Frankenstein Book Report: Four by Four by Sara Mesa
If Hirokazu Kore'eda directed Secretary if it were written about a prep school instead of a law firm. Translated by Katie Whittemore
As in my hobby and penchant for discovering or engineering a lay person’s celebrity lookalike, and certainly due to years of being a book publicist (if under different guises), I think of books in terms of their closest comparison narratives. I like to start talking to people about books by pinning them to other popular artifacts of narrative culture. This doesn’t discount the unique quality of a book narrative, but I know the people who usually describe books and people the way I do, are lowly regarded types in Hollywood—casting agents and junior managers looking for source materials to exploit. For me, it’s just how I’ve been hard-wired, and I like to think of it as a sort of intertextuality. So that’s what my Frankenstein Book Report is. And perhaps the book that evades any comparison joins an unnamable apex where my brain also cannot fathom any context for reviewing it.
Hapax Legomenon: a word with no context; a word that occurs only once in primary use, frequented mostly in zoological and horticultural texts.
Four by Four [(c, Spanish) Mesa, 2012. Tr (c, English) 2020 Katie Whittemore, Open Letter] is a boarding school drama set in a dystopian reality, probably of the future, indicated by an aggressive form of poverty on the outskirts of the school that doesn’t quite read accurately for the Spain of the present as depicted, and is also marked by the futuresperanto of the word colich to describe the school which is more like a school-state.
Four by Four made me think of both the traditions of boarding school drama— Good Will Hunting, Basketball Diaries, Prep—and of literary dystopias; the one I felt most akin to this was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. But the boarding school definitely and its minor terrors read much more Japanese than European (or I haven’t seen/read enough European school-drama). It feels like what happens after the government responds to Battle Royale, or if Hirokazu Kore-eda had directed All About Lily Chou-Chou (by Shunji Iwai). There’s something awful but acceptable about the horror. [CONTENT WARNING] There’s bulimia, the bullying of a disabled student, gay shaming, and also some cliches that we love: hard-edged girl from the wrong side of the tracks with more sass than intellect, unduly singled out for being poor, ultimately gets the upper hand.
But what made this a really worthwhile read for me, was the understated bondage of a literal sadomasochistic couple at the heart of the administration (a feckless S for a vice principal and a searing hot M as a marm). Interrupted by a substitute teacher who wants to do the colich right.