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.

What I’m looking forward to this morning

I hope you enjoy your new year’s parties. I’m off to Berkeley this morning. I won’t be posting any updates until I return on the 9th.

I’ve been thinking about all the things I’m looking forward to on my short trip this morning. Here are a few:

I bought Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections,” along with David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” and I hope to read either one or both of these novels on the trip. There’s going to be lots of dead travel time on buses and trains and an hour on the plane. I decided that I should finally buy some books, and so I did, starting with “Never Let Me Go.” I’ll be doing a lot of reading this week.

I get to see my friends and engage in lots of random activities.

I’m going back to Berkeley to not only see friends, but to hopefully see a professor of mine who greatly supported and inspired me in my writing during my time at Cal. I owe him lunch and I think I owe it to him to tell him what has happened to my writing during the last six months. That should be an interesting story.

I get to leave Los Angeles for more than three days, which is an enormous pleasure for me. I hope to leave here permanently by the end of 2010.

I get to meet a new person. Thanks N, I look forward to meeting another writer.

I’m also going back to a cafe I used to frequent, where I spent time reading and writing. It’s one of my favorite places.

I suppose that’s a good list for now. When I get back, more interesting stories will be told. I should mention that I’m slightly nervous about flying and the associated dread it brings with regard to identification and security. Hopefully nothing will happen. I do have the advantage of being a white male whom no one considers dangerous or suspicious.

Kazuo Ishiguro – “Never Let Me Go”

“She said they revealed your soul.”
“Did someone think we didn’t have souls?”
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end, it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. […] But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.

I’m at a loss as to why Kazuo Ishiguro is not being read in English classes, at least not in any classes I’ve ever taken. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day,” which was later adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Three of his other novels, including “Never Let Me Go,” have been shortlisted for the Booker. It might be that he has a Japanese name (though he has actually lived in Britain since the age of 5) and, like Murakami, is deemed inaccessible or irrelevant by many American readers. Someone recently had this to say about an article featuring Ishiguro (the article was about how to write novels):

“Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed. I want to start reading him. No, not because reading Murakami is becoming passé! Stupidtrendbookwhores. Anyways, he writes his first draft by hand. Bad ass.”

It is sad that people are comparing Ishiguro and Murakami by virtue of their being Japanese. That’s like saying you should read Atwood instead of reading Munro (you know, since they’re both Canadian). Anyway, Ishiguro and Murakami have entirely different subject matters and styles, so there’s no comparison. For me, Ishiguro is the better writer, mostly because of the subtle ways in which he translates meaning and develops plot, kind of like Atwood.

“Never Let Me Go” is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It nearly beats out “Disgrace” as one of my favorites this year. Strangely enough, “Never Let Me Go” is on TIME Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, but “Disgrace” isn’t. I can’t quite understand that, but oh well.

What is “Never Let Me Go” about? I can’t tell you. The premise is so tied to the plot that the back cover, which attempts to disguise the novel, literally gives you the barest of threads:

“From Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss.

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules – and teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them so special – and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.”

Does that really tell you anything? No.

The novel is set in late 1990s England, though through flashbacks, Ishiguro moves the narration anywhere between the 60s and present time. The story is a coming of age saga revolving around three different kids: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy (the narrator). Kathy is a thirty one year old carer who takes care of donors. Don’t ask me to explain that one. She and Ruth and Tommy grew up at Hailsham, and the novel is separated into three parts: part one deals with their early years at Hailsham, part two moves us closer to the present, with their departure into the real world, and part three brings us to the present time, where all three are reunited for a brief moment.

To be absolutely blunt, “Never Let Me Go” is a dystopian novel, firmly balanced on the shoulders of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Orwell’s “1984.” At its heart, the novel questions what it means to be human and how we should live our lives. It is also a love story and a mystery with no ultimate revelation. If I were to give a major spoiler, I would say it is most like one of Jodi Picoult’s novels, but for the literary, intelligent reader.

Ishiguro’s talent is letting the reader know what his narrator and the rest of the characters don’t. We are simultaneously told and not told, just like the students, what is going on. Before we are halfway through the novel, before one of the minor characters reveals the nature of the students’ special nature, the reader already knows. The only question, then, is how will the characters find out, and what happens afterwards? Ishiguro is a master of subtlety, and it shows clearly at the end, when all the small clues illuminate the larger picture of what it means to be alive and to create and to love and to really live.

I think part one and part three are superb. Part two becomes tiring due to Ishiguro’s use of flashback and having the narrator announce that something is important and then explaining it. You have to read through this part in order to get to the heartbreaking and agonizing conclusion. And what a conclusion it is, what an absolutely despairing outlook on the reality of what we choose to do for other people.

A measure of a good writer is the title he or she chooses for the work. In this respect, Ishiguro, much like Atwood, has struck gold. The title plays to all aspects of the novel: the love story, the dystopia, the mystery.

If you also look at the cover, you’ll see a spoiler (sort of). The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan, who’s done some great work.

This is one of the few novels that has made me cry. These characters try to live their lives and ultimately do live them, but to what purpose? Theirs are not the kinds of lives you would wish to live.

Final note: I could spoil this novel with one word, but I won’t. Don’t read Amazon reviews for this novel, because you will lose a major part of what it is about, the fear and tension of not knowing what happens next.

Adjectives I would use to describe this novel: devastating, elegiac, hopeful, heartbreaking

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.