Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño's sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño's protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse - not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac's Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño's fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac's: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño's great strengths.The book begins in Argentina "at the dawn of the twentieth century," with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina ("and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.") As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews' strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: "By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites." The next begins: "1930 was a year of voyages and adventures."After droll biographies of Edelmira's progeny - "throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler's arms" - the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño's native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis - describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):In 1953...she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of "I Was Happy with Hitler," contained some of her finest poems: "Stalin," a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; "Self Portrait," one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; "Luz Mendiluce and Love," in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and "Apocalypse at Fifty," a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question - "[they] were free of political allusions," we are told, "except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as 'in my heart I am the last Nazi')" - he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like "Luiz Fontaine da Souza," are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering "The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys" and "The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman," swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you're looking to ease your way into the longer works.)It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an "Epilogue for Monsters"), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac's novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum
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Some of you may know that I'm currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I'd call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA's flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven's descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.