In the John with the Mother of Mexican Poetry

May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives.

My favorite section of this book so far is the monologue/testimony of Auxilio Lacouture, self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.”  Like most of the characters, Auxilio is apparently based on a real person, and the remarkable event in the chapter also seems to be reality-based (if not “real,” exactly).

It’s the best illustration yet that DFW was right in thinking that bathrooms are “places of mortal drama.”  (He was talking about men’s rooms, but presumably that’s all he knew, right?  I think we’re justified in extending his aphorism to the ladies’.)  Auxilio’s predilection for reading poetry in the ladies’ room in the Faculty of Literature at her Mexico City university leads to her being overlooked in the governmental massacre and takeover of the university; she spends ten days in the restroom, in a small but important act of protest — becoming “UNAM’s last redoubt of autonomy.”

Bolaño has told Auxilio’s story in more detail in Amulet.  Here, she’s given a ten-page, one-paragraph monologue, as she revisits passages of her life by revisiting her residency on the ladies’ room floor.  It’s full of fascinating things, including Auxilio’s relationship with Arturo Belano (Roberto B’s fictional alter ego), her status as both insider and outsider in Mexico, the drama of staying alive by eating toilet paper and drinking water (and writing poetry on toilet paper, and dreaming, and crying, and remembering).  Here’s one of my favorite passages, when she realizes what has happened:

So I went over to the only window in the bathroom and looked out.  I saw a soldier far off in the distance.  I saw the outline of an armored troop carrier or the shadow of an armored troop carrier.  Like the portico of Latin literature, the portico of Greek literature.  Oh, I adore Greek literature, from Pindar to George Seferis.  I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I knew I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.

This is a good passage to illustrate Bolano’s style: the deceptively straightforward sentences that suddenly drop into a kind of cryptic code (an “armored troop carrier” is like “the portico of Latin literature” how?), the boring factual monotone that suddenly spikes into moments of beautiful clarity and purpose, of perfect pacing (“citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.”), the emphasis on finding voice without idiosyncratic tics or tricks.

In fact, I think one of the most remarkable things about this book  is how Bolaño dares you to be bored — perhaps dares himself, too.  As a writer, it is remarkably hard to be content with a boring sentence; it is hard to move from sentence to sentence without trying to be beautiful or showy.  Obvious but frequently overlooked: writing boring sentences is boring, and boring is not easy.  Boring is hard.  (Personally, I’ve always had the most trouble writing the most basic transitional elements; those utilitarian sentences to move characters from one place to another, from one scene to another.  They’re just so damn boring to write!  I always fall into the temptation of thinking that they must be boring for the reader, too.)  Bolaño almost never succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful — when he does, it’s because the voice he’s taken on would see fit to do so, and he is, after all, talking about poets.  He lets the thread of his narrative pull the reader along, slowly and intermittently letting insights dawn on the reader.

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So Many Names, So Few I Know

May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one.  I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.

The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers.  Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.

And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of.  Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.

But the names!  My God, the names!  Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence.  The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books.  Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry.  (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)

Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level.  In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created.  However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization.  He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.

Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels.  It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times.  But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.

Stories Above, Stories Within, Stories Beside

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: Atmospheric Disturbances.

Just finished: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link.

Reading next: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop.

So I’m very behind, which is a shame, because Atmospheric Disturbances is a really interesting novel, and I unabashedly adore Kelly Link’s stories.  Allow me to point out just a few of the many fascinating things in these books.

First, the Galchen.  I had read before, but completely forgotten, that the author’s father is used as a character in this book; the knowledge that Tzvi Gal-Chen was a real person, a real meteorologist, and not just a clever metafictional author-reference, makes the book come alive in surprising ways.  The book would be orders of magnitude less touching, compelling, and human were it not for its metafictional tricks, its games with narration and a blend of truth and fiction: a convincing and damn near conclusive refutation of those who decry metafiction and all experimental tactics as cold, unfeeling, antagonistic to the reader.  The combination of the story of Leo — Galchen portrays his monomania brilliantly while never quite eliminating the possibility that he’s on to something in thinking his wife “disappeared” and replaced by a simulacrum — the story of our reading of Leo — is this an allegory of marriage, a new fabulist mystery, a fictional memoir of madness? — and the story of Galchen eulogizing Gal-Chen, weaving her memories of her father into this fabulous tale — is quite magical.

And the way that Leo takes these crazy leaps of faith based on cryptic readings of dry scientific papers and Rorschachian interpretations of a meteorological graph!  And the droll, sometimes clinical, sometimes mystical chapter titles!  And the trip to Patagonia, the Jungian unconscious of Argentina!

Then there’s Kelly Link, who is awesome in completely irrefutable and empirically proven ways. Pretty Monsters is a short story collection for a major publisher, Viking, and as such reprints some of the stories from her earlier small-press collections, including what might very well be my favorite short story of this decade, “Magic for Beginners.”  (Or is it a novella?  Aah, whatever it is, it’s the best of that.)  Seriously, if you don’t love this story I can’t have anything to do with you: you will not like me, I will not like you, I will argue with you constantly in unpleasant and unfriendly ways.

Link’s a master at the ambiguously nested narrative.  In “Magic for Beginners,” we’re told right off the bat about the pirate-TV show The Library, and told that the story we’re being told is itself an episode of The Library.  This episode ends up being largely concerned with a group of teenage friends obsessed with the pirate-TV show The Library.  One of the very many brilliant things about this story is how it is a story about a TV show which does things that can only be done in literature, with the written word: if one were to actually try to adapt The Library for the screen, it would be impossibly confusing, expensive, and unsuccessful.  And yet it is irresistable in its ekphrastic descriptions in this story.  It’s the best thing about literature, the most underrated thing: it is utterly unrestrained by the million restraints of performed art, by casting, effects budgets, production companies.  It can do anything, given the right combination of reader and writer.  It can create impossible works of whatsoever form of art and describe them in whatever words, at whatever level of tantalizing detail, it chooses.  (Link, by the way, is great at this variation of detail, of the “granularity,” if you will, of her descriptions: the monster in the excellent story “Monster” is a good example of a terrifyingly sparse description.)

So we care a lot about Jeremy and his friends, and his mother and eccentric Stephen-King-ish father, in ways we wouldn’t if they were framing devices in an episode of The Library.  While you often forget while you reading that it’s framed as an episode, it is fascinating to read this whole story as an episode: a strange new episode of your favorite cult show, in which the fantastic world and characters you’ve become fans of are suddenly thrust into contact with the “real” world, in which the “death” or “life” of those other characters is in agonizing doubt (in multiple ways) but you are asked to pay attention to new characters, characters like you.  A little slice of reality TV.  So, yes: a realistic, naturalistic story about our filmed world, our fictionalized reality.

Link does stories-within-stories very well, but there are also stories side by side: sibling stories, like “Pretty Monsters.”  You can argue for this as another nested narrative, but it seemed to me that as you read it, the stories are on the same plane, even when it becomes clear that a character in one of the narratives is reading the other story.  (But she’s also not: the story here is far too short to be a book; we either have a synopsis of the book, or excerpts from it, or an alternate version of it.)  I am still wrapping my mind around this story, which I loved.  And yet the ending bothered me.  Stories shift their shapes; a story is a kind of pretty monster, utterly true, utterly false, attractive and terrifying; and when the fictional girl “L” acknowledges that there is “no stupid girl named Lee” in the story she was just reading, this is a matter of irony — we affirm the reality of the fictional Lee, Clementine, L and C, just as Jeremy tried to confirm the reality of the fictional Fox in “Magic for Beginners.”  But dammit, the metanarrative here did not deepen or complicate my understanding of the work; I cared too much about the twin narratives for it to work as a frame or conclusion.

Basically, what I am saying is that I really want Kelly Link to stretch out, to restrain or at least delay her ambiguity reflex, and to write a novel.  I’d love to see what happens in a Kelly Link novel.  Things could get wild.

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