Vol. 111 (2021)  

Jay Fox On: Betina González’s American Delirium


By Jay Fox

Brooklyn, NY, USA


Betina González’s English debut, American Delirium (2021), begins with the bizarre home invasion of a taxidermist, the unexplained disappearance of a middle-aged woman, and a string of violent attacks perpetrated by urban deer. Linking these three storylines is albaria, a flower native to the island of Coloma with psychoactive properties, similar to classical psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin, that has suddenly started sprouting in the forests and cemeteries around the anonymous and fictional Midwestern city where the novel takes place.


Each of these storylines follows a focal character. Vik, the taxidermist, is a middle-aged immigrant from Coloma with a severe pain disorder that keeps him isolated and opiated and who spends the majority of the novel engaged in an uneasy entente with the seemingly albaria-munching young woman whom he has caught breaking into his home. Berenice, the teenage daughter of the missing woman, is resourceful enough to get by on her own, but isn’t quite precocious enough to be able to track down her mother on her own. Beryl, meanwhile, is a hotheaded ex-hippie with plans to provide weapons training to a geriatric militia with the goal of exterminating the cervine menace. She is even an apologist for a fellow septuagenarian who bludgeoned a fawn to death with a shovel believing that the deer are about to rise-up like it’s Planet of the Apes, but, you know, with deer.

It is a hell of a setup, and, at first glance, it has all the makings of a screwball mystery, a surrealistic coming of age novel, or a dark and absurdist take on age-related dementia. Given that the woods circling the city are not only populated by marauding does and bucks, but also by a group of human adults who’ve gone full-on Timothy Leary and started referred to themselves as “the dropouts,” you would think that it would be littered with psychedelic brain droppings and tripped out monologues, but the book is far more sober than the opening chapters would lead you to believe. It is not psychedelic. It is not surreal. It is not particularly mystical. Rather, González’s story is grounded, precise, and paced in a way that gradually illuminates the connections uniting Vik, Beryl, Berenice, a few ancillary characters, and even the deer in a manner that also allows the author to explore the sense of malaise that permeates contemporary American society in a brisk 208 pages that is written in a prose that is utilitarian without being spartan, driven, and confident (particularly in the Beryl sections). Heather Clearly’s translation is superb.


Even if drugs play a central role in the novel—be it albaria or the opioids that keep Vik socially isolated but pain-free, or the dozens of substances Beryl consumed in her wilder days during the late 60s—delirium, within the context of this book, does not seem like it should be taken to be synonymous with a drug-induced state. The novel’s Spanish title, América Alucinada (2016), suggests as much. Alucinada does mean “to hallucinate,” but it also comes from the Latin ālūcinor, which means “to wander in mind.” It would seem to be an allusion to a lack of focus or—to perhaps stretch this meaning to the breaking point—a kind of stupor.


Given the direction in which the book goes, this seems right. González’s characters feel adrift within not just a vacuous culture, but a functionally barren landscape. It’s like they’re lost in a bad dream. Gone are the epic canyons or mountains like those that inspired Dvorak to write his New World Symphony. Gone are the cityscapes that inspired writers like Dos Passos or Sinclair Lewis to champion, celebrate, or occasionally satirize the dynamism of American urban life. González’s America is a far greyer landscape that seems neither urban nor townlike nor suburban nor rural. It lacks vitality. It is oppressed by exhaustions both economic and cultural because of an overwhelming sense of detachment from nature and the social fabrics that have tied communities together since even prehistoric times. Even the bar on the once-thriving Grandville Avenue is called the Graveyard. Beyond the computer store, the surveillance store, and Berenice’s mother’s flower shop, it’s all that’s left.

Jay Fox

This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. This hollowing out of the American middle (both as a general geographic location and a class) is due to forces that have been in play for decades, and the standards that America generated for itself and projected onto the world as normative are now increasingly disparate from the realities that the American middle-class faces. In other words, the fiction that a “normal” family can afford a split-level home on a manicured lawn still resonates with people. It is something to which to aspire.


It is easy to cynically chide this fiction. It’s also something that American countercultural movements have been doing since at least the 1950s. But González recognizes that this kind of aspiration for middle class normalness is part of the larger fiction of America, and she makes it clear from the beginning that her novel hopes to engage with and critique it. The novel’s epigraph indicates as much:


What you have to do is enter the fiction of

America, enter America as fiction.

It is, indeed, on this fictive basis that it dominates

the world.

-Jean Baudrillard, America


What makes González’s work unique is that she does not focus just on the fiction of suburban normalcy or the heroic mythology of America with which we are most familiar—as a symbol of freedom or individualism or innovation or swashbuckling enterprise or meritocracy—that can then be unmasked as a means of supporting systems of oppression. She does not focus on the fiction of consumerism or advertising or social media. She does retrace these tired steps.


What I took away from American Delirium was a more original critique not of the fiction that that wraps itself in the flag, but of the fiction that has been sewn into the DNA of American countercultural movements going back to at least the 1920s (i.e. BabbittOn the RoadEasy Rider, etc.). Her target is the fiction of liberation.


At the heart of every American countercultural movement, particularly White countercultural movements for the past 100 years, has been the notion that participation can somehow “set you free” or wake you up or allow you to recognize some true self that’s been buried because of the demands of conformity and the ridiculous aspiration of the white picket fence or the set of glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections in them and so on. It is an alluring message, to be sure, especially when it’s paired with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (or whatever your music choice happens to be), but it’s ultimately vacuous. As González suggests, such liberation can only offer the putative negation of the status quo via disengagement because no counterculture has created a coherent replacement (revolutionary) model. To engage with it is to entertain a brief delirium, however ecstatic it may be, that does nothing to disrupt the soul-crushing forces of conformity that have been demonized by dorm-room philosophers for generations (guilty). As González says of one of the dropouts towards the end of the book, the character is not a menace. She is just “a poor girl tired of the comforts into which she’d been born.”


It has to be remembered that these countercultural forces are part of the fictive narrative of America, too. They are the yin of the more consumeristic yang, and they represent yet another fiction that America tells itself. Sometimes the two fictions even get presented simultaneously, as was the case when 2012 Vice Presidential Republican candidate Paul Ryan tried to paint himself as a rebel who got down with Rage Against the Machine. Beyond the obvious reaction of, “You are the fucking machine!” such an incident demonstrates how ill-defined the rage of the American counterculture really is and how the concept of liberation it espouses (the goal of the rage) ends up becoming a kind of universal petulance without any real definition except its opposition to its opposite, whatever that opposite happens to be. This is how you end up with an “alt-right.”


This is not to say that this is the only fiction explored in American Delirium or that González hopes to portray all countercultural figures as either false prophets or fools. I don’t believe that she is that cynical. However, she does paint a portrait of America, particularly Middle America, that is besieged by a deep sense of dissatisfaction, confusion, and angst ready to buy into yet another fiction. Given what has happened in this country since the time the novel was written (2015-6), I would say she was pretty on the mark. 


Jay Fox   



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.