In the same way that a person tries to wink the remnants of a hangover out of their eyes the first thing in the morning, Diego Gerard Morrison’s debut novel, Myth of Pterygium, opens with a morse-code like awakening. Published by Autumn House Press, the book opens with chapters which are only blinking at first, structured in small bursts as the narrator describes to the reader the encroaching of the eponymous pterygium on the surface of their eye, the conjunctivitis threatening to cloud his vision if not seen to soon. Set in a version of Mexico City which is teetering on the edge of violence and environmental decay, the narrator—referred to jokingly by his wife as “Arthur,” in reference to the poet Arthur Rimbaud, but who otherwise goes unnamed—is likewise caught on the edge of several precipices: a wife who is pregnant with their daughter, the publication of a book he is editing for a Would-Be-Writer, and potential financial ruin.
It is a standard set up, but otherwise a solid base to build on. As the due date for Arthur’s baby gets closer, and as his eye continues to get worse, the narrator is forced to reconnect with his estranged mother and brother. Both named Alex in a cruel reference to the Rimbaud line “O Mother, I’m the slave of my baptism, you have caused my misfortune and you have caused your own!”, Arthur is the not-so-proud son of a family-run gun manufacturer whose logo can be found on the stocks of the guns which litter daily news reports. A would-be poet, pacifist and vegan, the reunion is also Arthur compromising his ideals, but what’s more, his mother and brother are one of the many contributors to the dystopian feel of Morrison’s Mexico City. As Morrison describes it: “The blood on TV, the corpses, the rising death count, the people unaccounted for in this country—a narrative that somehow draws you in.”
It is a visceral and tactile landscape, given to us with a near nonchalant acceptance of the inevitable. In the same way that the disease which is inching across Arthur’s eye is slowly blinding him, so too is Mexico City being slowly covered by a layer of pollution which is close to blocking out the sun. The streets are jammed with traffic which goes nowhere, spewing only more ash and dirt into the air, and as the novel continues, there is a sense there is only one way left for this city to go: pop. But what makes Morrison’s debut exciting is his ability to tread the line between the mundane and the terrible. The common and the frightening. The writing is razor sharp, able to dance between the narrator’s exasperation in the face of a hack writer and his fear and anxiety as he juggles his family and gun-running cartels. Even the growing pterygium on Arthur’s eye—as metaphorically ladened as it is—feels so real that you could be mistaken for thinking it was creeping along your own cornea.
It is, as all good debuts are, a real proof of its author’s talents. When meeting with his family, Arthur discovers that his mother has been consulting a clairvoyant. It is an almost Pynchonesque piece of absurdity—a gun runner with a psychic—but Morrison is able to give it an existential tension. The clairvoyant has predicted a death in the family, which could mean his own wife and child. It is a perfect blend of the mythical and cynical. Arthur’s wife and soon-to-be mother of his daughter is an urban planner and in her spare time is working on a paper town which if implemented could reduce the pollution in the city, while his mother is a gun wholesaler who takes pot shots at paper people. But in a world where gun sales are going up and poetry pays no money, how can he be certain that his daughter or pregnant wife will be safe?
That’s not to say the novel is without fault. As with every book where the protagonist is a writer, the scenes about writing tend to feel a little less essential to the story. Arthur is caught up in the editing of a book about writers who have lost a part of themselves (one an arm, another a brother in the womb), but while it fits well into the sense of death and disease which is ever present in Morrison’s Mexico City, the scenes themselves feel like stop gaps in an otherwise lithe story.
But then again, maybe it’s forgivable. Morrison is exploring several interlocking ideas and rather than self-indulgent, perhaps these scenes could be read as instructive. Not just for writing, but in how to manage our own lives in the face of the end of the world. As Arthur tells the Would-Be-Writer himself: “Your memory and your sense are only the nourishment, the fuel for your creative impulse. But there’s a lot of work to be done after that.”
Publisher: Autumn House Press
Publication Date: Mar. 22nd, 2022
Reviewed by Mark Daniel Taylor