Postmodern Border Metafiction

Postmodern Border Metafiction: Arming Readers of la frontera and Analyzing its


This section discusses “El hombre muerto pide disculpas” (“The Dead Man Asks

Forgiveness”) and “La silla vacía” (“The Empty Chair”), the two vignettes in Instrucciones that

most overtly resort to postmodern metafictional techniques of frame-breaking. In “El hombre

muerto,” Crosthwaite merges narcoliteratura and metafiction as an ironic means of emphasizing

that the literary representation of the border must be dialogic, as much about cultural production

as those who consume it. In particular, “El hombre muerto” dramatizes a showdown between an

author and a reader who is an aspiring, but frustrated, author in his own right. Immediately, this

reader identifies himself as a sicario, that is, a paid assassin who has accepted the job of

murdering the author, but will not do so before expressing his readerly admiration (35, 36). Yet

the conclusion of this showdown, a presumably lethal encounter, results in parody rather than

tragedy: followed by the reader yet without being intercepted, the author unhurriedly walks to his

car and drives off, watching the reader-would be-assassin recede through his rearview mirror. As

a result, this witty vignette takes the postmodern concept of the death of the author and the

concomitant primacy of the reader to an absurd and literal level by combining the theme of

murder for hire with the metafictional foregrounding of an author’s dependence on language and

on the reader. As Roland Barthes writes in his iconic 1968 essay “The Death of the Author,” “it

is language which speaks, not the author,” ultimately claiming that “the birth of the reader must

be at the cost of the death of the author” (143, 148). Despite the literalization of the author’s

death, however, “El hombre muerto” is ultimately a literary rendering of the reciprocal relation

between authors and readers. In this way, Crosthwaite shows how border representation is never

a question of an individual author or a specialized reader. Instead, “El hombre muerto” offers a

border-based subversion of universalizing postmodernism by exploring the death of the author

and the increasing significance of the reader.

In order to accomplish this subversion, Crosthwaite adapts and modifies the themes of

narcoliteratura by using language ironically. If narcoliteratura typically dramatizes the transit of

violence across borders, Crosthwaite alters this theme by ironically characterizing a reader of

border fiction paid to assassinate a border author. In fact, this dynamic between reader and

author is crucial in demonstrating that this vignette operates not as narcoliteratura proper but

also as metafiction. As a result, in the text the key figures of narcoliteratura, the sicarios and

their “weapons,” do not function in the traditional sense, but instead call attention to the practice

of writing and reading fiction. In this way, the term “assassination” demonstrates the “non-literal

usage of language, where what is said is contradicted by what is meant” (Nicol 13). Like some

mainstream earlier postmodern metafiction, Crosthwaite stages an encounter between reader and

author to underscore the fact that representation is never innocent or natural but always

constructed and fabricated. Unlike such earlier author-reader encounters, however, the theme of

paid assassination offers a literary means of suggesting that a comprehensive border

representation is available only through the interplay between author and reader and not the

privileging of one over the other.

The text’s organization around, and thematic focus on, the reader as would-be sicario

offers a parodic mode of critiquing the idea that only the specialized reader can discern the

meaning of border fiction. This notion of a privileged reader implies that meaning is singular. As

a result, only the specialized reader of border fiction can locate the meaning of the border. While

the title alone, “El hombre muerto,” evokes Barthes, this vignette also cautions against reducing

the author’s death into a mere binary where the reader simply replaces the author as the lone

source of meaning. Presumably, the text indicates that it is not language that speaks but rather the

privileged reader who alone determines meaning. For instance, Crosthwaite affects this

impression by contrasting the author’s silence with the reader’s vocality. The entire text is

comprised of the narrator’s (and author’s) silent thoughts set against the reader’s direct speech,

both rendered in first-person and present tense (35-44). Further, the portrayal of the reader

emphasizes his literary specialization and thus suggests that he is a privileged reader. He states,

“Muy a pesar de lo que podría considerarse, yo soy un hombre culto, y le puedo asegurar que mi

rango de lectura no se reduce a sus libros. He leído much más que eso, obra clásica y

contemporánea” (“Despite all appearances, I am an educated man, and I can assure you that the

level of my reading is not limited to your books alone. I have read much more than that, both

classic and contemporary works” [37]). However, the reader confesses that he “ended

[someone’s] life” because they read “his writing” the wrong way—a clearly exaggerated

response to literary criticism (38). Therefore, while the reader is characterized as the text’s focal

point, this characterization is ultimately parodic.

By staging this potential murder as a dialogue, “El hombre muerto” foregrounds that it is

not, in fact, the reader who is the lone source of meaning, because at the most fundamental level

the reader’s speech is always in relation to the author. As a matter of fact, on a structural level

this speech is available only through the narrator’s reporting. Further, the reader’s presumed

specialization is undermined by the very fact that he must talk about rather than demonstrate it.

Additionally, the confession that the character “reader” murdered another reader because of a

misinterpretation is the thematic means of taking the critical act of interpretation to its extreme.

In “El hombre muerto,” therefore, interpretation is not the sole province of the specialized reader

yet neither is it realized through the titular declaration to eliminate the author.

The ironic characterization of the weapon used to kill the author suggests not only that a

representative border fiction must be multidimensional, but that this process requires new

analytic tools. Specifically, in order for border fiction to approximate the lived realities of

Tijuana citizens, meaning can never belong to either readers or authors but instead is borne out

through transit between the two. Consequently, Crosthwaite draws on parody by framing the

vignette as a story about the death of an author except that the author does not die; weapons do

not function as weapons in the literal sense. As a matter of fact, there is never any indication of

the precise shape, size or type of weapon used by the reader, but instead it is generically referred

to as “el arma” (“the weapon” [36]). Consequently, the reader does not know if “el arma” is a

handgun, an AK-47 like those used by the hit squad in “Mínima historia,” or even a knife.

Rather, the narrator describes the weapon as “un objeto insólita, una herramienta inconcebible”

(“an unusual object, an inconceivable tool” [36]). While the narrator remarks that the weapon is

“inconceivable,” it is also enigmatically labelled a “frontera,” or border, twice. In the first

passage, the narrator states, “[p]ienso en el arma, un bulto imperceptible, una frontera que insiste

en separarnos y señalar nuestras desigualdades” (“I think about the weapon, an imperceptible

mass, a border that insists on separating us and signaling our differences” [40]); in the second,

“[s]u arma divide mi vida. En realidad esa frontera me aísla, me separa del resto, me deja solo”

(“[h]is weapon divides my life. Actually that border secludes me, separates me from the rest,

isolates me” [41]). This depiction of the weapon, therefore, presumably suggests an inconsistent

use of symbol if one remembers the reader’s claim to have killed with the very same weapon that

now operates in contrast to its literal meaning.

Yet the significance of this depiction is not that “el arma”/“frontera” is used both literally

and metaphorically. Instead, it is the way in which “weapon” is an ironic mode of foregrounding

fictionality itself. That is to say, “weapon” signifies the capacity latent in fiction to make

meaning. According to Barthes, the author figuratively dies when the reader comes into being

during the act of reading. He writes, “there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every

text is eternally written here and now” (145). Certainly, the reader is crucial to this process but

meaning-making is never a given and moreover requires the text itself, which presupposes an

author. Thus, in “El hombre muerto,” what “separates” the author from the reader is not a literal

weapon or a metaphorical border, but the potential meaning-making of writing fiction and

interpreting it in the process of reading. Moreover, in a context where the border is abstracted

and concretized, in fiction as well as in military-political efforts, border analytics must parse the

distinctions between these representations. As the conclusion of the text demonstrates, where the

living author is conscious of the reader, this meaning-making must always be plural. This

vignette, therefore, shows that the “weapon” which “kills” is an ironic way of suggesting that

making meaning can be stymied by an overemphasis on either the reader or the author. By

commenting on literary representation in this way, Crosthwaite emphasizes that the discursive

formations which undergird and actualize the border’s form of appearance, as a militarized zone

that is pushed out, or as part of a “worldwide web of spatial threads,” must be oriented by

border-based cultural production and its audiences (Murphet 130).

The other demonstratively metafictional vignette in Instrucciones, “La silla vacía,”

personifies the Tijuana border and by extension endows it with consciousness in order to critique

the dualist language by which the border is perceived. If the metafiction of “El hombre muerto”

stages a confrontation between author and reader, the frames of “La silla vacía” are explicitly

foregrounded through what Patricia Waugh terms “ostentatious typography” as well as

organization (21). In particular, this vignette is organized as a dialogue between patient and

therapist whose statements are typographically indicated as “ZZZ” and “AAA” respectively.

Further, using the “empty chair” technique of Gestalt psychology, the patient is asked to imagine

and speak to the border. In this technique, patients address their speech to an empty chair, which

can symbolize another person, a feeling, or even themselves. The patient “ZZZ” addresses the

chair, and as a result, via personification, Crosthwaite adds a third character, “Frontera,” or

“FNT,” which ‘speaks back’ to the patient. Given this stylistic arrangement, Crosthwaite shatters

the illusion that the story-teller, as well as the means of story-telling, simply provides a window,

albeit concealed, of the world as it actually is. In this way, as Waugh writes, the frames of

narrative are readily “perceptible” and present not the world as is but the world as constructed

(30). By staging a psychological analysis of the dualist construction of the border as either a

“material” or an “imagined limit,” the metafiction in “La silla vacía” constitutes an intervention

in contemporary border scholarship and its polemic of abstract versus site-specific theorizations


The structure of “La silla vacía” as an “empty chair” dialogue between patient “ZZZ” and

doctor “AAA” suggests that the U.S.-Mexico border is ineffable and by extension ostensibly

privileges the language of abstraction. Key to Gestalt psychology is the way in which perception

occurs: an object can never be viewed in terms of its constituent elements before first viewing

the object in its entirety. Given the linguistic system by which humans make sense of the world,

perception is always therefore tied to the question of language. Patient “ZZZ,” however, cannot

perceive the border because he cannot describe it in language. Doctor “AAA” states, “Háblame

de esa Frontera” (“talk to me about the border”) but patient “ZZZ” cannot. He states, “Te dije

que es imaginaria, que no puedo hablar de ella” (“I told you that it is imaginary, that I cannot talk

about her” [84]). This response prompts the doctor to ask, “¿[n]o puedes hablar de lo imaginario?

(“you cannot talk about the imaginary?”) but “ZZZ’s” answer to this is silence indicated by an

ellipsis (84). Further, the doctor picks up on the patient’s feminization of the border and thus

asks, “¿[t]e sientes presionado por una mujer? (“[d]o you feel pressured by a woman?”) Patient

“ZZZ” quickly replies “no” but adds, “[s]ería más fácil si fuera una mujer. Te podría hablar del

color de sus uñas, de sus aretes, sus pulseras, sus anillos. La manera en que se viste: falda,

pantalón. Sus zapatos” (“[i]t would be easier if it was a woman. I could talk to you about the

color of her nails, her earrings, her bracelets, her rings. The way she dresses: skirt, pants. Her

shoes” [85]). Not insignificantly, therefore, in contrast to the itemization of the abstract woman

and the precise attention to detail down to the color of her nails, the border, at least for the

patient, is completely indescribable. The doctor asks, again, “[h]áblame de ella, de la Frontera.

Descríbela por dentro. Imagínala” (“[t]ell me about her, about the Border. Describe her from the

inside. Imagine her” [85]). Yet for the patient, the border is beyond description. He replies, “No

puedo. No tiene…” (“I can’t. She doesn’t have. . .”). Further, “No se puede hablar de ella. No”

 (“She cannot be spoken of. No” [85]). Consequently, in this formulation, the border is

unutterable and inconceivable. Sentences die out in mid-form and the patient both cannot find,

and does not have, the words with which to describe the border. If the patient can neither

describe nor imagine the border, he must direct his comments to its symbolic representation,

which is “la silla vacía.”

In order to set up the text’s stance on theorizations of the border, an emphasis is placed

on the patient’s dialogue via proxy, which highlights the construction of the border as both

imagined and as a limit. Speaking to the chair-as-border the patient states, “[t]e conozco desde

años, desde la infancia” (“I have known you for years, since infancy”). He adds, “[t]engo una

memoria vaga de nosotros jugando en el jardín de mi casa. Yo era un niño solitario. Tú eras una

Frontera solitaria. En ese tiempo eras mi Frontera favorite, no conocía otra” (“I have a vague

memory of us playing in our house’s garden. I was a lonely boy. You were a lonely border. Back

then you were my favorite border and I knew no other” [87]). In the patient’s memories, the

border is personified as capable of feeling, albeit lonely, and playing. No doubt the border is

personified but more importantly in the sentence quoted, as in the entire sub-section, the patient’s

address to the border is in the past tense. In this way, the border referred to is not the border of

the patient’s here and now but that of a remembered, and thus imagined, past. In addition to

being imaginary, however, the border is also a limit. The patient states, “Eras una demarcación”

(“You were a demarcation”). He also says, “[e]ntonces yo necesité libertad, requerí espacios más

amplios para desenvolverme” (“[t]hen I needed freedom, I required wider spaces in which to

develop” [87]). In this account, the border is stifling and restrictive by closing the patient off and

inhibiting his development. Doctor “AAA” suggests calling the border a different name but

patient “ZZZ” is adamant. He claims, “Una Frontera es una Frontera, es un límite, es un confín;

no puedo llamarla Margarita o José Agustín. Tengo que llamar las ideas por su nombre, ¿no me

dijiste eso alguno vez” (“A Border is a Border, a limit, a confinement. I cannot call it Margarita

or José Agustín. I have to refer to ideas by their names, did not you say that once?” [89]). In this

regard, there is a marked ambivalence in the patient’s account of the border. If the border is

imagined it is therefore malleable but since it is a limit it is also intransigent. These accounts

where the border is both a limit and is imagined are presented as a means of staging a conceptual

impasse parallel to the modern-day conflicting theories of the border and more importantly serve

as a point of contrast from which the text departs.

By personifying the border and therefore allowing it to speak back, the text shows how

the intellectual stance of analyzing the border in the language of duality is fundamentally

untenable. For instance, Doctor “AAA” asks “FNT” whether patient “ZZZ’s” accounts are

“fair,” to which “FNT” states, “he oversimplified” (93). According to “FNT,” “ZZZ” provided a

reductive view of the border because “[n]o ha visto su participación” (“[h]e has not seen his

participation” [93]). Tellingly, “FNT” is pressed to clarify and responds with a dualist

conception of the border that does not actually function as such. That is to say, on the face of it,

the language used by “FNT” suggests that the very existence of the border is undergirded by a

fundamental duality. At bottom, however, “FNT’s” formula that the border’s existence is

dependent on the “participation” of border crossers does not hold. “FNT” states, “No hay

Frontera si no existe la necesidad de cruzar.” (“There is no border if the need to cross does not

exist” [94]). Further, “el límite prevalence porque hay quien desea traspasarlo. Toda Frontera

existe solo en la imaginación del que desea franquearla. Es un invento del que vive

enfrentándose a ella. Un binomio perfecto” (“the limit prevails because of he who desires to

transgress it. Every Border exists only in the imagination of those who wish to cross it. It is an

invention of those who live confronting it. The perfect binomial” [94]).

The problem with this duality, or “binomial,” however, is that it cannot perform the

function by which it is defined. To be sure, “FNT” labels the border a “binomial” but it actually

cannot function as such given “FNT’s” formula. By definition, a binomial is the expression of

two unlike terms which can be evaluated. Yet when held up to this definition, “FNT’s” perfect

binomial, “[t]here is no border if the need to cross does not exist,” is inoperable. An evaluation

of the expression illustrates this fact such that the perfect binomial can be rewritten as follows:

subtracting the desire to cross the border results in the cancelling out of the border itself. This

dualist thinking, of course, is a fundamentally untenable formulation given that it presupposes a

world of static and immobile populations. In this way, the text suggests a rethinking of the spatial

paradigm that the U.S.-Mexico border exists as a necessarily state-sanctioned barrier designed to

keep out border-crossers. Doctor “AAA” recognizes the problem with “FNT’s” account, and in

an effort to make this problem known, restates “FNT’s” “thesis.” He states, “Percibo que tratas

de decir que todas las Fronteras están en la cabeza, producto de uno mismo” (“I understand you

are trying to say that all Borders are in the mind, the product of oneself” [94]). “FNT” affirms

and Doctor “AAA” replies, “[e]so es cierto en algunos casos; en otros, las Fronteras son reales

(“[t]hat is true in some cases; in others, Borders are real” [94]). Yet for “FNT,” “real” does not

have meaning but is “incomprehensible” (94, 95). As soon as “ZZZ” re-enters the dialogue,

however, the border takes on markedly real dimensions in the material sense. Doctor “AAA”

asks, “¿Te impide moverte? (“Does the border impede your movement?”[99]). “ZZZ” simply

replies, “it is a border.” This terse response suggests that for “ZZZ” it is clear that by definition

borders inhibit movement. Further, according to “ZZZ,” the border exhibits such a repressive

force that it not only inhibits his movement but “asphyxiates” him (99). As a result, unlike the

flawed perfect binomial of “FNT,” borders for “ZZZ” gridlock any movement and by extension

are not the products of one’s imagination but are in fact tangible barriers, evidenced by the sheer

inability of those who fail to cross them.

The contrasting accounts of “la frontera” in “La silla vacía” can be read as the literary

representation of the larger critical debates on analyzing the U.S.-Mexico border given the

function of metafiction. Foregrounding the machinery of narrative, in this case the text’s

organization as, and typographic emphasis on, a Gestalt dialogue about the border, illustrates

how the everyday reality of the border is determined by what Waugh terms “narrative codes.”

These “‘literary’ or ‘social’” forms “artificially construct apparently ‘real’ and imaginary worlds

in the terms of particular ideologies” (22). In this particular case, the imaginary perfect binomial

set against the asphyxiating border-as-limit dramatizes the contemporary tension among

scholarly accounts of the border as either an abstraction or as site-specific. Moreover, the

absurdity of the border as an imaginary plaything, and the failure of the perfect binomial, is an

outright refusal of border analyses in the vein of Gómez Peña where the border is both metaphor

and universal condition. Instead, “La silla vacía” shows that the border is never simply the

product of one’s imagination. By extension, its discursive representation, and the way the border

is critically analyzed, must rely not on dualities but on dialectic structures, one of which, this

chapter argues, is trans-temporality. Significantly, recognizing the historicities of distinct

lifeworlds changes not only the conceptions of the border in the collective imagination, where

personhood constellates around the border as a limit or as artificiality. Rather, it entails altering

the political imaginaries, and conditions, which enable the classification of people as alien or as


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