I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
I have been reading restlessly all day today. In bed, on the couch, at the restaurant, at the dining table. I woke up and I finished the last twenty pages of the first movement of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Without once resorting to poetics or philosophizing, these three volumes managed to touch on so many true things about humans, through upturned sugar bowls, motor car accidents, and comical overcoats. It was magnificent to go to Mrs. Andriadis’s party, which I had to hurriedly leave before I was connected to the agitated Mr. Deacon, who dropped his armload of “War Never Pays!” pamphlets as he pursued Max Pilgrim down the stairs. But as that first movement came to a close, I felt some relief that I was temporarily cut off from Jenkins, Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham – delicious, Britishy-British names, all of them – until I would be able to get the second movement. I needed a break from so thoroughly living other people’s lives.
I turned to The Archivist, by Martha Cooley. I bought it used at Kultura’s Books, near Dupont Circle, and I did not have high expectations because I had seen the book before, disliking the cover and for some unclear reason, the title. But it was the only book on my bookshelf that seemed an antidote to the hectic pace of the pre-WWII British society that had absorbed me for so many weeks. The Archivist was elegant and it shot me through with poetry.
No light under my fingers.
Where the grey light meets the green air.
Humility is endless.
The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things
Most of the poetry Cooley quotes is T.S. Eliot, with sprinklings of LeRoi Jones (or as I know him: Amiri Baraka) and others. I read the book as I walked from lunch to another Washington, DC bookstore, “Second Story Books,” in order to buy a copy of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” A friend once characterized his relationship with poetry as infrequent, intense, and somewhat involuntary; my relationship is the same. Its ignition is unexpected and, once commenced, frenetic – like the way my dog runs at top speed in tiny circles when I sometimes manage to sneak up on him and poke him in his haunches. This ignition occurs at odd moments: I might be sitting in an office or standing at a party, when I am seized with this need for words in sentences that I don’t have to analyze or fully understand. Cooley describes this feeling better:
For me, reading Eliot’s work is like trying to intercept a butterfly. It comes so close you can see its markings, the luminous wings, and then as you extend a hand it’s gone – hidden among other flickering objects of consciousness. There’s a pleasure in this approximation, I suppose, and even in the failure to apprehend. I don’t mind the obscurity of Eliot’s verse. (What good, after all, is an insect pinned on velvet, gorgeous but dead?)
Although a critic on the back cover calls it a “literary detective story,” the story of archivist Matthias, his relationship to a wife he has to commit to a mental institution, and his safeguarding of a collection of not-yet-public Eliot letters is more a poetic love story. The way Matthias describes meeting his wife, Judith, is irresistible to any romantic who loves words and fancies intellectuals. He meets her in a jazz bar, where she is reading a book of Auden poems. He asks her which poem she is reading and she hands him the open book to read where her finger points. I love this scene for its uncute meet-cute quality, for its spare but punchy dialogue.
At times the book, through Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses, is too weighed down by Judith’s depression and Matthias’s detachment. They struggle to maintain their marriage as she becomes violent and obsessed with events following World War II. I grew fidgety in the middle, where the book became the diary that Judith kept while at the mental institution. Matthias and his post-Judith dealings, along with his narration, were more compelling to me. Still, each character is intelligent and lean enough that I forgave them for exploiting my weakness for those Ondaatje-esque short sentences and heavy pauses.
But the real value of the book is its ardent advocacy of poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s poetry in particular. If you were ever forced to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school and you fell in love with those words, then The Archivist will compel you to read them again.
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
And after the all-absorbing society of Powell, after his truths distilled in teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor, I found a different kind of pleasure in Eliot’s painful, beautiful questions and contradictions. I end my day full, in quiet.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
“Why is it that members of the same family get appointments in several sections of government and only large firms seem to get representation on boards dealing with zoning and construction?” Sound familiar?This question was posed in 1971 by the newly elected alderman of the 44th Ward, Dick Simpson, to the “‘Boss’ of all Chicago,” Mayor Richard J. Daley. Simpson took the floor to question nepotism in Chicago politics when Daley appointed his powerful ally Ald. Thomas E. Keane’s son to the Zoning Board of Appeals.The question prompted a tirade from Daley. “His face was purple with rage and his aides feared that he would have a stroke,” Simpson writes, adding that a one-hour recess followed to allow Daley to regain his composure. The issues that Simpson raised as an independent alderman 26 years ago still haunt Chicagoans and City Hall politics.Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps, Dick Simpson’s 2001 book, explains how historical events shaped the city’s politics through intriguing reconstructions of battles on the council floor using newspaper accounts, histories, memoirs and his own observations.Simpson, who teaches urban politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also constructs a methodological study of city elections and roll call votes in the council. “From this montage of characters, struggles, and votes emerges the story of the council and the meaning of its history,” he writes.What is the meaning of the council’s history, then? Simpson argues that Chicagoans never enjoyed a true, representative democracy. He presents a very strong case to support his thesis: that politicking and elections produced three types of councils, which provided – depending on who exercised power – a means for either the mayor or influential aldermen to have their way, or forced compromises between the two elements; but the emerging policies rarely benefited citizens – who remained and continue to be unrepresented.Based on his study of voting patterns, Simpson characterizes the city council as the mayor’s rubber stamp, a fragmented body run by powerful aldermen and a forum engaged in “wars” when neither the mayor nor aldermanic voting blocks are dominant.Current Mayor Richard M. Daley’s city council is a rubber stamp, as was his father’s, according to Simpson. In these councils, which became increasingly more common after the establishment of Chicago’s “Democratic machine” in the 1930s, aldermen vote with the mayor with very little to no resistance.Rubber stamp councils enabled mayors to provide patronage jobs and get reelected with the strong backing of political, union, business, institutional and community leaders. These councils also streamlined policymaking. Simpson writes that mayors running rubber stamp councils “took away the ward bosses’ control of government services to make Chicago ‘the city that works.'”The city worked in different ways when the council was fragmented. The most telling period of this model is the era Simpson calls “The Councils of Gray Wolves,” which was dominant from 1871 until 1931. The name was coined by McClure’s Magazine reporter Lincoln Steffens who characterized the alderman as gray wolves “‘for the color of their hair and the rapacious cunning and greed of their natures.'” He wrote that the aldermen were “‘a lot of good natured honest thieves.’Now, that last statement might be applicable to Chicago’s modern aldermen, too. But they do not carry the clout of the gray wolves, who aligned themselves with business interests in their wards and mustered votes to pass legislation by logrolling. Simpson characterizes fragmented councils as having a “strong council-weak mayor form of government.” Unlike in a rubber stamp council, which acts on the mayor’s orders, aldermen in fragmented councils exchanged favors to secure benefits to their ward and, consequently, to further their political ambitions.The era of Council Wars from 1983 to 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington produced a different dynamic. Despite constant gridlocks due to a majority of opposition aldermen and the mayor’s unwillingness to bend to machine politics, Chicago had a progressive experience. The mayor’s veto powers coupled with his need for opposition support to pass legislation made for a fertile ground of compromise.As a result “came extended programs of affirmative action, freedom of government information for citizens, the signing of a court decree ending patronage, and the largest neighborhood infrastructure improvement program in Chicago’s history,” Simpson writes.What does the future hold for Chicago politics and citizens? Mayor Richard M. Daley disrupted the traditional machine politics, yet he did create his own machine, according to Simpson. And, he still rules over a rubber stamp council – which means no real representation.The current mayor moved away from old-style patronage jobs, but established a “pinstripe patronage” – one driven by city contracts to businesses. There is a shift from hands-on “builder mayors” that led pro-growth regimes, such as Daley’s father and Mayor Ed Kelly, to manager mayors who lead “management regimes” that substitute policy for patronage, such as the current mayor’s.And the citizens? Well, they will just have to push for independent aldermen like Simpson, who organized a ward council and cast city council votes that represented his constituency’s decisions. Otherwise, the words of Ald. Paddy Bauler on the heels of Richard J. Daley’s election in 1955 might ring true for many years: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”Note to non-Chicagoans: This post was written with a Chicago audience in mind. But Simpson’s work can also be taken as the study of a political microcosm and applied to politics everywhere – your local government, national affairs or even international politicking. It’s quite a gripping, historical read – I recommend it to everyone interested in politics or urban policymaking.
The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence.
A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities.
“I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead.”
There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked.
Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead.
That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, “that duo of ancient machos,” as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers – as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade.
But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.
In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.]
When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.