From the MFA Blog

Below is a comment I just read:

“I’m actually a fan of the question ‘What are we doing today.’ Whenever one of my students asks me that I just lie to them. Sometimes it’s as simple as me responding, ‘Partying hard.’

Other times I’ll make up some elaborate bullshit lie. One was that in chapter 26 of Huck Finn Jim finds his wife because they meet on facebook, so today we will be discussing the use of online networking systems in late 19th century literature. The kid was like “Really?” and I was like ‘No.'”

Shutter Island

Shutter Island is a prime example of the “thinking movie” for populists: throw in some ridiculous premise and cool visuals, and everyone screams “masterpiece” even if the film makes no sense.

Honestly, I think Scorcese should stick to thrillers, not weird combinations of thriller/horror/Hitchcock ripoffs. This film really reminded me of Memento or Identity, but it was only half as good and completely stupefying, which is saying something for the quality of Identity, which was a piece of shit.

I’m not sure where to start with this one, but let me start with the first scene, which was shot on a (fake) boat. One of Scorsese’s major problems is that he can’t give a scene any direction. There’s a serious lack of movement in this film, and the first scene gives us a clear indication of what’s to come: DiCaprio looking moody and making faces and Mark Ruffalo saying “Boss” every thirty seconds. There’s no reason for anything. Even the CGI was horrendous, and in a scene that lasted at least a minute but felt like five, it looked ridiculous, like someone tried to photoshop a gray sky onto the green screen behind the actors.

It only gets worse from there. I don’t understand why Laeta Kalogridis keeps getting screenwriting gigs. Does anyone remember Alexander or Nightwatch? Actually Bekmambetov did a little for Nightwatch to rescue it from total oblivion, but I still don’t get why Kalogridis still gets jobs.

Everything is completely overdone, so much so that this thriller actually had people laughing when they should have been terrified or intrigued. The cinematography is good but nothing to brag about. I’d say it gets the job done, but compare this film to the cinematography in The Shining and Zodiac, or even Public Enemies, and you will see exactly what I mean.

Scorsese reminds me of the writer who tries to prove that he’s a writer: everything is adverbs and modifiers, no good verbs. There are so many atmospherics that you lose the point of the story. Apply that to directing, and you get my point.

I have to give it to the cast. DiCaprio doesn’t suck as much as I expected. Max von Sydow and Ben Kingsley are worth watching, even if their lines are completely nonsensical. I think it takes talent to read a shitty line and make it sound halfway plausible, and both of these actors have that excellent talent. Michelle Williams, on the other hand, could have had 90% of her scenes cut and I wouldn’t have cared. She brings nothing to this film except some poorly delivered bitchy lines. Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Elias Koteas, and especially John Carroll Lynch are wasted in this production. If you watch Zodiac, John Carroll Lynch is fucking terrifying. Here, he just looks like a fucking annoying teddy bear. Place him in the scene, watch him look awkward. As for Koteas – I think he’s outlived his “creepy guy” typecasting. Now he’s just that guy that we instantly recognize as being creepy. He’s not really acting, he’s just playing himself playing the creepy guy.

For some reason, Mark Ruffalo was also completely disposable. In general, I felt nothing for any of the characters.

I kept hoping that the ending would be interesting, but it was just another cliché. I do believe that DiCaprio made the best of it though. He actually made me feel something in one of the scenes, which was surprising. Too bad it took two hours to get to that scene.

There’s some absurd shit in this film: two days after a hurricane blows trees all over the place, the hospital looks as if nothing happened. DiCaprio manages to scale a two hundred foot cliff in fifteen seconds. Scorsese shows Holocaust victims, then replays the scene, replacing one particular victim with a woman (who is not even Jewish and completely unrelated to the scene) who comes alive. Only one word for that last one: tacky.

And, if you haven’t been completely turned off or bored by what happens or doesn’t happen in the film, how about some historical accuracy? When Scorsese shows American GIs liberating Dachau (that’s in Germany, people) during another irrelevant backstory scene, the sign on top of the gate, the sign we all know and abhor, says “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work sets you free.” Do you know what’s wrong with that picture?

That sign is from Auschwitz, which is in Poland.

I actually had a good time with Hang, though. Thanks Hang!

The Vicious Circle

Been working on some short fiction and an essay about dreams. Looking forward to finishing both and getting through 2666. I’m a little over a third of the way through, and like I said before, it is an amazing novel.

It’s funny how much you learn as a writer from reading great writers. I think I’ve learned more about style in the last six months than I did in workshop. I saw someone in a Goodreads book review mention how sentences don’t really matter in novels, and I think that’s pretty true. When you have thousands of sentences, each one really doesn’t matter much. I mean, if your sentences are terrible ala Elizabeth Wurtzel, then yeah, you need to work on that. But if you’ve got the sentences under control, writing a novel, from that technical standpoint, is pretty simple. At least for Bolaño!

Have to get to sleep so I can get up early-ish and go to the beach with Hang.

Atwood on writing

Margaret Atwood gives The UK Guardian ten rules for writers, and here is number eight:

“You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.”

Starting the count

I remember how I used to count the days since I’d spoken to J. I think I finished at two hundred before I realized I didn’t need to count anymore. I started doing that with S, but it doesn’t seem to matter at all. For the record, it’s been nine, but there’s no feeling of loss, just freedom.

I started Bolaño’s 2666. Everything that he did well in The Savage Detectives he does better in 2666. I’m amazed at how his writing improved, became subtler and at once more sure of itself, so that there’s less glibness and more certainty. I’m on part three of five, and am continuously impressed by the implicit connections he makes throughout. It’s also interesting to note that now that I know how to read him, reading him has become more enjoyable. It’s as if The Savage Detectives was a test run for the masterpiece of 2666.

The Savage Detectives

For me, The Savage Detectives marks the rejuvenation of fiction. Lately, I’ve needed a kick to start certain novels. With Bolaño, the urge to read his work had been building for almost two years. I started The Savage Detectives in late 2008 but could not get into it due to time constraints. I had heard great things about both The Savage Detectives and the forthcoming (at the time) 2666, apparently Bolaño’s masterwork. I think what really influenced me was the title, and the history surrounding Bolaño, who died of liver cirrhosis in 2003 and had been an itinerant for most of his life.

I picked up the novel again at the end of January and finished it five days ago. Reading Bolaño, at least in TSD, is like reading an encyclopedia of poetic and philosophical references, mostly to Latin American poets, but also to such varied artists as Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 plays an important role in the second part of the novel), Khlebnikov (there’s a hilarious rejoinder from a certain narrator as to the type of person he was), and everywhere in between. If you want to learn about Latin American poetry, TSD is the novel for you.

In the introduction, Natasha Wimmer (the amazing translator) tells a funny joke about Bolaño and his best friend Mario Santiago, who had a habit of attending readings by better known poets and disrupting them with shouts and insults. Apparently, someone in Mexico City scrawled “Bolaño, go back to Santiago and take Santiago with you” on a wall, referencing both Bolaño’s Chilean roots and his friend Santiago. In the novel, Bolaño plays with this by making Santiago into Lima (the capital of Peru).

The Savage Detectives is broken down into three parts. The first is narrated by 17-year-old Juan García Madero, an aspiring poet and virgin. This is the funniest and most interesting part of the novel until you get to the end, mainly because it contains one very developed narrator. It is a bit over 100 pages long. In this part, we are introduced to the characters of Roberto Belano (based on Bolaño himself), and Ulises Lima (based on Mario Santiago), two poets who found the group known as visceral realists. This part is written in the form of a diary, with pitch perfect tone. García Madero is obsessed with both sex and poetry and has an encyclopedic knowledge of poetic forms and terms. He is invited to join the visceral realists, who are a ragtag group of poets who are also literary thieves, going into bookstores to take books by the poets they love. Ironically, it is implied that some of the visceral realists can’t even read. García Madero has all sorts of sexual adventures (he isn’t a virgin for long) and the rest of the cast of characters is introduced.

Part two is a polyphonic narrative which features more than forty narrators and spans twenty years, from 1976 to 1996. This section is approximately 400 pages long and I think that herein lies Bolaño’s achievement. One narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, is the constant presence that punctuates a mix of interlinked character interviews. Salvatierra describes the day Belano and Lima come to see him about a woman named Cesárea Tinajero, the original founder of the visceral realists in the 1920s, who has disappeared in the Sonoran desert. Between Salvatierra’s infrequent narrations lies a yearly account of what happens to many different people who have interacted with Belano and Lima, or sometimes have not even met them. Most readers who didn’t finish the novel dropped it here, and I can understand why. One of the Salvatierra sections features a three page list of the names of contributors to a certain literary magazine. Unless you’ve studied Latin American and European literature, you will know almost none of the references, but it doesn’t matter. It is Bolaño’s requisite talent at showing off that is exhibited within most of the novel, and the list is no exception.

Of particular concern, importance, and interest are sections such as: a young man has an affair with another man named Luscious Skin, who is later shot in the face; a particularly aggravating yet hilarious and touching section features a lawyer-turned-poet who tells the story of starting his own literary magazine while he references Latin phrases in every sentence; a man describes how he won millions of pesetas after walking the streets of Barcelona and having hallucinations of numbers; in perhaps the most heartbreaking section, a possibly mentally retarded man named Heimito Kunst describes his exploits with Ulises Lima in Jerusalem and Vienna. Heimito’s narrative is probably my favorite and includes lines like “we followed a man to a park, where I punched him in the neck and the head and Lima took his money.” Another excellent section describes Belano’s absurd decision to challenge a critic who has yet to review his new book to a duel with swords because that critic had given a poor review to another writer.

The novel is full of movement. Belano and Lima travel to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, often turning up in incomprehensible situations. We hear from lovers and friends and enemies and random people who only show up once but tell their stories in great detail. There is a sense of both joy and melancholy in their telling, which inevitably ends the same way: “I never saw him again.” There isn’t really a narrative here, at least not an obvious one. Everything is revealed through gradations of exposition.

Part three returns to García Madero and finishes back in 1976. There’s a wonderful section in which García Madero is quizzing Belano, Lima, and a hooker named Lupe on poetic terms, one of which stands out in importance: “What is an epicede?” he asks. When no one answers, he states, “an elegy recited in the presence of the dead.”

Bolaño’s knowledge of poetry is evident on every page of The Savage Detectives. His talent for creating unique voices I consider inimitable, and the way in which he lays out the narrative is incredible. Yes, the second section becomes difficult because some parts seem irrelevant. Yes, you will get tired of not knowing what Bolaño is talking about. Yes, you will want to go back to García Madero’s exuberant, sex-filled narrative, but stick with it.

One of the contrasts that struck me throughout the novel is the distinction between being a poet or a writer and wanting to be a writer. There are people who call themselves poets but know nothing about poetry, and there are people who know everything about poetry but are not considered poets, and this is the essential conflict in The Savage Detectives. What would you do to define yourself as an artist? How would you live your life in order to attain aesthetic purity?

In the end, we are left with more questions than answers, but The Savage Detectives redefines Latin American literature, taking it away from the influence of Marquez and, in a sense, moving it into the realm of legitimate postmodernism and postnationalism.

I think this is one of the most worthwhile novels I’ve read in the past ten years. I urge you to consider it.

Canada

I’m in the process of figuring out whether I can apply to Concordia University’s English MA (with creative writing focus) so that I can get Canadian residency upon graduation. I found out two days ago that Quebec is offering residency + a fast track to Canadian citizenship for any student who graduates from a Québécois university. I totally would not mind moving to Montreal if it meant I could live my life with much more freedom and dignity.

I just sent an email to one of the assistants at the English department to find out if I should apply by the April 1st deadline (without fellowship offers) and then possibly defer for a year, or if I should apply in December (with fellowship offers). I also have no idea if they even accept nonfiction candidates, but it seems as if they might not. I don’t have a 35 page fiction portfolio and I doubt I could churn one out in the two weeks I would have to submit my work to professors for letters of recommendation.

If it turns out I should apply right now, then I will be traveling to Berkeley for a couple of days to get transcripts and speak to professors (i.e. beg for letters). I don’t think Concordia would be very happy with two-year-old letters of recommendation.

I love Montreal. I love Canada. I’m tired of sitting around, wasting my life, while some bureaucracy shuffles through the motions of attempting immigration reform and ultimately falls flat on its back.

If I apply in April and somehow manage to figure out financial stuff, I could be out of here by September.

There are many things to think about, such as whether I want to leave the United States and never return, but for now, I’m more concerned with logistics.

Spring contests & Roberto Bolaño

Fourth Genre: Explorations in NonfictionMichael Steinberg Essay Prize

Nonfiction up to 6,000 words. Postmark deadline is the 28th of this month.

2010 Gulf Coast Prizes in Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction

25 page maximum for stories and essays. 10 page maximum for poetry. Postmark/Online deadline is March 1st.

Narrative Magazine Winter 2010 Story Contest

15,000 word limit. Online submission deadline is March 31st.

All three of these seem really interesting. I’m planning a triptych of essays on perspective, so if I finish, I can send one to each contest. Good luck to you if you plan to submit. If anyone wants to exchange manuscripts, I would love to get some feedback in the next couple of weeks. I need to get back into the writing routine.

I’m halfway through Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” and I am in love with this novel. The polyphonic structure of the second part is incredible, and even though I do not know even a quarter of the poetry references, this novel has been a huge learning experience. I highly recommend it to anyone. It’s tough in some chapters, but it just keeps building and building, so it’s worth it in the end.

Oh yeah, I just got a year’s subscription to Zyzzyva, so I’m looking forward to the spring issue with Jackson’s story.

Sundance wrap up

Yes, this post should have been written a week ago, but I’ve just been too emotionally exhausted to do any thinking about anything.

I saw just one other film besides “Restrepo” at Sundance. It was called “Double Take,” and you can see its IMDB page here. It was an interesting mashup of original and archive footage, a Hitchcockian thriller as well as a history lesson on the Cold War. I highly recommend it if you ever see it on DVD.

I didn’t get to see any other films, mainly because I couldn’t bother to stand in another waitlist line after we stood for an hour in a room packed with five hundred people and no air to see Hesher, which we ultimately could not get tickets too. It was also snowing for most of the time we were there, and while it’s a beautiful thing to see snow again, I did not relish standing outside in the cold to wait for tickets.

So, that said, if you’re rich you’ll probably enjoy Sundance enormously. If you’re the average person with an interest in good films but can’t afford to buy the tickets, you will probably be wasting your time, unless you’re with some beautiful women who can get you into all the parties. Needless to say, I didn’t get into any parties. But I was also with my parents, and there was no feasible way to go anywhere without a car.

All in all, I enjoyed Sundance and would definitely go again to see some really good films, as long as I had tickets.

Revelations

I don’t know how to approach this except to say that despite my best efforts, or perhaps in concert with them, life has become entirely too complicated. I didn’t know that meeting one person could cause such dire emotional conflict. Then again, I’m entirely too attuned to other people’s emotions. I empathize too much, especially when I deeply care for someone.

I’ve met the person I never wanted to meet, the one who is so completely different. I know I shouldn’t wait for things to settle down. I just realize that sometimes you have to wait a bit to see the situation clearly before you can take any action.

I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still waiting, even as it becomes ever clearer that the person I met two months ago is a superb liar who lies not only to herself but to other people indiscriminately.

And still I continue to ignore the advice of my friends, who know me very well, who know my tendency to fall for people who will never return the favor, not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.