quickly as possible. If this cannot be achieved by a suspenseful plot, then usually it's done by means of an unusual narratorial voice articulating the story in a way that keeps you on the hook.
Out in the Open doesn't resort to any sleight of hand whatsoever, however. On the contrary, it takes its leisurely time describing the practicalities of the boy's journey as he looks for water, tends to his wounds, finds places to sleep, and shields himself from the sun. Entire paragraphs detail his attempts to tie a goat's legs together so he can milk it. While the prose is certainly rich, furnished as it is with a wealth of striking similes and evocative imagery, it's also deliberately neutral and orthodox, with no stylistic expedients and no surprising changes of register throughout the book.
Whether you will enjoy the result very much depends on your literary taste. The prose is rich, but it's also slow; the protagonist is complex and believable, but he has little relatable motivation outside of a general desire to escape an unspecified threat. Most importantly, the plot starts in the middle of nowhere and, most of the time, it goes nowhere. The boy will sometimes journey to a place, find that what he needed wasn't there, and return where he started. These transitions are not pointless, however, because they help establish the atmosphere of barrenness (both physical and psychological) that informs the novel, but it's not the kind of material you want to take on a plane or to a barber-shop, where the idea is for a book to take you out of the world's repetitive dullness and not to make you wallow in it.
I hIt takes patience to reach the depths of Carrasco's brutal and unforgiving universe, but the rewards are there. The plot is so thin because the focus here is not on the events but on the humanity of the characters, and this grows on you one chapter at a time. The protagonist is particularly memorable, as he's very far removed from the hero-type (he frequently wets himself and backs away from doing what's brave or even what's right), but by the end of the novel his sentiment feels completely real, and his fate touching. The other characters are simpler, but no less primal.
I had a good time with this book. Out in the Open is truly a novel of another age. It doesn't humour the reader's sense of urgency, but it fully engages the author's human interest. For something so light in terms of plot, it's difficult to speculate what kind of cultural reverberations this book will have (I struggle to imagine a film being made of this, for instance). But it is real literature, or more aptly, old literature, which should meet the favour of anyone who enjoys the modern as much or more than the postmodern. Make of that what you will.