Theories of movement

I’ve been living in San Francisco for almost two weeks now and I like the climate changes that occur when you go downtown. It’s always foggy and cold in the outlying districts and sunny and warm in the financial district, which can sometimes be surprising when you look out your window and it’s misting but when you get downtown you see people wearing shorts.

M and I have been spending a lot of time doing pretty much nothing but eating. I feel a little bit like a kid around her. She listens to disco music in the car and I don’t mind.

I picked up Nam Le’s “The Boat” a couple of days ago. Despite the glowing reviews it received when it was published two years ago, I’m left slightly disappointed after the first three stories. There’s no doubt that Le has talent – his lyricism is impressive. I have problems with the subject matter, especially the teenage assassin in Medellin. That story feels like a way to showcase Le’s ventriloquism, a cheap trick.

Besides his awkward attempts at proving that he’s a capable writer, Le seems to have no idea of how to finish a story. No matter how moving some of these stories are, the endings are too open. What happened to having a strong conclusion? Maybe the rest of the stories will redeem this collection.

Has anyone been watching the World Cup?

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.

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.

Reading “The Corrections”

There are few works that have caused as much of an uproar in the last ten years as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” I would mention Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” as one of the few game changers in literary work during the last decade, and Franzen would certainly be on that list as well.

Is “The Corrections” the novel of the decade? I wouldn’t say so. Is it a novel I would hope to read again in ten years without disappointment? I sure hope so.

Part of the beauty of Franzen’s work is the utter confidence with which he moves you through the narrative. If you go to the bookstore to check out the book, I urge you to read page eleven. I can’t really replicate it here because it’s a page-long sentence, but trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this novel.

Saying that “The Corrections” is about family is like saying “Disgrace” is about a college professor. Franzen’s epic is more about expectations, parenting, decline and death, and what it takes to really love someone. He also kind of skews the familiar tale of the couple who have been happily married for almost fifty years.

There’s some random shit here, but it all works in concert to make something extraordinary. My only complaint is that the end, while it gives us wonderful closure for Alfred, Enid, and Chip, I felt like Denise and Gary get left behind in the dust of rushing through to the end. It’s not a big complaint, particularly because the novel really is about Alfred/Enid, but if I had an opportunity to see a different version of the end, I would have liked more info about Denise in particular.

Definitely a novel that is worth your time.

Hemingway

I’ve been reading Hemingway again, the short stories in particular. When I was a kid, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was one of my favorite novels. I must have read it three or four times before I finally moved on. I’m not sure why I stopped reading Hemingway. I read “A Farewell to Arms” but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and that ended my interest. In high school, I read some sort of writing book in which he was cited. His advice was to cut down the sentence to nothing. I kind of wish I knew which textbook it was that we read. I distinctly remember it being in an AP Language and Literature class during my junior year, but I could be mistaken.

For some reason, his advice stayed with me. I suppose this was mostly because I had loved “For Whom the Bell Tolls” so much, and revered him for a time.

The story that stays with me now is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as well as “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In each of these stories, there’s a wonderful sense of tension that is not necessarily resolved. I think Hemingway’s talent is letting the story end without making it end. So many modern stories have an ending instead of being open ended, which takes something away. You can’t often really say what Hemingway’s stories are about, which is what makes him so great to read.

Happy holidays.

“The Blind Assassin” – further discussion

I realized just now that I did not do a very good job of reviewing the book, so I’ll add a few more thoughts here.

As I said in a comment, I think that this novel differs from Coetzee’s “Disgrace” not only in subject matter, but in the way Atwood deals with plot and action. Everything that happens in “The Blind Assassin” has already happened. Iris is writing about the past. In this way, it is an extraordinary work because it redefines the reader’s idea of truth.

Atwood doesn’t use plot to propel the novel. In some novels, there’s conflict after conflict, and yet in this novel, I believe that there are very few actual conflicts, apart from the conflict of the truth. Basically, all the major plot takes place in the first 100 pages of the novel, if not the first 50, or the 1st page itself. The rest of the novel is concerned with showing the reader that the truth cannot be trusted. There are two different stories to everything.

Because of this subtle difference in structure, the novel drags a bit. There is nothing to move it forward, apart from Atwood’s deliberate choice to subtly delineate the differences in the two truths we find. The novel-within-a-novel provides imaginary plot that does help ease the dull progression of the first 300 pages. After you start to realize what’s actually happening, the novel becomes much more interesting. You start to make connections; you start to think.

A review: Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

I’ve been reading Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” for several weeks now. It’s almost as long as Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” but except for its length, has nothing in common with that novel. I must say that it is one of the most astoundingly crafted novels in recent memory. It won the Booker Prize in 2000, the year after J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” won, and I believe that the committee made a fantastic decision with this one.

The novel concerns Iris Chase, the daughter of a Canadian industrialist who inherited a fortune by way of button factories. Iris has a sister named Laura who dies at the age of 25, leaving behind a science fiction novel titled “The Blind Assassin.” In fact, the first sentence of Atwood’s novel is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

The novel quickly moves from Iris’ autobiography, written in the present, when she is 85 years old, to excerpts of Laura’s novel, a story of a man and a woman who are having an affair. The interspersed narrative voices and historical details combine to create a rich image of pre- and postwar Canada.

Atwood’s structure is perfect. She begins with facts – newspaper clippings inserted into the narrative to give the reader concrete details about what happened. Somehow, though, the novel shows that the truth is completely subjective. As you read the novel, details are introduced in such subtle ways that it seems as though you already knew them.

I don’t know how Atwood wrote this. It is so tightly plotted that it isn’t just a matter of placing certain events in a certain order; it is the difference between saying that something happened, and giving the reader the ability to read between the lines. Halfway through the novel, I knew what happened at the end. The clues are all there. In this regard, the title is absolute genius. It gives you everything.

I think the biggest criticism of this novel is also its strongest point: I hate Iris. The novel shows her to be a naive, weak-willed individual who destroys everything she loves through inaction. She does not change at the end of the novel. She is frustrating and I think Atwood wrote her specifically to show the futility of doing nothing. I think this is a work of social criticism.

Junot Diaz reinvigorates literary fiction

I picked up Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” today, after waiting to read it for at least six months. Let me tell you right now that it was worth the wait. After Murakami’s “..Wind-Up..” I felt lost for what to read next. I needed something accessible yet literary. I tried Sedaris, but his collection was disappointing. I tried Faulkner, but I’m not ready for his style of stream-of-consciousness right now.

Diaz is spectacular for several reasons. The first, and in my opinion the most important, is that the writing is confident. I’m going to spoil the novel a bit for you and say that the narrator is not the author, though at first it seems like he is. I can’t tell you who the narrator is, but the asides (in footnotes), are amazing. This novel reads like an encyclopedia for nerds. What’s most interesting is that the narrator sympathizes with Oscar, and like Oscar, is a nerd in his/her own right. There’s a wonderfully compassionate tone to the writing, even when it describes Oscar’s trials and tribulations as the fat loser. It’s a beautiful meditation on what it means to be both an immigrant and an outcast.

The second reason I like this novel is the constant references to what the narrator calls “the Genres,” aka geek culture. For anyone who was ever slightly unpopular, uncool, or flat out lonely in the early years of school, this novel strikes a chord.

The third reason is that throughout all this, Diaz manages to instill the work with a focus on the political and historical aspects of immigrant life, especially that of Dominican immigrants.

The fourth and most obvious reason is that the title is superb.

There’s so much unbridled energy throughout this work that it made me want to go home and write. The novel instills confidence. It reminds me of reading Nabokov, though reading Nabokov never instills confidence.

If I were to describe this novel in one word, that word would be “raucous.”

I got about a third of the way through today. I’ll write more after I finish in the next couple of days.

Literary Fiction

52 Faces suggested that she doesn’t like “literary fiction” and hates literary magazines and short stories, as well as MFA writing. I have to say that in some respects, I disagree. While I may not be impressed with this year’s StorySouth Million Writers Award nominees, largely because all of these stories are pretty boring, even if they are good, I think there are some amazing short stories out there. As for the StorySouth selections, I don’t see the point of several of them, such as Steinur Bell’s “The Whale Hunter,” and Nadia Bulkin’s (a very Russian name) “Intertropical Convergence Zone.” After finishing these two, I didn’t feel inspired or interested in what I just read. In contrast, reading Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a constant reminder of the power of the short story. In 4 pages, he creates something incredible. Nabokov also creates something amazing in “That in Aleppo Once…”.

To address the issue of MFA writing: it’s been said by many people, so I don’t recall whom I’m quoting, that people who get an MFA end up publishing stories that are structurally sound, but boring. They’re all the same. That may be true, but there are writers who have completed their MFAs who are amazing. John Irving is one of them. Michael Chabon is another. Maybe they are exceptions, because there are many many writers out there who have MFA degrees and are struggling to publish, or are published but not renowned. These people may be the ones who are talked about as structurally sound but boring. I don’t know. All I know is that I applied to MFA programs so that I could meet other writers and write for 2 years. I didn’t apply to MFA programs for the degree or the prestige (I mean the cachet one gets in the teaching industry from graduating from a place like Iowa).

Yes, most of the fiction I’ve read in literary magazines lately has been dull.