I’ve always bristled at the idea that there are only a few real, original stories that all novelists follow. I understand the generalization: so many of our narratives can be boiled down to the same plot points, archetypes, and characters. Sure, many of the stories we tell have been repeated over time, but this has always felt like an oversimplification to me of what it means to try to write and construct a nuanced and realistic narrative.
It was not until I read a line from Lina Meruane’s latest novel that I began to put words to why that lack of nuance bothered me: “suffering was nothing but a repetition.” We may have read stories about illness, bodies, science, and family before, but suffering is a repetition that we have all experienced before in vastly different ways.
The riddle of suffering acts as a backbone to Nervous Systems by Lina Meruane, a novel translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, which was published by Graywolf Press in May 2021. The protagonist, Ella, is an astrophysics Ph.D. candidate struggling to finish her dissertation on dying stars and uninhabitable planets. Fearful of disappointing her father, who spent his life savings funding her graduate school ambitions in another country, as well as her partner El and the rest of her loved ones, she wishes she might become temporarily ill so she can have more time to complete her writing.
But not long after she makes this wish, Ella experiences strange bodily symptoms her doctors cannot explain or diagnose. As her anxiety about her health grows, her own body becomes one of those uninhabitable places in the universe she focused on in her own research. Her mother died while giving birth to her, and Ella realizes her own birth destroyed her mother’s life and body, causing her to feel all the more guilt for wanting to be sick. She realizes that the body she now inhabits was what made her own mother’s body uninhabitable, and the enigma of her late mother haunts her and her family throughout the book.
The absence of Ella’s mother manifests physically in Ella’s body, as well as the body of her brother, referred to as First Born, “His mother’s absence was an organ that went on secreting anguish within his body.” Meruane envisions the bodies of her characters as porous. Their trauma is as essential to their body as any other vital organ. Ella’s illness allows her to be increasingly pulled into her own family’s mysterious illnesses and violent experiences back in her unnamed home country, as though she is succumbing to the gravity of their own bodies.
The novel is written in fragments, small bursts of contemplation and knowing that are at odds with Ella’s own failed dissertation. Just as Ella struggles to answer her own questions about uninhabitable planets, she struggles to make sense of her broken body as well as the bodies and minds of those around her. These poetic fragments feel dizzying at times, even disorienting, but Meruane does this on purpose: after all, Ella is just as lost in space as she is in her own body as it falls apart. So is her Father, her Stepmother, the First Born, her younger step siblings the Twins, and her partner El. It is only when I allowed myself to be swept up by the fragments that the novel’s rhythm became apparent—like a muscle subjected to consistent exercise, my sense of how to read this novel grew stronger as I read on.
Nervous System fits into a similar space that other contemporary literary novels reside in such as Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which contend with science not as a concrete answer but as a launching pad for bigger questions about faith, desire, violence, and certainty. Ella, however, is not merely reckoning with aimlessness and scientific inquiry, but the instability of political violence in her unnamed home country. Meruane positions Ella and her characters within a background of the often unspoken trauma her homeland has suffered in such a way that amplifies their pain beyond their own bodies: in other words, their bodies have suffered not merely for medical reasons, but political and social ones as well. The collective body of their homeland suffers and ripples out into Ella’s unknown illness.
Cosmology and outer space function as metaphors for the distance Ella feels from others and from her own well-being. But the isolation she feels is not one that can ultimately be remedied by a diagnosis: “The diagnostic odyssey was beginning, but a diagnosis is nothing but a label on a body.” Nervous System doesn’t treat diagnosis as an answer, but merely a name that alone cannot encapsulate illness and the violence it perpetuates against Ella’s body, self, and homeland.
Throughout Nervous System, Meruane’s characters confuse galactic bodies with their own bodies, extending the mysteries of the universe to our own mortality: “She watches a vitamin dissolve in water. Rising bubbles that burst, birthing an effervescent galaxy that Ella will swallow.” Meruane likens the simple task of taking a vitamin to consuming something cosmic and far larger than her body could ever be.
Ella’s journey towards health is one that parallels cosmic questions she cannot answer in her own dissertation, lending gravity to the disorienting world of her own unknown illness. Just as she cannot find answers to her own research questions about uninhabitable planets, she is similarly mystified by her own body and the bodies of others. Her own physical systems, including her nervous system, are yet another phenomena she and others cannot parse.
The anxiety Ella feels about her unnamed illness, as well as the health of those around her, alienates her. Fear, worries, and nerves simultaneously bring characters together or else rupture their relationships entirely, including Ella’s romantic relationship with El. Meruane uses x-rays to quite literally illuminate this, allowing Ella and El to get to know one another in more intimate ways, “Resonance, echo, is medicine’s blind howl. A sonorous ray of images in the body’s impenetrable darkness.” Rather than approach science and medicine as objective and static disciplines, Meruane positions them as enigmatic and intangible as any divine entity.
Yet despite Ella’s own failures as a scientist, she never stops wanting to see, know, and understand more about the human body. Her curiosity is one that has propelled her since childhood, yet she only studies the dead bodies of stars, while her partner El studies the dead bodies of humans. Even El is fixated on this idea: after all, he studies ancient bones. For both of them, it is not enough to talk about the body or the self or even the universe, and Ella in particular insists on seeing the mechanics behind her own pain and the pain of others all for herself, no matter how disturbing they might be: “Ella wanted to see the organs, smell them, maybe even touch them, and she didn’t say lick them because that might worry the teacher […] she wanted to see the things she’d been imagining all her life.” She applies her scientific interest and approach to the body as well as to the stars, convinced that if she can see and understand all of the parts, she will find all of the answers she needs. But studying the dead—their bones, their organs, and whatever they left behind—can only answer some of her questions. Other questions will, like Ella’s dissertation, linger on unanswered and perpetual, repeating themselves without answer.
I’ve never read a novel quite like Nervous System, which insists that the narratives I am familiar with favor only one way of telling a story about illness that we’ve heard before. Instead, Meruane has written this narrative as a constellation, operating in a space we can’t quite see or understand, but that still aligns itself into a system that supports Ella’s and her family’s understanding of their intangible pain.