CRAFT FEATURE // by Mackenzie Suess
Structure in Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World
Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a deceptively slim novel. Alternately referenced as narco-noir, myth, epic, and border story, the novel manages to fluidly traverse genres and structural layers in a mere 107-pages. It’s a powerful, compelling book, but one which goes about its work without fanfare: its streamlined, linear plot and stark, direct prose—poetic in its deliberate restraint and Lisa Dillman’s careful translating—might suggest a breezy read. Yet, instead, we’re confronted with a subterranean architecture of meaning just below the immediate surface. So, how can we approach this fierce little novel’s mechanical components?
Not familiar with the book? Here’s how the publisher, And Other Stories, frames it:
Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.
Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
Our hero Makina, a trilingual switchboard operator, works in a small town in Mexico. True to crime noir, Makina’s a little rough around the edges; she has no illusions about the “violent, macho world” around her, but she’s not lamenting it either. She’s practical, tough, and relatively aloof from most of those around her.
What will turn Makina’s world topsy-turvy and launch the story’s action isn’t a burning desire to get her brother back, though we do get a stronger sense of familial love and loyalty later on. Instead, it’s orders from Cora, Makina’s mother, which kicks off the quest. These days, we usually expect our protagonists to be active agents for, or against, their own desires. They should, as contemporary writing advice goes, act of and for their own will, rather than simply respond to the orders or desires of others. I’m not suggesting Makina is a passive character, but by making Cora’s order the story’s catalyst, I’d argue Herrera is further situating Signs Preceding in the realm of myth. It’s typical in the literature and lore of mythology, epic narrative, and even their cousin the fairy tale, for hero characters to move forward largely, if not entirely, thanks to prodding from others.
Having the order come from Cora also provides a tidy, effective plot container. We know immediately the story won’t be over until Makina succeeds or fails in her mission. And, because it’s Makina’s mother who prompts the quest, we also intuitively understand what’s at stake without Herrera relying on extra, sentimental mother-daughter scenes; at the most immediate level, the fabric of their family is on the line. They stand to lose Makina’s brother forever and, in effort to prevent that, they risk losing Makina too. It’s a hefty risk, but one the book plays lightly, and well. We don’t dally over “should she/ shouldn’t she” or what all the risks are. Instead, Herrera keeps the story moving right into the logistics of Makina’s departure, and the subsequent challenges she encounters in order to find and retrieve her brother.
It’s easy to think about this book in terms of streamlined, three-act structure.
The first act, if you will, establishes Makina and her practical, no-nonsense relationship to the world around her. Cora’s order to find Makina’s brother functions as the story’s inciting incident (or the hero’s “call to adventure” if you take the Joseph Campbell approach), providing the initial impetus for the story to build momentum. This is where we see Makina seek assistance crossing the border from the powerful Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, and Mr. Q. It’s not until she’s made it across the border—crossed the threshold from which she can no longer turn back—with the help of another mysterious man, Chucho, that we might say the second act begins.
By now, we’ve hit a major turning point and shifted locations. While before Makina traveled from her home town to “the Big Chilango,” she’s still in relatively familiar territory. It’s not until she’s across the river that Makina has truly moved into the unknown. This move into a kind of second act also shifts Makina’s position in the story. Before, she knew the rules and how to get by; she knew who to talk to get what she needed, and how to handle them; she had a practical, methodical approach—step-by-step talk to Mr. Aitch, Mr. Q, take the bus to the Big Chilango, wait, cross the river, and so forth. After this point, Makina becomes a more active seeker, largely because she does not know the rules in this new, other world. She must work harder, without certainty or the same level of know-how, and only mysterious, intermittent help, to continue her quest.
But if we’re thinking in terms of a streamlined script, where would the third act begin? While debatable (structure always is), I’d suggest the novel’s third and final act spans only slightly over ten pages (chapters eight and nine). Too short, you say? It may seem like that’s too skimpy for a final act, but consider this: Makina finally finds her brother in what I argue is the novel’s second act. She realizes he’s alive and well, but that he’s lost to her anyway, turning their reunion into the quintessential “all is lost” scene of Hollywood scripts and traditional heroic journeys. Makina succeeded in finding her brother, but has failed in getting him to return home. That sibling reunion (chapter seven) effectively launches us into our third act, even though it makes for a very short third act.
One of the things I love about this book, though, is that it lends itself not only to so many interpretive readings, but an array of structural readings too. I happen to find it interesting and informative to consider how any given text does or does not match up with popularized plot structures. However, even when many points of a text do seem to correspond, it doesn’t mean the three-part structure is necessarily the foundation for a given text.
Herrera discusses the structure of Signs Preceding the End of the World in terms of the book’s debt to Mexicas (popularly referred to as Aztec) mythology. Makina isn’t simply a mythical hero-figure but more specifically an Orpheus or Dante type figure (to analogize with European mythology) as she descends into the Underworld in search of her brother. The book, after all, is split into nine chapters, each precisely named and loosely constructed to correspond to the nine underworlds you must get through to reach the final destination of the dead. Herrera elaborates in an interview with The Nation:
Among the Mexicas, what are commonly known as the Aztecs (actually, their name is Mexicas, that’s where the name “Mexico” comes from), there were different places where you go when you die… the place where most people went after they died, was called “Mictlan.” … In order to get there, you would have to go through nine underworlds. In each one of these underworlds, you would have to face a challenge. […] with each underworld that you cross, you are getting rid of some part of you, some part that makes you a living human being. And when you get to the last underworld, there is only silence; no others and no sounds and no life.
It’s not just a matter of nine chapters generally reflecting nine underworlds, though, nor a matter of broadly writing a story of underworld descent. Herrera uses Mictlan to construct both the structure and content of Signs Preceding in highly specific ways, which Marcelo Rioseco, writer, Editor-in-Chief of Latin American Literature Today, and former professor of Latin American literature helps break down for readers: “in the first stage, the dead must pass through Itzcuintlán (“place of the dogs” or “the sharp bite of the dogs”).”
In the book’s first chapter Makina makes the rounds between the “top dogs” of her home town—Mr. Aitch, Mr. Double-U, Mr. Q. Other chapters are titled more closely after their mythological correspondence, as is the case with chapter four, “The Obsidian Mound”, which takes its namesake from the fourth underworld Itztépetl (“the hill of obsidian”). Herrera reworks the original, mythological image to correspond to the striking expanse of gleaming black chairs found in a baseball diamond which Makina must journey to. Chapter seven, “The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten”—named after “Teyollucualóyan…inhabited by vicious beasts that opened the chests of the dead to eat their hearts”—is when Makina finds her brother, sure, but he’s not really the same brother anymore, and he’s definitely not going home with her. It’s a beautiful and understated metaphorical riff on having your heart ripped out, no? Each chapter of the book is constructed around these mythological plays and parallels. Yes, the novel remains a straightforwardly linear narrative in either case, but the specificity with which Herrera draws upon Mexicas mythology suggests that any discussion of the novel’s structure need necessarily consider not simply the role of myth, but the role of Mexicas mythology concerning Mictlan specifically.
Dante may traverse nine circles, too, but remember that he winds up with Lucifer in the ninth circle, along with the worst of the condemned sinners, immobile, silent, and locked in ice. The Mexicas mythology Herrera also draws from may be similar in outward structure, but seems to be concerned neither with sin nor punishment. When Makina makes her final descent in the last chapter (“The Obsidian Place With No Windows or Holes for the Smoke”), “everything in the world fell silent” but not for her to suffer an eternity of it. By contrast, Makina’s descent is one of obliteration: of the life she had known in Mexico, her family relationships stripped one by one, and even her own identity swapped (or “skinned,” as she calls it) to permanently reside in the United States. Yet, more to the point, it is an obliteration of self for rebirth. Makina descends through the nine realms (chapters), overcomes each challenge, and steadily sheds various aspects of her life until she is ready to become something entirely new, for better or worse.