Last Evenings on Earth

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The Bolaño Syllabus: A Final Reckoning

Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)

At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.

The Essential

1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).

2. 2666
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.

3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”

4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”

5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).

6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.

7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.

8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.

9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.

The Merely Excellent

1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.

2. Amulet
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”

3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.

4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.

5. Antwerp
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?

6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.

Necessary For Completists Only

1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.

2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.

3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.

4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.

5. Tres
See The Romantic Dogs.

Bolaño’s Last, Great Secret

We are poor passing facts

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

—Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”
1.
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Roberto Bolaño, the prolific genre-bender whose narratives and exile from Chile began seriously enchanting the literary world in 2005, the year The New Yorker began publishing his short stories. Altogether, nine stories have appeared in the magazine, including January’s “Labyrinth,” which accompanied a curious photograph. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a bit about Bolaño’s following, which may be credited in part to his early exit from said world at the age of 50, by way of liver failure. For the uninitiated, “Gomez Palacio,” his posthumous New Yorker debut about a tormented writer interviewing for a teaching post in a remote Mexican town, tends to work a kind of magic. A ragged copy of the issue in which “Gomez Palacio” appeared caught critic Francine Prose in a waiting room: “I was glad the doctor was running late,” she wrote later in reviewing Last Evenings on Earth, “so I could read the story twice, and still have a few minutes left over to consider the fact that I had just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”

Francisco Goldman, who likened “The Great Bolaño” to Borges in a profile for The New York Review of Books, dates the ex-Chilean’s rise to 1999, the year The Savage Detectives won a coveted Venezuelan prize for the best Spanish-language novel. “The inseparable dangers of life and literature, and the relationship of life to literature, were the constant themes of Bolaño’s writings,” reads Goldman’s summary of his subject’s legacy, which at the time spanned ten novels and three story collections. (Bolaño’s drive to finish his 900-page masterwork, 2666, a far-flung novel involving the murders of women in the Sonora desert, is thought to have exacerbated his liver condition.) “It’s as if Bolaño is satirizing the routine self-pity of exile,” adds Goldman, in turning to one of his short fictions (“Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva”). “Yet the story’s mood of nearly inexpressible and lonely grief leaves you an intuitive sense of its truthfulness, which seems something other than a literal truthfulness.”

Separating facts from other kinds of “truthfulness” in Bolaño’s oeuvre becomes a difficult task, to say nothing of counting up the author’s works themselves. The Millions began keeping “A Bolaño Syllabus” in 2009 and has updated that list since. “Oh!” an anxious reader posted the following year. “But what about all the new and recent translations out from New Directions? What of them?” What indeed; let’s recap. With the help of American translator Natasha Wimmer and Melbourne-based Chris Andrews, who first brought Bolaño to English and continues to handle his shorter works, New Directions has published more than a dozen posthumous volumes ranging from poetry to newspaper columns. In an interview that coincided with “Labyrinth,” Barbara Epler, president of New Directions and a longtime editor, relates the story of her house’s 2006 windfall to The New Yorker:
Bolaño’s rights were represented by Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, and I was asking and asking them about the offer we’d made for The Savage Detectives and getting no reply. My heart sank when they e-mailed to say, “We’re coming to New York and want to take you out to dinner.” I knew they must be shopping The Savage Detectives. I went to supper, and considerably (by our standards) improved my offer. Finally one of the Balcells ladies put her hand on my arm and said, “The Estate wants a larger house for the big books.” I was about to cry, and they knew we’d done everything we could for the author here, so they offered, if we were willing to take all the “small” books on, that we could. So we took everything we could get, everything that at that point we knew existed.
With the close of the post-Bolaño decade, it seems that the tide of the author’s original works is finally ebbing. New Directions’ latest release, much to my delight and that of other genre boundary-watchers, is The Secret of Evil, a thin collection of fictions that occasionally read as essays. Or is it the other way around? At times, we’re not sure. In turning the title page, explains the book’s jacket, we open a certain computer file: “BAIRES,” Bolaño called it — a nickname for Argentina’s metropolis. “There are multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death,” writes Ignacio Echeverría, the author’s executor, in his prologue. But the task of gleaning 19 semi-finished works from BAIRES, STORIX (another riddle), and about 50 other files was not without complications — namely Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” which Echeverría compares to Kafka’s abruptness. “Decisions as to the wholeness and self-sufficiency of particular pieces,” he warns the critic, became inevitably subjective. Thus, along with a couple of previously-published lectures (“Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Sevilla Kills Me”) as well as the story of a Spanish family’s decimation in a bus accident (“Muscles,” likely an unfinished novel), the bulk of The Secret borders on flash fiction — two, four, and six-page sketches ranging from the swimming pools and watering holes of Mexico City, Guatemala, Santiago, and Buenos Aires, to Madrid, Berlin, and most luminously, Paris.

As with The Insufferable Gaucho and Last Evenings before it, The New Yorker had the honor in January of cherry-picking from The Secret. Unlike the task of compiling this year’s collection, the choice was obvious: at 18 pages, “Labyrinth” stands apart. It narrates the comings and goings of a cadre of European intellectuals, including a brush with “Z,” a foreigner who ambushes the offices of Tel Quel, the Paris journal of the avant-garde whose disappearance in 1982 roughly mirrored the waning of structuralism. “Who else knows Z?” Our narrator — presumably Bolaño — poses the question, which gradually nags at the reader. “No one, or at least there is nothing to suggest that his presence is of any concern to the others.” But then a few clues: “Maybe he’s a young writer who at some stage tried to get his work published in Tel Quel; maybe he’s a young journalist from South America, no, from Central America, who at some point tried to write an article about the group.”

2.
The startling thing about “Labyrinth,” beyond Z’s ghostly presence on the page, is the way the story unfolds, almost by way of evasion. (A footnote: Bolaño quit the Americas in 1977 after being imprisoned and nearly tortured by Pinochet’s forces in 1973; Barbara Epler vouched for this sometimes disputed fact in her January remarks.) For an illustration, try picturing the opening scene:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.

There’s no photo credit.

They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it.
What Bolaño’s last masterpiece does proceed to describe, with East Germanic voyeurism, is the web of relationships on display. Why? Because (1) unlike many tableside portraits in Paris, this image was not intended for a magazine spread; and (2) because, importantly, not everyone is paying attention to the photographer. Two of the women pictured gaze off-camera, in the same direction. They might be preoccupied with an object of affection and it’s precisely this quality of deduction that fuels Bolaño’s narrative.

What of the photo itself? Unfortunately for readers, it can’t be found in The Secret of Evil. But it did appear in The New Yorker’s publication of “Labyrinth,” spread right across the opening pages. What more can be said of the seated figures, we begin to wonder? This Henric, Goux, Sollers, Kristeva, Réveillé, whose gaze might betray surprise, her companion, Guyotat, and Mr. and Ms. Devade, one of whom wears a half-smile? Quite a lot, we discover, as the story wanders away from the table, into streets and garages and bedrooms, and back again in the evening, when “night falls over the photograph.” Yet these figures — their vigorous couplings and jealousies — are not at all figments of Bolaño’s imagination. A peculiar hint of this reality can be found in a credit omitted from print but included in the story’s online publication, just below the magazine’s end sign: “PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY JACQUES HENRIC.”

There are other signs, amid his wanderings, that our narrator is employing a fact pattern that Bolaño found more intriguing than outright fiction: “The photo was probably taken in 1977 or thereabouts”; “The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer”; “Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.” By the story’s midpoint, first names have emerged, via conjecture and supposition, along with a few biographical details. Jacques Henric is a broad-shouldered French novelist, born in 1938. Philippe Sollers, editor in chief of Tel Quel, has the look of a man who enjoys a good meal. Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian seminologist at Sollers’s elbow? His wife. And Pierre Guyotat, author of Prostitution, among other works? A balding pervert whose temples resemble “nothing so much as the bay leaves that used to wreathe the heads of victorious Roman generals.” Réveillé and the Devades come into focus, too, but Bolaño’s chess game is already a thing to behold. He’s built for himself not just a labyrinth of the houseplants that obscure our view of the table (“there are three plants — a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting”), but a living-breathing, true-to-life mystery with so many shades of exposure, the story’s inconclusiveness seems preordained, exquisitely inevitable.

3.
In Reality Hunger, David Shields’ manifesto on society’s latter-day enthusiasm for art rooted in fact (and often troubled by genre), some 600 hastily-sourced meditations, including this essay’s epigraph, narrate the author’s own evolution as a consumer of literature, in a sort of collage. “I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction,” reads an from entry from Jonathan Raban (no. 191). But in the end Shields, like Bolaño, crosses over the border, leaving behind the dusty Republic of the Make-Believe. Take the following passage, one of the few in Reality Hunger that doesn’t need sourcing: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now” (Shields, no. 212). Plotlines, for this kind of writer, begin to feel like artifice — something to be stripped away and replaced by shape-shifting narratives “open for business way past closing time.” Photographs, it just so happens, do just that. Why take them so constantly, so obsessively? “So that I’ll see what I’ve seen” (Janette Turner Hospital, no. 137). “It’s just this breathtaking world — that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there” (Frederick Barthelme, no. 142).

Bolaño goes missing from Shields’ collage, but I imagine Bolaño would have enjoyed following its leads in the manner of a good detective or a wayward journalist. “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer,” Bolaño told the Mexican edition of Playboy, in his last interview. “Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.” That fondness for investigation and self-projection becomes recognizable throughout Bolaño’s fiction, but especially in later stories such as The Insufferable Gaucho’s “Police Rat,” about four-legged Pepe, a rodent cop assigned to a vacant sewer. The Secret of Evil’s title story, a three-page sketch of Joe A. Kelso, an American journalist in Paris stalked by a pale man, “a watcher with no one to watch him in turn, someone it’s going to be hard to get rid of,” carries a similar paranoia. And the same holds true for “Labyrinth,” whose shadowy, off-camera Z seems not a stand-in for Bolaño but a kind of alter ego: the handsome-but-nervous sort of exile desperate to join a circle of writers sitting just beyond his reach.

I’ve said enough about the above gathering already, but there is one further mystery worth noting. The photo that appeared this past January — the same arrangement of eight figures from “1977 or thereabouts,” courtesy of Henric — can be found published 14 years earlier, in a French history of Tel Quel by Philippe Forest (Histoire de Tel Quel, Seuil, 1998). In translation, Forest’s caption reads “Party of L’Humanité, 1970. From left to right: Jacques Henric, Jean-Joseph Goux, Phillip Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Thérèse Réveillé, Pierre Guyotat, Catherine and Marc Devade (photo D. R.).” L’Humanité, the Internet tells us, is a Paris daily still in print today, although its circulation rose and fell with the French Communist Party, which began a slow decline that same decade. Where was Roberto Bolaño in 1970? Not, as the overexcited reader might assume, leaning against the bar, drawing stares from the table, but working as a journalist in Mexico City, already involved with liberal causes and preparing to return, three years later, to socialist Chile.

4.
We could go on in this vein, asking questions about Henric and “D. R.” and wondering whether Bolaño happened on Forest’s book late in life. Perhaps he recalled reading Tel Quel during his first days in Paris, still shaking from what he’d escaped, and decided to change a few details in service of a last, great story. But we should, in fairness, allow Bolaño a few secrets, and instead pause to marvel at the whole collection. In some respects, The Secret of Evil fails to cohere: two brilliantly speculative shorts about a roving V. S. Naipul vexed by the origins of sodomy end in confusion; another promising piece about Bolaño and his son playing a game of turning invisible turns into a rant. Still, the range and “reality” of the writing left behind in cryptic BAIRES and STORIX, from an artist whose days were numbered, will enchant even the uninitiated Bolañonista. And taxonomists, myself included, should praise New Directions for a small thing that happened somewhere between the uncorrected proof and the finished hardback that arrived at my door the other day: “FICTION,” on the book’s jacket, now reads “LITERATURE.”

Image: Jean Silver/Flickr

The Bolaño Syllabus, Updated

Though the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?

We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)

Updated 1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) and “Detectives” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

Updated 5. Antwerp [1980s – 2002]

New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…

6. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

7. “Photos” (from The Return) [1999]

A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.

8. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

Updated 9. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) [2001]

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”

Updated 10.”Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) [1997]

Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.

11. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.

13. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

14. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

15. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

16. 2666 [2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

Updated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]

Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.

Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]

Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.

Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”

20. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) [2001]

This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.

Literary Endings: Pretty Bows, Blunt Axes, and Modular Furniture

1.
In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”:
I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself.  This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary:
The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year.  Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble?
The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review:  “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.”

During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise.  I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well.  During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall.  It felt unfinished.”  To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?”

2.
Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.”  If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness.  And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this.  Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation.

It’s tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings.  What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers?  I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write?

3.
Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.”  I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts.  I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.”  Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph.

That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending.  Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly).  Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention?  If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them?  Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again?  If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion?  Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide.  As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version — the most minimal and the most poignant — is the right one, the best one.

5.
Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings:

memorable
surprise / twist
heartbreaking / tear-jerking
dramatic
melodramatic
resonant
haunting
anti-climactic
ambiguous
unresolved
hopeful
dark
cheesy / sentimental
ballsy
sublime

6.
Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples:

Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately:
“The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount.  In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as “surprising but inevitable.”  (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.)

In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you.  The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct.   You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along.

In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future.  It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax.  When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully.

In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist’s (April Wheeler’s) narrative point of view.  Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head.  As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully.

Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation:
John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of.  Cheever does this with that stunning final image:
I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water.  I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.
Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense.

Endings that cannot be summed up in words:
Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first.  Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies).  “You’ll be all right,” she said.  “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.”  This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie.  It’s  emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.”

Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way:
When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that’s what I call masterful.  I am thinking of Walter Kirn’s story “Hoaxer,” a coming-of-age story in which a boy’s ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head.  On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection.  Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story’s intricate characterizations to that point.  Amazing.  The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway’s notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way:
Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this “ending,” mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it.  As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly.

Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good:
The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength.  I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene).  The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful).  I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way.  I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.”  The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated.

7.
How to end an essay about endings? Hmm… at this point, I take off my reader’s hat and don my writer’s (in this case, it’s a Chilean chupalla — a cheap imitation, of course).  I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person).  As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject.  Will this satisfy the reader?  The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care.  In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End.

[Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]

The Bolaño Myth and the Backlash Cycle

“Here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man who promises that this will be the last drink of his life.” – Horacio Castellanos Moya

I.
If you’ve been tooling around the cross-referential world of Anglo-American literary blogs this fall, chances are you’ve come across an essay from the Argentine paper La Naçion called “Bolaño Inc.” Back in September, Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading linked to the original Spanish. When Guernica published an English translation this month, we mentioned it here. The Guardian followed suit (running what amounted to a 500-word paraphrase). Soon enough, Edmond Caldwell had conscripted it into his ongoing insurgency against the critic James Wood. Meanwhile, the literary blog of Wood’s employer, The New Yorker, had posted an excerpt under the title: “Bolaño Backlash?”

The basic premise of “Bolaño Inc.” – that Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean author of the novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, has become a kind of mythological figure hovering over the North American literary landscape – was as noteworthy as it was unobjectionable. One had only to read reports of overflow crowds of galley-toting twentysomethings at the 2666 release party in New York’s East Village to see that the Bolaño phenomenon had taken on extraliterary dimensions. Indeed, Esposito had already pretty thoroughly plumbed the implications of “the Bolaño Myth” in a nuanced essay called “The Dream of Our Youth.” But when that essay appeared a year ago in the online journal Hermano Cerdo, it failed to “go viral.”

So why the attention to “Bolaño Inc.?” For one thing, there was the presumable authority of its author, Horacio Castellanos Moya. As a friend of Bolaño’s and as a fellow Latin American novelist (one we have covered admiringly), Castellanos Moya has first-hand knowledge of the man and his milieu. For another, there was the matter of temperament. A quick glance at titles – the wistful “The Dream of Our Youth,” the acerbic “Bolaño Inc.” – was sufficient to measure the distance between the two essays. In the latter, as in his excellent novel Senselessness, Castellanos Moya adopted a lively, pugnacious persona, and, from the title onward, “Bolaño Inc.” was framed as an exercise in brass-tacks analysis. “Roberto Bolaño is being sold in the U.S. as the next Gabriel García Marquez,” ran the text beneath the byline,
a darker, wilder, decidedly un-magical paragon of Latin American literature. But his former friend and fellow novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, isn’t buying it.
Beneath Castellanos Moya’s signature bellicosity, however, beats the heart of a disappointed romantic (a quality he shares with Bolaño), and so, notwithstanding its contrarian ambition, “Bolaño Inc.” paints the marketing of Bolaño in a pallette of reassuring black-and-white, and trots out a couple of familiar villains: on the one hand, “the U.S. cultural establishment;” on the other, the prejudiced, “paternalistic,” and gullible American readers who are its pawns.

As Esposito and Castellanos Moya argue, the Bolaño Myth in its most vulgar form represents a reduction of, and a distraction from, the Bolaño oeuvre; in theory, an attempt to reckon with it should lead to a richer understanding of the novels. In practice, however, Castellanos Moya’s hobbyhorses lead him badly astray. Following the scholar Sarah Pollack, (whose article in a recent issue of the journal Comparative Literature is the point of departure for “Bolaño Inc.”), he takes the presence of a Bolaño Myth as evidence for a number of conclusions it will not support: about its origin; about the power of publishers; and about the way North Americans view their neighbors to the South.

These points might be so local as to not be worth arguing – certainly not at length – were it not for a couple of their consequences. The first is that Castellanos Moya and Pollack badly mischaracterize what I believe is the appeal of The Savage Detectives for the U.S. reader – and in so doing, inadvertently miss the nature of Bolaño’s achievement. The second is that the narrative of “Bolaño Inc.” seems as tailor-made to manufacture media consent as the Bolaño Myth it diagnoses. (“Bolaño was sooo 2007,” drawls the hipster who haunts my nightmares.) Like Castellanos Moya, I had sworn I wasn’t going to write about Bolaño again, at least not so soon. But for what it can tell us about the half-life of the work of art in the cultural marketplace, and about Bolaño’s peculiar relationship to that marketplace, I think it’s worth responding to “Bolaño Inc.” in detail.

II.
The salients of the Bolaño Myth will be familiar to anyone who’s read translator Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. Or Siddhartha Deb’s long reviews in Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. Or Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, or Francisco Goldman’s in The New York Review of Books, or Daniel Zalewski’s in The New Yorker (or mine here at The Millions), or any number of New York Times pieces. Castellanos Moya offers this helpful précis:
his tumultuous youth: his decision to drop out of high school and become a poet; his terrestrial odyssey from Mexico to Chile, where he was jailed during the coup d’etat; the formation of the failed infrarealist movement with the poet Mario Santiago; his itinerant existence in Europe; his eventual jobs as a camp watchman and dishwasher; a presumed drug addiction; and his premature death.
Alongside the biographical Bolaño Myth, according to Castellanos Moya and Pollack, runs a literary one – that Bolaño has replaced García Márquez as the representative of “Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader.”

Relative to the heavy emphasis on the biography, mentions of García Márquez are less common in North American responses to The Savage Detectives. But one can feel, broadly, the way that familiarity with Bolaño now signifies, for the U.S. reader, a cosmopolitan intimacy with Latin American literature, as, for a quarter century, familiarity with García Márquez did. And this must be irritating for a Latin American exile like Castellanos Moya, as if every German one spoke to in Berlin were to say, “Ah, yes…the English language…well, you know, I’ve recently been reading E. Annie Proulx.” (Perhaps Proulx isn’t even the right analogue. How large does Bolaño loom in the Spanish-speaking world, anyway, assuming such a world (singular) exists? I’m told Chileans prefer Alberto Fuguet, and my friend in Barcelona had never heard of him until he became famous over here.)

One can imagine, also, the frustration a Bolaño intimate might have felt upon reading, in large-circulation publications, that the author nursed a heroin addiction…when, to judge by the available evidence, he didn’t. As we’ve written here, the meme of Bolaño-as-junkie seems to have originated in the Wimmer essay, on the basis of a misreading of a short story. That this salacious detail made its way so quickly into so many other publications speaks to its attraction for the U.S. reader: it distills the subversive undercurrents of the Bolaño Myth into a single detail, and so joins it to a variety of preexisting narratives (about art and madness; about burning out vs. fading away). Several publications went so far as to draw a connection between drug use and the author’s death, at age 50, from liver disease. This amounted, as Bolaño’s widow wrote to The New York Times, to a kind of slander.

And so “Bolaño Inc.” offers us two important corrections to the historical record. First, Castellanos Moya insists, Bolaño, by his forties, was a dedicated and “sober family man.” It is likely that this stability, rather than the self-destructiveness we find so glamorous in our artists, facilitated the writing of Bolaño’s major works. Secondly, Castellanos Moya reminds us of the difficulty of slotting this particular writer into any storyline or school. “What is certain,” writes Castellanos Moya, “is that Bolaño was always a non-conformist; he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements, nor was he even a writer maudit.” This is as much as to say, Bolaño was a writer – solitary, iconoclastic, and, in his daily habits, a little boring.

III.
“Bolaño Inc.” starts to fall apart, however, when Castellanos Moya dates the origins of the Bolaño Myth to the publication of The Savage Detectives. In 2005, editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux acquired the hotly contested rights to The Savage Detectives, reportedly for somewhere in the mid six figures – on the high end for a work of translation by an author largely “unknown” in the U.S. The posthumous appeal of Bolaño’s personal story no doubt helped the sale along.

FSG’s subsequent marketing campaign for the novel would emphasize specific elements of the author’s biography. “The profiles,” a former editor at another publishing house observed, “essentially wrote themselves.” Among the campaign’s elements were the online publication of what would become Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition. The hardcover jacket photo was a portrait of a scraggly Bolaño circa 1975. Castellanos Moya takes this as proof positive of a top-down crafting of the Bolaño myth (though Lorin Stein, a senior editor at FSG, told me, “I stuck that picture . . . on the book because it was my favorite and because it was in the period of the novel”).

As it would with 2666, FSG printed up unusually attractive galley editions, and carpet-bombed reviewers, writers, and even editors at other houses with a copy, “basically signaling to the media that this was their ‘important’ book of the year,” my editor friend suggested. When the book achieved sales figures unprecedented for a work of postmodern literature in translation “the standard discourse in publishing . . . was was that the publisher had ‘made’ that book.” Or, as Castellanos Moya puts it,
in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing.
But here Castellanos Moya begs the question: why did these particular negotiations entice FSG in the first place? He treats the fact that the book was “excellent” almost parenthetically. (And Pollack’s article is almost comical in its rush to bypass what she calls Bolaño’s “creative genius” – a quality that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of argumentation on which C.V.s are built these days.) Then again, it might be fair to say that excellence is an afterthought in the marketplace, as well.

Likely more attractive for FSG was the fact that, by 2006, much of the groundwork for the Bolaño Myth had already been laid. Over several years, New Directions, an independent American press, had already published – “carefully and tenaciously,” Castellanos Moya tells us – several of Bolaño’s shorter works. New Directions was clearly not oblivious to the fascination exerted by the author himself (to ignore it  would have amounted to publishing malpractice). The jacket bio for By Night In Chile, published in 2003, ran to an unusually detailed 150 words: arrest, imprisonment, death… By the following year, when Distant Star hit bookshelves, the head-shot of a rather gaunt-looking Bolaño had been swapped out for a fantastically moody portrait of the black-clad author in repose, inhaling a cigarette. These translations, by Chris Andrews, won “Best Books of the Year” honors from the major papers on both coasts, and led to excerpts in The New Yorker.

Nor can the initial development of the Bolaño Myth be laid at the feet of New Directions. Lest we forget, the sensation of The Savage Detectives began in 1999, when the novel won the Rómulo Gallegos prize, the preeminent prize for Spanish language fiction. Bolaño’s work in Spanish received glowing reviews from the TLS, almost all of which included a compressed biography in the opening paragraph.

In fact, the ultimate point of origin for the Bolaño myth – however distorted it would ultimately become – was Bolaño himself. Castellanos Moya avers that his friend “would have found it amusing to know they would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature,” and Bolaño would surely have recoiled from such a caricature. But his fondness for reimagining his life at epic scale is as distinctive an element in his authorial sensibility as it is in Philip Roth’s. It is most pronounced in The Savage Detectives, where he rewrites his own youth with a palpable, and powerful, yearning. So complete is the identification between Bolaño and his fictional alter-ego, Arturo Belano, that, when writing of a rumored movie version of The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya confuses the former with the latter.

At any rate, Castellanos Moya has the causal arrow backward. By the time FSG scooped up The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s “reputation and legend” were already “in meteoric ascent” (as a 2005 New York Times piece put it) both in the U.S. and abroad. The blurbs for the hardcover edition for The Savage Detectives were drawn equally from reviews of the New Directions editions and from publications like Le Monde des Livres, Neuen Zurcher Zeitung, and Le Magazine Littéraire – catnip not for neo-Beats or Doors fanatics but for exactly the kinds of people who usually buy literature in translation. And it was after all a Spaniard, Enrique Vila-Matas, who detected in The Savage Detectives a sign
that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end of the high priests of the Boom and all their local color.
A cynical reading of “Bolaño Inc.” might see it less as a cri de coeur against “the U.S. cultural establishment” than as an outgrowth of sibling rivalry within it. One imagines that the fine people at New Directions have complicated feelings about a larger publisher capitalizing on the groundwork it laid, and receiving the lion’s share of the credit for “making” The Savage Detectives. (Just as Latin American writers might feel slighted by the U.S. intelligentsia’s enthusiastic adoption of one of their own.) At the very least, it’s worth at noting that New Directions, a resourceful and estimable press, in Castellanos Moya’s account and in fact, is also his publisher.

IV.
On second thought, it is a little anachronistic to imagine that either publisher figures much in the larger “U.S. cultural establishment.” To be sure, it would be naïve to discount the role publishers and the broader critical ecology play in “breaking” authors to the public. There are even books, like The Lost Symbol or Going Rogue, whose bestseller status is, like box-office receipts of blockbusters, pretty much assured by the time the public sees them. But The Savage Detectives was not one of these. The amount paid for the book “was not exorbitant enough to warrant an all-out Dan Brown-like push,” one editor told me. “Books with that price tag bomb all the time.” And Lorin Stein noted that The Savage Detectives
surpassed our expectations by a long shot. How many 600-page experimental translated books make it to the bestseller list? You can’t work that sort of thing into a business plan.
I’m thinking here of Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories – an achievement comparable to The Savage Detectives, and likewise published by FSG, but not one that has become totemic for U.S. readers. Castellanos Moya might attribute Nádas’ modest U.S. sales to the absence of a compelling “myth.” But we would already have come a fair piece from the godlike “landlords of the market,” descending from their home in the sky to anoint “next big things.” And the sluggish sales this year of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – another monumental translation with a six-figure advance and a compelling narrative attached – further suggest that the landlords’ power over the tenants is erratic, or at least weakening.

Indeed, it is “Bolaño Inc.”‘s treatment of these tenants – i.e. readers – that is the most galling element of its argument. The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya insists, offers U.S. readers a vision of Latin America as a kind of global id, ultimately reaffirming North American pieties
like the superiority of the protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent.
As Pollack puts it,
Behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
Castellanos Moya and Pollack seem to want simultaneously to treat readers as powerless before the whims of publishers and to indict them for their colonialist fantasies. (This is the same “public” that in other quarters gets dunned for its disinterest in literature in translation, and in literature more broadly.) Within the parameters of the argument “Bolaño Inc.” lays out, readers can’t win.

But the truth is that U.S. readers of The Savage Detectives are less likely to use it as a lens on their neighbors to the south than as a kind of mirror. From Huckleberry Finn onward, we have been attracted to stories of recklessness and nonconformity wherever we have found them. When we read The Savage Detectives, we are not comforted at having sidestepped Arturo Belano’s fate. We are Arturo Belano. Likewise, the Bolaño Myth is not a story about Latin American literature. It is a dream of who we’d like to be ourselves. In its lack of regard for the subaltern, this may be no improvement on the charges “Bolaño Inc.” advances. But the attitude of the U.S. metropole towards the global south – in contrast, perhaps, to that of Lou Dobbs – is narcissistic, not paternalistic. Purely in political terms, the distinction is an important one.

V.
Moreover, Pollack’s quietist reading of the novel (at least as Castellanos Moya presents it) condescends to Bolaño himself, and is so radically at variance with the text as to be baffling. The Savage Detectives, she writes, “is a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.” Perhaps she means this as an indictment of the ideological mania of the Norteamericano, who completely misses what’s on the page; such an indictment would no doubt be “a very comfortable choice” for the readers of Comparative Literature. But to write of the novel as exploring “the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth,” as James Wood has, is far from reading it as a celebration of the joys of bourgeois responsibility.

Instead, The Savage Detectives offers a disquieting experience – one connected less to geography than to chronology. Bolaño is surely the most pan-national of Latin American writers, and his Mexico City could, in many respects, be L.A. It’s the historical backdrop – the 1970s – that give the novel its traction with U.S. readers. (In this way, the jacket photo is an inspired choice.)

The mid-’70s, as Bolaño presents them, are a time not just of individual aspirations, but of collective ones. Arturo and Ulises seem genuinely to believe that, confronted with a resistant world, they will remake it in their own image. Their failure, over subsequent years, to do so, is not a comforting commentary on the impossibility of change so much as it is a warning about the death of our ability to imagine progress – to, as Frederic Jameson puts it, “think the present historically.” Compare the openness of the ’70s here to the nightmarish ’90s of 2666. Something has been lost, this novel insists. Something happened back there.

The question of what that something was animates everything in The Savage Detectives, including its wonderfully shattered form, which leaves a gap precisely where the something should be. And this aesthetic dimension is the other disquieting experience of reading book – or really, it amounts to the same thing. In the ruthless unity of his conception Bolaño discovers a way out of the ruthless unity of postmodernity, and the aesthetic cul-de-sac it seemed to have led to. Seemingly through sheer willpower, he became the artist he had imagined himself to be.

VI.
This is the nature of the hype cycle: if the Bolaño backlash augured by The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” materializes, it will not be because readers have revolted against the novel (though there are readers whom the book leaves cold) but because they have revolted against a particular narrative being told about it. And Castellanos Moya, with his impeccable credentials and his tendentious but seductive account of the experience The Savage Detectives offers U.S. readers, provides the perfect cover story for those who can’t be bothered to do the reading. That is, “Bolaño Inc.” offers readers the very same enticements that the Bolaño Myth did: the chance to be Ahead of the Curve, to have an opinion that Says Something About You. Both myth and backlash pivot on a notion of authenticity that is at once an escape from commodification and the ultimate commodity. Bolaño had it, the myth insists. His fans don’t, says “Bolaño Inc.” But what if this authenticity itself is a construction? From what solid ground can we render judgment?

For a while now, I’ve been thinking out loud about just this question. One reader has accused me of hostility to the useful idea that taste is as constructed as anything else, and to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” more generally. I can see some of this at work in my reaction to “Bolaño Inc.” But the hermeneutics of suspicion to which Castellanos Moya subscribes should not mistake suspicion for proof of guilt. Indeed, it should properly extend suspicion to itself.

It may be easier to build our arguments about a work of art on assumptions about “the marketplace,” but it seems to me a perverse betrayal of the empirical to ignore the initial kick we get from the art that kicks us – the sighting of a certain yellow across the gallery, before you know it’s a De Kooning. Yes, you’re already in the gallery, you know you’re supposed to be looking at the framed thing on the wall, but damn! That yellow!

When I revisit my original review of The Savage Detectives – a book I bought because I liked the cover and the first page, and because I’d skimmed Deb’s piece in Harper’s – I find a reader aware of the star-making machinery, but innocent of the biographical myth to which he was supposed to be responding. (You can find me shoehorning it in at the end, in a frenzy of Googling.) Instead, not knowing any better, I began by trying to capture exactly why, from one writer’s perspective, the book felt like a punch in the face. This seems, empirically, like a sounder place to begin thinking about the book than any preconception that would deny the lingering intensity of the blow. I have to imagine, therefore, that, whatever their reasons for picking up the book, other readers who loved it were feeling something similar.

Not that any of this is likely to save us from a Bolaño backlash. Castellanos Moya’s imagining of the postmodern marketplace as a site with identifiable landlords – his conceit that superstructure and base can still be disentangled – has led him to overlook its algorithmic logic of its fashions. The anomalous length and intensity of Bolaño’s coronation (echoing, perhaps, the unusual length and intensity of his two larger novels) and the maddening impossibility of pinning down exactly what’s attributable to genius and what’s attributable to marketing have primed us for a comeuppance of equal intensity.

But when the reevaluation of Bolaño begins in earnest – and again, in some ways it might serve him well – one wants to imagine the author would prefer for it to respond to, and serve, what’s actually on the page. Of course the truth is, he probably wouldn’t give a shit either way. About this, the Myth and its debunkers can agree: Roberto Bolaño would probably be too busy writing to care.

[Bonus Link: Jorge Volpi’s brilliant, and somewhat different, take on all this is available in English at Three Percent.]

Top 20 Alternative: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History

I.
In the aftermath of the Best Fiction of the Millennium series – given that none of my own favorite five made the list, either the “professional” list or the readers list – I am thinking about awards, recognition, popularity; and how reading (and critiquing) fiction is, on the one hand, a communal activity; but also a highly personal one.

Of the Pros’ 20 (the list to which my votes were applied): I’d read seven; two were on my serious to-read list; two were on my “if I can get to them or if a strong personal recommendation comes my way” list; three I’d heard probably way too much about, and so had decided to pass. About the remaining six, I had no particular feelings one way or another. Among the seven I’d read: two were among my favorites, though not my top five; one I found “just fine;” one I had strong negative feelings about; one I found disappointing relative to my expectations; and two I struggled to get through, for reasons I’ve yet to precisely identify.

So much of the joy of reading is, I think, what the reader brings to the work, and the particular alchemy that happens when reader and book collide. I myself would be hard pressed to ever pursue book reviewing in any serious way, because I could see each review devolving into maudlin hand-wringing and tedious qualifying, the prose overwhelmed by appositives and parentheticals, detailing how most of the reasons for why I did or did not connect with the book have to do with my station in life, my mood this week, the book I read previous to this one, the way in which the protagonist reminds me of my cousin Josephine, etc.

II.
My Top Five works of fiction since 2000, for the record:

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany
The Name of the World by Denis Johnson
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño
Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

My #6 (a backup, because initially I didn’t know if short fiction (my Bolaño choice) would qualify) was The Tutor of History by the Nepali novelist and essayist Manjushree Thapa. Published by Penguin UK, Tutor — the first major English-language novel by a Nepali writer – was not released in the U.S.; and so not many American readers know of it. But this was a book that got me out of a reader’s slump (as described by Lydia Kiesling in an essay earlier this summer)—a slump that was composed, as it turned out, of three award-winning novels.

IV.
Why did Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, Lily Tuck’s The News From Paraguay, and Ali Smith’s The Accidental all come to feel more like required classroom reading than the vivid and continuous dream (in John Gardner’s words) we hope for when we read fiction? Here, after all, I had a triad of major award-winners – National Book Award finalist, National Book Award winner, and Whitbread Award winner (and Booker Prize shortlisted), respectively. And yet I found myself, midway through each, trudging through, sighing deeply, and saying to myself like a quarterback who’s been sacked one too many times, “Ok. I’m going back in.”

It struck me that the three books happened to share a common feature: shifting point-of-view. By my count, Telex, which takes place in the American expat community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, is narrated via eight different points of view — four of which are major characters, the others minor — alternating chapter by chapter. One of these is a first-person voice, that of KC Stites, the bland younger son of a United Fruit Company executive. In Paraguay, which is also based on historical events, point-of-view shifts from paragraph to paragraph, in clipped, episodic fashion, among a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Francisco Solano Lopez (Franco), Paraguay’s heir-dictator at the middle of the 19th century; his Eva Peron-esque mistress, Ella Lynch, an Irish beauty; Ella’s wet nurses and maidservants; Franco’s fat and petty sisters; a self-righteous American minister; a disgraced American doctor; and dozens of other characters including assorted diplomats, soldiers, and Franco’s Brazilian and Argentine adversaries. Ella is the one character who comes to us in (pseudo) first-person, via her diary entries. The Accidental tells the story of the affluent, discontented Smart family, on holiday in contemporary Norfolk, England. Again, sections are narrated from alternating points of view, by each of four angst-ridden family members—two adults, two teenagers—as their lives are disrupted by Amber, a seductive hippie-girl stranger, who, in a familiar trope, shows up out of nowhere and Changes Everything. Amber is the one character (the fifth point of view) who narrates in first-person – an abstract, sinister voice that may or may not be hallucinatory.

“Ambitious” shows up frequently in reviews of these novels, along with “heady” and “inventive.” Each aims to bring to the reader not a conventional journey-through-transformation-with-protagonist, but rather a kind of collective psyche of place and time; hence, the diverse points of view on a single set of events.  As readers, we’ve become accustomed to this fragmented, collaged approach to narrative (Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably brought this expectation fully into the mainstream), embracing the notion that truth is relative, and thus the more versions and perspectives – i.e. the more prismatic the presentation – the closer we come to the whole truth.

But the overlay of a complex point-of-view structure onto an already thorny narrative canvas seemed to generate too much static in the reception. And by the time I came to the end of my summer reading, I was tempted to think that the plural-main-character device just doesn’t work (note: apart from my disappointment with the reading experience, this was an especially low moment, since my own forthcoming novel features an ensemble cast and shifting points of view). In each case I felt that the sort-of main character – the one first-person narrator – was the least compelling; and that there was too much competition between character-as-protagonist and setting-or-ethos-as-protagonist. Ultimately, place and time and culture wreaked havoc, while characters became mere casualties of the battle of ideas and historical forces, chewed up and spit out with marked detachment. As Joanne Omang of The Washington Post wrote in her review of Paraguay:
The sheer sprawl of Tuck’s subject matter seems to have overwhelmed her; she has put it all into her story without focus, rather than pruning away the undergrowth… We emerge with neither a grasp of the historical period nor any feeling for its shapers, real or fictional… Perhaps this frustrating approach is meant to evoke the disjointed nature of human experience, the measuring out of lives in coffee spoons, the inadequacy of memory, the sheer coquetry of chance and life and death, etc. If so, it is certainly just as frustrating as real life can be — for example, when one is hoping to sit down with a vivid story and learn a little something about how to be a full human being while yet surviving during violent and turbulent times.
A strong protagonist, I thought; that’s the bottom line. Likable, unlikable, whatever; we – emotionally-ravenous readers (which is a redundancy, really) – we need a through-line, not just a complex or dynamic set of circumstances. In stories of and about shapelessness, we need a primary shaper. Maybe, I thought, as readers, we are fundamentally monogamous.

V.
But then. The Tutor of History raised the lid off of my airless resignation. In Tutor, Thapa has done what I had longed for Kushner, Tuck, and Smith to do—what seems deceptively simple but clearly is not, given the caliber of these writers—which is to bring us both the story of a society in chaos, i.e. the bustling Nepali town of Khareini Tar (circa late 1990s); and the beguiling individuals who people that society. She has sacrificed neither a sense of political-societal complexity, nor depth and sympathy of character. In the end, I wanted to both visit and study this obscure and politically turbulent corner of the Subcontinent, and to sit down with each character over tea.

The book blurb identifies four main characters; I would cite eight: Rishi, the eponymous tutor, a rebellious drifter and disillusioned communist who gives private lessons in history for his livelihood; Giridhar, the alcoholic chairman of the People’s Party’s district committee and an administrative man who suffers from thwarted political ambition; Om Gurung, a large-hearted former British Gurkha, who works along side Giridhar on the campaign; Binita, a reclusive young widow on the margins of society as a result of her manlessness, who runs a small tea shop where the campaign committee congregates; Binita’s beautiful and fatally prideful niece Sani, and her brother-in-law, the famous cinema actor Nayan Raj, who becomes the Party’s well-meaning if a bit misguided candidate for the local parliament seat (driving Giridhar deeper into drunken misery); Harsha Bahadur, the ugly, undernourished Khadka boy who ruins Sani’s reputation by declaring his love for her; and Chiranjibi, a successful businessman who undergoes a quiet conversion to community organizing and political idealism.

There is something here for everyone – idealism, petty corruption, personal rebellion, despair, ambition, beauty, ugliness, opportunism, loneliness, family, feminism, even romance. There are numerous characters, a slate of political parties and bureaucracies, and unfamiliar (to Westerners) cultural references to keep track of. And yet the novel never feels crowded nor impenetrable. How has Thapa accomplished this? I dare say, by keeping it simple. No stylish tricks of narrative episodism, or ambivalent structural gestures toward a sort-of main character, or experimental abstraction. The Tutor of History, while equal in ambition to these other “inventive” and “heady” novels, and sharing their broad goals, succeeds, at least partially, by virtue of fidelity to old-fashioned narrative omniscience. In a brief conversation with Thapa recently (over coffee, not tea – this was in New York, after all), she laughed at herself good-naturedly and confessed: “When I was studying fiction writing, I was doing all this avant-garde experimental stuff; and here, I ended up writing essentially a Victorian novel.”

VI.
The comparison is not far off in that Tutor imagines and renders the human experience as one of both self-determination and connection—each of the character’s fates is intimately entwined with that of the others—and in this sense is also concerned with inviting the reader into the novel’s moral world. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwback in contemporary literary fiction to envision the reader not as detached auditor but rather as moral investor. Is it valid to evaluate books based on the writer’s awareness of the reader at all? Perhaps not. But I’ll say that I came away from my summer reading triad feeling distinctly stiff-armed by a kind of insularity of intelligence. These books seemed to me written by the writer, for the writer—more of an intense conversation with self (and, in the case of Telex and Paraguay, with history) than with reader. Stephen Elliott said recently in an interview, “Some readers read to escape; I read to connect.” My summer reading efforts afforded neither escape nor connection, but something more like chin-stroking, head-nodding reverence. Well-played; yes, indeed. Remarkable oeuvre you have there. There is certainly something to be said for heady novels written by women, when so much of “women’s fiction” is about inner emotional lives and domestic relationships. But it does make me ask the question of why we write and why we read; and what it means when a book strikes you more as an intellectual feat than an experience.

The Tutor of History is a novel I will likely revisit, again and again. And like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, I believe that each time I read it, a different character, a different storyline, will come into relief as my protagonist and through-line; depending on what I am obsessed with or trying to understand at the time (I say it again: reading is highly personal). In the shadow of the Victorians, Thapa employs a bit of EM Forster-ism here (“only connect”), adhering to mature realism (Thapa is also a journalist who’s written extensively on Nepali society and politics and thus sees her characters and their context with unsentimental eyes), while lacking the contemporary Western novelist’s relative disregard for the enduring organism of community. An Irish mistress in Latin America, American expats in Cuba, bourgeois Londoners shuttling between city and country – they ultimately come and go at will, once upheaval has run its course. But for the townspeople of Khareini Tar, this is it; this is where their lives will be lived out. Some characters are handed their place in the community, others must make their own; societal position is no doubt a persistent source of hardship. And yet, we understand in the end that it ain’t nothing, this placeness, this connectedness. There seems even to be a place for the reader.

A Bolaño Syllabus

If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.

In this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.

Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)

Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,
In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.
And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of  Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.

1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.

2. Nazi Literature in the Americas [1996]

This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).

3. Distant Star [1996]

When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.

4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.

5. The Savage Detectives [1999]

What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).

6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]

Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.

7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” [2001]; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978” [1997] (from Last Evenings on Earth)

The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)

8. The Skating Rink [1993]

I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.

9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]

To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…

10. Amulet [1999]

…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?

11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [2001]

This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.

12. 2666[2004]

Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.

13. By Night in Chile [2000]

Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.

The Post-Kindle World

Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement – or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? – the Kindle was everywhere I went.

First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn’t use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle.

Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers.

The Economist.
The New Yorker.
Last Evenings on Earth.
Kindle.
Something in Chinese.
The Raw Shark Texts.
Another Kindle.
Lush Life.
Something by Donna Leon.
Something by Daniel Silva.
Something by Stephen L. Carter.
Yup: Kindle #3.

(The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I’m not making this up.)

Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle.

I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won’t exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone’s reading on mass transit. Except that they’re all reading on e-Readers.

This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I’m not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won’t make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you’re carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er…nail.

Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath

Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]

Why Bolaño Matters

I.Every so often, one feels the great gears of canonization creaking into motion. A long critical essay in The New Republic or the New York Review will direct our attention to an overlooked contemporary poet, or beg our reconsideration of a novelist too long out-of-print. A month later, another such essay will appear in another venue, along with a note announcing the imminent appearance of so-and-so’s collected verse, or the retranslation of the magnum opus of such-and-such. An excerpt follows in The New Yorker. The blogs are abuzz. And then, on the front page of the Sunday Book Review, the Times finally catches on.Okay, this feels a little unfair, a little dyspeptic…and a little too specific to the media centers of the East and West Coasts. Since my college years in the Midwest, I’ve admired the efforts undertaken by presses like Dalkey, New Directions, New York Review Books, and Archipelago on behalf of world literature. And without the coordinated advocacy of critics (Susan Sontag was a marvel in this respect, as in so many others) I might not have copped to Leonid Tspykin, Witold Gombrowicz, Leonard Michaels… The list goes on and on.But at a certain point, the law of diminishing returns sets in. If I made time for every overlooked author recommended in the back pages of Harper’s – lately a veritable house organ for the redoubtable FSG – I’d read little else. Among other things, literary greatness requires, as William H. Gass has argued, passing tests of time. I may have to wait a few more decades to see if posterity accords Orhan Pamuk’s work, for example, the high regard in which present critics hold it. Of if my misgivings about Snow hold water.All of which is to say that when I finished Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives this summer and walked out of my apartment onto the blazing street, humming as though zapped by business end of a live-wire, wanting to climb to the top of the nearest bridge and shout to passersby that they must stop everything and read this book, I felt, despite the relative frequency with which we (myself included) throw around terms like “genius” and “masterpiece,” that I had just been in the presence of the real thing. And that that was a rare and precious gift.II.In Bolaño’s work, emotions tango – terror and fascination go cheek by jowl, laughter rubs elbows with pathos – but an undercurrent of exuberance remains constant, a stylistic signature. Which is remarkable, given the sinister plots that entangle his characters. The Savage Detectives begins (and ends) as the diary of one Juan Garcia Madero, a seventeen-year-old aspiring poet living in Mexico City. Two slightly older poets maudits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano adopt him as a kind of mascot for their literary circle, the “visceral realists.” Madero’s first diary entry reads, in its entirety: “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”No initiation ceremony? Two months and 150 pages later, Madero will find himself in the backseat of a Chevy Impala with a prostitute named Lupe, fleeing a murderous pimp. Up front, Ulises and Arturo set a course for the Sonora desert, where they seek a vanished poet of the 1930s, one Cesarea Tinajero. This is madness! Yet we feel, in the surging rhythms of the prose (translated by Natasha Wimmer), young Madero’s eager acceptance of his fate.”I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Fonts’ house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.”In the space of a few sentences, Juan Garcia Madero has earned his wings. He has learned to see the sadness of the whoremonger, to find the gunfire in the fireworks and vice versa. He has become, in the fullest sense of the word, a poet.Bolaño’s preoccupation with poetry may strike the Norteamericano reader, circa 2007, as odd. Who even reads that stuff anymore? We are far more accustomed to authors who hang their narratives on nuclear war, crime syndicates, cattle drives… But the long middle section of The Savage Detectives, wherein 52 narrators track Arturo and Ulises through the 20 years that follow their fateful journey north, exposes academic definitions of poetry as far too narrow. For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances. Poetry is a synonym for youth, for vitality, for faith in one’s own ability to change the world. Poetry is innocence hungering for experience, and vice versa. It is a way of being in the world.That is to say, poetry signifies as much to Bolaño as the whiteness of the whale did to Melville. It functions in The Savage Detectives as Moby-Dick did in the book that bore his name. In his aesthetic innovations – narrative fragmentation, riffs on real historical figures, enjambment of high and low culture – Bolaño resembles a number of other forward-looking novelists. But I can think of no other contemporary writer for whom symbolic preoccupations burn so brightly. Scenes, objects, and characters scintillate with political, ethical, and aesthetic significance. Poetic significance. It is the lunatic density of Bolaño’s symbolism that marks him as truly avant-garde… and also as a vital addition to the mainstream.For some time now, I’ve pictured the American avant-garde as a painter stuck in a corner, surrounded by its own slow-drying handiwork. When an artist strikes out in search of the new, she dreams of the rioting audience of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, of customs agents confiscating pallets of books deemed obscene. And yet, in a culture where dissonance and obscenity are the norm, how is the artist to provoke any reaction at all?The situation is seen most clearly in the world of visual art, where, with the regularity of changing hemlines, proclamations of the Rebirth of Painting alternate with controversies about religious icons rendered in various forms of bodily excretion. One can, Alex P. Keaton-like, react against the excesses of the father by turning toward the conservative. Or one can push farther, ever farther, celebrating the celebrity, marketing the market, outgrossing the gross-out. The most important work being done, at least theoretically, involves a compromise: some genetic splicing of Old Mastery with the shallow holography of mass culture. Think Jeff Wall. Think John Currin and Cindy Sherman.At least these folks are still considered leaders in their field. In American literature, experimentalism is kept like a domesticated animal. For twenty-two hours a day, it sleeps under the kitchen table. Occasionally, when we get bored, we trot it out and put it through its tricks to remind ourselves that, hey, we’re as hip as the next guy. But an avant-garde novel is never going to change the way we see the world.Well, The Savage Detectives blew my pessimism all to hell. Aiming to usurp the throne of literature from Octavio Paz (and, later, Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Roberto Bolaño produced something unselfconsciously yet distinctly his own.Nothing more or less than the sum of the stories told about them, Bolaño’s visceral realists come alive in a new way. Not only do we see Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano from every possible angle; we see them from impossible angles as well. Among the novel’s 52 + 1 voices, conflicting accounts proliferate: The visceral realists are geniuses. They are hacks. They are liars. They are saints. The author refuses to render a verdict. And yet his narrators aren’t wholly unreliable: in each version of Ulises and Arturo, we recognize something ineffable and unchanging. However plastic or fantastic, they are always somehow themselves. As we are always somehow ourselves. Among other things, then, The Savage Detectives is a treatise on human nature.III.To borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie. Bolaño’s shorter novel, Amulet revisits one of The Savage Detectives’ narrators, a poor Uruguayan named Auxilio Lacoutre. When, in the riotous year of 1968, the Mexican army invades the sovereign campus of the national university, Auxilio refuses to be evacuated. For twelve days, she hides in a women’s bathroom, subsisting on tapwater and scribbling poems on sheets of toilet-paper. In her disorientation, she drifts into the past… And, bizarrely, into the future, where her resistance – like Ulises and Arturo’s exploits – will become the stuff of legend. As a character sketch, Amulet is vivid and hallucinatory, but I found the proliferation of subplots and hazy chronology hard to track. I much preferred the version of Auxilio’s rebellion that appears in The Savage Detectives. Like the tales told by that novel’s other 52 voices, Auxilio’s gains meaning and urgency through its connection to a larger narrative arc.Of course, much of Bolaño’s fiction is part of a single galaxy, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Several short stories, for example, are narrated by a figure who shares biographical circumstances with Arturo Belano (which is to say, with Bolano himself). And Caesarea Tinajero, at the end The Savage Detectives, hints darkly at events that will unfold in 2666.Still, for the novitiate looking for a quick introduction to Bolano’s world, the best place to start may be Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of stories rendered into English, like Amulet, by Chris Andrews. It’s all here in miniature: the romantic fatalism, the rich irony, the soupcon of the supernatural, the political depredations, the enigmatic yet incredibly real characters. A story like “Gomez Palacio,” in which, simultaneously, nothing much happens and everything does, presents a vision as idiosyncratic, and as existentially important, as Kafka’s. Each writer seems to have sprung fully formed from the void.Which makes Bolaño’s own story seem all the more implausible. Broke, addicted, and unknown as of the late ’80s, the former poet kicked heroin and took up fiction writing to support his growing family – a quixotic pursuit if ever there was one. Bolaño would enter his short stories in Spain’s many regional writing contests, often winning multiple prizes with the same piece (camouflaged under a variety of titles). By 1999, the massive Savage Detectives had won the Romulo Gallegos prize – Spanish-language literature’s most prestigious award. Upon learning that his liver was failing, Bolaño raced to finish the even-more-massive manuscript for 2666, his literary legacy to the world, and his financial legacy to his wife and children. Whether 2666 can equal or surpass The Savage Detectives remains to be seen (among English-speaking audiences, at least; Wimmer’s translation will be released next year). It seems certain, however, that Bolaño’s place among the dozen or so great novelists of the last quarter-century is secure… Or anyway, that’s how it looks to this correspondent.

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