Archive for November, 2008

Best 2666 review yet

The New York Review of Books is presently running critic Sarah Kerr’s “The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño,” a terrific long-form review of 2666. In the review Kerr makes many incisive observations, but I was struck by this one in particular, in which she discusses the book’s fourth section, “The Part About the Murders”:

Fascinatingly, the United States appears as a part of characters’ remembered visits; a Mexican-American sheriff from Arizona crosses over to find out what happened to a blue-collar woman from his town. But the United States’s relationship to the drug trade and the history of the assembly plants are not explored directly or at length. Instead of belaboring the obvious, Bolaño seems to have chosen the challenge of representing something pervasive.

I think Kerr’s right on here: for Bolaño, the murders in Santa Teresa are made possible in part by the failure of anyone there to see the world in front of them for what it is. The violence in the book is less individual than cultural; it’s part of the air the characters breathe. In 2666, Bolaño takes a much broader view than the individual residents of Santa Teresa possibly could, in an attempt, as Kerr puts it, to reveal and “represent” the cultural, economic, political, social, and historical forces and ideas that pervade their lives. Most readers will already know about the details—about the horrors of the drug trade and the injustices of the maquiladoras. What Bolaño wants to show us is bigger than specifics—though it also includes them. He seeks to identify the ways in which grand-scale historical and cultural circumstances shape the lives and fates of individuals, and often in ways that those individuals cannot understand or imagine.

Death, illness, and the soul in Chris Adrian’s stories

Note: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel has been selected as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008 by the New York Times. Below is an essay that I wrote to submit to the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers contest—an unsuccessful entry, probably at least in part because it ended up feeling more like a lit crit paper than a review. In any case: I have mixed feelings about A Better Angel, but I do think Adrian is a writer to watch, and his first novel, Gob’s Grief, is extraordinary. In the essay below, I take a look at A Better Angel with an emphasis on Adrian’s explorations of ideas about death and the soul.


A Better Angel by Chris Adrian

A Better Angel by Chris Adrian

Death-dealing hazards abound in Chris Adrian’s fiction, lying low the parents, siblings, and lovers of his characters with an actuarially improbable regularity. His most recent book, the short story collection A Better Angel, has a body count worthy of a Hollywood action flick. In “High Speeds,” a substitute teacher mourning her brother forms a bond with a nine-year-old student whose father has died in a plane crash. Both central characters in “Why Antichrist?” have also lost their fathers—one to cancer, and the other to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Disconsolate over the course of her life in the years since the death of a childhood friend, the narrator of “The Sum of Our Parts” flings herself from atop a parking structure. Dead brothers haunt the minds of the central characters in both “The Hero of Chikamauga” and “Stab”—and in the latter story, Adrian throws in a lately orphaned neighbor girl for good measure.

Death so dominates the lives and consciousnesses of Adrian’s characters that they often come across as less than fully human. There is something robotic about their sorrow; it’s as if mourning were the sole task that they have been programmed to perform. Adrian is a practicing physician, but he treats the characters in his stories more like anonymous subjects in a medical study: he is interested in their suffering only insofar as it might help him come to an improved academic understanding of death and grief. His approach as a writer is rational, philosophical, and abstract—and thus less concerned with the construction of psychologically realistic portraits of mourning characters than with exploring the meaning of death.

Unusually for either a fiction writer or a doctor, Adrian is also a divinity student at Harvard University. He fills his stories not only with corpses and their mourners, but also with prophetic visions, demonic possessions, and guardian angels. In one story, the Antichrist even makes an appearance. But, for all their Christian allusions and overtones, Adrian’s stories are more supernatural than overtly religious. He certainly offers scant evidence of any kind of faith—his suffering characters do not find any kind of peace or closure through their interactions with the divine. Most, in fact, end up sick, injured, insane, or worse.

Adrian then, is a doctor who writes stories about people who cannot be healed, and a divinity student who seems to doubt the power of religion to soothe troubled souls. Instead of offering assurances, he uses his fiction to pose big, old-fashioned, and largely unanswerable questions. What happens when we die? What does it mean for the body to fail? What happens to the conscious mind after the death of the body? Are the dead truly lost to the living forever? Adrian’s central concern is not healing, but rather the relationship between the body and the soul.

He gives that particular subject a thorough and sustained examination in “The Sum of Our Parts,” in which Beatrice, a patient awaiting a kidney transplant, has achieved a strange and incomplete separation from her corporeal self. “That part of her that was not her broken body” has become detached, and has gained the power to see into the minds of the members of the hospital staff. Adrian won’t spell out exactly what this part of Beatrice might be—whether he intends it to be her mind, her spirit, her soul, or something else entirely. But he does tell us that Beatrice continues to feel a connection to her body: whenever she attempts to leave the grounds of the hospital, her physical self invariably draws her back.

For a quasi-disembodied soul, Beatrice pays extraordinary attention to the physicality of the members of the hospital staff who are involved with her treatment. Looking into the mind of a nursing assistant named Frank, Beatrice gleans that he detests one coworker for having a “mousy” face, and meanwhile worries that his own arms might look “thin and weak” in his scrubs. A pathology lab worker named Bonnie ponders a coworker’s unusually prominent ears, and wonders if they might have shaped his personality. Several characters spend moments of reverie recalling the physical comforts of holding their loved ones, and also imagining what it might be like to touch or even inhabit the bodies of their coworkers. Adrian’s point is clear: our bodies determine who we are, and the division between our physical selves and our conscious selves cannot be neatly or easily drawn.

All the same, Adrian avoids taking a definitive stance on the question of whether or not the soul expires along with the body. In an unnerving scene near the story’s end, Beatrice coolly witnesses her own organs being harvested and prepared for donation. She begins to feel the loosening of her physical self’s hold on her consciousness, until she finally floats free. But there the story abruptly ends, leaving no way for a reader to judge whether Beatrice might have been bound for heaven or for oblivion.
For Adrian, medicine runs up against a wall of incomprehension when it comes to describing the lived experience of death, grief, illness, and suffering. This is why he won’t tell us what happens to Beatrice’s spirit after her body dies; and it’s also why the stories in A Better Angel so frequently move into the realm of the supernatural. Adrian is in no way skeptical of medical knowledge, or of reason’s power to make the world more comprehensible. But he knows that no pill or miracle surgical technique will ever cure human beings of their irrational and untenable belief that they must continue to exist even after their bodies die.

Death makes Adrian’s characters thoroughly unreasonable. They lose all perspective, clinging to counterfactual and often outright insane ideas in a desperate attempt to be rid of their grief. In “Stab,” Calvin, an eight-year-old boy who has lost his twin to cancer, begins sneaking out at night to accompany a neighbor girl as she captures and kills small animals. The girl—whom Adrian unfortunately names Molly Pitcher, severely disrupting an otherwise straightforward and serious tone—is an orphan whose parents were both killed in a car crash. Molly commits her acts of violence because she has come to believe that her parents will somehow be brought back to life by the blood of her victims. But her animal sacrifices bring no real dividends; in the end, Molly’s violence leaves a trail of bodies, none of which are resurrected.

Blood sacrifice also plays a significant role in the “The Changeling,” which tells the story of an otherwise-ordinary nine-year-old boy who suddenly begins to speak in the voices of the victims of September 11. When Carl’s father intentionally burns himself on the stove or slams his finger in a drawer, the spectacle of his self-inflicted pain causes the voices in the boy’s head to momentarily retreat. Realizing this, Carl’s father begins to inflict increasingly serious injuries upon himself, thereby succeeding in at least temporarily propitiating the angry ghosts who possess his son. But only temporarily—even when Carl’s father chops off his own hand with an ax, we have no real assurance that the demons have been driven from Carl for good. Carl has come to embody the incomprehensible pain engendered by the loss of so many lives in the terrorist attacks of September 11—and there is nothing that his father can do to bring about an end to suffering on that scale. “I don’t know what’s worse, or harder to believe,” Adrian wonders through the voice of Carl’s father: “that a little boy could be fucked-up enough to harbor the sort of sadness and rage that the entity presents us with every day, or that thousands of souls could be fused by a firebomb into a restless collection of spirits that hungers for a justice it can only define in terms of punishment.” Either way, Carl is lost to his father forever.

This is the conclusion that Adrian reaches again and again in A Better Angel: that no kind of medicine, psychology, reason, religion, violence, or blood sacrifice will relieve the deep and unending pain of personal loss. Mourning grips Adrian’s characters so thoroughly that it possesses them, becoming part of their bodies and taking full control of their minds and lives. Much as Beatrice’s wandering soul can stray only so far from its physical counterpart, none of Adrian’s characters can hope to be rid of their grief; t has become part of them. Nothing short of death will end their suffering.

A doctor is expected to heal the body, and restless souls are alleged to find comfort in the divine. But Adrian—the doctor and divinity student—populates his stories with the untreatable dead and characters who suffer grief beyond all consolation. “A Better Angel,” the title story of his collection, is about a drug-addicted doctor who lacks faith in his ability to cure illness. “I make my living praising the health of well children,” he notes while explaining his choice of a medical specialty. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illness, or really ever wanted to make anybody better, or ever convinced myself that I could.” He cheated his way through med school, and remains in the profession largely because it offers him easy access to the drugs that feed his addiction. He feels an acute and highly specific kind of shame because of his failure as a doctor. “If I were a tree surgeon or a schoolteacher or a truffle-snuffler, or even a plain old junkie, then sickness would just be sickness, just something to be borne and not something I was supposed to be able to defeat.”

The narrator has been regularly visited by a guardian angel since childhood. This angel strongly disapproves of his self-destructive behavior—when he takes a hit, she “stretches and shakes her wings,” becoming larger and uglier in order to make her displeasure clear. All the same, she believes that he has the power within him to do great things—including curing his father, who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. “Put out your hand,” the angel implores him. “Touch him, and make him well.” Instead, the narrator trades doses of painkillers with his father and then watches him die through a drug-altered haze. He places his hands on his father only after “his face was cold and his open eyes already had the look of spoiling grapes”—too late to heal him, regardless of whether he’d ever possessed the power to do so. “I want a better angel,” he tells his father. “That’s all I need.” If there is such a thing as divine guidance, it has utterly failed the living, who remain impotent and terrified in the face of death.

Adrian’s characters struggle against grief and death, and always fail. All the same, several of them maintain a pathetic hope that the outcome might in their case be different. In “Stab,” Molly imagines that her acts of violence can resurrect her parents, and Caleb believes that he can talk to his dead twin while looking in the mirror. The characters in “High Speeds” try to outrun their mourning by driving fast and reciting Emily Dickinson poems about death; and in “The Changeling,” Carl’s father tries to exorcise the demons of September 11 by doing grievous injury to himself. Not one of these strategies is ultimately successful—but Adrian’s characters continue to try, and suffer terrible disappointment when their efforts come to nothing.

In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a rural 19th-century town is stricken with a mysterious illness, which leaves many of its residents bedridden, feverish, and prone to prophesying about flaming towers and people falling through the air. Although the evidence points toward this being a vision of doom, the local minister, Reverend Wallop, insists that the town’s strange plague must have an upside: “It doesn’t happen for nothing—we are not transported so fantastically for no reason. The vision is a challenge and its meaning is a cure.” But in this story—as in all of Adrian’s stories—supernatural “transportation” does not lead to any kind of cure. The town’s affliction is in truth a vision of the future horrors of September 11, 2001; no positive outcome is possible for anyone involved.

One character in A Better Angel does cease to harbor such outlandish expectations: Beatrice, the quasi-disembodied soul of “The Sum of Our Parts,” who has so little hope that she sincerely desires to die. At one point, Beatrice recalls a childhood friend who, believing that he could fly, jumped from the roof of his parents’ house and plunged to his death. Adrian writes that Beatrice “would always think of him as the beginning of a long arc of sadness, as the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.” Unlike Adrian’s other characters, Beatrice is at peace with her loss. She doesn’t kill herself out of grief for her dead friend, but rather out of the sense of disappointment that she feels after having accepted the inevitability and permanence of death. It’s hardly encouraging that the only character who comes to any kind of closure in A Better Angel kills herself shortly thereafter. In Chris Adrian’s world, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

For all the obsessive analytical attention Adrian pays to death in his stories, he offers very little in the way of substantive insight into its nature. Not surprisingly, he cannot tell us what it means to die, or what happens to our consciousness after death. But Adrian does succeed in his effort to capture the anguish felt by his characters as they struggle against inevitable death and the permanence of their loss. Adrian’s stories express a desperate wish to believe that a divine act or a miracle of modern medicine might actually remove the barrier between the living and the dead. At the same time, Adrian the physician and rationalist knows how unlikely it is that anything of the sort could ever come to pass. Taken together, the stories in A Better Angel construct a compelling narrative about the deep and tormenting disappointment that comes with the loss of faith.

140 characters or bust

When I was a teenager in Decatur, Illinois, in the early-to-mid 1990s, I thought Wired was just about the coolest thing ever. Having grown up on science fiction novels, it was easy for me to get caught up in the magazine’s relentless, starry-eyed cheerleading for the wondrous technological future. I also thrilled at being part of the in-group: nobody else I knew read or had even heard of Wired, and according to the writers and editors of the magazine, the fact that I (unlike my peers) was hip to their message meant that I was bound to be a part of the nascent techno-geek aristocracy.

These days I have a hard time with Wired: the problems with the magazine’s techno-libertarian politics are obvious to me now in ways that I failed to understand at fifteen, and its continued breathless cheerleading for what’s new and what’s next sometimes reaches absurd proportions. A case in point: a column by Paul Boutin published in Wired last month, which recently came to my attention via Bookninja. According to Boutin, the fact that professional bloggers associated with major websites draw more readers than amateur bloggers means that there’s no point in anyone else continuing blogging. “Thinking about launching your own blog?” Boutin writes. “Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.” He suggests that because amateurs lack the skill and/or the time to write blog posts of the same quantity and quality as the blogging pros, they really shouldn’t bother blogging at all. The real action, he claims, is in brief message updates via Twitter or Facebook, and argues that the enforced brevity of the messages (a mere 140 characters for Twitter) “puts everyone back on equal footing.” As an amateur blogger, “it’s almost impossible to get noticed,” and therefore you ought to just throw in the towel.

I think it’s telling that Boutin equates a lack of recognition by the broadest mainstream readership with failure and pointlessness. In his article, he says nothing at all about the content of blog posts (amateur or professional); rather, he’s obsessed by matters of popularity and style. No doubt it’s true that many bloggers start out in the hope of having the whole world listen to them; and no doubt it’s also true that more than 99.9% of folks who go into it with that attitude eventually give up in failure. But I don’t think getting noticed is the sole point of blogging—not by any means. Personally, I’m happy when a post gets a (relatively) large number of hits, but even if I didn’t get any traffic at all, I’d keep posting all the same. I use my blog as a means for recording and expressing my thoughts on what I’m reading, listening to, watching, and thinking about. It’s also a great means for interacting with an informal community of bloggers, readers, and writers who are interested in the same kinds of things I am.

And this is the more fundamental and important point that Boutin misses here: even blogs that reach very small audiences perform real and powerful social and cultural functions—and in ways that mainstream blogs (or, for that matter, mass media) generally can’t. Though the most popular book bloggers have readerships in the thousands, rather than the millions, they’ve all the same part of a lively and deeply engaged subcultural community. Because of book blogs, I’m able to keep track of what’s going on in the world of literary writing, criticism, and publishing in an in-depth, instantaneous fashion. I’m never going to get anything like that from a mainstream blog; nor am I going to get it from the television, Facebook, or Twitter. Maud Newton may never draw enough readers to meet Boutin’s standards, but my life is better because she’s out there blogging about books. The same is no doubt true for any number of interest groups and subcultures—I’m sure there are similar corners of the blogosphere dedicated to fly fishing, showtunes, actuarial science, and many other things that I don’t particularly care about, and it’s wonderful that blogs have made those kinds of discussions and communities possible.

I’m also bothered by Boutin’s assertion that amateur bloggers are always necessarily outclassed by professionals. This isn’t true; there are many perfectly fine writers and commentators out there who don’t get paid for their work. But even as he asserts that the pros do better work, Boutin also expresses a longing for the days when posts by amateur bloggers would top the search engine results. He writes:

Today, a search for, say, Barack Obama’s latest speech will deliver a Wikipedia page, a Fox News article, and a few entries from professionally run sites like Politico.com. The odds of your clever entry appearing high on the list? Basically zero.

First off, Wikipedia is written by anonymous amateurs, so it’s an exceedingly poor example of the professionalization of the web. Second: it seems perfectly reasonable to me that professional news content would rise to the top of the search engine results on a topic like a presidential candidate. Professional journalists are the ones who are out there doing the reporting; bloggers add value to their work by linking to it and offering commentary and opinion from diverse viewpoints and for specific audiences. There’s nothing wrong with this pattern, and nothing wrong with the news sources getting the most hits. And besides, there’s little doubt that blogs continue to have a powerful influence over the way that news is reported: sites like DailyKos (with its mix of professional and amateur writing) really do get heard in the mainstream, and others, like FiveThirtyEight, have only recently succeeded in catapulting themselves from blogging obscurity and into the mainstream spotlight. In other words: not only is Boutin wrong about the implications of the supposed decreased importance of amateur blogging, he’s also wrong that new blogs can no longer reach the attention of the mainstream.

What bothers me more than anything about Boutin’s essay, though, is something else entirely: the absolute absurdity of the idea that a blog entry is somehow too long and cumbersome to be an effective means of communication—or that the 140 characters of a Twitter message could possibly be adequate for anything and everything that a would-be blogger might want to communicate. Even Boutin’s own article is well over that limit—3,198 characters, according to the word count feature in MS Word. As if to answer this objection, Boutin offers a Twitter-sized precis of his essay: “@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?” And I suppose Boutin’s right at least in his own case: there’s just about as much substance in his 140-character Twitter message as in the whole of his article for Wired. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t have better things to say on our blogs (and at whatever length we please).

My review of Bolaño’s 2666 on PopMatters

My review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 runs today on PopMatters.

Bolaño, madness, and the void

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 contains a repeated image of a void, pit, or hole, which appears to characters in their dreams in various guises. The critic Pelletier dreams of bathers leaving a beach and leaving behind an emptiness that swallows his cries of fear and despair. Bizarrely, Boris Yeltin appears to the mad Chilean professor Amalfitano in a dream, speaking about how life is always in danger of toppling into “the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void.” He proscribes a Dionysian antidote, one involving sex, magic, drink, and play; he sounds like he’s talking about art. Florita the seer goes into a trance on Reinaldo’s television show, and has a vision of murdered women, which another guest, a ventriloquist, seems to recognize as “the kind of revelation that flashes past and leaves us with only the certainty of a void, a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.” This repeated image of a void or pit seems to bear some relationship to madness, art, and the murders of women in Santa Teresa—or, in other words, to the central ideas and events of the novel.

There’s no unambiguous indication in 2666 as to how this void or pit ought to be interpreted, but it’s clear that the characters who stare into it find the experience profound and disturbing. By the time he dreams of Yeltsin, the exile Amalfitano has already gone mad, perhaps because of the loss of his country and his wife, and perhaps also out of fear that his young daughter might fall victim to the killers of Santa Teresa. The void that Yeltsin describes to Amalfitano threatens to break life down and discard it in a garbage dump, and the remedy he proscribes against it is sex and art. But perhaps Amalfitano is already lost to the void, overcome by madness when faced with all the loss and horror he’s experienced in his life. He’s fled the violence of a brutally repressive government, only to find himself free in a town where women are murdered with disturbing regularity. In Amalfitano’s dream, Yeltsin disappears into the void, and Amalfitano can’t bring himself to look into it after him. Perhaps he’s already looked into the void enough, and his madness is the result.

At another point, the critic Norton tells her colleague Morini about the story of a brilliant English artist who one day went mad, severed his hand, and made it the centerpiece of his latest work. Norton describes the decayed industrial neighborhood that the artist lived in, and the artist’s reaction to it:

He liked the color of the streetlamps and the light that spilled over the fronts of the houses. The shadows that moved as he moved. The ashen, sooty dawns. The men of few words who gathered in the pub, where he became a regular. The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that turns finally into emptiness.

The source of the artist’s pain is obscure to Norton, but she connects it to emptiness, a void that seems to swallow the people in his neighborhood whole, leaving them empty, becoming voidlike themselves. (Here Norton’s description seems to echo Florita’s fear of the nature of her revelation, that it is nothing but “a void that very quickly escapes even the word that contains it.”) At first the London artist’s response to the void is to make great paintings; later, he goes mad and commits an act of violence against himself.

There’s also at least one literal pit in 2666: the one in which the Nazi Leo Sammer buries a trainload of Greek Jews who he has been ordered to “dispose of.” Sammer carries out his orders with horrifying coldness, but he’s also already a broken man, having lost his faith in the war after the death of his son in a battle. When pondering what to do, Sammer finds himself “plunged…into a deep, dark pit where all that was visible, lit by sparks from who knows where, was my son’s face, flickering between life and death.” He seems in some ways disturbingly sane, but also maddened by grief. His murder of the Jews is in part an act of calculated self-preservation, and in part an act of desperate grief. His response to the void is to create another one: a pit in which the Jews he has murdered are buried.

Many of the murders in Santa Teresa seem to have a similar origin. More than a few of the murderers are impoverished, desperate, frustrated, angry men, who use acts of horrific violence in order to attempt to gain some measure of control over their lives. In 2666 Bolaño makes much of the voicelessness and invisibility of Santa Teresa’s murdered women: they lead lives of anonymous struggle and suffering, ignored by those in power because no one wants to face the reality of their poverty and misery. But some of the killers are similarly desperate and voiceless: they also work in maquiladoras and live on the margins in the same filthy and dangerous neighborhoods. In some cases, their violence can be read as an attempt to be noticed and heard. Like Sammer, these men resort to violence in a twisted, horrifically misguided attempt to bury their own suffering and save themselves.

In one unsettling passage, a Mexican policeman named Ramírez unleashes a misogynistic rant, asking the American sheriff Henry Magaña (who is obsessively investigating the disappearance of a young American woman in Santa Teresa), “What do you see when a woman spreads her legs?…. A goddamn hole. A goddamn gash, like a crack in the earth’s crust they’ve got in California.” Here Ramírez is perhaps articulating part of what motivates the killers of Santa Teresa to attack the city’s women: they identify women with holes, gashes, cracks—with pits and voids, with disappearance and death. The men of Santa Teresa are displacing their pain and their fear of mortality onto women who are even more vulnerable to victimization than they are themselves. This isn’t entirely unlike what Sammer did, killing Jews while clinging to a grief-stricken vision of his dead son as a light in a void.

I think what Bolaño is getting at with all of this is the idea that art, madness, and violence are all responses to the void—or to the fundamental human fear of death, extinction, and oblivion. Everyone in the book wants to remain visible, to be heard, to make vital noise in the face of the ultimate silence and invisibility of death. For Bolaño, art doesn’t seem capable of actually defeating the void—at one point, Hans Reiter, aka Archimboldi, flatly states that “Voids can’t be filled”—but all the same art is certainly a better response than madness or violence. Pelletier’s dream of what happens after the bathers leave the void on the beach suggests that it’s always possible to at least locate a kind of hope and strength in art:

And then Pelletier began to weep and he watched as what was left of a statue emerged from the bottom of the metallic sea. A formless chunk of stone, gigantic, eroded by time and water, though a hand, a wrist, part of a forearm could still be made out with total clarity. And this statue came out of the sea and rose above the beach and it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.

Against effusive praise in book reviews

In the NY Times Sunday Book Review, there’s an amusing and entertaining column by Joe Queenan about his observation that book reviews often contain unduly effusive praise for works that don’t deserve it. Citing numerous examples, he takes critics to task for their routine failure to sharpen their pens and go in for the kill.

No doubt Queenan is right that many books receive undeserved plaudits, and that critics often exaggerate the significance and quality of the works under review. He’s also correct that many book critics are sloppy and lazy, and won’t hesitate to throw out a well-worn reviewing cliche (“incandescent,” “spellbinding,” etc.) or an absurd comparison to time-tested greats like Shakespeare or Joyce when doing so is easier than coming up with more original or substantive descriptions.

That said, I don’t agree with Queenan’s call for book critics to increase their focus on the negative. Of the many thousands of books that are published every year, most aren’t worthy of anyone’s notice. All the same, there’s always more than enough praiseworthy new work out there for book review pages to be filled with positive reviews at all times. Critics have a responsibility to assess books honestly and thoughtfully, but I think they should also take it upon themselves to make sure that good work reaches the attention of readers. As entertaining as negative reviews can sometimes be to read, I’d much rather hear more about the stuff that’s actually worth my time and attention.

Bolaño, power, and fiction about writers

Those familiar with the work of Roberto Bolaño will not be surprised to hear that numerous writers, critics, and other literary types populate the pages of his newly translated posthumous masterpiece 2666. Normally I’m highly suspicious of novels about writers or writing—most often it’s an excuse for self-obsessed navel-gazing or indulgence in tired, predictable metafictional exercises. Either way, the results are almost always profoundly boring.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

And yet I absolutely love the fiction of Roberto Bolaño. To date I’ve read four of his books—2666, The Savage Detectives, Amulet, and By Night in Chile—all of which feature writers as characters, as well as extensive discussions of writing and literature. Given my general distaste for this kind of content in fiction, it would stand to reason that I shouldn’t particularly care for Bolaño. But if you asked me right now to name the best novels of the past decade, 2666 and The Savage Detectives would top the list.

So, what’s going on here? What’s so special about Bolaño? Why do I like his novels about writers and writing so much?

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

Amulet by Roberto Bolaño

One obvious possibility is the fact that Bolaño’s books are not only about writers and writing. Both 2666 and The Savage Detectives contain the voices of a multitude of characters from many different walks of life. 2666 is particularly notable in this respect: though it opens with “The Part About the Critics,” in which a handful of European professors obsessively track down a mysterious and reclusive German writer named Archimboldi, and closes with a section recounting the story of Archimboldi’s life, the book also contains the passages told from the perspectives of cops, prostitutes, soldiers, bureaucrats, Mexican feminists, German aristocrats, maquiladora workers, boxers, journalists, and many, many others. Writers are important to 2666, but they aren’t at its heart. Instead, the book turns on the lives and fates of the murdered women of the Mexican city of Santa Teresa—a fictional stand in for Ciudad Juarez, where several hundred women (many of them maquiladora workers) have been brutally raped and murdered since 1993.

One of the central ideas of 2666 is that the voicelessness and invisibility of the book’s poor, uneducated migrant maquiladora workers leaves them especially prone to victimization. Because they live on the margins, no one pays their lives or deaths much attention, and it takes several dozen murders before those in positions of power begin to admit that there’s something more going on in Santa Teresa than just “ordinary” crime and violence. For Bolaño, having a voice and being heard translates to power, and it’s the powerlessness of the impoverished women of Santa Teresa that permits them to be so egregiously victimized.

But Bolaño is also very skeptical of the idea that writers will be able to use their powerful voices for any kind of positive change. In The Savage Detectives, the young Mexican avant-garde poets who set out at the novel’s beginning to conquer the world through their energy, vision, and art ultimately end up old, poor, powerless, and in some ways failed. For all their idealism, optimism, talent, and achievement, the world defeats them at best, and at worst badly compromises their integrity. In By Night in Chile, Bolaño asks hard questions about the ways in which artists and writers can become complicit in the unjust exercise of power by the state. And Amulet tells the story of the “Mother of Mexican Poetry,” who hides in a university bathroom during the tumultuous events of 1968, and the book offers a sometimes critical examination of the relationship between literature and revolutionary change.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

When Bolaño writes about writing, his central theme is the relationship between creative expression and power. This is an extremely rich subject, and also one which novelists (or artists of any sort) rarely tackle seriously. Most are content to sit in academic offices and write about the agony of wrestling with their muses, and seem to give very little thought to the great privilege and luxury that has made it possible for them to do so. Again and again in his fiction, Bolaño insists that that this isn’t enough: that writers, critics, and other artists and intellectuals have a moral responsibility to examine their relationship with power.

For Bolaño, anyone who a voice but chooses not to speak is complicit in the victimization of the powerless. For the critics in the opening section of 2666, the writer Archimboldi is the center of their lives, to such an extent that when they come to Santa Teresa, it’s because they’ve heard a rumor that he might be there. They’re told about the murders, but they don’t give them much thought: their obsession continues. And in the closing section, we’re given Archimboldi’s life: he’s a child of World War I, and a German veteran of World War II, and he has purposefully sought invisibility as a means of running away from his past and of finding peace. Yet, when his connection with the murders is revealed in the novel’s final section (and I won’t say more than that, to avoid a major spoiler), it’s clear that he cannot avoid moral responsibility altogether, no matter how much he might like to do so. Bolaño draws a through line between the horrific abuses of power in Nazi Germany and those in Santa Teresa, and suggests that no number of beautiful novels by Archimboldi can erase those horrors, or hope to counter the parts of human nature that bring this kind of evil into the world.

I think one of the reasons that Bolaño’s work is so compelling is that he combines a deep ethical skepticism about the relationship between creativity and power with a passionate and hopeful belief in literature’s ability to move us, inspire us, and to show us what it means to be human. On the final pages of 2666, Bolaño offers a portrait of the life and works of a Fürst Pückler, obscure travel writer who became better known for “lending his name to a combination of three flavors of ice cream” than for his creative ouptut. All the same, Bolaño assesses his achievement favorably:

And so he wrote and published, and in his own way, humbly but in fine German prose, he raised his voice against injustice. I think he had little interest in knowing where the soul goes when the body dies, although he wrote about that too. He was interested in dignity and he was interested in plants. About happiness he said not a word, I suppose because he considered it something strictly private and perhaps, how shall I say, treacherous or elusive. He had a great since of humor, although some passages of his books contradict me there. And since he wasn’t a saint or even a brave man, he probably did think about posterity.

Before he died, Fürst Pückler spoke out against injustice, spoke for dignity, studied the world and its wonders, and created a flavor of ice cream that is “pleasing in spring and fall.” For Bolaño, this is a substantial and admirable legacy.


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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