Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: "Mexican Eskimo" by Anker Frankoni

This review appears before your eyes, dear reader, only after a lengthy ethical dilemma on the part of your resident grump.  Namely: is it wrong to accept a free book for promotion purposes, and then utterly trash it in a review? Or is it more wrong to withhold my thoughts on the book, and spare someone else the unpleasant experience of reading it?

My wise friend, Mac, pointed out that if accepting promotional copies of books means that one must only give them good reviews, then all an author would have to do to prevent bad press is to send a promotional copy to every reviewer. ("Ha!  You cannot give me an honest review now! Mwahahahahaha!”)

As the book in question--Mexican Eskimo by Anker Frankoni--is a new release by a debut author, reviews are thin on the ground. None of them so far mention the issues I had with the book. (Whether Mexican Eskimo is fiction or memoir adds an additional complication to reviewing it. Certain criticisms can be leveled at fiction, which cannot be handed out the same way when it is the author's own life being analyzed. Ask me sometime what happened at the beginning of my third writing course.)

In the end, I feel obliged to warn readers that the way that the book is described is... not technically false, but seriously misleading. As much as I empathize with Frankoni, as someone who hopes to publish her own books down the road, I write reviews for readers, not for authors.

And this is "Book Grumps," after all. It would be a betrayal of the crankiness promised in the domain name if I were to pander to terrible fiction at this point.

That's enough of a preface, I suppose.

1 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Content warning belongs at the top for once: review contains discussion of graphic child sexual assault and crude language.

The blurb for Mexican Eskimo is as follows:
"Mexican Eskimo" is a story for grown-ups: a love story about finding trust and hope amidst generations of anger and neglect, suicide and substance abuse.

A faithful documentation of a most unlikely existence, "Mexican Eskimo" is an intricate layer-cake of actual and imagined pieces of dimly remembered facts, generously frosted with sweet, sticky gobs of gospel-truth fantasies.

The story is peppered with international flavor, vibrant characters, multi-cultural themes, and lush settings. It is rife with magical realism, and also features a large cast of young protagonists struggling with identity conflicts and independence, described in a range of historical periods from the 1850's, 1930's, the present day, and even in worlds that existed so long before now that time itself had not yet started to be counted in years.
None of those things are untrue, they're just not... how I would have described the novel. Memoir. Book. I'm gonna go with "navel-gazing slurry of obscenity."

Dear reader, if you intend to read Mexican Eskimo, skip the forward. And the first chapter. They contain no objectionable content, but... that's only because they are nearly content-free, no matter how many words fill up the pages. It's like a reading comprehension quiz, or translating from another language: although you will know the meaning of every word on the page, you'll find yourself needing to look away at the end of every paragraph to say "Okay, now, what does that mean all put together?" Without those regular checks for comprehension, you'll find yourself three pages in before the realization dawns that you have no idea what you just read. 

I tried reading the first page aloud to some friends, watching their foreheads slowly wrinkle in bewilderment. One stopped me halfway through the first paragraph. Another friend snatched the book out of my hands, glared at the words for a few minutes, then flipped ahead. Abruptly she recoiled and slammed the book shut. She'd found the book's other problem. (More on that in a moment.)

And these were intelligent friends. Book-loving friends. Ivy-League-educated friends. The incomprehension was not due to any failing on their part.

Thankfully (sort of), this aimless word-flurry is only present when the narrator directly addresses the reader. Most of the book is written in a standard third-person past-tense voice. Unexceptional in execution, easy to understand. (The better to horrify you with, my dear!)

Alright, I thought, so what's going to be good about this book that brought in its slew of four- and five-star ratings on Goodreads and Amazon? I continued slogging onward, eager to uncover hidden treasures in this meandering, scatological mess.

I... did not find them.

(Dear reader, you should know my policy by now: if I don't like a book, I have no qualms about spoiling all of it for you.)

The ending suggests that all along, the book's subject all along was intended to be the narrator's mother, and that the theme was the terrible long shadow cast by abuse. Given that the narrator, without fail, identifies more strongly with (male) abusers than with (female) victims, that message is a little blurred. The men of his story are visionary, daring, and virile, for all their perversion; the women are perfect breasts. Especially his mother's. That's how she is introduced: as breasts.

The book has victims, for sure. I wouldn't say that it is about or in support of victims.

At first, I laughed out loud at the sex scenes in the book and the overblown metaphors. By the end, though, my stomach was actually churning with disgust. With one exception--the narrator's great-grandmother--every female character in the book is a) teenaged and b) sexually abused. I want to say "twice over"--once by another character, and once by the lascivious descriptions of the narrator. Rape scenes go on for pages. A kidnapped child is depicted as a conniving sexpot, while the narrator sympathizes with the violent child molester who was forced to marry her. Witnesses to rapes are turned on rather than appalled. An origin myth of the Inuit is given as the brutal mass rape of orphaned girls by an animal, in an actual pile of human shit. That was more than ten pages of narrative, and reading it, one has the impression it was meant to be erotic.

(That, by the way, is the section my friend accidentally flipped to without warning.)

If I am to be generous, I do like the intent that this book would be an exculpation and a memorial for the narrator's mother. That it would take a telling of generations for Anne to be truly understood. In the end, however, the book isn't about Anne. It's about the narrator's pierced dick, like it's always been about some man's dick, and how the narrative voice of the book always, always, always identifies with a fellow dick over a victim.

That said, the final scenes about Anne include the book's one good insight:
--There is one question, and as far as I know it may be the only question, that you must always answer YES to: "Are you afraid I'll kill myself?"
Make any reply to that question other than "
Yes," and it may haunt you for life.
I was disappointed to find that even the initial premise of the book was false. The main character has, in fact, neither Inuit nor Mexican heritage. Instead, he dreams that he is the reincarnation of an ancient shaman who was supposed to be reborn as an Aztec prince, instead of... average white dude. What the blurb calls "time travel" is really just... remembering history. The book is aimless and mind-numbingly dull when it is not outright disgusting.

The narrator spends almost sixty pages in a bathroom stall, suffering from diarrhea while yelling at the imaginary figure of his disappointing stepfather. I can't think of a better metaphor for masculine literary fiction.

Thanks everyone who helped talk me through my moral issues about writing this review, and an extra thanks to JD, who has bravely agreed to read the book and see if he has a different take on it.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 1/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 1/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: graphic sexual content, graphic sexual abuse of children, graphic bestiality, suicide, medical abuse, actual shit everywhere

I received a free copy of this book through the Goodreads Giveaway program for the purposes of reviewing. I received no money for writing this.


  1. Is what's given in the book even remotely a real Inuit origin story? A quick google search suggests not. And, sure, the book is fiction, but if the author's going to play around with whether or not it's really fiction, he might not want to make shit up about other cultures. (Not that it would really seem all right if he weren't playing the true!fiction game)

    1. I... don't think so. The author does make use of the Sedna myth, but veers off into his own particular dog-rape direction.
      The true!fiction elements make this book so hard to judge. I had less trouble with A Million Little Pieces tbh.

    2. It's kind of sad when a flat out lie is easier to deal with.

      I find the whole thing really off putting (the true!fiction business, it still cultural appropriation if you're making shit up?...and the story itself, from what you've said) and I'm finding it very hard not to think unkind thoughts about the author. There's something about the true!fiction thing that makes me (probably unfairly) think that it's a way of avoiding having one's book judged as either fiction or memoir.

      I don't know. I'm sort of morally squicked out just from the premise, never mind the other stuff you mention in your review.