What’s the point of a story if you already know how it ends? What about a life—why go to the trouble? “I was born posthumously,” claims Camilo, the narrator of The Love of Singular Men, a novel by the Brazilian writer Victor Heringer. “I’ve always believed I didn’t come into the world to be, but to have been, to have done.” Camilo is a lonely, wistful man, middle-aged and ailing, ready for his inevitable end. He knows how the story goes. The world and everyone in it can be whittled down to a bare predictability:
How tedious, people. The artists on TV, in the sci-fi films and mystery dramas, the little Napoleons, the bridge jumpers and the sad poets… They’re all just the negatives of the same tedium, the other side of a coin that was always dull, stick it up your arse!, the life of one person is exactly like the life of another, all that changes is the address. And there aren’t that many elements in the universe, all of them classifiable.
Classifiable, predictable, inevitable—this is fate, of a sort. The Love of Singular Men carries the unsettling thrum of an inverted causality, rooted in Camilo’s weary sense that all things have already come to pass. Everything seems to have been decided in advance. The novel is preceded by a “weather report” not unlike a playwright’s production note: “The temperature of this novel is always over 31° C. Relative humidity: never below 59%. Wind speed: never exceeds 6 km/h in any direction.” This is either puckishly postmodern or a touch too cute, but the point is clear. It’s hot, always will be. Nothing changes.
Camilo has a penchant for aphorisms and clichés—“Corrupt are those who wrote the laws, because they invented crime”; “Believe in small kindnesses”—which are perhaps the best ways to describe a universe in which all possibilities for surprise have been foreclosed. The main action of the story is Camilo’s remembrance of a summer forty years before, in 1976, when he was barely a teenager and his white, prosperous family adopted a mysterious, dark-skinned orphan only a little older, Cosme. We already know what will happen. Camilo has spelled it out from the start. After an initial enmity the two boys will fall in love, and summer will turn to fall, and one day Camilo will wake up to learn that Cosme has been killed in a homophobic hate crime. There is no suspense in this novel, only dread.
It starts with creation, a funhouse Genesis:
In the beginning, our planet was hot, sickly yellow and stank of stale beer…. The outer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro were the first things to come into this world, even before the volcanoes and the sperm whales, before Portugal invaded, before President Getúlio Vargas ordered the construction of social housing.
There were no people in these primordial suburbs, not yet. But everything else was already there, not just the plants and animals but the houses, the stores and clubs and lottery stands, even an empty cemetery, waiting until “the streets collected so much dust that man had no choice but to come into being to sweep them. And in the late afternoons, to sit on the porch and moan about poverty.”
The story of humanity is an afterthought. Place precedes people, who eventually arrive to play the parts assigned to them. To tidy up, philosophize, make love, watch television, indulge in feverish and petty feuds, die. This, at least, is how Camilo has learned to make sense of his narrow, violent life, and to render it in language: all of this has already happened. It will happen again and again. Every murder and miracle will recur in waning echoes of the species’ first days, every joke and dream and sunrise—lazy reproductions, layered over one another until the anomalies are smoothed out and all feeling is drained. A world made generic, familiar, fleshless.
The Love of Singular Men was Heringer’s second novel, and his last. He died by suicide in March 2018, three weeks before his thirtieth birthday. He was by then widely recognized as one of Brazil’s most promising young writers: the novel, originally published in Portuguese in 2016, was shortlisted for the São Paulo Prize for Literature; his first novel, Glória, won the Jabuti Prize in 2013. But there was more, an astonishing overflow of works scattered across this short life—a 2011 poetry collection titled Automatógrafo, weekly columns he wrote for the Brazilian literary magazine Pessoa, translations from English to Portuguese, a book of photography collaged with newspaper clippings, drawings, sound installations, some stray video art.
Heringer was a creature of the Internet, a student of its irreverent absurdities and chaotic pathways of association. In one column, he compiled quotes from the comments sections of news articles (“public opinion’s crack district,” he called them). He learned to code so he could make digital books, weaving poetry out of hyperlinks, careening across genres, forms, languages (he spoke several), and borders (he lived in Brazil, England, Chile, Peru, and Argentina). There is, in his work, a delight in feats of compression and preservation—an encyclopedic effort to stuff as much information as possible into smaller and smaller spaces, to snatch something back from the oblivion of abundance.
In another column, he describes trying to convince a friend of why poetry matters, how it can offer countless different modes of thinking, “not all of them comprehensible.” His friend is literal-minded: “Is a shoe not a shoe?” she asks. “Yes, and no,” Heringer replies, and quotes a poem by Robert Bringhurst: “voices/came at me and asked me to take off my shoes,/and I did that. That desert is full of men’s shoes./And the flame screamed, I am what I am.” Then, in its final lines, the column takes a staggering turn:
It’s nearly a decade since my father died. I still use clothes I received upon his death: shirts, pants, suits, every now and then a tie. A pair of nondescript black shoes that he wore to work, and which I wear when I have a wedding or funeral to go to. Today, I wear shoes to work more than ever. I’ve come to wear my father’s shoes more than ever. How they lasted, those things of the recent past.
Only recently has the leather begun to lose its shape, the soles come loose, ten years after the death of their original owner, thousands of kilometers from where he was buried. Here in desert-like São Paulo, full of shoes with no men to fill them.
How things used to last.
This hoarding, memorializing impulse looms over The Love of Singular Men, along with the horror that all things must eventually disappear. Camilo tells how after many years away he has returned to Queím, the fictional Rio suburb where he grew up and met Cosme. “I want to die right where I was born,” he says. “Everyone likes a little symmetry.” He lives alone; no one visits. All he has is this story and some documents to back it up. The novel is littered with Cosme’s final traces, photographs, government records, childhood drawings, which give it the texture of a collage or shoebox archive—feeble fragments shored up for forty years against the fraying of memory.
On their own the artifacts seem unremarkable, though they conjure an air of verifiable reality, however faulty. There is a copy of Cosme’s final report card, a photograph of the street corner where Camilo and Cosme shared their first kiss. Camilo clings to these scraps, but he knows they cannot reveal anything about Cosme or explain the unassimilable rupture and brutality of his death. “He was terrible at maths, but excellent at science, what’s that meant to tell me?” Camilo wonders. He wishes he had a photograph of Cosme to include, but none was ever taken. “The police must have a photo of his prone corpse, his body covered in knife wounds, his face sunken. Not one like that.”
Summer 1976. The Brazilian military dictatorship is at its height—a time of widespread censorship, disappearing dissidents, unsolved killings. Camilo is thirteen and only vaguely aware of all this. He and his younger sister live instead “under the weird dictatorship of childhood: we looked but didn’t see, listened but understood nothing, spoke and were largely ignored.” He’s sheltered and relatively rich. His parents are mostly absent. His father is a doctor; his mother shuts herself away in her room. They’re in the midst of a bitter separation, though Camilo doesn’t pay enough attention to really notice. They forbid him from playing in the street, since he has a bad leg, and “a crippled boy wouldn’t last long among the kids of Queím.” His greatest concerns are avoiding sunburn by his family’s pool (“I’m so white I’m almost green,” he jokes) and making sure his mother’s plants don’t dry out in the heat because, following his inverted logic, “if they turned yellow, autumn would come early, and summer would be over.”
But then Cosme arrives, a crude intrusion into the predictable course of things. Camilo’s father brings him home one day and announces, without explanation, that he’ll be moving in. He’s quiet and polite, with eyes like those of “a puppy that finds itself caught in a rat trap.” Camilo hates him desperately and keeps his distance. There is something almost mythically obscure about Cosme’s origins. He was abandoned as a baby on the steps of a church, he says, and passed from house to house ever since; he was living with an old white woman when Camilo’s father came for him. He’s either fourteen or fifteen, he’s not sure. He carries a photograph of a group of people “posing on the wreckage of a crashed plane.” It’s a clue to his story, he claims, tucked in the folds of his baby blanket when he was found. “I think he cut it out of a magazine, just to invent a story,” Camilo reflects, adding, “and I believed it.” One day, consumed by rage watching his mother say hello to Cosme, Camilo attacks him and breaks his own arm. Afterward he discovers to his surprise that his hatred has somehow disappeared: “With a single blow, I began to love him.”
The boys fall into a heady friendship. Cosme introduces Camilo to the dangerous world out in the street. They join a clique of local boys who are fascinated by Camilo’s wealth and whiteness. They laze about in the afternoons, bickering and gossiping like “crocodiles after lunch, bloated in the shade, almost not seeing the point in so much existence.” They talk about television, firecrackers, and brothels, and compare newfound techniques for masturbating. One day Cosme kisses Camilo. A first kiss like any other, as revolting as it is thrilling:
He grabbed my two arms and tugged (gently, so as not to knock me down), and I went, Bettishly, Davishly. His lips were dry, the splinters of hard skin pricked me…. He opened his mouth, tongue on tongue like the ox tongue Maria Aína used to make. After the grossness of the bolus, it was as though we’d had this desire for ever.
It’s a familiar sort of love: familiar from other stories, maybe from your own life. First love. Describing the rush of those early days, Camilo slips into treacly sentimentality and hackneyed tropes—stolen kisses, brushing hands, stumbling steps toward real intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with this. The novel has flashes of aching poignancy as a queer coming-of-age story and an account of doomed teenage love. But there’s also something suspicious here, a false note; a much stranger sensibility is at play.
The book’s turn toward a tidy narrative brushes uneasily against its style, which, in James Young’s deft translation, is itself bracing, depraved, and, in the way only something truly melancholic can be, very funny. Characters arrive only to be promptly dispatched with weary amusement. “Last time I saw her, about two years ago,” Camilo says of his sister, “it looked like she’d slept in a bath of bleach.” When Camilo’s grandmother dies, he sums up the end of her life with a cutting flick: “alone and inconvenient.” The novel is at its most penetrating and hilarious precisely when dealing with flattened archetypes, the well-worn paths a life can take.
This, it becomes clear, is where Heringer’s true subject lies: not in the individual, but in the generic, in how people play the parts assigned to them. He tips his hand when Camilo, recalling his classmates from elementary school, declares his belief in humanity’s fundamental classifiability:
I’m certain my class could serve as a mould for every human being on the planet. The entire species could be summed up in those forty children (including myself), every tendency and temperament was represented. All the men, all the women, all the wars, all the enslavements and divorces and police forces, history in its entirety was there in embryo form. Humanity will go no further than those forty types. That’s why I didn’t keep in touch with any of my old classmates: I don’t need to, I see them all the time. (Small world.)
He makes a convincing case. In forty brief and striking descriptions of his classmates, Camilo summarizes the totality of human possibility. Archetypes are reduced to initials. The catalog is witty, tender, cruel. A person could be an “N.S.,” who “never watched films unsuitable for her age. When they invented telethons, she donated. When they invented reality shows she voted.” Or a “T. de M. Jr,” “a blabbermouth, and slippery with it. Pointed the finger at troublemakers then hid the finger.” Or an “F. de N.I.,” who “would swap a thousand cruzeiro notes for five, sometimes two, coins, because he thought change was prettier.” For the rest of the novel, new characters are introduced with a quick gloss of their type. Except Cosme, who fits no box. Who (as Camilo says, using the stock phrase of a typical “C.A.C.”) “broke the mould.” The unwritable lover, the singular man—perhaps the most familiar trope of them all.
It would be reasonable to expect, in a novel so relentlessly fixated on archetypes, that the story of Camilo and Cosme might unfurl according to certain rules. There is a genre, of course, for their teenage love: the sweaty and sentimental summer romance with a tragic ending. But other genres lurk in their story, muddying the waters, threatening to burst forth and take over. There are hints of a pulpy noir, or a tale of terrible family secrets finally brought to light. Camilo discovers a folder of evidence that his father committed grisly crimes. There are official documents, an investigation claiming that he helped to torture kidnapping victims, using his medical expertise to keep them alive. Perhaps this is the secret of Cosme’s origins, that he was the child of one of those victims. Heringer dangles this possibility, so at odds with the rest of the novel, then teasingly abandons it. “Official stamps and history are easy to invent,” Camilo says. There is a dark, deflating humor in this bait and switch: maybe the marriage of Camilo’s parents broke down because Camilo’s father was a ghastly criminal, or maybe he was just a sad man who slept with his secretary.
At other moments the novel verges on something altogether different, as when the aging Camilo tracks down the young grandson of the man who murdered Cosme. The boy, Renato, has no family left, no sense of who his grandfather was or what he did; he’s a kid from the street, like Cosme. He comes to live with Camilo, and the two grow close. The genre seems to veer again, this time into the trauma plot, with requisite symbolic forgiveness and middle-aged redemption. But this possibility is thwarted when Camilo finds himself fantasizing about murdering the boy, and the novel briefly drifts toward something more like a soapy multigenerational revenge tragedy.
This is Heringer’s favorite trick, repeated with increasing absurdity: a meticulous scheme of generic scrambling. The story continually reconfigures itself and then unspools, playing chaotically upon the reader’s expectations. The effect is dizzying. But it also seems to serve a deeper purpose. Call it genre, call it fate: the conventions of narrative, Heringer seems to say, offer a false sort of solace, that of an imposed predictability. The past will always catch up with you, just as the prince will marry the princess, and the son will kill the father, and the fraudster’s luck will run out, and the repressed will return. This is all another form of inverted causality: a way of deciding everything in advance, giving shape to randomness, finding precarious purchase on a brutal world brimming with nonsense.
But what if this world really is generic? What if every story has already been told, every person is just a type, every element has been classified? Over the years, Camilo says, his memory of Cosme’s face has faded. He’s just a “worn-out image,” no longer a singular man. Their love, Camilo concedes, was just like anyone else’s—
I loved my Cosme like you loved your first love, who was called Bruno or Pablo or Ilyich, Ricardo or Rhana, Luciano, Eduardo, Diego or Carlos Octávio, Kátia, Mariana, Lucas, Marisa or Carlos Eduardo, Rafael, Raí or Solange, or Luíza, Fabiana, Adolfo, Lígia, Joana, Érica, Mateus. Loved him like Lucas loved Sophia and Daniel loved Gabriela. Like Denilson loved Raiane, like Aline loved Michael, like Raquel loved Guilherme, who died of meningitis. Like Dimitri loved Cristina…
—and on and on for five pages, until the names begin to slide and blur, each love an echo of the last, indistinct but still wholly new. It is representative of Heringer’s grand and strangely devastating achievement in The Love of Singular Men that this climactic passage is neither mawkish nor boring. These are real people, it turns out. They’re the names of people’s actual first loves, replies to a public request on a website Heringer made when he started the novel. Maybe it matters to know this, maybe it doesn’t. The point is that Camilo is right. All of this has already happened; it will happen again and again.