Ronnie Medellín starts his second novel, El infierno es aquí: Recursos Humanos (Camelot América, 2018), in a non-threatening setting that soon gets disturbed—an office building where a few inexplicable events destroy the numbing peace of the workers’ lives. The novel begins on a very suggestive note, with an office worker, Miguel, being awoken from a nap by an ear-piercing alarm which he has never heard before in the building and which doesn’t seem to stop. Miguel thinks himself alone until he comes across his colleague, Juan, who at first pretends nothing unusual is going on: they just had to stay alone in the building to work extra hours, and are waiting for the Internet connection to return so they can finish their tasks and go home. The narrative then moves to the upstairs floor, the Human Resources department, where 25-year-old Mauricio, introverted, relatively new to the job, and the youngest of the group, and Julián, his aggressive and opportunistic co-worker, find the body of their boss in his office. Downstairs, Miguel and Juan discover a trail of blood that has filtered from the upstairs room and call Human Resources to find out what is happening. From then on, the actions, reactions, and transformations of these four men will be connected.
Many of the elements present in El infierno es aquí were already outlined and explored in Medellín’s previous works, which include two short story collections, Asesinos accidentes (Pictographia, 2013) and Instantes de muerte (Ediciones Torbellino, 2015), as well as the novel Dieciséis toneladas (Tierra Adentro, 2016), winner of the prestigious José Revueltas Award. Medellín, an avid reader of science fiction, horror, and all things fantastic, incorporates and mixes elements of these genres with detective fiction and noir. Folk tales and oral stories, so prevalent in the Mexican consciousness, also filter into these narratives, and the topic of magic and brujería was highlighted in the promotion and early reception of his first novel.
Medellín’s stories often incorporate dark humor and irony, characters who are overwhelmed and numbed by their unfulfilling existences, especially men who are oddly self-aware of their toxic masculinities and the way they treat women, but who, despite this awareness, are incapable of—or refusing to—make a change. These men, like Rafael in Dieciséis toneladas, and Mauricio in El infierno es aquí, often imagine themselves as characters in movies, television shows, literature. Art and fiction are forms of escapism for them, representing everything their lives are not. This explains why, when their monotonous existences get derailed by a horrifying event, they find it, at first, thrilling and exciting, and almost welcome it.
Medellín often accompanies his stories with a soundtrack. In Dieciséis toneladas, it was blues. In El infierno es aquí, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” helps set the tone from the beginning, invoking an atmosphere where the quotidian and the fantastic interlock. The mystical and prophetic elements of the song foreshadow how the events in the novel will develop, and this development is, in turn, accompanied by Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Although his previous stories take place in urban settings and the streets, nooks, and corners that constitute them, in his second novel, Medellín encloses all the action in an office building. Whereas some of his previous stories were set in Mexico, and often in cities reminiscent of San Luis Potosí, where Medellín has lived most of his life, El infierno es aquí could happen anywhere. Only a few colloquialisms and expressions from the dialogues (such as chingar, that polysemic verb ever-present on our tongues as well as those of the characters) give the reader a few hints that the action is taking place in Mexico. But indeed, this novel has a universal feel to it. The trials and tribulations of office workers—the boredom, the exploitation, and the bad conditions—are prevalent in most capitalist societies.
It is, perhaps, a sign of the times. Other contemporary works, produced in other languages, also find that the workplace is a nourishing environment for science fiction and horror, even in different media. In recent years, English-language podcasts, such as The Magnus Archives and Wolf 359, have been bringing together such elements in a different medium and longer forms. TMA begins as a horror anthology, with an archivist slowly fulfilling the boring task of recording statements regarding supposedly supernatural events so they can be researched, but soon the listener finds out that the statements are connected, and that the workers who are dealing with them are getting dragged into things much bigger than their job description entails and to which they did not consent. Similarly, Wolf 359 deals with the working relationship and everyday adventures of a research group stationed in space, orbiting the star Wolf 359. We soon witness, though, that the dangers within the station, within this unique work environment that has turned into the quotidian, the routine, are as scary and big as the ones hidden in the unknown outer space. In Medellín’s novel, similarly, the microcosmos of the office building, the cubicles, the reception, the concierge’s office, is touched by the uncanny and transformed into a menacing entity from which it is impossible to escape.
In El infierno es aquí, there is a strong criticism of office jobs and everything they entail. Medellín achieves this at two levels—the metaphorical, or symbolic, with the terrible events unleashed in the office that drag his characters from one plan to the other and one paranoia to the next, and the clear, direct enunciation level. In their thoughts and dialogues, the characters reflect upon their actions in the workplace, how they have or are planning to advance their careers, and what that is doing to their personality and sense of identity. Miguel, stuck in a mediocre post because he refuses to betray anyone and use other people as a ladder, is a foil to Julián, charismatic but ultimately useless, who has survived and obtained promotions in the office by stealing everyone’s ideas and scheming to get them out of the way. Julián sees the death of his boss as an opportunity to ascend the corporate ladder, and his original concerns regarding calling the police are all about whether being involved in the investigation as a witness would damage his prospects. Miguel is young and doing the job, like all the others, not out of passion, but because he needs a salary to survive. Indeed, the characters, although they remember their job titles, cannot remember what task they were supposed to be doing that had them so late at night in the office, adding to the feeling that every day is the same and every assignment just as meaningless. Juan, on the other hand, is a boring man, who believes his failed marriage was caused by his fatness, his nonexistent skills as a lover, and his general lack of spirit and imagination. The fatphobia Juan experiences, internalized and otherwise, is a key element of his character and part of what detonates his transformation throughout the novel from a bullied child into a violent, bloodthirsty warrior.
It must be pointed out that the only way women are present in this novel is in the thoughts and memories of the men who loved them or had a sexual interest in them. There is a kind of denouncement, however, of the added layer of hostility that women experience in office spaces—on top of everything else their male colleagues deal with, women must also navigate the advances of co-workers and bosses—but their own voices and thoughts are absent from the narrative in this case.
In the publicity that Dieciséis toneladas received, there was a common emphasis on the noir aspects of the novel, such as the murders to be solved, the deeply flawed agents of the law in charge of solving them, and the political aspects that always accompany such narratives in Mexico—especially, the portrayal of corruption and the complicity between authorities and criminals, the lack of care for legality, justice, or reparation. However, it was also pointed out that Dieciséis toneladas is a fantastic narrative, a genre that nowadays enjoys a high prestige and interest from readers, publishing houses, critics, and cultural authorities alike. It is not uncommon for noir or detective fiction writers in Mexico to also be passionate science fiction readers and authors: Rafael Bernal, the author of one of the most renowned Mexican noir novels, El complot mongol (1969), also wrote science fiction, as does noir writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who also directs one of the most important literary institutions in Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Medellín, in that sense, is inserting himself into a tradition in Mexican literature, one that has only overcome its marginality in recent decades.
Indeed, Medellín gives us a key as to how to read El infierno es aquí, and points to where his affiliations lie, in the author’s note that precedes the novel, in which he mentions Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death and the three deities present in it, as well as Peter J. Carroll and chaos magick. This note tells us that the earliest events in El infierno es aquí are more than a murder mystery and that their solution is tangled with forces greater than the characters manage to comprehend. The novel is, in that sense, as much a critique of capitalism and a working environment that not only makes us wish for ultimate destruction, but also makes us actively work towards it, as it is a speculative novel that utilizes strange and chaotic gods whose intervention in the world is random and impossible to replicate.
If El infierno es aquí is reduced to its essential elements, it can be seen that Medellín takes classic topics of literature—“be careful what you wish for,” the uncanny, the transformation of the quotidian into a menacing, destructive force, among others—and plays with them on a stage that helps him critique capitalism and how it numbs the senses, minds, and spirits of office workers. The result is a disturbing narrative that intrigues, amuses, and deeply involves the reader. Despite my reservations, I found myself rooting for these unlikely heroes; I hoped for a positive outcome for them. But there is no law or morality to the deity that toys with them, and I soon felt myself being dragged along through the chaos and terror that the characters were living. It is a fascinating novel by an author who, although young and still in an early stage of his career, has a clear idea of what he wants his literature to be. Hopefully, it will not be his last work.