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.
September 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
Hard to believe: it’s been ten years since I read this. It’s a trite but true thing about a masterpiece: you’re not really ready for it the first time you read it (you haven’t read enough, lived enough, thought enough), but somehow you get enough out of it to love it anyway, and in fact have a visceral reaction to it that you’ll never have again, exactly, but which brings you back to read it again, when you’re older, and it’ll feel brand-new again, and you’ll think to yourself, why haven’t I read this again, again?
I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for this book any more than King Lear or Basho or Tolstoy or Joyce. But I feel more ready, now, anyway. I remember reading the first section, of Hal in the university office, took me like three days of rereading, and I was feeling kind of simultaneously baffled and dazzled. It’s a little easier going, now. Quite a bit more enjoyable, as much as anything seems enjoyable in this terrible week. (Seriously, when’s this going to start feeling better?)
Anyway, I noticed this time through that of course there’s the Hal-as-Hamlet allusion going on here, but there’s something else, too, I think: there’s a bit of the Elephant Man. “‘I am not what you see and hear,'” says Hal. He is not an animal. He is a human being. And I love this description of what they hear, from the mouth of one of the Deans (I think, maybe Admissions?): “‘Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet.'” What a perfectly horrifying sentence!
Also, I’ve never walked into an old-fashioned men’s room without thinking of this section.
A couple other notes: “I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist.” Dennis Gabor is, apparently, best known for inventing holography, and this may refer to that invention. The earlier mention of Hal’s paper on “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema” could possibly back that up, since a lot of Gabor’s work apparently dealt with the Fourier analysis in mathematics. What I think all of this might mean: I suspect calling Gabor the Antichrist is Hal’s high-level way of suggesting that simulacra have overtaken our world, that we are busy virtualizing and recreating and dicing experience in so many ways that we’ve lost track of the gestalt, the whole, and the real. And this might perhaps also be a clue to what’s wrong with Hal: could it be that his brain is experiencing a world of frames and granules while everyone else is experiencing a flow?
Anyway, the Erdedy chapter after this is one of my favorites. Erdedy, waiting in agony for a woman to deliver him a giant load of weed, watches an insect crawling around his shelves. Then we get this doozy:
Once the woman who said she’d come had come, he would shut the whole system down. It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question.
I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like an awfully brave passage. It risks symbol, for one thing, which is tricky in an experimental fiction written in 1996. But it’s such a touching passage, such an awful moment of sick clarity in a person who’s not ready not to be an addict. It also reminds me very much of Murakami, only the exact opposite: his recurring wells and caves and isolated quiet places are like holes in the self, but they’re holes that people crawl into to find or recover something — they’re holes in the shelf, I guess, not the girder. What’s horrible about the hole in the girder is that Erdedy knows he keeps doing this for some reason he doesn’t understand, knows that the hole isn’t in the right place for him to actually learn anything, but can’t imagine giving up this routine he’s locked into. So, yeah, he’s an addict, if a high-functioning one, more or less.