Sunday, November 30, 2008

Whatever it is I think I see, seems like Roberto Bolaño to me.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Those of you who've heard enough about Roberto Bolaño lately should take heart: I've moved Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux to the top of my stack for this week, and if anything can help me detox from Bolaño's cryptic inventions and haunting weirdness, it's Trollope's general confidence in the things of the world and their proper places.

For now, though, I remain sufficiently dogged by Bolaño that even such relatively innocuous passages as this one from Patricia Highsmith's The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), encountered over the weekend, bring 2666 blazing back into my mind:
"You expect to meet the brother? And the detective?" Reeves laughed as if at the word "detective," as he might laugh at anybody whose job it was presumably to track down crime in the world.
If you're looking for writings on Bolaño of a bit more substance, you should check out the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation, which just went online. I'm in there with a review of the new collection of Bolaño's poetry that New Directions has published, The Romantic Dogs, while Quarterly Conversation editor Scott Esposito turns in what is the most perceptive review of 2666 I've seen so far.

The Quarterly Conversation is also giving away a complete set of Bolaño's works in English; click here for details. Oh, and there's plenty of non-Bolaño content as well, including an article on William Gaddis and a piece by Barrett Haycock about freelancing alumni profiles, and what that did to his fiction writing; any writer who's turned out copy for a living will recognize the frustrations (and the occasional pleasures) that Haycock describes.

Speaking of work, you weren't really planning to get anything done at the office today anyway, were you? It's the end of a holiday weekend; you've got to ease back into this job thing; best to just go read the Quarterly Conversation until the coffee kicks in.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The thing is to console without telling lies."

For those of you stuck in the office one last day this week, I offer a distraction that Maud Newton dug up this week: a five-part interview of Iris Murdoch on YouTube.

Part one is below, and parts two, three, four, and five are at the embedded links.

If that's not enough Murdoch for you, you should definitely check out From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003), a collection of interviews spanning Murdoch's whole career, edited by Gillian Dooley. I've drawn on the book before, but last night as I was paging through it again, a couple of passages struck me anew.

The first one comes from a symposium at the University of Caen in January of 1978. Murdoch is in conversation with editor Jean-Louis Chevalier, and they're talking about the handful of novels she wrote in the first person:
There probably is a more direct emotional punch if the thing is written in the first person. On the other hand, the danger of this is that it's harder then to create other characters who can stand up to the narrator because they're being seen through his eyes. And I think my ideal novel--I mean the novel which I would like to write and haven't yet written--would not be written in the first person, because I'd rather write a novel which is more scattered, with many different centres. I've often thought that the best way to write a novel would be to invent the story, then to remove the hero and the heroine and write about the peripheral people--because one want to extend one's sympathy and divide one's interests.
It could be that I've simply got Roberto Bolaño too much on my brain these days, but does that last idea sound like a rough description of The Savage Detectives?

Actually, though at first blush Murdoch and Bolaño would seem to be wildly different writers, the snippets of interviews I've read with Bolaño remind me a bit of Murdoch's interviews: like her, he seems to have had a habit of making grand pronouncements that he didn't necessarily mean, or that flat-out contradict the evidence of his work. I get the sense that, like her, there's a coyness (if not a caginess) running through the persona he projects in an interview.

I'll leave you with one last bit that could I think have led, in a different world, to a productive conversation between Bolaño and Murdoch. This comes from an interview with Jack Biles in 1977:
Some sort of drama must belong to the theater, where everything is highly significant and rather poetic and where there is a definite shape.

It seems to me that in the novel very often the novelist quite properly is destroying this shape, because ordinary life doesn't have shape. Ordinary life is comic and absurd. It may be terrible, but it is absurd and shapeless, and the novelist very often attempts to convey the shapelessness by having a dramatic shape, which if he is telling a story, he usually has to have. At the same time, he is fighting against it and blurring it--even destroying it.
That struggle between plot (which Murdoch loved, and at the making of which she excelled) and character, like that between authorial control and freedom, runs through, and animates, the best of Murdoch's work.

A happy thanksgiving to you all. May your holiday feature far less drama than a Murdoch novel--and certainly less than a Bolaño one!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Definitely something to be thankful for

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When rocketlass and I trek the 300 miles to visit my parents, I usually do the driving; long drives make her sleepy, so while she sleeps I sing along to Sinatra and Sam Cooke. The drive last Thanksgiving was different, however, because that was when I read my first Parker novel.

I picked up Richard Stark's Ask the Parrot (2006) on my lunch hour the day before Thanksgiving and dove into it as I sat in my office waiting for a call from rocketlass to say that she was ready to leave work. By the time she was free, I was 100 pages in, and as she pulled up in front of my office, I had to break the news that my driving services would be unavailable for the next 188 pages. Fortunately, she understands what it's like to be in the thrall of a book—we’d be a sorry couple if she didn’t—and she was patient with me while I followed Parker into and out of jams.

One year later, I’ve read twenty Parker novels and been involved in bringing three back into print (with three more on the way in the spring!), and each one has been a treat. But now I’m left with only four that I’ve not read, none of which I’ve currently got in hand. What am I to do when I find myself in need of Stark’s no-nonsense prose and Parker’s no-nonsense work ethic?

Saturday I chose the next-best thing: one of Stark’s novels starring Parker’s cohort Alan Grofield. Stark wrote four of them in the late 1960s and early ’70s, one of which, Lemons Never Lie (1971, reprinted a couple of years ago by Hard Case Crime), was my introduction to Stark himself. Grofield­—who pulls heists to support his career as a small-time, but serious, stage actor—shares Parker’s competence, but whereas Parker is all lethal business, Grofield is, well, goofy. He’s an ironic wit, a ladies’ man, and a deft reader of character who has a bad habit of shooting off his mouth at people holding guns. Though the situations in which he finds himself are no less dangerous than those that confront Parker, the tone is lighter, as if Stark has mixed in a dollop of the comic crime novels he writes under his real name of Donald Westlake.

There’s no better demonstration of the difference between Parker and Grofield than to read the Parker novel Slayground (1971) back-to-back with the Grofield novel The Blackbird (1969). Both books open with the same scene: the crash of a getaway car carrying both Grofield and Parker. Grofield is knocked unconscious and taken, under guard, to the hospital, while Parker, carrying the money, slips into a shuttered amusement park.

Slayground shows us Parker stripped to his essence: he becomes more than ever simply a machine for survival. Trapped by mob types in the amusement park, his every thought and action is bent on escape, his indomitable will his primary weapon. It’s one of Stark’s most brutal and effective novels, tense and inventive.

In The Blackbird, meanwhile, Grofield catches a break—sort of. A pair of federal agents offers him freedom in exchange for his help in a cracked espionage scheme, and though he’s sure it won’t work, he goes along because, well, it’s probably better than jail. Calamities of various sorts ensue, and he finds himself in the frozen wastes of far-north Canada, getting frostbite and being shot at by two or three different groups. But even as the situation makes him understandably grumpy, he retains a certain degree of humor, even nonchalance. This passage is a clear example of how his approach differs from Parker’s:
Grofield had no way of knowing where he was or who anybody was or what anybody wanted. He had never been so helpless in his life, and was tending to react to it by simply giving up, on the basis that if it won't do any good to struggle, don't struggle.
To some extent that represents Grofield's real philosophy, but at the same time, once his back is against the wall, he'll struggle almost as mightily, and almost as well, as Parker himself.

Just as Grofield's not quite as tough or dangerous as his partner in crime, the Grofield novels are slighter and less ambitious than the Parker novels. But they're fun nonetheless—and when you're out of Parker novels, they'll certainly do until a new one comes along.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

You may be done with 2666, but 2666 isn't done with you!

From Roberto Bolano's 2666:
Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it's common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mass conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they're put into words.
The past week has seen a couple of worthy additions to the growing number of online resources for the reader of Roberto Bolano's 2666. First, Marcia Valdes, who has written before about Bolano's nonfiction, has a review of the novel in the December 8th issue of the Nation. Her review is unusual, less a description or assessment of 2666 than an account of how it came about: drawing from Spanish-language sources and interviews, Valdes offers insight into Bolano's research methods and sources, and the origins and growth of his obsession with the Ciudad Juarez murders. It's the sort of review I'd never recommend to someone who hadn't read the book yet--I think it reveals too much and, in the quantity of background information it offers, risks foreclosing a number of avenues of interpretation. But for a reader who has already grappled with Bolano's text, Valdes's review is a fascinating supplement.

A similar source of supplemental information is translator Natasha Wimmer's "Notes Toward an Annotated Edition of 2666", which Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading pointed out. As Wimmer's title would suggest, the notes are far from comprehensive, more tantalizing than totalizing. If what she's written already is any indication, should she ever decide to embark on a fully annotated edition of the novel, the result would be essential reading. Though I would disagree with some of her interpretations--as in her assertion that the characters in The Savage Detectives "endlessly plumb their inner lives" while the characters of 2666 don't--but her notes are a model of what notes to a contemporary novel can be, offering a mix of clarification, interpretation, and expansion, while drawing on a wide range of sources generally unavailable to the English-language reader.

Over the coming years, as more of Bolano's work--including, I hope, his nonfiction--is translated into English, the conversation about 2666 should only become more rich and informed.
There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it's knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty.
And the result of that emptiness is material for an endless conversation, even an endless argument. Time for everyone I know to read 2666 so that they can join in!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

At the table with Dr. Johnson

{Photo by rocketlass.}

After a too-large dinner of beans on toast--the perfect antidote to the biting, blustery sleaze of a typical Chicago November--I find myself reminded of a passage from Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson (2008) about Dr. Johnson at the table. While on a trip with Joshua Reynolds,
Johnson nonplussed everyone by swallowing no fewer than thirteen pancakes at a single sitting. They stayed three weeks in Plymouth. . . . He is supposed to have amazed his hostess there, too--who was counting assiduously--by drinking seventeen cups of tea in one sitting. When he asked for more, she cried out, "What! Another, Dr Johnson?", to which he replied, "Madam, you are rude."
Though, strictly speaking, Johnson's reply was out of line, it does seem that, once one has poured seventeen cups of tea for a guest, to balk at the eighteenth smacks of churlishness.

As for alcohol, though Johnson once assured James Boswell that "there was no man alive who had seen him drunk," Johnson's friend Edmund Hector met that assertion with a laugh. Martin offers Boswell's account of Hector's rebuttal, a tale of a night of drinking with Ford, one of Johnson's relatives:
[Ford] was it seems a hard drinker and he engaged Johnson and Hector to spend the evening with him at the Swan Inn. Johnson said to Hector, "This fellow will make us both drunk. Let us take him by turns, and get rid of him." It was settled that Hector should go first. He and Ford had drunk three bottles of port before Johnson came. When Johnson arrived, however, Hector found he had been drinking at Mr Porter's instead of saving himself. Hector went to bed at the Swan leaving Johnson to drink on with Ford. Next morning he perceived that Johnson who had been his bed-fellow had been very drunk and he damned him. Johnson tried to deny the charge. Literally speaking Hector had not seen him drunk, though he was sure of the fact.
I don't really want to know on what grotesque evidence Hector based his assessment; the mention of their sharing a bed makes me fear the dreaded bed-puke. Regardless, I love the image of a young Johnson, laboring under the brutalities of a grisly hangover, yet remaining determined to split hairs and win the argument by clinging to the slimmest reed of fact.

Martin goes on to explain that
Boswell himself acknowledged elsewhere that even in later life, although Johnson could be "rigidly abstemious,", he was not "a temperate man either in eating or drinking." He could keep himself from drinking, but once he started it was hard for him to control it.
And he knew the dangers of giving in to drink; as he wrote of Addison,
In the bottle, discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence. . . . He that feels oppression from the presence of those to whom he knows himself superior, will desire to set loose his powers of conversation; and who, that ever asked succour from Bacchus, was able to preserve himself from being enslaved by his auxiliary?
In the presence of Johnson, we ought to find ourselves in the opposite position to that in which he paints Addison: we should be oppressed by his superiority. Yet Johnson's raging appetites--and the fact that for the most part he did control them, and thought less of himself when he failed to do so--like so many other aspects of his complicated personality, help to render him fully human and accessible, his accomplishments all the more admirable for their origins in a man whose flaws could at times be nearly as prodigious as his talents.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Three years ago today I wrote the first post at I've Been Reading Lately. Nearly six hundred posts later, I can't think of a better way to mark the anniversary than to commemorate another, more impressive milestone: the publication of the fiftieth book under the Hard Case Crime imprint.

I discovered Hard Case Crime the same way a lot of readers did: through the extensive coverage of their publication of Stephen King's The Colorado Kid, which was the subject of one of my first posts. Three years and thirty-seven books later, I still look forward to the arrival of each month's new title in my mailbox.

The fiftieth book, Fifty-to-One, by founding editor Charles Ardai, starts with the ingenious premise that the occasion is the fiftieth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, and it follows the adventures of the line's founder, Charley Borden, along with a dancing girl from South Dakota newly landed in the big city and the mobsters on whose wrong side--a mile wide, unsurprisingly--they soon find themselves.

In addition, Ardai has given his novel another twist: it consists of fifty chapters, named after (and related to) the titles of each of the books in the series. Being familiar with the series, I found myself looking forward to how this Oulipian conceit would force Ardai to figure out ways to finagle his way around such unpromising titles as A Diet of Treacle, Lemons Never Lie, and Grave Descend; I particularly liked his solutions to David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun and the Robert Bloch two-fer Shooting Star/Spiderweb.

But the rules Ardai has set for himself are only part of the fun. As a celebration should, Fifty-to-One feels like a book that was as much fun to write as it is to read. Its ramshackle charms remind me of nothing so much as late-1930s Hollywood movies, wherein you get the sense that the filmmakers threw in everything they thought their audience would enjoy and assumed they'd keep up with the plot. Gunplay, romance, sharp dialogue, character actors--it's all here, along with a heist, some bookies, the FBI, and more. The heroine plays like a more innocent Barbara Stanwyck (which would make her, what, Claudette Colbert?), and the baddies arrayed against her could surely accommodate Edward G. Robinson and Sydney Greenstreet; meanwhile, Ardai has resisted the urge to cast the series's founder as a flawless, lantern-jawed leading man, leaving him instead in the nebbishier reaches of the previously unexplored nexus between Ugarte and Han Solo.

As the pleasantly wild plot ticks through its surprises, we're also treated to a loving reconstruction of the seedier side of 1958 New York City, its racetracks and nightclubs, subways and taxicabs--Ardai even takes a few well-deserved shots at evil old Robert Moses. The most fun, though, are the cameos, from an violent Mickey Spillane to the wryly comic young writers Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, who serve as a sort of pulp Bert and Ernie--or, more accurately, Ernie and Ernie.

Unapologetically a romp, Fifty-to-One carries none of the seriousness or psychological weight of the novels Ardai has written under the pen name of Richard Aleas, the second of which, Songs of Innocence, is one of the best crime novels I know. But it's a sheer joy to read, and a worthy celebration of a series that has brought me countless pleasure over the past three years.

Congratulations on reaching fifty, Hard Case. Here's to fifty more good years to come.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Tom detested murder unless it was absolutely necessary."

From Ripley's Game (1974), by Patricia Highsmith
Tom hated the Mafia, hated their loan-sharking, their blackmail, their bloody church, their cowardlinesss in forever delegating their dirty work to underlings, so that the law couldn't get its hands on the bigger bastards among them, never get them behind bars except on charges of income tax evasion or some other triviality. The Mafiosi made Tom feel almost virtuous by comparison.
What better reward for a morning of rigorous house-cleaning than an afternoon spent with the deliciously creepy Tom Ripley? In Ripley's Game, Tom finds himself a bit ennui-ridden . . . so he engages in some acts of violent altruism--which leave him, to no reader's surprise, with some bodies to dispose of. "Oh," laments a woman who unwillingly gets sucked into the mess, "it's the money, it's the corpses." To which, after my morning of cleaning, I couldn't help but add, "It's the scrubbing the blood off the floor."

Meanwhile, to follow an afternoon spent tidying up with Ripley, Samuel Pepys has a solid suggestion for how we might spend our evening. From his diary entry for November 15, 1665:
I made them, against their resolutions, to stay from houre to houre till it was almost midnight, and a furious, darke and rainy, and windy, stormy night, and, which was best, I, with drinking small beer, made them all drunk drinking wine, at which Sir John Robinson made great sport. But, they being gone, the lady and I very civilly sat an houre by the fireside observing the folly of this Robinson, that makes it his worke to praise himself, and all he say and do, like a heavy-headed coxcombe.
For those of you who follow Pepys's example and find yourselves greeting the office Monday morning wearing the grisly rictus and hooded eyes of overindulgence, the last lines of that day's entry may serve to remind you that it could certainly be worse. Whatever its cruelties, a hangover is not the plague:
The plague, blessed be God! is decreased 400; making the whole this week but 1300 and odd; for which the Lord be praised!
Hear, hear.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

In anticipation of Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (2008), I spent today reading Conan Doyle's most famous long-form Holmes tale. On opening the novel, I quickly realized that I'd not even looked at it since childhood, when I devoured a poorly illustrated (and quite possibly abridged) edition; all these years later, the very word "moor" still strikes me as sinister.

This time, however, I turned to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2006), the beautifully produced and thoroughly wonderful complete edition of Holmes that W. W. Norton published a couple of years ago, about which I've written a bit before.

While I find editor Leslie Klinger's notes, which range from simple explanations of terms and period detail to more abstruse theorizing that draws on the best of Sherlockian scholarship, to be a sheer joy, rocketlass can't quite bear them. When I'm reading Holmes aloud on a car trip, and I start to read her a note like this one--
In "The Railways of Dartmoor in the Days of Sherlock Holmes," B. J. D. Walsh concludes that Watson and company would have taken either the 10:30 or the 10:35 to Exeter, arriving at 2:28 P.M., where they would have had to change for the Coombe Tracey (which Walsh identifies with Bovey Tracey) on the Moretonhampstead branch. Although there was a slower train at 11:45, only by taking the 10:30 or the 10:35 could they have had the chance of obtaining lunch at Exeter.
--rather than admiring the confluence of two areas of intense, nerdy devotion (railroads and Holmes stories), she simply rolls her eyes and asks me to move on.

Sometimes, however, I can't resist. I read The Hound by myself, but I flagged the following note to share, which I'm confident will amuse her. When Watson discovers Holmes's spartan hiding place on the moor, he notes that Holmes
had contrived, with that cat-like love of personal cleanliness which was one of his characteristics, that his chin should be as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street.
To which Klinger appends the following note, retailing a theory that, though it may be common currency among Sherlockians, surely leaves the more casual fan a bit gobsmacked:
Noting the absence of shaving gear, C. Alan Bradley and William A. S. Sarjeant point to this as one of the strongest pieces of evidence for their thesis that Holmes was a woman. But Wason never mentions a Sherlockian beard, and Ron Miller, in "Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Stand Up?," suggests that his jaw was hairless, revealing American Indian ancestry.
Since Klinger has used the term already, I can't help but suggest that, if Holmes is a woman pretending to be a man, his Sherlockian beard would surely be the fascinatrix Irene Adler?

Klinger's notes also do good work in situating each Holmes story in relation to the others, both in a purely Sherlockian sense--where do they fit in the Canon--and in a more general sense, tracking themes, word choices, and images. Klinger even draws, to good effect, from Conan Doyle's non-Holmes work, as in the following passage from Rodney Stone (1896), which Klinger uses to illustrate the dissolute public life of Regency England. In a scene that, were it just a tad more ridiculous, could come from Wodehouse, the title character's uncle explains why he gave up duelling
"A painful incident happened the last time that I was out, and it sickened me of it."

"You killed your man--?"

"No, no, sire, it was worse than that. I had a coat that Weston has never equalled. To say that it fitted me is not to express it. It was me--like the hide on a horse. I've had sixty from him since, but he could never approach it. The sit of the collar brought tears into my eyes, sir, when first I saw it; and as to the waist--

"But the duel, Tegellis!" cried the Prince.

"Well, sir, I wore it at the duel, like the thoughtless fool that I was. It was Major Hunter, of the Guards, with whom I had had a little tacuasserie, because I hinted that he should not come into Brookes's smelling of the stables. I fired first, and missed. He fired, and I shrieked in despair. 'He's hit! A surgeon! A surgeon!' they cried. 'A tailor! A tailor!' said I, for there was a double hole through the tails of my masterpiece. No, it was past all repair. You may laugh, sir, but I'll never see the like of it again."
Having certain poorly suppressed dandyish tendencies myself, I can fully sympathize with the poor man. A wound will heal, but a ruined coat is lost forever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Seduction is to do and say the most banal thing in the most banal way."

A couple of weeks ago, Maud Newton wrote about a remarkable mid-air romantic entanglement she witnessed while flying back from England. At the time, I was in the middle of yet another re-reading of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and though Maud didn't offer much detail, the situation she described--to say nothing of the sort of people whom one imagines might maneuver themselves into such an illicit encounter--was so full of comic potential that I started wondering what Powell might have made of it. When I found myself standing in the kitchen unable to follow a recipe because I was busy constructing Powellian sentences in my head, I decided that I had to take a crack at writing the scene as I imagined Powell might have done.

The resulting Powell pastiche is up at Maud's blog now. I hope Powell fans will enjoy it, though I warn them in advance that my hold on Powell's cadences and sensibility slips now and then, giving way to a sub-Wodehousian jokiness. I fear that Powell himself might be offended and decide to haunt me--though what form would that haunting take? Surely he would do little more than sit in a chair, observing, asking the occasional question; maybe he'd occasionally disarrange my books?

I took the headline of this post from Powell's A Writer's Notebook, which is a trove of apothegms and insights. Below are a couple that I wish I'd been able to fit into the story of the inflight romance:
The nearest some women get to being faithful to their husbands is being disagreeable to their lovers.

People usually do what they want.
And when what they want is to join the mile-high club, really, who is a fellow passenger to deny them that pleasure?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Part about What Doesn't Fit in a Review

{Photos by rocketlass.}

After all that dithering, I finally wrote a review of Roberto Bolaño's posthumous brick of a novel 2666. It's up at the Front Table blog of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore (the bookstore of choice for our incoming First Family!).

Since I finished my review, I've read a handful of other reviews, and what's been most striking is the way they collectively demonstrate the capaciousness of the novel: each emphasizes some different aspect, and hardly any of us draw on more than one or two of the same quotations in the course of describing and appraising the book. All of which makes me think a brief collection of odds and ends, half-formed thoughts that didn't make it into the review, may be warranted.

1 Adam Kirsch is right in his review for Slate:
It is a shame for a reviewer to have to reveal even the outlines of these stories: The best way to experience 2666 is without warning, as in a dream in which you find yourself on a road that could lead absolutely anywhere.
So if you're a Bolaño fan, I recommend bookmarking this and the other reviews to read when you're all done. And have rested.

2 More than in any others of his novels I've read, Bolaño in 2666 explicitly takes up and repudiates the idea of the detective novel--a form that I assume he must have loved. Throughout the novel, we get hints that Bolaño is eventually going to offer us answers to the many questions he raises, and, more important, a solution to the murders at the center of the book. Anyone who's read Bolaño before knows deep down that such a resolution is unlikely--incompleteness is his metier--but, especially when in the company of a couple of characters who fancy themselves detectives, we again and again find ourselves sucked into the delusion that the world can be put to rights if only we can find the answer.

Which, in a way, is similiar to Bolaño's greatest overall achievement as a writer, the sense he gives that his entire fictional universe, big and messy and incomplete, could just maybe be understood if only we could find the key, tilt our brains at the right angle, peer through the right scrim. We can't help but imagine that it's like what one of the critics from the novel's first section found in his hotel bathroom:
In Pelletier's bathroom the toilet bowl was missing a chunk. It wasn't visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted, the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier.
But as Bolano himself is always at pains to remind us, "Behind every answer lies a question." The reverse is never true, is it?

2 The novel's fourth section, "The Part about the Crimes," is unquestionably the dark heart of the book, its reason for being. I write about it at length in my review, arguing that it's a challenge to the reader, a demand that we not turn away from evil, madness, and suffering. In its depiction of brutality and horror, "The Part about the Crimes" is the direct opposite of something like the Saw franchise: films like that challenge us not to be squeamish--to tamp down our natural reactions and feelings enough to keep watching atrocities; 2666 asks us to fully feel, yet look anyway, because this is the way our species lives.

3 In his review of 2666 for the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Lethem notes,
Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules, against dream sequences, against mirrors as symbols, against barely disguised nods to his acquaintances, and so on.
To that you can add his repeated violation of the overplayed "show-don't-tell" dictum. Bolaño loves to deliver thumbnail sketches of characters, often assembled with a bit of whimsy, telling us essential and pointless information all in a jumble, but leaving us at the end with a good sense of the person he's invented. This passage, introducing one of the literary critics from the novel's first part, is a particularly good example:
Liz Norton, on the other hand, wasn't what one would ordinarily call a woman of great drive, which is to say that she didn't draw up long- or medium-term plans and throw herself wholeheartedly into their execution. She had none of the attributes of the ambitious. When she suffered, her pain was clearly visible, and when she was happy, the happiness she felt was contagious. She was incapable of setting herself a goal and striving steadily toward it. At least, no goal was appealing or desirable enough for her to pursue it unreservedly. Used in a personal sense, the phrase "achieve an end" seemed to her a small-minded snare. She preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness. If volition is bound to social imperatives, as William James believed, and it's therefore easier to go to war than it is to quit smoking, one could say that Liz Norton was a woman who found it easier to quit smoking than to go to war.
He also likes to relate the impressions characters make on one another, with this account of Amalfitano, the madman of the book's second part, offering a good example, giving at the same time a hint of the apocalyptic language that suffuses the book:
The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place, except that the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape, whereas Amalfitano could only be considered a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was , a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field, on the back of a capricious and childish beast that would have swallowed Heidegger in a single gulp if Heidegger had had the bad luck to be born on the Mexican-North American border.

4 Individual lines jump out of the 900 pages of the book like true jewels, epigrams cryptic, gnomic, savage, and unforgettable--too long to Twitter, too short to leave drowning in the sea of the novel. Like this frozen moment from the time when Amalfitano's wife was slowly, repeatedly deciding to leave him:
Another time he found her sitting on a seafront bench at La Concha, at an hour when the only people out walking were two opposite types: those running out of time and those with time to burn.
Or this metaphor to explain metaphor, tinged as it is with crazy:
Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life-jacket. And remember, there are lifejackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it.
Or this seemingly personal statement on authorship:
Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. . . . The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.
2666 is a novel whose length, detail, and relentlessness force the reader into a sort of trance-like submission for stretches--but then without warning Bolaño jerks us back to full attention with a moment of flawless craft. He has created the inverse of a horror film, where the horror is constant enough to numb and the release comes in the occasional pulling back to the possible perfections of a moment, embodied in the craft of language. "A horror film," thinks one character, "where everything has come to a halt, and it comes to a halt because it knows it's lost."

5 And then there's this:
"We've gotten used to death," he heard the young man say.

"It's always been that way," said the white-haired man, "always."
Though it's been more than five years since Bolaño's death, those of us who have only recently begun to explore his world are barely beginning to realize what we've lost. The white-haired man may be right, but he's also dead wrong.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The best-laid plans

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Entering the weekend, I had set aside today to work on a review of Roberto Bolano's 2666 that I'm supposed to turn in Monday for the Seminary Co-op Bookstore's blog. The book is so rich and impressive that I figured it would take me a whole day to write about it with any authority.

Then I made the mistake of reading the first couple of pages of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44. Hours later, I've written nary a word of the Bolano review and have about a hundred pages to go in Child 44.

This is why one should never allow crime novels to enter the house!

Friday, November 07, 2008

The proper study of a president

{Photo by rocketlass.}

A final election-related reading post, then I’ll return to my usual mishmash of Samuel Johnson, crime novels, Anthony Powell, and such.

Just before the election, Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed asked a group of scholars to suggest reading material for the incoming president. Eric Rauchway, a historian whom you may know from his blog, The Edge of the American West, responded by urging Barack Obama to read Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Since Eric knows more about the (First?) Great Depression than almost anyone else, I took this as the excuse I’d been waiting for to pick up Berlin’s The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (1997), which contains the FDR piece. The whole essay is well worth reading (which has been true of every bit of Berlin’s writing that I’ve encountered over the years), and you should go buy the book posthaste.

That call to action will serve as my admittedly weak compensation for the copyright laws I’m about to break. One portion of the essay—far too long to qualify for my calling this reprinting fair use—is of particular interest in the situation we now find ourselves in, making the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. See if Berlin's description of one type of political leader, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson, brings any particular president to mind:
Indeed he was very different from Wilson. For they represent two contrasting types of statesman, in each of which occasionally men of compelling stature appear. The first kind of statesman is essentially a man of single principle and fanatical vision. Possessed by his own bright, coherent dream, he usually understands neither people nor events. He has no doubts or hesitations and by concentration of will-power, directness and strength he is able to ignore a great deal of what goes on outside him. This very blindness and stubborn self-absorption occasionally, in certain situations, enable him to bend events and men to his own fixed pattern. His strength lies in the fact that weak and vacillating human beings, themselves too insecure or incapable of deciding between alternatives, find relief and peace and strength in submitting to the leadership of a single leader of superhuman size, to whom all issues are clear, whose universe consists entirely of primary colours, mostly black and white, and who marches towards his goal looking neither to right nor to left, buoyed up by the violent vision within him. Such men differ widely in moral and intellectual quality, and, like forces of nature, do both good and harm in the world. To this type belong Garibaldi, Trotsky, Parnell, de Gaulle, perhaps Lenin too--the distinction I am drawing is not a moral one, not one of value but one of type. There are great benefactors, like Wilson, as well as fearful evil-doers, like Hitler, within this category.
Hmm. How many days until he vacates the White House?

Then take a look at the second type. The fit isn’t perfect, but I do see similarities to what we can know so far of Barack Obama’s leadership style:
The other kind of effective statesman is a naturally political being, as the simple hero is often explicitly anti-political and comes to rescue men, at least ostensibly, from the subtleties and frauds of political life. Politicians of this second type possess antennae of the greatest possible delicacy, which convey to them, in ways difficult or impossible to analyse, the perpetually changing contours of events and feelings and human activities round them--they are gifted with a peculiar, political sense fed on a capacity to take in minute impressions, to integrate a vast multitude of small evanescent unseizable detail, such as artists possess in relation to their material. Statesmen of this type know what to do and when to do it, if they are to achieve their ends, which themselves are usually not born within some private world of inner thought, or introverted feeling, but are the crystallisation, the raising to great intensity and clarity, of what a large number of their fellow citizens are thinking and feeling in some dim, inarticulate, but nevertheless persistent fashion. In virtue of this capacity to judge their material, very much as a sculptor knows what can be moulded out of wood and what out of marble, and how and when, they resemble doctors who have a natural gift for curing, which does not directly depend upon that knowledge of scientific anatomy which can be learned only by observation or experiment, or from the experiences of others, though it could not exist without it. This instinctive, or at any rate incommunicable, knowledge of where to look for what one needs, the power of divining where the treasure lies, is something common to many types of genius, to scientists and mathematicians no less than to businessmen and administrators and politicians. Such men, when they are statesmen, are acutely aware of which way the thoughts and feelings of human beings are flowing, and where life presses on them most heavily, and they convey to these human beings a sense of understanding their inner needs, of responding to their own deepest impulses, above all of being alone capable of organising the world along lines which the masses are instinctively groping for. To this type of statesman belonged Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln, Lloyd George and Thomas Masaryk, perhaps to some extent Gladstone, and to a minor degree Walpole. Roosevelt was a magnificent virtuoso of this type, and he was the most benevolent as well as the greatest master of his craft in modern times.
I don’t mean to push this too far in seriousness--and I’m not sure by any means that this is what Eric was aiming for in suggesting the essay to Obama--but given that I’m still enjoying the afterglow of Tuesday’s events, I’m willing to temporarily allow myself to dream absurdly big. Another FDR would sure be nice.

{Side note: the comparison to Czech statesman Thomas Masaryk should be of particular interest for University of Chicago folks, as Masaryk is honored on the campus with a statue of a Bohemian guardian knight of legend who stares protectively down the length of the Midway.}

In case the perceptiveness and finely crafted prose of Berlin’s essay hasn’t yet convinced you to you to buy The Proper Study of Mankind, I’ll salve my conscience for my copyright abuse by closing with another great line, one that could serve as a pithy account of the essential questions that drove Berlin’s thought. It comes from his 1990 essay “The Pursuit of the Ideal”:
Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not.
This has been a good week for thinking about those sorts of questions; the next time we gather as a nation to make this choice, maybe we’ll have some better answers to all of them.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Martin Luther King Jr., from "Where Do We Go From Here?", a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967:
I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. . . . When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
I've been having a hard time today finding words to describe the stream of emotions provoked by last night's party in Grant Park. Hope. Love. Relief. Pride. Kinship. Towering patriotism.

Really, nothing captures it so well as the two photos below, taken by my friend Sandy at the moment when CNN called the race.

{Photos by santheo, used under a Creative Commons license.}

As Barack Obama emphasized in his speech, last night marked the beginning more than the end. It was the end of a campaign that began, for a lot of us, in the shadows of November 3rd, 2005, but it was just the start of the incredibly long to-do list facing us as a nation. The lolObama that my friend Jeremy made today says it all:

At the same time, the events of yesterday deserve a couple of days of heartfelt celebration--so I think it's only right that this post end on a lighter, more cheerful note, supplied by rocketlass. Great patriot that she is, she chose not only to wear her red, white, and blue dress to the rally last night, but to spend her L ride down there reading some of Roosevelt's fireside chats. When I met up with her on my return from canvassing in Indianapolis, almost the first thing she did was point out the following passage from the chat of May 7, 1933:
In addition to all this, the Congress also passed legislation as you know authorizing the sale of beer in such states as desired it. That has already resulted in considerable reemployment, and incidentally it has provided for the federal government and for the states a much-needed tax revenue.
So in the spirit of FDR, and in the full appreciation of the public works funded by my liquor taxes, I raise a glass tonight to Barack Obama--along with, always and forever, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and all the brave souls who came between them--and of course to the United States of America.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The big day

{Photo by rocketlass.}

If I'd had a bit more time this week, I would have been ready for this day with some Thomas Paine or something from my beloved Abraham Lincoln. Instead, I'm in Indianapolis to help get out the vote for Obama, and all I have to offer from the conjunction of literature and politics is this line from the journals of Jules Renard, who was not just a writer, but also the mayor of his small hometown in France:
As mayor, I am supposed to look after the maintenance of the rural roads; as a poet, I like them better neglected.
Here's hoping for good news tonight.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Dangers of the Doctor

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I spent last week reading Peter Martin's new biography of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell's old one on alternating halves of my daily commute. As I flagged pages and noted passages, I quickly discovered that it would be very easy to accidentally turn this blog into Apposite or Amusing Things Said or Written by Dr. Johnson that I've Been Reading Lately. Such as this:
It is laudable in a man to wish to live by his labours; but hs should write so as he may live by them, not so as he may be knocked on the head.
Or, speaking of a "dull tiresome fellow":
That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
Or, from a letter to Joseph Baretti, this apology for not having written sooner:
Yet it must be remembered, that he who continues the same course of life in the same place, will have little to tell. One week and one year are very like another. The silent changes made by time are not always perceived; and if they are not perceived, cannot be recounted.
Those lines alone would be sufficient to make the letter memorable, but Johnson outdoes himself later:
Those who have endeavoured to teach us to die well, have taught few to die willingly; yet I cannot but hope that a good life might end at last in a contented death
Fortunately--because, however domineering the great man's mind and personality may have been, this blog is not supposed to be all about Dr. Johnson--those lines about death reminded me of a couple of thoughts from Jules Renard. In his journal, Renard takes death less seriously than Johnson, though this first jotting could be read as at least half-lament:
Please, God, don't make me die too quickly! I wouldn't mind seeing how I die.
This last one, however, is little more than an amusing thought, simultaneously a wry acknowledgment of Renard's age and a smirk at the fashionable fatalism of youth:
I am no longer capable of dying young.
A fine thought with which to escape the shadow of Johnson for a few hours, and on which to end a Halloween weekend. Back to your graves, ghoulies. See you next year.