Rather than have a plot or any story arc, the novella simply exists as a snapshot of an existence: the narrator vaguely recounts (for it feels like there's hardly ever any direct statements of action where one thing leads to another, only statements of what things become) how he turned his beauty salon into the Terminal, a place where men on the verge of death from this unknown illness come to die so that they do not meet their end in the street or under bridges. At the Terminal, these guests have a bed and a bowl of soup, along with the company of others close to death, though they cannot have outside visitors and they cannot speak of God. The narrator only accepts men (note that it is not just men who are affected by this illness, but the narrator always turns away women and children) and only accepts those whose death is imminent. In addition to these actions, we have a spotty account from the narrator of his own life as a homosexual man who occasionally wore women's clothing while out late looking for encounters or simply just in his beauty salon. (By the time the narrator is telling his story, though, he indicates that he has burned most of these clothes.) The seedy encounters between men, often at bathhouses or on streetcorners, and the very few flashes of real intimacy shared by the narrator with another only magnify the feeling that this is an isolated man, alone in the world by his own choice and yet he still reaches out to human kind as he takes in the ill and dying, even if he attempts to stay completely detached from individuals.
Weaved throughout the story is a near-constant attention to the fish and aquariums that once provided the beauty salon with its unique and elegant air. Careful attention was once lavished on these creatures, though now few have survived time and neglect; still, the narrator remembers the breeds of fish and particular details about their interactions with amazing clarity. He recites individuals types and recollects their behavior, with particular attention to violent encounters or mysterious deaths, starting with the first three fish he ever purchased. If one ever looked at a novel in terms of a fishbowl, then perhaps Beauty Salon is a strong argument that life is spent floating along, trapped in a set existence and waiting for the inevitable demise as others look on.
As that observation might suggest, I would hazard to say that Beauty Salon might be the most depressing work that I've ever read through. Bellatin crafts some of the most haunting imagery and even now, weeks later, I still recall scenes with a shudder. Very little action occurs and the book seems an attempt to sketch the character of this narrator, yet I still can't understand him... and perhaps that is part of the point. I hesitate to use the word "detached" when discussing the narrator, as he never pulls away and out of life, yet he seals off his ability to connect emotionally with anyone or anything. It doesn't necessarily make him hard, but it makes him seem appear callous, even if that, too, isn't quite right. Caring for men in their dying hours and yet not caring to know them as individuals. Reaching out for physical encounters with other men, yet never seeking a relationship. Intensely focusing on his fish and then deciding to move on to some other breed, and so discarding the living fish as though they were already dead. It's all very unsettling and the reader is left wondering if there's any meaning to life at all or if we are the fish, easily purchased and easily discarded. If we are the fish, then we're really simply floating through life, subject to the whims of a greater force outside the tank... or perhaps (which might even be worse) observed by nothing and no one at all.
The book is structured with the narrator telling his story without interruption, ultimately revealing that he, too, has contracted the same illness as those who die around him and it is only a matter of time before he'll share the fate of so many others who have arrived at the Terminal. There is no obsessive focus on this, as if we're listening to the rasped and rushed words of a man on his deathbed, and yet there is a confessional quality to it, with topics fading in and out as he calmly speaks on. This is the first work of Bellatin's to be translated into English and I cannot help but wonder what subtle linguistic notations were lost in translation. The novel was originally published in 1999, so perhaps that will have some impact on your interpretation of the mysterious illness striking the city... though perhaps not so much as if this were written in 1989, I think. It is impossible to not interpret this as a reaction to the height of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s/90s when information about HIV and AIDS was so scarce and entire communities seemed to disappear, ravaged by the same illness. One might also think of Saramago's Blindness and other books where disease seems to wipe out a population, though the focus on the narrator's lifestyle reminds the reader that not everyone is dying of this disease. Life does seem to go on in the city, even though it feels as though many men come through the Terminal's door. One of the truly frightening things is the utter lack of hope from within the narrator, who has no illusions about his fate and, given that one of his rules for the Terminal is there can be no talk of God, he does not ask moral questions of a higher power. It is not a novel of despair, but one of bleak vastness... an emotional death that has taken place long ago and left a man in the four walls of what was once his dream business... now reduced to a sanctuary that only offers the essentials as men prepare to die.
If all of that isn't enough to scare you off and, instead, you feel intrigued, then I would actually recommend Beauty Salon... for no other reason than the images and ideas stay with you. The thoughts they inspire certainly aren't warm and fuzzy, but they get interesting. This was a book club selection and I voted for reading it purely on the basis of a NY Times article published a little over a year ago, written by Larry Rohter:
A few years ago the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin attended one of those literary conferences here where writers are asked to talk about their own favorites. Unwilling to make a choice, he invented a Japanese author named Shiki Nagaoka and spoke with apparent conviction about how deeply Nagaoka had influenced him, fully expecting the prank to be unmasked during the question-and-answer period.You can find the rest of that article here. Seriously, after reading that, how can you not want to see what else comes from this man's imagination? Of course, Beauty Salon does not share any of the whimsy of this particular prank, but what it does have is an amazing attention to details and an ability to provoke deep thought... though I'm not sure my thoughts are guided towards anything in particular besides what springs from musing on the presentation of this isolated man's experience and perspective. It might not be pretty, but I'd still be interested in reading more of Bellatin's work in the future, pretty or no.
Instead the audience peppered him for more information about Nagaoka, who was said to have a nose so immense that it impeded his ability to eat. So Mr. Bellatin (pronounced Bay-yah-TEEN) decided to extend the joke and promptly wrote a fake biography — complete with excerpts, photographs and bibliography — called “Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction.”