Content warning: this article contains discussions of cannibalism.
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez is a collection of short stories about strange women, from witches and gravediggers to lunatics and heartbeat fetishists. When I finished the collection in the summer and reentered the dewy, sun-soaked July, I felt like I had woken up from a fever dream.
Characterized by mythical references and magical realism, Enríquez’s short stories feel a shift away from reality, yet they demonstrate how the ‘hyperreality’ of fictional worlds allows readers to explore simulated experiences that expand our creative and introspective abilities.
French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard first conceptualized “hyperreality” as an entirely abstract space people move through, disconnected from reality, consisting of simulations — images and signs that don’t necessarily have a direct parallel in real things. Baudrillard applies this concept to capital and political economy, but the general framework can be extrapolated to apply to literature.
Enríquez uses storytelling to encompass these ideas. In one of her stories, “Meat,” readers follow two teenage girls who excavate the body of Santiago Espina, a deceased rock star they’ve developed an obsession with, and cannibalize his body. When the story breaks, the public is shocked.
However, Enríquez presents this as a symbol of human passion taken to the extreme. It’s haunting and unsettling to read about teenage girls sent to psychiatric facilities for such ungodly activities, but stories like this expand our understanding of complex concepts and human experiences like obsession and limerence. “Meat” forces us to grapple with extreme devotion and consider the ends we would go to in order to reach goals that are meaningful to us, if not to others.
The cannibals in “Meat” demonstrate the paths they are willing to pursue to prove their dedication to Espina and his music. These paths — cannibalism and cultism — are taboo, and they are met with horror from the general public and institutionalization by authorities. This scenario, when absorbed within the ‘hyperreal’ space inhabited by the reader, creates an exaggerated simulation for the reader that mimics real-life occurrences.
When immersed in the simulation, readers have the opportunity to broaden the scope of their understanding of the complex themes presented in the story. This created hyperreality allows readers to explore their reactions to such ideas through the safety of fictionalization as opposed to being confronted with something so socially unacceptable in real life. In this regard, elements like cannibalism and cultism represent ideas in “the real,” but only exist as hyperreal.
The obsession Enríquez depicts in “Meat” evidently symbolizes the questionable, unnatural things people do for the things they are passionate about. Many artists and writers have gone to extreme lengths to demonstrate devotion to their practice. French artist Orlan, for instance, uses her own body as a medium for art. Orlan’s obsession with art history and creation extends to altering her own body through plastic surgery, something many might consider fanatical.
Outside of the artistic realm, people demonstrate their passion at the expense of what is deemed socially acceptable, too. Radical feminist Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol because she feared he conspired to censor her artistic perspective. Few people would go to such lengths for their calling, and the protagonists in “Meat” allow readers to better understand those who do.
“Meat” and its accompanying themes effectively fulfill two purposes. First, the story serves as a simulacrum of the questionable, unnatural things people do for what they are passionate about. Second, it serves as an example of fictional literature as a hyperreality within which readers can explore otherwise inaccessible ideas. In doing so, readers can better understand real-life people like Orlan and Solanas, or perhaps their own potentially repressed dedications.
Fictional literature forces readers to acknowledge the unacknowledged in us because it takes the darkest parts of ourselves and exaggerates — fictionalizes — them. We are drawn to it because we see ourselves and others in characters like the teenage cannibals.
Ultimately, fiction attracts us because it is thinly disguised reality. Baudrillard’s idea is that hyperrealities provide “experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life,” but that is, nonetheless, derivative of the real. Through detailing obsessive behaviour in teenage girlhood, Enríquez presents readers with a simulation of what we and others are capable of in different circumstances. By likening radical thinking and action to cannibalism, she shows us that we, too, might cross boundaries to demonstrate devotion to our art.