Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

Savage Detection

June 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: The Savage Detectives.

Reading now: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.

Reading next: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Okay, then: after an extraordinarily busy month (without going into too many details, we now have a dachshund and a fence, and I’ve now presented my first paper publicly among special-collections-library-folk), it is high time to catch up on my reading.  (One of the great frustrations of busy times is not having enough time to concentrate on reading; there’s such relief in finding an hour to just read at night.)

A couple of weeks after finishing it, I am amazed at my reaction to The Savage Detectives.  It was a book I was often bored or exasperated with, and yet almost instantly after finishing it and skimming through it to capture my thoughts about it, I felt affectionate towards it, and kept finding sections I did enjoy, until now, when I find myself very glad to have read it, still interested in it, and wanting to read 2666 and Amulet, maybe as soon as next year.

I think this is partly an effect of the sandwich structure of the book, with its short, punchy, “diary” sections acting as the bread around a huge, sloppy, Dagwood-style filling of 20 years’ worth of interview, oral history, monologue, and, presumably, savage detection.  The immediacy and directness of the sandwich-sections pull you in and validate the effort of sifting the mass of detail and story and history in the filling.

But enough sandwich metaphors.  Perhaps this is only interesting to me, but I think another aspect of my reaction is that it’s very similar to my reaction to pretty much anything I write myself: everything is tedious and trite and horrible as I’m writing, but once I get a chance to reflect and revise I find it’s not nearly so bad, and actually seems that it was quite a bit of fun to write.  What is it about this book that makes you feel like you’re part of its creation — that it’s writing itself as you read it?

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling about the book now.  Here’s one of the mysteries I’ve been entertaining myself with: who are the “savage detectives” of the title?  Bolaño is, apparently, often quite cryptic with his titles: I’m told there’s nothing about the number or year “2666” in 2666 (although I think it must have some connection to Cesárea’s prophecy  about events “sometime around the year 2600.  Two thousand six hundred and something”, very near the end of this book).

Nevertheless, it’s such a fantastic, multivalent title (Los Detectives Salvajes in the original) that I’m inclined to explore its meaning.  Here are the savage detectives I see in the book — how they’re detectives, and how they’re savage:

  • The visceral realists.  In the first section, the group seems to be the title’s obvious referent: I think you can see “visceral realist” as a rephrasing of the title, since “visceral” can mean “not intellectual” or “dealing with crude or elemental emotions” (M-W Collegiate, 11th ed.), and both detectives and realists think of themselves as seeking “the truth,” the real state of affairs.  And, indeed, there’s a real sense of exploring the world, and living as a form of detection in (from the US perspective, and ironically/satirically from the Latin American perspective) “savage”/”primitive” Mexico.  But we see them doing little actual “detection” of any but an experiental/metaphysical sort, though they are savage/visceral enough, except for:
  • Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, with the help of Juan García Madero, who go in search, from Mexico City to the Sonora Desert, of Cesárea Tinajero and the 1930s visceral realists of Mexico.  This is certainly a more straightforward kind of detection, as they ask questions, follow leads, investigate libraries and archives, stumble across leads.  There’s also an element of “savagery” in their lack of any social niceties, funds, or apparent clue about what they’re doing.
  • The nameless interlocutor(s) of the middle section.  The section borrows the form of a detective’s notes or audiotapes, each “chapter” beginning with the name, place, and date of the speaker.  You would be tempted to say that this is merely a fictional convenience, a way for the author to get out of the way of the many voices he’s presenting — except that there are times when someone has clearly asked a question to which the speaker is responding, pulling us out of the narrative to wonder what the circumstances are under which the speaker is telling their story.  I wondered, throughout the second section, why the stories were being told: are we to see it as the real-life Bolaño (or fictional Belano) interrogating his fictional creations?  As some obscure academic trying to write the history of the “visceral realists”?  Is it an actual detective or group of detectives, trying to figure out what’s happened to Lima, Belano, Madero, or solve some related mystery?  (The third section does lend some credence to this theory, although it’s impossible to think the thread would be followed for 20 years by a professional.)  At any rate, there’s some savage detection going on in this second section, but it’s impossible to say by whom.
  • Us, the readers.  Reading and writing are forms of savage detection: we work through the narrative, trying to piece together the story, the style, the meaning, the purpose, the theory of the book.  We do so in a kind of primitive state (I felt especially savage in this book, knowing so little about Mexican and Latin American poetry; surely this was unintentional, but it worked), working from incomplete knowledge about the book, its author, its relation to reality.  Somehow, at the end of our investigation, we tell ourselves a story about what happened, and what it meant.
  • Everyone, and especially everyone in this book.  There’s so much travel, so much coupling and recoupling, so much about struggling to find a way to live, a place to live, a way to be in the world: everyone begins to seem a savage detective, steps away from disaster, toeing that hard-boiled line between chaos and order.

So it’s a brilliant title: it works at all the levels of the book’s meaning, and it really resonates long after you’ve read it.

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.

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.

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