The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence. A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities. “I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead." There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked. Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead. That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, "that duo of ancient machos," as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers - as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade. But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.] When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.
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I am consistently drawn in, and consistently disappointed, by bio-novels about women made unhappy by famous men. I read The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway. I read Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. I read the diaries of Sofya Tolstoy. And now I’ve read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I put each of them aside a heavy sigh when I’ve finished. I’m not disappointed in the books, but in the lives of the women. The point of these books is to tell their side of the story, but in reality, and definitely in Zelda’s case, they didn’t get their own side of the story. Z follows Scott and Zelda from their courtship in Zelda’s native Montgomery, Ala., to their newlywed years in New York and then the long spiral into unhappiness via Paris, the Riviera, Hollywood, Maryland, and a few mental institutions. Although there are sweet moments in the beginning, the narrative quickly devolves into a “party, fight, repress, repeat” structure. The only thing that changes is the subject of the fight, but even that doesn’t vary widely. On its own, it’s not a compelling story. What makes it noteworthy is that these are the parties and fights experienced by the man who wrote The Great Gatsby, and this is the woman he made unhappy. Zelda had aspirations in painting, dancing, and writing, and showed promise in each. Scott prevented her from pursuing painting and dance beyond hobbies, and when she did write short stories or essays, they were published under his name (to ensure acceptance and higher payment). When she finally published a novel, Save Me the Waltz, under her own name, Scott edited out all the parts that made him look bad, and the novel failed. In the book, Zelda refers to her novel as “another failed endeavour.” In Therese Anne Fowler’s eyes, it’s another “what if?” What if she hadn’t let Scott edit her novel? What if she had become a professional dancer? What if she didn’t have to move every time Scott alienated another group of their friends? What if she hadn’t married him at all? Would her life have been easier, more fulfilled? Fowler’s novel asks these questions, but can’t answer them. Nothing can, because we only have the story of what actually happened. These books about Hadley and Sofya and Zelda ask us to imagine how much easier their lives would have been if they’d had their own stories. At one point in the book Zelda asks herself, “Whose life is this anyway?” Not hers, is the answer. There’s a lingering myth that even if it’s stormy, it’s something of a privilege to be married to greatness, that letting your life be subsumed by an artist’s is a beautiful sacrifice to what he creates and a chance to be immortal. It is true that without Zelda, we wouldn’t have Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Beautiful and Damned -- after all, she’s in those books -- but it’s another matter to assume that she was content to sacrifice her happiness for three great novels. Fitzgerald and Zelda were a complicated couple, and Fowler illustrates how they could love each other, make each other crazy (sometimes literally), and despite the turmoil stay together. Fowler doesn’t show Zelda simply as a miserable wife, or as someone who was happy to live in service to Fitzgerald’s work, but rather as a wife who “was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it.” Paradoxically, this is the reason to write and read about Zelda, because she deserved a life much more interesting than the one that she got. Interesting to her, that is, a life she could have given her energy and talents to, not just a life made interesting by famous friends and European capitals. Fowler’s intricately drawn portrait of Zelda is less a titillating story than a museum of untapped potential. We can never know what that potential might have lead to, but we can look on as she carries it with her through life, as it slowly becomes too late. What disappoints me about the lives of Zelda, Hadley, and Sofya is that they’re museums of untold stories rather than legitimately good stories. They were all remarkable women who thought that marrying remarkable men would, naturally, make their lives remarkable. But repeatedly anything great in their husbands’ lives came at their expense. I am continually drawn to them out of a sense of responsibility, or penance, a feeling that someone should look and appreciate what they gave up.
It's a big season for Zadie Smith. While most of us eagerly await the publication of her latest book, NW, the author's earlier work, On Beauty, is set to become a feature film. Smith's first book to be dramatized on film was White Teeth, a UK mini-series from 2002 based on her book of the same name. (And available online if you have Hulu Plus.)