November 23, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Woman in White.
Reading next: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.
This book really does have more than its fair share of monsters, doesn’t it? People monstrous — grotesque might be another way of putting it (but then I couldn’t use that killer title, lifted from this Maureen McHugh collection) — in their self-interest, their willful disavowal of wrongdoing or even wrongful impulse, their superficial gentility.
Fosco is an obvious example — like Milton’s Satan, he seems something of a heroic villain until you remember the bodies he’s buried under rhetoric, charm, and rationalization (it’s more complicated with the rather defensible Satan, of course, but that’s a whole other topic) — and I’ve already talked a little about Frederick Fairlie, who is so indifferent to everything in the world but his own comfort as to be rather delightful. But I’m thinking here of other monsters.
The monstrous mother is Mrs. Catherick. In her discussion with Walter, and especially in the letter she sends him, Mrs. Catherick displays her absolute lack of interest in her daughter’s well being; the coldness with which she dismisses news of Anne is matched only by the warmth with which she justifies her abandonment of Anne. It’s a magnificent portrait, this little sketch of Mrs. Catherick. There’s her pride at being bowed to by the minister, this tiny measure of civility and her rehabilitated status in her community to be clung to at all costs. And, especially, there’s her magnificent sign-off to Walter, which, in context, seems like the epitome of that hoary old chestnut, the banality of evil: “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”
Is it wrong to argue that Walter Hartright himself is something of a monster, too? What brought this to mind for me was his insistence that he bore no blame for Glyde’s death. Of course, Glyde never would have been where he was if Walter were not digging into Glyde’s past — it’s not like he bears no responsibility. And one of the main conflicts throughout the Third Epoch is Walter’s internal struggle between the need for vengeance and the need to protect Marian and Laura. Collins kind of bails Walter out of this conflict, in the end. But the conflict hews awfully close to that classic noir trope of the detective as the other side of the criminal coin: capable of impulses as dark as any murderer’s. Interesting, that this proto-detective novel already contains the DNA of hardboiled novels and The French Connection.
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.