Gesell dome is a blanket term for the many variations of device that utilize a one-way mirror for observing a subject without disturbing it (or letting on that it’s being observed). Saccomanno’s gargantuan novel takes its name both from that device and from the name of the tourist city in which the novel is based — Villa Gesell. Saccomanno uses the Gesell dome as a narrative device, structuring the book much like an endless Camera Eye, a la John Dos Passos. Newspaper articles, ads, and more traditionally narrated segments make up the book, sprawling along without chapter breaks. The effect is like being tied to a stake on Main Street while the personifications of sin parade by, occasionally smacking you as they go.
Gesell Dome is, essentially, an unflinching exposé of Villa Gesell’s citizens, a couple dozen or so of them, in particular, as they weather the off-season by having affairs, doing drugs, stealing from and killing each other. Because the book cleaves itself to structure, it is essentially plotless — as life is plotless. Progress occurs incrementally, randomly. Time passes. Viewing all this is Dante, ostensibly the protagonist and a bald reference to Dante’s Inferno. Dante is the sole writer for El Vocero, one of the local newspapers that reports everything sans identity, because the Villa is the sort of place where a reporter would disappear in the sand if he pissed off the wrong person. And yet, Dante is also revered — His newspaper is kept afloat by the Villa’s elite, everyone reads his paper, and he is largely left alone by the many, many criminals in town. But to focus on Dante would misrepresent the book.
The cloud that hovers over the Villa is “los abusaditos,” a group of school children who have been abused at a prestigious school. The scandal is hidden, hushed, and buried, but it’s forever on the minds of those in the Villa, and everyone worries that the news will reach the tourists, ruining their summer, and thus their year. Simultaneously, life goes on. Other children are abused; one infant is found burned to death in a forest. A pregnant girl commits suicide; grocers are robbed; a mentally stunted man-child screams and is transformed into a local legend. On, and on. In a way, this is reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but the end goal isn’t inundation — it’s witnessing. Details are documented, incidents reported — and re-reported. To be blunt, Bolaño was operating on a higher plane. “Los abusaditos,” the real estate scams, the fiddled city contracts, all the murders, suicides, thefts, assaults, rapes, births, weddings, deaths — none of them ever really come to a head. If Gesell Dome were a work of nonfiction, it might be lauded; but as a work of fiction, it often lacks the skeleton that makes a novel a novel. There isn’t much of a point. Incidents repeat without meaning. The off-season grinds on.
Gesell Dome can reach upward, occasionally crystallize a moment beyond opinionated reportage. Then, it can soullessly, and artlessly, catalogue.
El Atlético’s warehouse encloses a haze of choripan and burgers; soft drinks and beer make the rounds. And, of course, wine cartons, too.
An artless sentence, speaking to what? Contrariwise, the reader occasionally gets moments like this:
Then we saw him. The kid wasn’t more than fifteen [. …] He was on top of the dune. Calm, staring at the sea. He didn’t even notice us. He appeared to be seeing the sea for the first time. He didn’t even flinch when he heard the police sirens [. …] The kid had a tattoo on his forehead: a tiger. He walked down the dune and started running toward the sea [. …] The sea brought the kid back in. After five days. We found him in the north, beyond the cabana-rental stands. He washed up after the southeaster. He was swollen, deformed, nibbled by fish.
Lucas, who knows about tattoos, said that those hadn’t been done on Bond Street. They were from jail. They showed up better on the dead flesh. Darker, they seemed.
A genuinely touching moment for a throwaway character. These are the infuriating extremes Saccomanno has created. Virtually none of the characters are lovable; they’re all horrible, selfish people. And there is no ‘but.’ There is only a kind of understanding that everyone in Villa Gesell is this way, and that this is how one survives. Death is expected, and it’s best to wring any joy you can from what you’re given.
Ultimately, Gesell Dome is a repetitive, overlong beast about corruption, violence, and the transformative effect of the everyday: these shocking events become banal with repetition — statistical, distant. The crimes, the affairs, all add up to a kind of plain realization: This is life — this is happening. Has happened, will happen. It’s the stuff that all lives are made of. And yet that’s not enough. Art is meant to transcend, and Gesell Dome is rooted to the earth. There is more to be done for the people of the Villa, and the reader, than revealing what goes on behind closed doors; we’re supposed to be shown a way out. Gesell Dome only shows the way in. For a book that wears Inferno on its sleeve, perhaps that’s appropriate. Only Dante got out of Hell.