Tuesday, September 22, 2009


After starting and quickly abandoning The Savage Detectives a few months ago, I had an intimation that I would be returning to the book in the near future... Well, the near future is now. I gave it another chance, and I'm very glad I did. This is one of those rare novels that after a rather unpromising beginning progressively improves until it eventually touches greatness. And even the opening section impressed me more on this reading. The first 140 pages didn't impress me enormously (my mind remained unblown), but they were good enough to keep me reading--as good as they needed to be. This time I can see beyond the lazy diary form of the first section and enjoy Juan Garcia Madero's naive and unreliable narration (an unreliability signaled by his literally incredible sexual athletics) and the mysterious, apparition-like entrances of Arturo Belano (obvious authorial stand-in) and Ulises Lima, the leaders of the obscure (but not entirely fictional) 'visceral realist' poetry movement in 1970s Mexico City. Their enigmatic appearances in Garcia Madero's narrative prepare us for the roles they will play throughout the book: never speaking directly but always spoken about, always seen obliquely through the distorting lenses of others' eyes and minds and often enveloped in a weedy haze. Bolano's sex scenes in this first section are also good, and their range--from comic to horrific--is impressive. But the novel doesn't really take off until its four central characters climb into a Chevy Impala and flee Mexico City for the dubious haven of the Sonoran desert. At that point, the first section abruptly ends, the narrative breaks, and the novelistic form radically explodes into a long, 450-page collection of monologue fragments in which multiple narrators, most of whom are extremely minor characters, recount various stories of the lives and wanderings of Belano, Lima and the other visceral realists. The form is successfully entropic--a rare achievement--as it negotiates an original pathway between the Scylla and Charybdis of traditional coherence and postmodern fragmentation. This section is the novel's heart and Bolano's triumph, as impressive as his nearly perfect novella By Night in Chile. The various voices--sentimental, bitter, bitchy, pompous, angry, enigmatic, uncomprehending--sound out against each other in cacophonous chorus, recounting the litany of failures and temporary stays against failure that constitute the characters' lives after the collapse of their movement. As I read, I was reminded repeatedly of Flaubert's Sentimental Education and began to see The Savage Detectives as a contemporary Mexican Sentimental Education and the long second section as a gigantic expansion upon the famous "He travelled..." passage in which Flaubert glosses over the years of Frederic Moreau's aimless and disappointed wanderings. This is a Sentimental Education focusing on what happens after the dreams collapse: the life of flight and poverty on the margins of our globalized world.

"Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy," says Bolano's fictional critic (and Arturo Belano's dueling opponent) Inaki Echeverne, and the novel bears out this pronouncement even as it attempts to dilute it with self-protective irony. The chapter that contains this line, one of the book's very best sections, ends with a tale told by the Chilean Arturo Belano, a tale of two writers, one Peruvian and the other Cuban (unnamed but clearly Reinaldo Arenas), both of whom suffer equal but opposite forms of ideological attack. At the story's end, Bolano's Chilean listener tells him "You and I are Chilean...and none of this is our fault," thus completely missing the point of Belano's tale and reaffirming his own sense of ideological purity, a sentimental leftist illusion of purity born (irony of ironies) in the destruction of the Chilean left at the hands of Pinochet. Scenes like this, and especially the brilliantly hellish Liberian episode near the section's end, ultimately lift the book beyond the level of comic literary roman a clef to an examination of the tragedy that life has become in the modern world. This is post-magic realist, anti-utopian dissident fiction, and it's marvelous.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: SELECTED LETTERS 1917-1961 edited by Carlos Baker

One of the rare highpoints in Hemingway's published correspondence is his 28 May 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously, But when you get the damned hurt use it--don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist--but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you."

That's the most often quoted passage, but there's equally good stuff in the rest of the letter (written on the occasion of Hemingway's reading of Tender is the Night, about which he says, with typical helpfulness, "I liked it and I didn't like it").

"...good writers always come back. Always." Thus spake Hemingthustra. This is demonstrably untrue, but it's interesting that Hemingway needs to believe this. It tells us more about Hem than Scott.

"You see, Bo [Hem's nickname for Scott], you're not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write." The good common sense of that last sentence is cruelly negated by the abysmal character judgments in the other two. Within ten years of the letter, Fitzgerald would drink himself to death; Hemingway, on the other hand, would commit suicide the way a character in The Sun Also Rises went bankrupt: gradually at first, and then suddenly. But again, it's telling that Hemingway needs to believe this about himself.

"Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best--make it all up--but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way." I especially like this one. It reminds me of a story Hemingway surely knew: when someone remarked to Picasso that Gertrude Stein looked nothing like his portrait of her, Picasso replied, "She will."

"Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises."

"You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, Bo, and they have all these other acrobats who won't jump."

And then Hem's attempt at friendship-saving irony: "Jesus its marvelous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc."

I also like the way Hemingway's pen/mind slips twice and he writes 'right' for 'write.' The same thing happens to me whenever I right about righting.

WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer, The Yiddish Policemen's Union earned reams of good reviews, but in my opinion Wonder Boys remains Michael Chabon's best book. It's one of the most purely enjoyable American novels of the past 20 years, and in terms of craft it's a novelistic masterpiece: the first 80 pages are a textbook example of how to complicate a narrative, and the remainder is a master class in the inventive extension and ultimate resolution of those complications. That said, this is no groundbreaking, mind-blowing work of literature, no Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses, nor is it meant to be. Rather, and no less impressively, it's a masterful work of 'traditional' narrative craftsmanship, as well-written and expertly constructed as any of the novels in Philip Roth's 'American trilogy.' It's a book that engages not only on the macro level of novelistic structure, the pleasure of watching a writer successfully juggling a host of characters and situations, keeping them all in the air, and bringing them to a fitting denouement, but also at the micro level of sentence and image. Chabon's comic metaphors rarely misfire and are sometimes painfully apt (e.g. Tripp comparing his bearlike self and a young student to Picasso's blind minotaur being led by an angelic girl). And at a level somewhere between the macro and micro, Wonder Boys offers a plenitude of surprising local pleasures. The brief tale of the washed-up writer Joe Fahey, who waves a loaded gun at his writing students to instruct them in fear, is an example that comes immediately to mind. But enough praise. We don't really do a novel justice until we can see where it fails, where its ostensible intentions break apart and other, perhaps unintended, meanings peek through. Where does Wonder Boys fail? What are its weaknesses? One is immediately apparent: This novel narrated by that pseudo-Faulknerian novelist Grady Tripp is, like all of Tripp's other works, excessively 'male.' Chabon/Tripp's women--even the most complex of them, Sara Gaskell--don't rise far above the role of detachable male appendage and object of desire. Also, I doubt that Chabon fully considered all the implications of the novel's consistent depictions of adult male happiness as a regression to adolescence and a flight from the feminine: Irving Warshaw's spring house, James Leer's basement, Tripp's endless and apparently rather juvenile Wonder Boys manuscript, Terry Crabtree's life. By novel's end Tripp seems to have broken out of this regressive trap, but such a reading is undermined by indications that his new life is even more deeply regressive: he has returned to his childhood home, accompanied by the only maternal figure among the major characters. The ending is sentimental, matrimonial, classically comedic, but it remains haunted by the old unrest and self-loathing that eat at Tripp's matricidal heart.

It might also be interesting to consider this theme of male regression with respect to the shape of Chabon's career to date. Beginning with an impressive Fitzgeraldian debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he fulfilled most of its promises with Wonder Boys. But then something strange happened. Instead of continuing along this path and sharpening and polishing his literary chops, Chabon flew off on a series of tangents, writing the kinds of books and stories that minor characters in Wonder Boys might have written. It has been a disappointingly unoriginal, regressive course, from the MGM 1940s comic book world of Kavalier to the alternative history / detective noir pastiche of Yiddish Policemen's Union and so forth. It is as though Chabon has entered his own novel and become several of his characters--a fate that Wonder Boys recognizes as an occupational hazard. But Chabon is still relatively young, he still has talent to burn, and there's still a chance that he'll return to comic realism and write the great novel that's still inside him.

A couple more random thoughts:

Grady Tripp is not a standard unreliable narrator; he's an accurate, lucid narrator stoned into unreliability--Chabon's clever method of showing us the effects of the various drugs Tripp ingests.

Another thing that impresses me about this book is the wisdom of its reflections on writers and writing, on writerly self-loathing and self-destruction, alcoholism, the "midnight disease," and on the most perverse thing in the world: the unaccountable attraction of it all.