Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
1965, 152 pp.

When most people speak of “postmodernism” in literature, they are really speaking of Thomas Pynchon, and when most people speak of Thomas Pynchon, they are speaking of two books: Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. Intrepid readers seeking an entry point into that arch and disreputable genre can select no better exordium. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered a titan of the genre, while The Crying of Lot 49 contains all of its essential preoccupations, in a much more manageable package.

Therefore we have funny names (the heroine is called Oedipa Maas), a preoccupation with psychoanalysis (her therapist is named Dr. Hilarius), an irreverent combination of absurdist humor and real pathos, and acute paranoia. The story begins when Oedipa finds that she is the executor of the estate of her recently deceased ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. Inverarity was an eccentric tycoon who seems to own a piece of everything. Oedipa begins to find traces of a shadowy organization called “Trystero,” which turns out to have been a nefarious shadow postal service in Renaissance Europe, then migrated to the United States, where it serves as an underground through which all other undergrounds communicate. Its emblem is a postal horn with a plug in it, and she begins to see this sign everywhere. Every lead she follows brings her back to another entity owned by Pierce Inverarity. Everywhere she goes she sees the muted horn. Has she stumbled onto a giant conspiracy, or is this an elaborate game set up by Inverarity?

The book starts with comedy and farce. There is a long sequence in which Oedipa is being seduced by her co-executor, so she puts on lots of extra clothes, but knocks over a hairspray bottle which flies around the room smashing things. One of the first members of an underground who she encounters is a parody of a right-wing fringe outfit, based around the cult of the captain of the Confederate ironclad “Disgruntled,” led by somebody called "Mike Fallopian." The opening is the weakest part of the book, since the comedy leaves enough room for the reader to begin wondering what the point is. Why call your protagonist “Oedipa”? Clearly it’s to conjure an association with a certain ill-fated Theban, but since her parents are never mentioned, is it the riddle-solving aspect rather than the more known parricide that we should focus on? What about the other silly names, like “Genghis Cohen”? Why am I reading these long, silly digressions about a movie one of the characters starred in as a child?

Then about two-thirds of the way in, Pynchon changes gears. In a riveting, tour-de-force passage of some twenty pages, he sends Oedipa on a Dantean nighttime journey through San Francisco, encountering desperate people and the Trystero symbol everywhere she turns. The prose here is lush and heavy, with a long, bitter nose and earthy undertones. It’s relentless, clever, brilliantly realized. It’s like a particularly paranoid Tom Waits song. It also marks the point when the novel turns serious.

The final third consists of nothing but loss. Oedipa loses everyone in her life, and indeed perhaps even her sense of self, since she is left with nothing of her original life to hold onto: “That night’s profusion of post horns, this malignant, deliberate replication, was their way of being up. They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.” The book is worth the read simply for the central bridge section, which is a relief, because the book does not resolve itself, it only ends. To some extent this is a manifestation of the wise old rule about how it is always more effective not to actually show the monster, but to leave it to the reader (or viewer) to imagine. Not resolving the reality or fabrication of the Trystero network is probably wise, and works to make the book unsettling instead of just entertaining. With such a short book, the reader invests fairly little time and effort, so the burden of proof is fairly low, but still it was a gamble which Pynchon only pulls off thanks to his virtuoso middle section and the intriguing possibilities it raises.

The impact of this book is quite easy to trace. I was constantly struck by just how similar David Foster Wallace’s book The Broom of the System is to The Crying of Lot 49. Both share numerous aesthetic and structural points, and though Wallace is articulating a rather less paranoid and hostile worldview, it is still a worldview preoccupied with anxiety and persecution. Wallace was a great talent and an original voice, but it is striking to see just how Pynchonian he was.

At any rate, The Crying of Lot 49 is accessible, which much postmodern fiction is not, and holds the reader’s attention, which most modern fiction in general does not. It is at times brilliant, though not consistently, but shows enough skill and virtuosity that it makes the prospect of tackling the beast of Gravity’s Rainbow a bit less daunting.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Universal Baseball Association

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover
1968, 174 pp.

This strange and rather endearing little book is rather like a musty capsule sent up from those disreputable realms once referred to disparagingly by Gore Vidal as the “research and development” division of fiction writing. It comes from a different time, when meta-fiction was still a new world to be explored, before the arch irony of the self-appointed post-modernists drowned all sense of wonder and empathy in exploratory fiction. Coover was one of the first great meta-fictionists during the high 1960’s when it was still possible to speak of a serious American literary avant-garde. His most famous book is probably The Public Burning, which approaches the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from a perspective somewhat akin to magical realism. (Incidentally, this seems to be an oddly resonant confluence of interests: E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed 1971 novel The Book of Daniel deals with the same case in a metafictional sort of way.) The Universal Baseball Association is brief, elliptical, and allegorical. It is full of baseball, full of middle aged failure and loneliness, and is also about God and creation, good and evil.

The story is about a sad, lonely, 56-year old accountant named J. Henry Waugh, who loves games. He has designed himself a baseball game he plays with dice, which has been so elaborately thought out that it simulates all of the possibilities and probabilities of real baseball. He has created teams, players, histories, relationships, sexual tendencies, bars, songs, politics, commentary. He has charts governing all manner of possible outcomes, and in his mind the characters live and breathe and play baseball. This reveals itself gradually: the book seems to open with Henry watching a game. Or perhaps he is at one. Only slowly do we realize that it and everything he sees and hears at it is in his imagination.

Like Henry, the Association is past its prime. The Golden Age is over, and since Henry can play through a year in about six weeks, whole dynasties have risen and fallen and new generations of players emerged. But he is losing interest, until a brilliant young pitcher appears on the scene, throwing the exhilarating perfect game which opens the book. Henry pours all of his hopes into the boy and counts on him to revive the Association and the sole source of interest in Henry’s life. But then the dice turn against him: triple ones twice in a row send him to the “Chart of Extraordinary Occurrences,” and another set of triple ones kills the young hope, struck in the head by a wild pitch. The dice are relentless, and the game turns into a miserable defeat on top of the tragic death. There seems to be no justice in the Association, no sense of good triumphing over evil. Henry is devastated and his life starts to come apart. For long stretches of the book Henry disappears entirely and his imaginary characters take center stage, themselves coming apart under strain. Finally Henry stacks the dice and kills the player who threw the fatal ball, trying to regain balance in the Association.

The reader’s ability to parse what is going on is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes to realize that the name “J. Henry Waugh” is very easily condensed to read “JHWH.” Henry is none other than the Creator himself, and his pure Son dies a premature death at the hands of cruel fate and its evil avatars, who are unfortunately also of Henry’s own creation. The story of The Universal Baseball Association is the progression from a deistic to a theistic God: in case the reader is unclear, the final chapter takes place a hundred “years” in the future, when the Association has resolved into religious sects with rituals and blood feuds.

Quite a lot of the book consists of baseball games and baseball jargon. To some extent, it is probably possible to enjoy without some underlying enjoyment of baseball. Henry is a compelling enough character: sad and pointless in a stultified Middle-American way. His imaginary players are colorful and often entertaining. The writing is good without being flashy. When Coover writes, for instance, that Henry “cried for a long bad time,” the reader must reflect that “long bad time” has no linguistic finesse, but is a perfect phrase nonetheless. The hallucinogenic shifts between Henry’s reality and imagination are not slippery and deceptive in the manner of some more manipulative meta-fictions. One can easily picture them using different aspect ratios, different film stocks. After the initial uncertainty, it is always clear what is going on, which allows the reader more space to think and feel about it. It is a frequently sad book, but a clever one, and Coover’s idea of telling life through baseball is a satisfying conceit. Recommended, but only so long as the reader does not mind a great deal of baseball.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Growth Triumphant

Growth Triumphant, by Richard A. Easterlin
1998, 200 pp.

This compact, efficient little book is a surprisingly satisfying foray into the melee of economic growth literature. It takes as its task the explanation of what it argues are the two major developments in the modern world: rapid and sustained economic growth and enormous population growth. Both of those topics have provoked an enormous and tedious amount of literature, and arguments as to their causes are so numerous that a small army of scholars is fed simply to generate new ones. Easterlin does something audacious, though: he argues that both have the same cause, progress in roughly the same way, and are leading towards the same result. The cause is technological change, and in his view it determines mostly everything else.

Considering the simplicity of that explanation, he makes a remarkably persuasive case. He argues that since the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution created large, expensive, complicated methods of production, they were not feasible to buy and use in a home, farm or workshop. This necessitated institutions like corporations to raise capital to invest in these new technologies, centralization of production to take advantage of the economies of scale generated by large production facilities, which in turn created more administration (leading to white-collar jobs) and urbanization. Urbanization promoted agglomeration industries (services catering to large populations) and a demand for municipal government services. Better technology reduced transport costs, which promoted trade. It increased income, which increase demand for products, which generates more growth. Better technology requires better education, which is why education is necessary to development. In his argument, virtually all the usual explanations for growth are just consequences of technological change and scientific methodology.

He takes the argument further, to state that the population explosion is the result of technologies and scientific developments which reduced mortality. This created an over-supply of children relative to demand, which eventually falls off as incomes rise and the cost of regulating fertility falls. So after an initial, transitory increase in population, fertility drops off and populations stabilize. Easterlin argues that both this demographic transition and the process of growth are happening faster now than they did in the past, so he predicts a future of permanent, general growth, constantly rising aspirations, and disappearing cultural differences in a “constant race to achieve the good life of material plenty.” His analysis of technological change in industrialization and public health is interesting, upbeat, and engaging. He mentions a lot of intriguing, logical conclusions which follow from discarding the ideas he finds quantitatively inadequate, and consequently the book is an enjoyable and fairly quick read. It is also much less depressing than most books on economic development, which revolve around either European exploitation, hopeless poverty traps, or Malthusian catastrophe. Easterlin makes the whole process sound quite hopeful and encouraging.

To reach this conclusion, he deals with each issue separately, in a very careful, measured, precise, unemotional way. He presents both sides of a given argument, then some quantitative evidence, and sees what the evidence suggests. Quite often this is persuasive, as when he proves fairly conclusively that neither population growth nor population decline is correlated with economic growth. Other times he is less persuasive, as when he has to set up elaborate proxy variables for some difficult-to-quantify variable he wants to test. He also dispenses with whole arguments based on one or two quantitative studies, without discussing just how difficult it is to get reliable data, or the statistical significance of his correlations. Fairly large swathes of the first half of the book seem to be extended arguments with Paul Krugman, who largely invented the modern theories of economic geography, economies of scale, and North-North trade, but Krugman gets only one mention in the whole book, and that’s a rather disparaging remark on a minor article in Foreign Affairs. He also doesn’t spend much time explaining how and why that mighty technological change took place in northern England in the 1750’s, as opposed to earlier or later or in a different place. Obviously there had to be institutions in place to create and spread such technological change, which he acknowledges, but doesn’t spend much time analyzing. Growth Triumphant is also a fairly short book: only 154 pages of actual text, and that is frequently broken up by large charts and graphs. That being the case, Easterlin really could have been more thorough. He is persuasive when he uses quantitative data to dispense with faulty arguments, but less so at proving his own. The burden of proof for such a monocausal explanation is quite high.

Interestingly, the book seems to wind up on a very upbeat note: growth and rising aspirations for everyone forever! But then Easterlin pulls the rug out from under the reader with a genuinely chilling final sentence, like the last shot a film with a twist ending that makes you rethink everything that’s gone before: “In the end, the triumph of economic growth is not a triumph of humanity over material wants; rather, it is the triumph of material wants over humanity.” Yes, he suggests, the future is constant growth, but there is no choice, no room for human agency. Growth Triumphant indeed!


Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
1966, 219 pp.

Samuel R. Delany might accurately be thought of as the James Joyce of science fiction. His work is intellectual, difficult, conceptual, avant-garde. It begins with acclaimed, cerebral renditions of existing literary forms and progresses to Dhalgren, an immense, impenetrable work of high modernism. Babel-17 won Delany prominence and a Nebula award and is now justly a classic of the genre.

The book is a sort of science-fiction-according-to-Ludwig-Wittgenstein. In the midst of a 20-year interstellar war, strange sabotages and disasters are accompanied by mysterious transmissions in an unknown language code-named Babel-17. The plot follows Rydra Wong, an acclaimed poet who has neurological gifts which allow her to understand any language and grasp the thought patterns which accompany a language to an extent which borders on telepathy, as she tries to unearth the mystery of Babel-17 and stop the attacks. She forms a crew, which allows Delany to really let his imagination run with the possibilities of space travel. Her pilot is an immense surgically-created tiger-beast who steers by literally wrestling through “hyperstasis transit,” her navigators are a “Triple” of three mentally, emotionally, and sexually symbiotic people, and her sensors are resurrected ghosts called Ear, Eye, and Nose. They perceive space and objects through one intense sensory input. She encounters space pirates and aliens and all manner of wildly imaginative science-fiction stuff.

The aesthetic is quite similar to M. John Harrison’s great novel The Centauri Device: it’s a future set mainly in decaying post-industrial port cities full of smoke stacks and rusted metal and concrete towers. There’s an impoverished, anarchic underclass, a seemingly permanent and pointless interstellar war, and a lot of imagery centering around smoggy sunsets and industrial fires. “Ships rose with a white flare, blued through distance, became bloody stars in the rusted air,” for instance. It might be plausible to think of Babel-17 as an entry in a very select sub-genre: the post-industrial anarcho-poetic sci-fi novel. I love this kind of stuff, and Delany pulls it off with flair and style. He keeps the forward momentum going with a decent amount of sabotage, space fights, assassinations, and so forth, without losing track of the great linguistic puzzle his protagonist is attempting to solve. Delany is good at expressing her intellectual excitement: “She wondered what would happen if she translated her perceptions of people’s movement and muscle tics into Babel-17. It was not only a language, she understood now, but a flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same ‘word’ defined the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships. What would it do with the tensions and yearnings in a human face? Perhaps the flicker of eyelids and fingers would become mathematics, without meaning…”

Speaking of that linguistic puzzle, there’s some very interesting parallels in Babel-17 to David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System. Both feature female protagonists trying to solve language puzzles, and seem born out of each author’s interest in the degree to which reality is a linguistic construction. Both involve antinomies (in fact, the exact same ones) as a major plot point, though Babel-17 is structured in a much more conventional novel form, with none of the post-modern playfulness of Broom of the System. I just wonder if Wallace happened to read Babel-17 at some point, or if the attraction of speculative fiction authors to Wittgenstein, language, and logic is so widespread as to create such coincidences.

All of that said, the book is not perfect. Delany is here better at vivid prose and imagination than he is at dialogue and interpersonal relations, the former of which is often strained and the latter sometimes unmotivated and arbitrary. There is an odd slackening to the pace about twenty pages before the end, and what seems like a minor plot twist midway through turns out to be a major development which determines much of the second half of the book. And my copy (the original 1966 Ace paperback edition) had some serious quotation-mark typos which were a particular impediment during a long and lovely dialogue towards the end in which two characters switch around “I” and “you” in their conversation. Those minor complaints aside, Babel-17 is an excellent read, at once a satisfying sci-fi adventure and a cerebral exploration of the possibilities of language. It isn’t every sci-fi author who knows what an “allophone” or a “plosive” is or who is daring enough to suggest that an interstellar war might be ended using antinomies.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Zeno's Conscience

Zeno’s Conscience, by Italo Svevo
1923, 437 pp. Translation by William Weaver, 2001.

The legend of Italo Svevo is one of the great Cinderella stories of modern literature. Svevo’s real name was Ettore Schmitz, and he was principally a successful businessman in Trieste. He also had an interest in fiction and wrote two novels, published at his own expense in 1892 and 1898, to absolutely no acclaim whatsoever. They received decent reviews, but nobody read them. Discouraged by being totally ignored by the reading public, Svevo gave up on literature for decades and devoted himself to business instead. Some years later he enrolled in English classes taught by an eccentric, down-on-his-luck Irishman named James Joyce. Joyce showed Svevo some of the stories that would later go into Dubliners, and Svevo mentioned, in an embarrassed and self-deprecating way, that he also used to write stories. He gave Joyce his two novels, and Joyce loved them. He encouraged Svevo to resume writing, and by the time Svevo finished Zeno’s Conscience in 1923, Joyce had published Ulysses, was living in Paris, and was well on his way to being the most notorious author in the world. He used his formidable skills of literary promotion to get Svevo an audience and some notoriety, and soon Svevo was proclaimed, somewhat inaccurately, the Italian Proust. Svevo’s last years were happy and successful; he died in a car accident in 1928, but his novel was quickly translated into English and immediately joined the pantheon of the great Modernists.

So much for the reputation and the preliminary throat-clearing, on to the book. Zeno’s Conscience purports to be the manuscript written by one Zeno Cosini, aging and neurotic Triestine businessman, as part of his psychoanalysis. The first section details his absurd, futile, lifelong attempts to quit smoking; the second his relationship with his father; the third his courtship of the beautiful but distant Ada and eventual marriage to her less beautiful sister Augusta as well as his infidelity with a silly, annoying singer named Carla; the fourth section deals with his business relationship with Guido, his former rival for Ada’s hand; and the last is a sort of summing-up and attack on psychoanalysis in general. Zeno is endlessly self-deceiving, and in general the book consists of one situation after another which calls to mind that old line from Hamlet: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

So when Zeno has wild, psychosomatic pains which he assures us are not due to guilt over his infidelity, we understand that he is protesting too much. Every time he declares that he does not hate Guido, who succeeded in marrying Ada where he failed, we understand that he is protesting too much. When he is at pains to tell us how much he loved his father, respects his doctor, or loves his mistress’s singing, we understand that he is protesting too much. But Zeno knows that there is something wrong with him, and he is attempting to analyze it—the trouble is that he is analyzing it from an entirely incorrect position. He is excellent at finding scapegoats for his problems, always returning to the poison which his chain-smoking puts in his veins. But we very quickly understand that the problem is not Zeno’s smoking, or his mystery pains, or his brother-in-law. The problem is Zeno.

A second theme is the farcical way in which Zeno’s best efforts always turn out in the opposite result from what he intended. He begins by courting Ada, who he only succeeds in annoying, then moves to Alberta, who isn’t interested, and eventually ends up with Augusta, who initially found least attractive. He tries to succeed in business and makes ridiculous blunders. He is amused and a bit pleased to find that his psychiatrist thinks he has an Oedpius complex: “Spellbound, I lay there and listened. It was a sickness that elevated me to the highest noble company. An illustrious sickness, whose ancestors dated back to the mythological era!” And so forth. But at the same time, usually his efforts are directed towards ends which we know would be bad for him, so when things turn out exactly the opposite, it is to his benefit. Guido functions as a foil: he too is unfaithful to his wife and inept in business, but Zeno manages, through no genius of his own, to appear faithful and competent, while Guido ends in disgrace and failure.

All of this is very good, and Zeno, despite all his flaws, is a likable figure. The first two sections, which are the most openly absurd and farcical, are quite good, as is the last one, which brings all the threads of the book together and adds a satisfying sense of perspective. These sections are also rather short: the middle two sections are about 150 pages each, and do tend to sag in the middle. Once the reader gets used to the two themes listed above, we still get to watch Zeno enact them over and over at quite some length. I enjoyed the book and Zeno’s company, but I must admit I felt it went on a bit too long.

Svevo’s Italian was roundly criticized when the book came out for being bland “bookkeeper’s Italian.” I cannot speak to that, except to mention that both Svevo and Zeno actually were bookkeepers, so that’s a perfectly sound stylistic choice. As with all translations by William Weaver, the prose is first-rate, and a new edition of this book is clearly worth the praise lavished on it during its appearance.

Having declared myself an implacable opponent of shallow narcissism in literature, I find myself constantly obliged during my reading of Modernist literature, to revise my opinion. It is true that Zeno Cosini and Italo Svevo have a great deal in common: a time, place, vocation, and smoking problem. But I would argue that this book is not at all narcissist, for the very obvious reason that Zeno Cosini is a ridiculous figure, endlessly self-absorbed and self-deluded. No one who is actually a narcissist would be able to present a character who is such a narcissist. Svevo knows what a narcissist Zeno is, and he finds it hilarious. But he does not make Zeno a noxious figure: Zeno is lovable and forgivable, but weak and flawed, just like the rest of us. As a portrait of a character and a self-deceiving mind, Zeno’s Conscience is absolutely in the first rank. As a novel, though, it sags structurally in the middle between a very strong opening, ending, and the thematic bridges which connect them.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
1862-1876, 349 pp. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I am about to write one of the world’s few truly unique sentences: Dostoevsky is at his best when he is being funny. When he gives himself over to his earnest, mystical, moralizing Christianity, he produces tedious, pedantic, nearly unreadable dreck in great volume: The Idiot is certainly the poster-child of this tendency. But when he stays away from the fever dreams, the hysterics, the raptures and mystical babbling, when he quits stalling with subplots and social drama and instead focuses on active satire and ridicule, he is quite good. It is for this reason that Demons is excellent, while The Idiot is interminable, and the opening of Crime and Punishment is far better than the end. The volume under review is a combination of these tendencies, but works more often than it doesn’t.

The volume is dominated by the 180-odd page novella “The Eternal Husband.” This story proceeds from a very good idea: Velchaninov, a wealthy, worldly, vital Petersburg man is visited by a man he hasn’t seen for nine years. The man, Pavel Pavlovich, appears several times before actually approaching Velchaninov, drunk and behaving strangely in the middle of the night. He tells Velchaninov that his wife has just died. Velchaninov had had an affair with the man’s wife nine years before. Whether Pavel Pavlovich knows this is the core of the story, which plays out through the destructive obsession of the one man for the other, with Velchaninov’s need to find out how much Pavel Pavlovich knows, and with their mutual inability to separate themselves from each other. The sense of menace and unease is well done, and the characterization is very good, but Dostoevsky too often indulges in two of his favorite themes: the two men spend a lot of time behaving in ways they don’t understand and can’t control, under all sorts of mystical influences, and people are driven to physical illness (or even death) due to emotional or spiritual problems. The first theme too often makes his characters seem ridiculous, rather than weak humans in the grip of mighty mystical forces, and too often undermines the characterization he’s put several pages of work into. This often is irritating, since it seems like he isn’t playing fair—instead of behaving counter to their personalities, it reads more like his characters are cardboard slaves to the requirements of Dostoevsky’s preconceived manipulations.

Furthermore, the language is too often simply clunky. I had this same problem with The Idiot, though I didn’t notice it in Demons or Crime and Punishment. I am unclear on whether it is a problem with Dostoevsky or with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Probably it is both. I haven’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Tolstoy or Gogol, but I have read their Bulgakov and it was quite different from their Dostoevsky. Furthermore, Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature complains of exactly what annoys me: Dostoevsky loves to have his characters speak in stuttering, inarticulate, mystical monologues which probably don’t work in any language. Worse, he likes to gather all his characters together into a drawing room (or, very frequently, a sort of “scandalous feast”) so characters monologue feverishly while other ones stand around apparently doing nothing. His characters tend to preface their statements with meaningless throat-clearing phrases like “But incidentally” or “By the way” or “And anyhow,” which I have come to assume are various translations of some common Russian verbal mannerism. The trouble is that in many contexts they don’t work at all, like when Velchaninov thinks to himself “By the way, I must give him the bracelet!” or “was not entirely sure, incidentally, that he had kissed him.” Has anyone ever thought to themselves “By the way”? And in “The Meek One,” a later story in the volume, a character sits “quietly and silently.” Both at once! I have to assume that Dostoevsky wrote two different Russian words meaning two different sorts of being quiet, which is a point against him, but I wonder why Pevear and Volokhonsky decided to include both. Why do they choose to include all of the little prevaricating meaningless phrases? All characters use them, so it isn’t a telling character trait. It just makes the writing seem stilted, annoying, and occasionally ridiculous.

Those complaints aside, the volume features two very good stories: “A Nasty Anecdote” and “The Meek One.” The first is a cutting satire in which a powerful government official turns up drunk and unannounced at his subordinate’s wedding, in order to prove his liberal humanist convictions. If the reader can set aside Dostoevsky’s loathing for progress and recognize that indeed, some aspects of wealthy liberal hypocrisy are timeless, it’s quite an amusing story. It reads like an 1862 episode of “The Office.”

“The Meek One” is a stream-of-consciousness narration of a self-absorbed pawnbroker who, through his well-meaning but totally misguided attempts to make his young wife happy instead drives her to suicide. In its theme of the narrator’s total inability to consider the world outside himself, it’s almost Bergman-esque in nature, and is a much more focused, tightly-constructed story than Dostoevsky usually produces. The last line particularly sums up the character, and the character of many people, spoken over the body of his dead teenage wife: “No seriously, when she’s taken away tomorrow, what about me then?”

There are two other less impressive stories. “Bobok” is fairly good, a story about a hack writer who attends a funeral and mistakenly finds that the dead carry on for a month or so in their graves, having bickering conversations. This is another excuse for Dostoevsky to ridicule progressive ideas and their consequences for society, since all but one of the dead people have cast off religion and tradition and consequently have stupid, venal conversations from their graves. Nevertheless, it’s fairly amusing for the 20 pages it lasts. The last story, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” begins in the vein of Notes from Underground, but then lapses into a lengthy dream sequence which ends with its feverish narrator seeing the light of mystical Christianity and setting out happy into the world. This story unifies several of my least favorite of Dostoevsky’s preoccupations, and does nothing which he does not do elsewhere.

In sum, then, the volume contains two very good stories, two fairly decent ones, and one bad one. It is also a convenient collection of most of Dostoevsky’s shorter work, and it is interesting to see him working in a more precise, restricted form than his usual immense, bloated novels. Worth a look, even if just for “The Meek One” and “A Nasty Anecdote.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Double

The Double, by José Saramago
2002, 324 pp.

Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a mild-mannered, lonely, divorced high school history teacher rents a film at the suggestion of a colleague, in an effort to pass a pleasant evening. He is astonished to see in the film a supporting actor who looks precisely like him (or at least, precisely as he looked at the time the film was made) and he becomes obsessed with finding this double. As hooks go, this is an excellent one, though as literary themes go, Saramago begins on dangerous ground. The theme of the double has been dealt with innumerable times in literature, seldom with much interesting variation (John Banville's review of The Double in the Times helpfully singles out an early instance in Plautus' Amphitryon) and seemed to have been conclusively laid to rest with Dostoevsky's 1846 novella which shares the same name as the book here under review. It is rare for Saramago to proceed down such a well-trodden path, but he pulls it off, barely.

To some degree, my reading of The Double suffers from the mass consumption of Saramago's works that I've indulged in these past six months. Tertuliano is another in a string of Saramagian protagonists: lonely, middle-aged men with unassuming and unimportant but mildly intellectual jobs. His only working class protagonists have been Baltasar and Jesus Christ, and he seems to be aware that this is another work in a similar vein. The familiar Saramago narrative voice is alive and well here, though for the first time aware that it is a narrator in a novel rather than simply a rustic, garrulous, folksy, Portuguese storyteller. The narration frequently refers to redundancies six lines back, or a sentence on a previous page, or to its own knowledge as the narrator. On the very second page it even makes an allusion to the mild-mannered protagonists of several of Saramago's earlier novels.

All of this is fine. The trouble is that there really only seems to be about fifty to one hundred pages of actual material here, and the narrator, who (granted) is always a bit digressive and self-referential, often seems to be stalling. The procedural details of Tertuliano's search for his double are compelling, but they are interspersed with scenes from his teaching job which are frankly irrelevant. It takes Tertuliano 106 pages to find his double's name, then another 108 pages before they meet. That middle section sags quite a bit, brightened up only by Saramago's always delightful facility with romantic dialogue, here between Tertuliano and his girlfriend Maria da Paz.

The last third, though, creates steadily building menace and malevolence, spinning out the existential violence of having a double (or being a double) into realized physical and emotional violence. Saramago then utterly blindsides you around page 300, and the book ends with so many twists and adjustments that the reader is left a bit startled and unsettled. I have not yet decided whether the very final twist actually works or not: Saramago's endings are always ambiguous, often dark, and tend less to resolve the existing story as much as to set up another story which Saramago isn't going to bother telling. Here the final twist raises such a host of new questions and suggests such a change in character that rather than forcing the reader to reevaluate what has come before instead borders on overthrowing the book entirely.

The Double also suffers from a certain deficiency of characterization. Tertuliano is less fully realized than Ricardo Reis or Senhor José or Raimundo Silva, and as the story progresses we realize his double is not much of a character either. Both are given quite a lot to do, especially in that saggy middle section, but little of it adds to our understanding of them as characters. To some extent this helps Saramago in a critical point when he wants to create ambiguity as to which is which and whether even they have gotten themselves mixed up, which must be the only example on record of a novelist using his formidable skill to turn flat characters into an asset rather than a defect. As a first Saramago read for the uninitiated, The Double has enough of a hook and enough of a familiar setting and theme to be easily accessible, but for the long-standing acolyte it is only a minor work in the Saramago canon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Guest Post: Night Train

Night Train, by Martin Amis
1997, 175 pp.

Night Train a police procedural by Martin Amis is a novel you struggle to put down; filled as it is with a prose style reflective of an educated police officer who’s seen much of everything. The story begins with Mike Hoolihan, the detective and narrator, and as she herself points out a woman, telling us that what will follow is the worst case she’s ever had to deal with. What unfolds is a complex foray into a case that comes to consume all of her waking hours, the subject of her investigation is the apparent suicide of Colonel Tom’s (a man she loves and respects for drying her out – she was a devout alcoholic, and not incidentally a man who is in charge of 3,000 police) daughter. At first, Amis skillfully weaves us through her day and her current job, as an asset seizing police, meaning the mob owns some shit, we want that shit, so we as police, take that shit. Then in the second section Mike delves deeply into the psychological profile of the said victim, Jennifer, who as we begin this section realize was on lithium – the drug of the manic depressive. In the final section “The Seeing” we solve the suicide, figure it out as the saying goes, and we are not satisfied, and neither is Mike, but its how it is. And we find out that Jennifer has left the clues, has done so deliberately because she is the daughter of a police.

Interesting to note is the recurring theme of the night train throughout the novel taking a new and clever interpretation at each twist and turn. We get the actual physical night train which keeps the rent way down and keeps her up “around quarter to four. I lay there for a time with my eyes open. No chance of reentry.” We soon find out that her man Tobe is also a night train warbling up the steps in all his massive girth, a man so large he is once ascribed furniture proportion with the “I sat on the couch of his lap.” Then the philosophical musings of a detective “Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness…The ticket costs everything you have. But it’s just a one-way. This train takes you into the night, and leaves you there.” But it’s the description that really takes this novel and the night train to the smoothness of Johnny Black, how the actual night train interweaves with the suicide, “And here comes the night train. First, the sound of knives being sharpened. Then its cry, harsh but symphonic, like a chord of car horns.”

The prose of Mike Hoolihan is that of an educated police, who knows a thing or two about history, about as much as one can glean from college and the occasional stray fact that permeates our everyday interactions with media and film. At the beginning we even get this caveat, “Allow me to apologize in advance for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and bigotry. All police are racist. It’s part of our job…Anyone can become a police – Jews, blacks, Asians, women – and once you’re there you’re a member of a race called police, which is obliged to hate every other race.” Followed immediately by another, “These papers and transcripts were put together piecemeal over a period of four weeks. I apologize also for any inconsistencies in the tenses (hard to avoid, when writing about the recently dead) and for the informalities in the dialogue presentation.”

Amis missteps only once in the entire novel into complete and utter failure with this travesty of colloquial speech imitation, “I was quit when you came in here. I’m twice as quit now.” This a response to Col. Tom Rockwell’s insistence that she pick up the case even though she was currently working out of asset forfeiture, after eight years of grueling homicide. The dialogue is superb, with each character getting her or his own inflections and vernacular particular to what that person would have in real life. For example in an interview with Jennifer’s boss, who is “big in his discipline” and “famous: TV-famous” we get this majestic air of authority and condescension in one priceless exchange,

…As of last fall she was working on the Milky Way’s Virgo-infall velocity.
I asked him: could you be more specific?
I am being specific. Perhaps I should be more general.

The same scientist who by the walk out to Mike's car we see again in this light,

“Denziger looked as though mathematics were happening to him right then and
there. As though math were happening to him: He looked subtracted, with much of
his force of life, and his IQ, suddenly taken away.”

The structure of the novel is characteristic of Amis’ attention to detail. He begins the first section “Blowback” utilizing the days themselves as the subheadings, to orient us to the crime and the time span we are, in fact, as readers working with. Then in the second section “Felo De Se” which is an archaic legal term meaning “felon of himself” (as relates to English common law) or shorthand, suicide, we see a shift to longer headings which briefly summarize the actions undertaken in this section which is to put together the psychological profile or the why of whodunit. While finally, in the third section “The Seeing” we end up seeing the why without interruption of headings and in eighteen pages, and as in all good police procedurals we get the closure we’ve been so desperately seeking at each twist and turn of the whole sordid affair.

The novel was skillfully written. The pages kept turning themselves as if they too were examining the case. The ending was handed to us on a silver platter, right next to the dialogue, and the suicide of a beautiful woman with everything to live for. Put into the context of his work Night Train was a much easier read than was Money (for all its slow moving minutia and painful alcoholism of the main character), Amis in this case gave us a reformed drunk who is seen at the end sipping on her second seltzer before walking out the bar. In his book the War Against Cliché Amis yelps with the indignation of a prose stylist whose only content concern is to avoid unwarranted cliché, in this book he meets the criteria and delves deeply in and through the mind of a police, a woman police no less, and with the skill of authorial confidence takes us through one case that we will likely never forget.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš
1978, 135 pp.

Though his work is increasingly difficult to find in the United States, no conversation about postwar European literature, especially the dissident literature of Eastern Europe, is complete without Danilo Kiš. He gained a great deal of notoriety with his strange, difficult 1973 novel Hourglass, and a great deal of controversy with this brief collection of linked short stories. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is directly in the tradition (or perhaps, sub-genre) of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, and Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is a worthy second-generation entry in that great project of literary conscience, but it does not equal or surpass its predecessors, nor does it seem as significant a piece of work as the controversy around it once suggested.

The book consists of seven short stories, usually linked from one to the next by the mention or brief appearance of a character from the previous story. They are presented as factual biographies of fictional people, mostly loyal Communists who are arbitrarily arrested during the purges and subject to torture. Some are executed, some are exiled, some sign false confessions. The first four are told in titled paragraphs, giving the book a slightly avant-garde feel, but that convention is dropped with the longest and best story, which shares the title of the book. All of the stories to that point detail the contributions of someone to the Bolshevik revolution: the first character commits sordid murders at the false direction of an informant, the second is volunteer during the Spanish Civil War who is betrayed by his superior who is a Soviet agent, the third is an apparatchik who stages a fake religious service for a visiting Western diplomat in Kiev. The titular Boris Davidovich Novsky is a brave, committed, noted revolutionary who is arrested and tortured in order to extract a false confession for a show trial. His story is the only one which adds significantly to the existing Koestler/Serge examination of the same subject: Novsky wants to die honorably, to preserve a suitable ending for the biography he has been writing with his actions his entire life, and his interrogator is determined to deny him that satisfaction. Their confrontation is a grueling, bleak story, and by far the strongest point of the book.

The story which follows deals with a 13th-century Jew who is forced to convert to Christianity during a pogrom. The similarities between it and the story of Novsky are obvious, but Kiš apparently feared they would not be, so he appends a note explaining them. I found this a bit annoying, and despite his well-intentioned point about the timeless, cyclical nature of history and human cruelty, I dispute the parallels between the Jewish victims of Christian pogroms and the betrayed Communist agents of the other stories. A better analogue would have been a story about a devout and famous Christian who is tortured and murdered by other Christians for the crime of not being Christian enough.

This leads me to my general complaint about the book. While Kiš is certainly a great writer, I cannot conclude that this is his greatest book. It lacks the formal ingenuity of Hourglass, and the Borgesian precision of Encyclopedia of the Dead. It is quite short and at least three of the seven stories (one about a card game between prisoners which determines a murder, the one about the 13th-century Jew, and the last about an artist who dies of elephantiasis) seem to distract from the general point of the book. The biographical format preserves the nearly obsessive theme of memory which pervades Kiš's other work, and anti-Stalinist dissident literature in general, and the essay-like tone fits in with the sort of work being done by Milan Kundera and Czesław Miłosz. But it is a very brief and slightly disorganized book, and considering the furor it produced in Yugoslavia when it was published, I was surprised that none of its characters was from Yugoslavia, nor did any of its action take place there. With all of that in mind, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich stands mainly as an indication of what sort of dissent was possible under Yugoslav Communism: even this small book criticizing forty years later a brutal system which itself had been repudiated twenty years earlier provoked outrage. Such was the nature of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist world, and if the book seems to do less than we expect from the vantage point of the 21st century West, it is because the first (and perhaps only) duty of the man of conscience at the time was to plainly state what now seems obvious.


Germinal, by Émile Zola
1885, 428 pp.

Even among the towering pantheon of nineteenth century French social novelists, Émile Zola enjoys his own particular and peculiar distinctions. Unlike Balzac, who only formed his existing work into a related series with the publication of Le Père Goriot, Zola conceived of his entire twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series before writing the first world, and meticulously plotted and researched his works to fully examine the impact of environmental forces on human beings in all sectors of French society during the Second Empire. Like Hugo, he was furiously engaged in politics, and his great J'accuse still stands as probably the most famous single piece of journalism in all of world history, and perhaps also the greatest polemic. Zola may not have invented literary naturalism, but certainly was its most famous and thorough practitioner, and as a result his novels stand as fascinating and detailed historical documents. Germinal is the most famous of these, especially after the production of the big-budget, award-winning 1993 film. It well deserves its notoriety.

Germinal is the story of a coal miners' strike in a rugged, impoverished town in northern France. It is based on a true story: Zola spent a week in the mines at Anzin and Denain, and emerged with a thousand pages of notes. Consequently, the book is astonishingly detailed. It creates through meticulous, lush, relentless accumulation of specificity the sights, smells, and sensations of the living hell that was the life of a nineteenth-century coal miner. The story is animated by the arrival of a young man named Étienne Lantier (a member of the Rougon-Macquart family whose rich, poor, and middle-class members Zola follows through his twenty volumes) at the bleak mining town of Montsou, looking for work. This allows Zola to pull the reader through a solid hundred pages of meticulous description of the layout and functioning of the mine, of the suffering of the workers for generation after generation, of the crushing burdens of debt and poverty and children, and of the cruelty of the bosses. Zola is very clear which side he is on and does not pull punches: very quickly the reader is introduced to a good-hearted fifth-generation miner who has spent fifty years working and suffering for a capitalist whose name he doesn't even know. The mine, Le Voreaux, is given terrific personifying characteristics to the extent that it is an important figure in the story: a sort of menacing presence, a constantly hungry beast that eats thousands of workers.

Soon the bosses institute a new policy which cuts the already meager pay of the miners, and the tensions in the town stretch to the breaking point. Lantier, who has begun to read widely but shallowly in the socialist literature of the time, organizes a strike and Germinal really takes off running. Lantier and the miners organize a local chapter of the First International, give rousing speeches, and eventually, as time begins to take its toll and the weight of hunger begins to break their spirits, they form an angry mob. What follows is an exhilarating, disturbing, violent, passionate, fifty-page set-piece as the mob rampages across the mining towns, burning and looting and smashing the mines. At its best it captures all the blood-and-thunder of the high passages of the Manifesto, and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as the hated machines are beaten apart to cries of "Long live the International!" Yet Zola provides a surprising amount of nuance. Yes, in the book as a whole the workers are generally strong, hearty, worthy people and the capitalists are vain, stupid, selfish, and utterly indifferent. But Zola is acquainted with the mindless savagery of crowds and is unflinching in his depiction of the crowd getting out of hand and turning ugly. Soon all sense of class struggle is gone and it is simply an outpouring of inarticulate hatred. We watch mild-mannered characters, mostly women, turning into plundering barbarians, and we see the crowd get away from Lantier and become its own character. Zola really winds himself up here, practically pounding the drums: "It was an apocalyptic vision of the revolution that would inevitably sweep them all away on some bloody evening of this dying century. Yes, one day the people would slip its harness and, unleashed, race along the roads just like this; it would make the blood of the bourgeois flow, it would parade their severed heads on pikes, it would scatter the gold of disembowled cashboxes. The women would shriek and the men would have those wolflike jaws open to bite. Yes, there would be the same rags, the same thunder of heavy sabots, the same terrifying mob, with its dirty flesh and stinking breath, sweeping aside the old world in a wild, barbaric onslaught. Fires would blaze, not so much as a stone would be left standing in the cities, and after the enormous rut, the enormous orgy during which the poor, in a single night, would ravage the women and empty the cellars of the rich, there would be a return to the savage life of the forest."

It goes on in this vein for some time.

Zola never lets up after that. We see a dozen major characters gunned down by the gendarmes, the strike broken, the miners even worse off than before, split by recrimination and betrayal, and finally are treated to another exhausting tour-de-force section as the sabotaged mine collapses. The (slightly obligatory) love triangle subplot between Lantier, his rival Chaval, and the daughter of the most prominent mining family gets resolved with murder and starvation, and the book ends with every character either dead or utterly broken. I almost wish that I could call Zola a cruel and bitter novelist, but I can only call him a scrupulously honest one. In his understanding and depiction of the course of class struggle, from the intolerable exploitation which engenders it to the ultimate use of organized violence to stop it, Zola is never less than spot-on.

The book is surprisingly earthy, with a great deal of sex and nudity and execretion. At times Zola seems even a bit overzealous, as when there is some hideous mutilation of dead capitalists, or when he creates a Tiny Tim analogue character, apparently for the sole purpose of having her starve to death in her parents' arms. Zola has some distressing and surprising views about women, who despite being shown as laboring under the double burden of mine work and domestic work, are also shown as the most savage members of the mob, and as either duplicitous or submissive animals who seem to exist to give birth constantly. But taken as a whole Germinal is an excellent book, fascinating in its details, horrifying and devastating in its relentless honesty, exhilarating in its action, powerful and moving in its writing.

Monday, August 31, 2009

James Joyce

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann
1959, revised 1982, 887 pp.

While reading Peter Gay’s mammoth biography of Sigmund Freud last month, I frequently remarked to colleagues and comrades that the author seemed to know more about Freud’s life and works than anyone could possibly know about anything. It appears I must retract that statement, having grossly underestimated. Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce is inclusive and comprehensive in a way no book I have ever read could possibly equal, displaying a mastery of knowledge so complete that it borders on the infuriating. The back cover of the book features a blurb from Anthony Burgess, himself a formidable Joyce scholar, calling it “The greatest literary biography of the century.” I am forced to wonder what literary biographies from other centuries could meet, let alone surpass Professor Ellmann’s harrowingly perfect performance here. I suspect there are none, and until I hear of one, I am willing to truncate Mr. Burgess’ pronouncement, and simply call James Joyce the greatest literary biography. Full stop.

Part of what sets Professor Ellmann’s book well ahead of even Professor Gay’s work on Freud is that Ellmann wrote the original work in the late 1950’s, and therefore was able to personally interview many people who knew James Joyce, including his brother Stanislaus. Professor Ellmann seems to have tracked down everyone who ever spoke to or about Joyce: the first page includes a footnote to a personal conversation Ellmann had at dinner with T.S. Eliot, and a chapter later a footnote informed me that Joyce’s childhood next-door neighbor Eileen now teaches on an Indian reservation in Saskatoon. The dauntless Professor Ellmann seems to have trekked through the wilds of Saskatchewan to speak with her, and returned with the knowledge that blackberry was Joyce’s favorite flavor of jam. That is the kind of biography we are discussing. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read and understood everything Joyce ever wrote, from the most incidental limerick (of which Joyce produced an astonishing number) to Finnegans Wake, the most complicated, difficult book ever written. It is not just that Professor Ellmann has read all his letters (and edited volumes of them for publication), spoken to all of Joyce’s friends, acquaintances, enemies, and family members, nor is it that Ellmann has taken the trouble to track down the factual origin of every minor character who appears in all 250,000 words of Ulysses: no, the really remarkable thing is that he includes every last iota of that information in this book, in a clear, clever, and organized fashion. It is an achievement which leaves the reader with a vague desire to dig up Professor Ellmann and throw stones at him.

Amid this fearsome wealth of factual information (Joyce liked Bellini better than Wagner, and Green Calville was his favorite kind of apple), Ellmann addresses at length the two points which are essential to anyone curious about tackling the daunting oeuvre of the world’s most complex writer: first, does Joyce tell us anything of importance, and second, if all he wrote about was Dublin and people he knew, is he anything more than a very clever male narcissist?

Ellmann’s answer to the first comes early on, and he spares no praise in making it. Joyce, he says, began writing with the briefest, simplest verse, proceeded through short stories into novels, invented a new way of portraying consciousness, and ended with an immense polyglot encyclopedia, surveying all of human life and experience on the way. In Ellmann’s forceful and infinitely detailed argument, Joyce accomplished nothing less than the most honest and accurate depiction of the human condition ever created, first from a naturalist, external perspective, then from a subjective internal one, then using an entirely new language expressing cognitive leaps and connections never before imagined to more accurately perceive the universal and democratizing experience of dreams. In Ellmann’s view, Joyce not only tells us important things about ourselves, but invented a new way of doing so such that he tells us things no one else ever had before, and that no one else ever can again without simply echoing his words.

Furthermore, Ellmann argues, using copious quotations from Joyce’s work, and entire chapters dedicated to the making of Ulysses and Joyce’s great short story “The Dead,” that the thematic premise of Joyce’s work is a sort of secular humanism, a “justification of the commonplace.” Joyce was “the first to endow an urban man of no importance with heroic consequence,” and by ennobling that which is common he also made common that which is noble. Joyce was something of a socialist, and a lower-middle class man of cities, and his work can (almost) be understood as relating to socialist realism the way that Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major relates to someone whistling. Given the social, political, and literary context of Joyce’s time, this was something downright revolutionary: asserting the presence of the sublime and universal in every profane and pointless action of an unimportant individual.

This is not a book in which punches are pulled.

The answer to the second question is the animating force behind most of Ellmann’s structure of the book. The very first sentences of the introduction read as follows: “We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter. This book enters Joyce’s life to reflect his complex, incessant joining of event and composition.” While it is certainly true that all of Joyce’s work is firmly anchored in Dublin and in Irish culture and in his own life experiences, and while it cannot be denied that Stephen Dedalus is Joyce surrogate seen with the keen, dissecting eye of a more mature artist, it must also be acknowledged that Joyce’s art ended with universality. Ulysses elevated all that which is common and average to the position of being sacred and beautiful, and proved that in each individual human being lies something noble and heroic. Finnegans Wake took the principle a step farther: in it, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker is not just an everyman, but all possible everymen, and also all possible father figures, just as Anna Livia Plurabelle is all mother figures and all rivers and the origin of all life, and Shem and Shaun are all brothers and all allies and all rivals from all of human history. Every word of Finnegans Wake is a multilingual pun (for instance, the title: fin as in the French word for "end," plus the sound of "again," meaning "recurrence," plus "wake" both as in "to stop sleeping" and as in "funeral" and the lack of apostrophe indicates both the awakening of all possible Finnegans as well as the funeral of one in particular) and therefore draws cognitive connections which transcend political boundaries, the burgeoning nationalisms of Joyce's time, and any degree of cultural exceptionalism. Joyce invented a language which proved the universal equality of all people.

Those questions settled, the only matter of interest that remains is what the book is like to read. I trust I have made clear its density of information (Joyce was afraid of dogs and thunderstorms, and a fellow named Sinigaglia delivered his first child) but I assure the terrified reader that it is also frequently amusing and pleasant to read. Admitteldy, at times Professor Ellmann's mania for drawing connections grows a bit thin, as when he suggests a link between Joyce's 1902 desire to rent a cottage and Leopold Bloom's one-line mention of the same idea. For the first three hundred pages, Joyce is occasionally annoying, since he lived his entire life with the utmost financial responsibility and demanded exorbitant sacrifices from the people around him, in service to his yet-unproved genius. This is more than made up for by his hilarious antics of the latter half, when he achieves some measure of fame and notoriety. At times Ellmann's knowledge and rarefied vocabulary gets the better of him, as in this gem of a sentence from the very first page: “Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, owned a framed engraving of the coat of arms of the Galway Joyces, and he used to carry it along, grandly and quixotically, on his frequent enforced déménagements, atoning for squandering his family’s fortune by parading its putative escutcheon.”

I assure the reader that I intend to parade my putative escutcheon as soon as I've finished this review.

In sum, the book is a flat-out masterpiece. At the very least, the chapter on the making of Ulysses is required for anyone attempting to tackle that mountain of literature, but the book as a whole is a rewarding, absorbing, utterly unique achievement. It must be the best and most detailed biography ever written, and considering the vast difficulty of its subject, its creation is an unparalleled feat. It cannot be too strongly recommended.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
1998, 648 pp.

Since his untimely death at the age of 50 in 2003, Roberto Bolaño’s literary star has been in constant ascent. Six of his books have been translated into English already; a new one is just out, and there are four more scheduled for 2010, with two following in 2011. A review of the latest book informs me that two more completed novels have been found among his papers in Barcelona, as well as a sixth part to his sprawling opus 2666. It is a very good time to be discovering Roberto Bolaño.

Bolaño, who seems to have had an excellent instinct for literary fun, tends to appear in one guise or another in most of his work. His books also tend to be interconnected, with characters appearing in several books, or perhaps reading poems by a character who appears elsewhere. As more of his books get translated, it is increasingly possible to speak of an entire world he created, a world where the political and personal implications of the state of Latin American literature is of primary concern. For all that, The Savage Detectives must be his most autobiographical novel. It is also fiercely inventive, both in form and in content, to such an extent that (in my opinion) it is evidence of something truly remarkable: that Roberto Bolaño might best be ranked as the last of the great, high Modernists, one of the only contemporary authors who can go toe-to-toe with Musil or Woolf and emerge the better for it. He is not simply stylistically playful, like the postmodernists: he is furiously, vehemently emotional and overflowing with rage and pity at the political and literary figures of his time (to the very limited extent that he recognizes any separation between those two groups). He is deeply sensitive, but at the same time deeply aware of the possible permutations and interpretations of that sensitivity. He does not write a manipulative, purely subjective emotional story, but paints emotion in big, bold colors then stands back to examine it from all possible sides and angles. He gets away with things which shouldn’t be possible, and the result is a splendid read.

The Savage Detectives is a novel in three very unequal parts. The first section (about 150 pages) is the youthful, euphoric diary of Juan García Madero, a 17-year old poet who joins a moment called “visceral realism.” The visceral realists are based on Bolaño’s own “infrarealist” movement of the 1970’s. The infrarealists were guerrilla poets who would stand up in the audience at poetry readings to shout their strange, avant-garde poems over the poor, beleaguered poet on stage. They made wild plans to kidnap Octavio Paz, they stole books from bookshops and libraries, and they were mixed up with Trotskyists. They were the terror of the Mexico City literary world for a while, before they dispersed and fell apart amid drugs and recriminations. During their time they rejected with the utmost vituperation both the state-sponsored, establishment-sanctioned poets like Paz, who received government support, and the so-called “peasant poets,” who they saw as trafficking in poorly-examined, knee-jerk, reactionary “otherness,” who “mask their ignorance with arrogance,” and who, for all of their complaints of persecution, lived comfortably on university salaries. The infrarealists were a maligned third force, and Bolaño kept with that literary position his entire life. He had nothing to do with the famous Latin American Boom and had no time for the fairy tales of magical realism, but neither was he associated with the bitterness of the anti-Boom writers. Instead, if one is to speak of Latin American literature separate from the dialectic of the Boom, one must speak of Bolaño. He fills the same position on the literary spectrum as did Victor Serge, George Orwell, and Albert Camus in politics: radical left with a conscience.

Anyhow, García Madero joins the visceral realists, who are led by Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Immediately Bolaño’s autobiographical jokes start to crop up: Ulises Lima is based on Bolaño’s friend Mario Santiago, who published one collection of poetry in his life, now long out of print. Arturo Belano is based on Bolaño himself, but so too is the young García Madero. Leave it to Bolaño to give us a book with not one fictional alter-ego, but two. García Madero’s diary describes the social scene around the founders of visceral realism: their friends, their lovers, their families. He has a lot of sex and writes a lot of poetry. It is an intoxicating 150 pages, and Bolaño knows it. He is well aware that after that euphoric induction into the world of the visceral realists, neither you nor García Madero will ever be able to leave. The diary ends on a cliffhanger: García Madero and Lima and Belano in a car with a sweet prostitute friend named Lupe, going a hundred miles an hour out of Mexico City. On the one hand, they are fleeing Lupe’s outraged, dangerous pimp. On the other hand, they are headed for the Sonora Desert, in search of the lost works of Cesarea Tinajero, the mysterious 1920’s poet who the visceral realists consider their founder.

The second section is 445 pages, twice as long as the other two sections combined. It is made up of several hundred brief fragments given in the first person narration of about four dozen narrators, over 25 chapters. It reads like unedited documentary footage, like interviews that take place over twenty years. Some of these dialogues refer to others, as though the speakers were in the same room or watched the previous interviews. Some tell stories, some recite poems, and almost all speak around or about their encounters with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano during their wanderings in the twenty years after their return from the desert. Some narrators recur, some appear only once, some talk for many pages, some for only one paragraph. Each is different and memorable, which is the truly remarkable achievement. In his sublime By Night in Chile, Bolaño proved that he could sound like a dying man, a conservative priest, and like José Saramago. Here he is like one of those voice actors showing off that he can run through fifty characters. He can sound not just like women, but young women, old women, happy women, sad women, and dying women. He can sound like gay people, mentally disabled people, old people, successful people, failed people, and married people both before and after a divorce. He can sound like anyone. One is Auxilio Lacouture, the narrator of Bolaño’s book Amulet. Many of the narrators are characters we met in the opening diary, and many appear in each other’s interviews. They mostly flesh out the lives of the two founders of visceral realism, but also flesh out each other’s lives, and the world they live in: brilliantly, accurately, each speaker is more concerned and more interested with themselves and their own lives and perceptions than with everyone else's. Through this anarchic oral history, we follow Lima and Belano all over the world: Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, Provence, Tel Aviv, Vienna, San Diego, Malagua, Luanda, Kigali, Monrovia. They meet, they part, they meet again, they fall in and out of love, they begin to grow old. They are not universally beloved—one ex-girlfriend says of visceral realism, “The whole thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless…Visceral realism was his exhausting dance of love for me.”

Through all this, Belano and Lima emerge as fascinating characters. Belano seems to be every young poet’s dream: he’s tough and rugged and loves poetry so much he reads it in the shower. Every woman he meets wants to have sex with him, and towards the end of the book, he has a knife fight with a critic. But the interviews paint a worse picture of him than they do of Ulises Lima, who is presented as a sort of beautiful, mysterious aesthete, the one whose genius seduces everyone into joining visceral realism. There is a heartbreaking moment towards the end, when Lima meets the once-detested Octavio Paz in a park. They speak briefly, and Paz is very kind, but obviously has no idea who Lima is. But both Belano and Lima have their foibles: Belano eventually is impotent, Lima mugs people in a park in Vienna, both live in constant poverty and irresponsibility, and both (it turns out) finance their short-lived poetry magazines and their Mexico City lifestyles by selling a kind of marijuana called “Acapulco Gold.”

The brief third section returns to García Madero’s diary, detailing their search through the Sonora Desert. In these closing pages, the book’s theme becomes readily apparent: The Savage Detectives is a book about the failure of young, romantic dreams, and a group of people who never outlive the loss and disappointment. It is a book about how sometimes finding what you want is worse than not finding it, and how few things ever live up to our imagined ideals. It is a sad book, and all the sadder because it was written by Bolaño, prematurely dead, as a lament for his dreams and his friends from his youth. It is also beautiful and relentlessly talented in a way few books ever are, and it has more honest things to say about the confluence of life and literature than anything written in the last fifty years. And it is intimately concerned with the implications of a life devoted to art, and to the honest expression of life through art. We spend 648 pages reading about Lima and Belano, two poets whose poems we never read, as they try to find Cesarea Tinajero, whose poems they never read, in an effort to develop a true and genuine poetic movement. As we read the oral history section, we realize that the diarist of the first and last parts is never mentioned: nobody remembers him, or has heard of him. Cesarea Tinajero is all but forgotten, and by the end of the book, despite all their adventures, all their effort, Ulises Lima is totally unknown to Octavio Paz and his assistant, and Arturo Belano walks off into Liberia in search of an anonymous death. Bolaño seems to be making a point: devotion to art is necessary, regardless of the content of that art. He is also unequivocal on his point about the necessity of art being genuine: one of the most wrenching moments in By Night in Chile is when he persists in demonstrating that the cultured upper-class has no problem discussing refined over-stylized "art" while genuine people are being tortured in basements; he likewise suggests that clichéd art is but the first step on the road to tyranny; further, his Distant Star seems to suggest that fascism is but the revenge of failed artists. Bolaño gives us these insights in straight, nuanced, colloquial language, combining the ridiculous and the sublime, the dangerous and the erotic, the tragic and the mundane. In its disorderly but relentless march toward failure, death, oblivion, and forgetfulness, The Savage Detectives is the best mirror of life that is possible in literature.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unconsoled

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
1995, 535 pp.

When researching which book to read from a well-regarded, well-established author whose work I am unfamiliar with, I tend to canvass all the available reviews and select not the most famous or most decorated book, but the book which sounds like the one I will enjoy the most. I try to give an author the benefit of the doubt, to begin on the best possible foot, then to proceed to the more difficult, more obscure, or more clichéd works. In retrospect, I have no idea what led me to decide to read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. It's true that the front cover carries a quote from the New York Times Book Review calling it "a work of art," but I am certain I didn't read that review. I read the one which says it "tries the reader's patience." And indeed it does. It tries and it fails.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must immediately report that I did not finish The Unconsoled, and I never will. I made it to page 314, where I found myself in a surprisingly detailed and explicit monologue about extremely elderly people having sex. The preceding 313 pages had given me no reason to continue, and when I skipped to the end to see if the whole thing was a dream or a death-hallucination, I found no explanation there either. I put the book aside and watched the airport carpet instead.

The Unconsoled deals with an apparently brilliant pianist named Ryder, who comes to an unnamed Central European city to give a concert. He is immediatley diverted and sent on a series of little errands. His schedule is apparently very busy, but he has no idea what is on it, and he seems to know (or thinks he knows) everyone he meets. He knows what the hotel porter is thinking and worrying about, in great detail, and when he meets the porter's daughter, he seems to have been married to her, or thinks he had been, or possibly remembers he was. He often has a whole conversation, then suddenly notices that someone else was standing there, or that the person he's talking to is carrying a large package, or that he's in a movie theater. He takes long, circuitous routes on his mysterious errands, then goes through a door and finds himself back where he started. Half the people he meets are old childhood friends. Some of his experiences are textbook nightmares: the person he tries to catch up with but can't, the place he has to get to but can't find, the party where he shows up in his bathrobe and has to give a speech, and so forth.

So I caught on pretty quickly that Ishiguro was playing games. I can handle the tired old auspices of the Unreliable Narrator, and I am well versed in the little games the surrealists play. I don't even need a plot, let alone one that makes sense. I read Thomas Bernhard and liked it. I got Ishiguro's general points (assuming, kindly, that he had any): every character seems to have problems relating to close family members, there is a sort of satire of the middle-class cult of art and artists, and the tension between personal duties and the duties of a public identity. That's all well and good, but the novel is terrible.

Part of the problem is the writing. The prose is flat, stilted, and formal, devoid of a single interesting phrase or memorable line. The first page contains six adverbs. Every line of dialogue is indentically stilted, and every character speaks in the same flat, horribly dull English, even Central Europeans and children. Look at this dreck:

"'As a matter of fact,' I said to her quietly, 'there was something I wished to talk to you about. But, er...'"

Say that out loud. I dare you. Obviously the "to her" can go, since she's the only person he's talking to. The "quietly" can probably go too, as any first-year writing teacher will remind you. "Wished" and "talk" belong to two different levels of formality: either you can "wish to speak to someone" or you can "want to talk to someone." "Wished to talk" sounds stupid. And "But, er"? Seriously? No one has ever said that, for the very good reason that someone might offer him toast.

And people blather this sort of stuff in monologues that can drag on for five, six, eight, or ten uninterrupted pages. It's utterly unreadable, and the slow pace, meaningless little quests, and total absence of logic make any given ten pages of The Unconsoled an identically boring, pointless, and frustrating read as any other given ten pages. Perhaps Ishiguro was trying to do a Kafka thing here, and make a few points about self-centered demands. But Kafka wrote about Everymen, who were always sympathetic and easy for the reader to identify with, caught up in the teeth of a cruelly indifferent, soulless bureaucracy. Ryder, the protagonist and narrator of The Unconsoled, is a bore and an ass, a totally self-centered, self-righteous, self-regarding imbecile whose personality consists entirely of his sense of entitlement and complete lack of curiosity about the world and everyone in it. He is a miserable presence to spend any number of pages with, let alone 538 of them. Nowhere is it suggested that Ryder is dreaming, hallucinating, dead, an alternate personality, or for that matter, a realistic character, an interesting figure, or in any way a worthwhile creation. The book ends with no explanation, no justification, no resolution. I do not mind a book with no point, but I object to a terrible book with no point.

I wonder why I read this instead of The Remains of the Day, which won Ishiguro the Booker, or Never Let Me Go, which the great M. John Harrison loved. Those may be perfectly good books, but I will probably never read them now, since Ishiguro will always taste for me like the grinding, stupid drudgery of this appalling mockery of a book. I paid a penny for it on Amazon and intend to leave an irate note complaining that I was cheated.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, by Heinrich Böll
1974, 140 pp.

Heinrich Böll seems to have led a rather difficult life. A Catholic pacifist who managed to get out of joining the Hitler Youth in the 1930's, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and fought in France, Romania, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, being wounded four times, then was captured by Americans and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. His home city of Cologne was heavily damaged by Allied bombing, and he wrote in a style called "Trümmerliteratur"--the literature of the rubble. His books are short, sharp, and dark written in a simple, straightforward style, constantly attacking authority. During the attacks of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the early 1970's, Böll (who by then had won the Nobel Prize) was appalled at the sensationalist, unethical, virulent posturing of the West German tabloid Bild-Zeitung, saying "[what Bild does] isn’t cryptofascist anymore, not fascistoid, but naked fascism, agitation, lies and dirt." The Bild immediately attacked him, labelling him a secret Communist and a terrorist sympathizer, suggesting he was in support if not in aid of the Red Army Faction. Böll wrote this short book based on those experiences.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is about an honest, hardworking maid who meets a man at a party and falls in love. He spends the night at her house, but turns out to be a wanted bank robber. He escapes, possibly with her help, and she is brought in by the police for questioning. She had nothing to do with the bank robberies, and seemed to be unaware that the man was a criminal, but the tabloid press paints her as a cold-blooded terrorist and ruins her life. After her cancer-ridden mother dies (due to the verbal badgering of a tabloid reporter who sneaks into her hotel room), Katharina Blum shoots the reporter and turns herself in. This story is presented in 58 short chapters, some less than a page, written in a detached, ironic tone. At times it is surprisingly funny: "she rings the front doorbell at the home of Walter Moeding, Crime Commissioner, who is at the moment engaged, for professional rather than private reasons, in disguising himself as a sheikh..." Mostly it is sarcastic and bitter, dripping with barely-restrained fury. By the second page (or even by the end of the back-cover blurb) the reader knows everything that is going to happen. This removes any subjective emotional experience, which is necessarily based on surprise, and leaves only Böll's skill and vast contempt to animate the book.

This it does well. Böll's narrator is quite self-aware, and plays around a bit with the time scheme, constantly apologizing and making asides to the reader: "Before embarking on our final diversion and rerouting maneuvers we must be permitted to make the following 'technical' interjection. Too much is happening in this story. To an embarassing, almost ungovernable degree, it is pregnant with action: to its disadvantage." This narration depends entirely on the outrage provoked by the contrast between what we are dryly informed is the case and how the tabloid news articles present the story. I was curious why the narrator is allowed to speak frankly and ridicule the tabloids, instead of slathering on another layer of bitter sarcasm and pretending that the News! is an upstanding pillar of democracy. Nevertheless, the presentation is excellently crafted, and when Katharina Blum is allowed to speak at the end, the effect is suitably tragic and infuriating. I felt nothing through most of the book except for admiration at Böll's skill, but I finished it angry, which is exactly what he intended.

Katharina Blum is a good piece of work, and carries particular resonance in light of the utterly deplorable behavior of the American media during the years of the Bush junta, but I would not call it an essential read. I look forward to investigating Böll's pre-Nobel work, especially his Billiards at Half-Past Nine, but Katharina Blum is necessary only for habitual completists and people who haven't yet heard that the media is full of liars, sharks, and scoundrels.

Phantom Prey

Phantom Prey, by John Sandford
2009, 438 pp.

Though it may be difficult to believe, and though it may provoke outrage and offense among the general readership, it must be stated without equivocation that the present author has at times been accused of elitism. It is all lies and slander, I know, but I daresay it startled me entirely out of Sordello's 1237 lament in the Occitan sirventes-planh style over the death of his patron Blacatz (so effectively parodied, of course, in Canto VII of the Purgatorio) and left me with no recourse but a response. I offer it here.

I love detective novels. I admit it freely, without reservation or embarassment. Donald E. Westlake remains one of my favorite writers, especially in his Richard Stark pseudonym (he had something like thirteen pseudonymns and wrote about a hundred books) and I judge all dialogue by the formidable standard of Elmore Leonard. John Sandford (which is a pseudonym for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John see how deep the rabbit-hole goes) has always been a favorite. I've read approximately twelve of his "Prey" novels, which feature a Minneapolis detective named Lucas Davenport. Unhelpfully, all are titled "(Adjective) Prey," and the adjective never gives any indication what exactly the book is about, so I have a devil of a time remembering if Winter Prey was the one about the Native American terrorists or the guy who hides in the water tower, or if Secret Prey was about the female assassin or the one with the Russians. Maybe the one with the female assassin had Russians in it? I have no idea.

At any rate, I love these books. Davenport starts out as an obligatory maverick detective in the first few, with a lot of money from a computer software company he founded and a Porsche and good fashion sense and a hot reporter girlfriend and depression and a good ability to kill bad guys. Over time he ends up as the deputy police chief and then the governor's troubleshooter cop, and now works for the stupidly-named (but apparently real) Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He's caught like a dozen serial killers by now and probably shot like a hundred people and been shot about seven times and now is married to a hot surgeon who is inexplicably named "Weather." His friends and colleagues are all well-drawn and well developed by now (this is the 18th book in the series) and I've read so many that they fit like a comfortable pair of socks. Sandford rarely fails to deliver what you want: the plots are suspenseful, the villians evil and devious, the murders satisfyingly grisly, the sex happily explicit and frequent, and there's an action scene at the end. I made a note early on: "Pg. 15--two murders, lots of nipples." I bought Phantom Prey at the airport in Singapore before a flight to Tokyo and finished it in one sitting before we passed Taiwan.

Unfortunately, this is not a particularly good entry in the series. The plot concerns the disappearance of a rich girl who seems to have been a Goth and whose Goth acquaintances soon start dying. There is a rocky start as Sanford tries to build suspense by giving the reader a lot of sentences without verbs ("Something wrong here") instead of using the perfectly effective free-indirect style. Things pick up when Sanford gets into the nuts-and-bolts of police procedural, at which he is exceptionally skilled. The dialogue is solid, and there are some good lines: "the smell of the old cigarette butts closed in around them," or "the coffee had never seen Seattle, or even heard of it." Here's a good example of the kind of thing he does:

"Back out into the skyways, getting-out-of-the-office time, crowds jostling though to the parking ramps, a few of the younger women showing some pre-spring skin, the teen guys flashing tattoos over health-club muscles, their elders often with the competitive, fixed, dead-eyed, and querulous stare of people who were not getting far enough, fast enough, making enough, hustling all the time, working all the time, no time for an evening's paseo, no time even for half-fast food. Scuttling people."

The trouble is that about halfway through it becomes clear that he hasn't been playing fair. He nearly almost uses My Least Favorite Plot Twist Ever, in which it turns out that several people, including the killer, are in fact one person's alternate personalities. This is particularly infuriating because I like Sanford exactly due to his avoidance of these sorts of games. His suspense is always genuine, never authorial tricks, and his villains are never Hollywood stereotypes. His policework is always spot-on and believable, and he usually seems to respect the reader enough to be honest and put in some effort to plotting and research. Not so much here. Whether he is running out of steam this late in the series or was under a contractual obligation or domestic pressure I do not know, but Phantom Prey is ultimately a disappointment, even as an airplane read. Even the ending action sequence comes as the resolution of an entirely unnecessary subplot: a subplot which seemed to exist solely to provide some occasional nudity and the climactic action. The writing is skillful enough, and Sanford knows his characters and his subject well enough to be in complete control, but he demonstrates his skill far better elsewhere. I suspect I will remember which Prey this one is, but not for good reasons.

By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño
2000, 130 pp.

While reading reviews of Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, I could not help but notice that everyone who writes anything about Bolaño mentions By Night in Chile at some point. It is frequently the reviewer's introduction to Bolaño (James Wood seems to have stolen his copy from a friend) and is referred to in hushed tones, like a powerful talisman or a frightening bouncer, often using phrases like "glittering perfection." It is a short book, and I was greatly enjoying The Savage Detectives, so I obtained it immediately to see what Bolaño can do with the notoriously difficult novella form.

The answer is, he can do anything he wants. Novellas are tricky creatures: too long to be a short story which has only one sustained theme and few scenes, but too short to develop subplots and major complications as in a novel. Bolaño solves the problem by structuring the novella as a rambling deathbed monologue, delivered in a single 130-page paragraph. The dying man was a conservative Jesuit priest named Father Urrita, who was something of a toady and a hanger-on to the conservatives who supported and constituted the Pinochet regime. He fawns on a famous literary critic, meets Pablo Neruda, goes on absurd missions for Opus Dei, and gives Pinochet and his generals lessons in Marxism. He seems a bit unhinged, alternately boastful and defensive, and all the while plagued by visions of a "wizened youth," who follows him through his life, judging him.

Bolaño presents this in long, coiled, lovely sentences, almost precisely in the style of the great José Saramago. This seems like an almost gratuitous demonstration of skill. In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño proves that he can mimic anyone's voice with precision: here he proves he can adopt the voice of one of the century's finest writers. Bolaño lived in Barcelona for some time and was immensely well-read, so I cannot assume he was unfamiliar with Saramago's work, but instead recognized the beauty and grace of the long, eventful sentence demonstrated in Saramago's work, and in the work of Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald. He apparently was not content simply to show off his control of the novella as a form, he also is demonstrating his mastery of style and the sublime improvements that choice of style lends to his solutions to the difficulties of the form. Have a look at this, a small fragment broken off from a giant, powerful sentence:

"and in its own way the painting was an altar for human sacrifice, and in its own way the painting was an acknowledgement of defeat, not the defeat of Paris or the defeat of European culture bravely determined to burn itself down, not the political defeat of certain ideals that the painter tepidly espoused, but his personal defeat, the defeat of an obscure, poor Guatemalan, who had come to the City of Light determined to make his name in its artistic circles, and the way in which the Guatemalan accepted his defeat, with a clear-sightedness reaching far beyond the realm of the particular and anecdotal..."

That sentence goes on for about three pages, telling the story of an artist dying alone in an attic. There are lots of lengthy stories in the book, all of them ending in failure and loss. When another story ends, we are treated to a startling simile: "And when I finished telling this story, Farewell was still staring at me, his half-closed eyes like empty bear traps ruined by time and rain and freezing cold."

Bolaño is also, as ever, scathingly political. Bolaño was an outspoken leftist, once jailed by the Pinochet regime, and lived a long time in exile. His work shows enormous, monolithic contempt for writers he considers to be government stooges or "neo-Stalinists," like Neruda, as well as for the so-called "peasant poets" or (or to Bolaño, merchants of "otherness" or "neo-PRI-ists") like Octavio Paz. His guerrilla "infrarealist" movement, parodied lovingly and sadly in The Savage Detectives was something of a literary Left Opposition, an anti-authoritarian left movement whose enemies were everyone in power, everyone with institutional backing, regardless of their position on the political spectrum. Here, in a slightly unfair but fiercely polemical bit of moral equivalence, he seems to suggest that an affection for Neruda is but the first step on the road to Pinochet.

Ultimately, By Night in Chile is a scathing condemnation of the sort of anxious intellectuals who, desperate for reassurance and self-preservation, ally themselves to power and proceed to utilize their intellects to rationalize and explain away their self-serving perfidy. There can be little doubt that the "wizened youth" is anyone other than Bolaño himself, sitting in judgment on a whole generation of moral cowardice and received opinions. By Night in Chile is a beautiful, savage, angry book, and it proves its author a writer of the very first rank, and a formidable man of conscience.