Monday, June 15, 2009

For Monsters

Chilean author Roberto Bolaño is probably the hottest writer around these days, at least in the capital "L" Literary Circles. His gargantuan novel 2666 was published in America earlier this year to acclaim so intense that it has dwarfed the previously wild acclaim bestowed on his The Savage Detectives, and that book was the Big Book of 2007. He has nine more books -- novels, story collections, essay collections, poetry -- in the pipeline to be translated, with publication dates ranging from later this year until 2011 or 2012, while a good four or five other books are already available in English, apart from 2666 and The Savage Detectives. This is impressive on its own, but is doubly impressive when you consider that Bolaño died in 2003.

Bolaño was a poet by training and inclination, but he turned to prose fiction in 1998 when he realized he didn't have long to live, and he decided the money he could bring in from novels would provide for his family far better than his poetry would. His output in those five years is fairly staggering, matched only, perhaps, by Anthony Burgess's own prolificacy after being mistakenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1961. Burgess lived for another 32 years, but Bolaño, sadly, had it right.

I finished reading Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (my first full experience reading him, although when I received my copy of 2666 I couldn't help diving in; unfortunately, the fact that I hadn't planned on reading it at the time, and its great length, kept me from continuing, though I set it aside with no little regret) yesterday, and I must say it was a highly unusual and pretty mesmerizing book. His posthumous fame would seem to indicate that his plan to financially provide for his family by writing novels was successful, and maybe things are different in Chile, but I find it strange and vaguely hilarious that a book like this could ever have been conceived with the primary goal of making its author any money at all.

Which is not a knock on the book, because as I said, I liked it quite a bit. But the book is a collection of mostly short biographical essays on authors with a fascist bent who never existed -- most of whom are South American by birth, some are North American, one or two are Germans who made their way to South America by being descendants of Nazi fugitives -- and I can't see something like that flying off the shelves, however fascinating or entertaining it is. I don't have the book in front of me, and am therefore unprepared to write a full review, but I honestly don't know how one would go about writing a review of this book in the first place. Obviously, others have done so, but I wouldn't know where to begin. I will say that Bolaño's prose is precise and sardonic throughout, and his imagination is formidable. The authors being written about are separated into categories, and I particularly liked the section of fascist science fiction writers (though I might complain that this part was too short), and I was also especially intrigued, though also somewhat confused, by the last, long-ish (about 24 pages in my edition) essay about the "infamous Ramirez Hoffman", who was, among other things, a poet who wrote in the sky, with a plane; a photographer whose pictures caused outrage and vomiting; and a serial killer.

The only part of the book that I thought was a grind was the epilogue, called "For Monsters", which is essentially a list of secondary figures, publishing houses that specialized in this sort of thing, and books. Every so often, Bolaño will include further information in one of these entries, but to no great purpose that I could see. Although this reminds me of another difficulty I had with the book: when these fictional writers are mentioned in relation to other writers, my grasp on Latin American literature is so weak that I often had no idea how many of these other writers were real, and how many were Bolaño's inventions. Since some of them were obviously real (Borges, Allen Ginsberg), this opened up the idea that many or most of the others were, as well, but you'll get nowhere asking me. As a result, I think I missed out on a fair amount of the book's satire.

But I'm more or less okay with that, because I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway. It's certainly like nothing else I've read this year.


Ed Howard said...

Wow, that sounds fascinating, and right up my alley. I love that kind of postmodern, metafictional writing -- stuff like Borges, Barthelme, Calvino, Giorgio Manganelli, etc. -- these writers who specialize in collections of short, slightly absurdist but deadpan stories and sketches. The obvious linkage in film to this kind of writing is Peter Greenaway, at least in his early shorts and The Falls.

Anyway, I'll definitely have to get ahold of this book now.

bill r. said...

I like it on occasion too, and certainly liked it here. But brother, I could not make it through The Falls. I didn't know it was possible for anyone to, to be honest with you.

Ed Howard said...

I love The Falls. It's exhausting, but then it's meant to be. And Greenaway's wit and humor compensate for the great length. I think, of his work in that style, the best by some distance is A Walk Through H, but that's like a novella while The Falls is a Greenaway encyclopedia.

bill r. said...

I have the three (first three??) Tulse Luper films saved on DVR, but after my Falls experience I'm afraid to go near them. I've seen, and to some degree enjoyed, a few of his more straightfoward (a very relative term, here) films, but I don't know how deep I really feel like digging into his stuff. I hang on to the Luper films because they're not available anywhere else, to my knowledge. Not very logical, but, well, there it is.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm intrigued. I'll have to check this out. When I was studying for my degree in Literature the one movement I found myself in awe of was the postmodern movement. However, I've never heard of Bolaño, and that's my own damn fault because I felt like I had so much catching up to do with the authors I was introduced to in college that I haven't had a chance to seek out "new" stuff. I will definitely be looking for this.

Ed if you like postmodern/metafiction I HIGHLY recommend the postmodern novel of the 80's Money by Martin Amis. It's the funniest thing I've ever read, and really, so much of what passes as po-mo these days is wholly indebted to Amis and his hilariously vulgar take on Reagon's America and Thatcher's England. If it weren't for Amis popularizing the movement then there isn't a Chuck Palahniuk or Dave Eggers; however, Amis isn't nearly as self-aware as those two authors, especially the latter, seem to be. But I'm bias, and always be, towards British authors.

Another brilliant metafictional/postmodern novel is Jeanette Winterson's The Powerbook. If you've already read Money and haven't read Winterson's novel, give it a try. It's an impressively layered and brilliant book. She can really nail a sentence like few other authors. She's in the top 5 working today.

Anyway, sorry for getting off track...Bill thanks for the book recommendation. I look forward to tracking down some of Bolaño's work for some summer reading.

bill r. said...

If it weren't for Amis popularizing the movement then there isn't a Chuck Palahniuk...

That's a bit harsh, isn't it? What did Amis ever do to you!?

I've never read Winterson, but I've heard some pretty wonderful things about her. I need to check her out.

Don't feel bad for not having heard of Bolano. The only reason I've become interested is because his stuff belongs very squarely in the category of Things I Like, and I tend to pick up the scent of that stuff.

Here's a list of yet-to-be-published Bolano books. Tell me these don't sound marvelous.

Kevin J. Olson said...


I highly suggest the aforementioned The Powerbook, but the real place to begin is with The Passion, a ridiculously good blend of history and postmodernism. It's a breezy read, but that doesn't mean it isn't just packed with amazing line after amazing line. I've read it three times and I don't see reason why I wouldn't read it again down the road. In her books people get their hearts stolen by beautiful people...only they literally have to go and get their hearts back. I've never liked the buzz word "magical realism" as it pertains to postmodern (mostly because I don't like to shy away from postmodernism), but in Winterson's case I can only think of Rushdie being better at magical realism.

And I love your Amis comment! Haha. Yes, in case you can't tell I may be one of the only 27 year old males to not worship at the postmodern altar of Palahniuk and Eggers.

You're right...that list looks quite intriguing.

bill r. said...

I'll definitely read Winterson. You may have just spurred me to finally pick up one of her books (The Passion, most likely) this weekend.

My problem with the term "magic realism" isn't that people use it because they don't want to say "post-modern" -- I don't think those two things are necessarily connected, although they can be. My problem is that some critic somewhere created the term "magic realism" because he decided "fantasy" was a gutter genre. That's pure speculation on my part, but the idea of magic realism is that it places fantastical elements in an otherwise naturalistic environment. And I'm sorry, but since Ray Bradbury, and even before, fantasy/SF/horror writers were doing it before the label was invented. They just didn't have the critical support (okay, maybe Bradbury did).

I've never read Palahniuk, but everything his fans say about him, and what he says about his own work, just screams "No Sale!". I'm willing to read one of his books -- don't know which -- in the interest of fairness, but the "spending of money" part of that deal has been holding me back.

Kevin J. Olson said...

You're exactly right about magical realism trying to be the pretentious term academia has adopted in order to replace fantasy. I remember reading Rushdie's Midnight's Children in college and thinking that it was like a really well written issue of X-Men...and I meant that as a compliment to how Rushdie was able to seamlessly weave the fantastical with the historic or naturalistic. He's the master of it. There's always a purpose behind something an other like Rushdie does, and even though he employs fantastical elements, they are used in the way Bradbury and other science fiction writers used them: as great big metaphors.

I've always liked postmodernism that forces the reader to learn something about the future by taking a look at the past (Graham Swift's masterful Waterland does this to perfection). And that's the problem I have with the self-aggrandizing works of "this is a stapler" Dave Eggers or "po-mo" Palahniuk (whoce Choke is not a bad read, actually). It's showy writing...and that's not what the intent of the movement was when it started in the 80's (at least a major literaty probably started in the art movement long before then).

The modern postmodern writers (Wait...what?) remind me of that episode of The Simpson's when Moe remodels his bar into a chic club with bar stools on the hanging upside down from the ceiling, TV screens with blinking eyes, and rabbits running place hanging from the ceiling. Moe explains to them that it's " know postmodern. Okay...weird for the sake of being weird"

Kevin J. Olson said...

Oh...and I'm glad you're going to read the Winterson. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on it.

bill r. said...

Moe explains to them that it's " know postmodern. Okay...weird for the sake of being weird"...

I like David Foster Wallace's defintion of post-modernism, when he was asked for it in an interview. He said, "Man, I don't know...after modernism."

Do you like Wallace? I really enjoyed, if that's the word, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men when I read it last year, and look forward to moving on to Oblivion before the year is up.

Overall, though, post-modernism isn't a great attraction for me. I'm happy to read it if all else in the book seems appealing, but I'm unlikely to read post-modernism for it's own sake. Years ago, I started Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, and actually was really enjoying, but I was travelling, and I didn't have much time for it, and then when I got back home I never picked it up again. I should go back now.

Ed Howard said...

Some great recommendations here. Kevin, I'll definitely have to check out Amis and Winterson, neither of whom I've read before. The namechecking of Rushdie in relation to Winterson makes me especially intrigued, since I think he's pretty much brilliant.

As for Eggers and Palahniuk, I find the former occasionally funny in small doses, mostly annoying in larger ones. But I will admit to really enjoying Palahniuk, although I haven't read any of his newer books. Yeah, it's posturing and self-conscious and all, but he's always a fun read. And whatever his influences, I've never really thought about him in relation to postmodernism. With the extended monologue/rant as his primary storytelling device, I've always liked to think of him as being more in the lineage of someone like Bill Hicks (though not nearly as funny or insightful). I do especially like Choke and the utterly bonkers Invisible Monsters.

And while we're on the subject of British/postmodern/metafictional authors, any thoughts on comics writers like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? I know I've talked with Bill about them before but they seem to fit in this company fairly well. Moore's prose novel The Voice of the Fire is a real blast, too.

Kevin J. Olson said...

The only literature of Moore's that I've read have been his graphic novels. Watchmen is a perfect example of a multi-layered postmodern work. It's amazing how effortlessly the reader gets through three simultaneous stories at once. I will check out The Voice of the's going on the list as we speak.

As for Morrison: my brother is a HUGE fan of his, and I've been meaning to borrow a lot of that from him. Another thing to look forward to.

Since we're throwing out more recommendations I would like to add anything by Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don Delillo, and J.M. Coetzee to the list. Delillo being the only one who is truly postmodern, but McEwan's writing is probably the best of that bunch, and his stories are usually layered, yet nuanced (Atonement and Saturday are good examples of that).

And you're so right about Rushdie. The man is a genius, and Winterson, in regards to brilliant knockout sentences, gives the man a run for his money.

bill r. said...

First off, Ed, I can't believe you've never read Amis. Get on that, posthaste. London Fields is my favorite, but it might be better to start with Money. I didn't -- that was maybe my fourth or fifth -- but I'm told that's really the place to start. Oh well.

Kevin, I'm absolutely with you on Carey, McEwan and Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day by the latter is a perfect novel. Carey's Jack Maggs is a blast, and My Life as a Fake is pretty fascinating. McEwan has written a boatload of great stuff, but Enduring Love tops everything else I've read by him, easily. That's one of my favorite books.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Bill I'm with you on London Fields. Time's Arrow is another good one, and I think an underrated novel that is often overlooked is his take on the American crime novel Night Train, which Nicola Roeg is making into a movie. I think it comes out sometime in the fall with Sigourney Weaver in the lead.

I still wish the Cronenberg London Fields adaptation hadn't fallen through...oh well.

And again we share the same enthusiasm for Carey's Jack Maggs and Ishiguro's brilliant The Remains of the Day.

Have you read anything by Graham Swift? His Waterland was probably, along with Amis' Money and Rushdie's Midnight's Children, one of the most influential, and famous, postmodern novels of the 80's. He's kind of fallen off the map since then...even though they awarded him the Booker Prize for a much lesser, albeit still good, novel Last Orders. Think of it in terms of how Scrosese got the Oscar for The Departed. Not even close to his best work, but it was really an Oscar for his better films that got snubbed...same with Swift.

Tommy Wallach said...

Hey Bill R,

Don't know if you know it, but in grabbing that 2666 picture, you unknowingly linked to my own article on the subject of Bolano:

Anyway, just to add to the conversation, my favorite Amis remains The Information, which isn't at all postmodern, but is the greatest novel of artistic competition I know (it helps that the relationship is based on Amis' own with Julien English author I've yet to see mentioned in this thread, though he's been known to dabble in the postmodern as well...).