Genius. It is the most grotesquely overused word in the English language. Bill Gates is a genius; Taylor Swift is a genius; Steven Spielberg is a genius; Eminem is a genius; Thomas Kinkade was a genius; even, gods help us, Dan Brown has been called a genius. It should not be necessary to point out that none of these people is a genius. They are, respectively, a shrewd and ruthless businessman, a sexy pop musician, a technically accomplished filmmaker, a successful rapper, a painter of crap, and a talentless hack. The word 'genius' in American English has become synonymous with wealth and fame. (Gore Vidal observed this phenomenon long ago when he called Andy Warhol "the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60.") Real geniuses are rarer than sunbathers in Point Barrow. They are rarer than gold, and many times more valuable. When we recognize true genius, when we feel its power and learn to love it, we hold it to our hearts until its rhythms become the beating of our blood. And when genius dies, we feel the loss like a wavelength of color suddenly removed from the spectrum. Yesterday we saw the full Roy G. Biv, but today the tropical green has gone away.
Yesterday we lost the maker of Macondo. The final, fatal whirlwind spun invisibly through the noise and smoke of Mexico City and plucked Gabriel Garcia Marquez out of life. So it goes (as one of his gringo contemporaries might have said). The indescribable color that yesterday disappeared from our spectrum was the sign and signature of true genius. Like Kafka and Faulkner, his two most important influences, Gabo produced works that were so powerfully and stunningly original, and yet so uncannily familiar, that they held us enthralled from first line to last and blew our minds a hundred times along the winding road to that final heartbreaking period. Like Picasso and Pollock, like Sebald and Cervantes, he created works that were so shockingly new we didn't have words for them yet, and to indicate them it was necessary to point. Like all the great geniuses of art, Gabo outran our critical clichés. He sped out ahead of us and left our minds gasping in his sweetly-scented Colombian dust. 'Magic realism' is the pigeonhole critics constructed for Gabo, but I prefer to think of One Hundred Years of Solitude in the context of its time. It is a great--probably the greatest--novel of the Sixties. And as such, it is yet another answer, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Slaughterhouse Five and The Joke and The Armies of the Night and Portnoy's Complaint, to the ignorant neoconservative charge that the Sixties produced no great novels. Yes, Cien Anos de Soledad is the greatest novel of the Sixties, and if you think you remember it, you probably need to read it again. Gabo's great novel is the history of Colombia as marijuana dream, historical materialism as acid trip; it's a hallucinatory experience, and it should ideally be read while Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced plays softly in the background. Likewise, Gabo's second masterpiece, The Autumn of the Patriarch, is one of the great novels of the Seventies and should be read to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Gabo's impossibly long sentences are like flamboyant guitar solos flying all the way to Kashmir before returning, at long last, to the novelistic melody. He was a writer of and for his times, and to ignore the times is to ignore the substance of his works. As an artist and public figure, Garcia Marquez was as politically engaged as Jean-Paul Sartre, but unlike Sartre or Toni Morrison or any number of engage writers, he wrote politically engaged fiction that was so artistically brilliant it never felt programmatic--and he achieved this almost unprecedented feat with an apparent effortlessness that never fails to astonish me. This illusion of effortlessness is a good note to end upon, for it's one of the defining characteristics of Gabo's singular genius. His best works are profound, poetic, intelligent, technically masterful, and as elaborate as baroque cathedrals, but when we read them, they seem to have been composed as naturally as breathing. Gabo's sentences seem not so much written as exhaled. They seem to have been discovered rather than created. Did a human being actually write the first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude? Did an actual human man with a scratchy mustache and intestinal gas and bowel movements actually sit at a typewriter and pound out those sentences, one letter at a time, pausing at the end of each line to return the carriage? Yes. Yes, he did. Goodbye, Gabo, and good luck to the rest of us.
(A Crazy Afterthought: Surely I'm not the only one who sees something suspiciously Garciamarquesan in the timing of Gabo's death. He died the day before Good Friday, so the third day after his death will be Easter, the day of resurrection. I have a vision of Gabo climbing out of his coffin Sunday morning with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a big burrito Jalisco in the other and shouting to the assembled mourners, "This death shit is for assholes like Pinochet. Let's party!" It won't happen, but it's good advice nonetheless.)