Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What I'm Reading

I've got a couple of books going right now, both of which are pretty deep. And though I'm reading them for different reasons, and started them at different times, there seem to be some interesting confluences. Both are deeply literary, by which I mean both seem intent to delve into the depths, not only of the human psyche, of the lived experience of being a person in a particular place and time, but also of history, as well, although in a more metaphorical than literal sense. And both seem to revolve around themes of alienation between the two.

First is Roberto Bolano's 2666. I have, thus far, only read three of the five novellas that comprise 2666, or about half of the total page count. There's a note in the beginning from Roberto Bolano's heirs to the effect that his plan had been to publish the five separately, so as to maximize the economic returns that his heirs would enjoy from his posthumously published work (he died in 2003). Having read them, though, they decided that the work was best served being published together in its entirety, a decision I applaud and am grateful for. As it is, my reading of this book has been staggered and interrupted enough. It's tricky stuff: easy enough to read in terms of the density of prose and meaning, but the cumulative effect is strangely overwhelming. But I'm halfway through and I'm just starting to understand (I think) what he's doing here, and I think if the books had been released separately that it would be more difficult to get that sense.

It may be that I'm writing this too early. After all, I have yet to begin Book 4: The Part About the Crimes, in which the murders of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa, the northern Mexican city that serves as the crux of the work will, presumably, be explored directly, rather than simply serving as a sort of background, as history does to life. But I feel as if I've gotten through enough to at least put down some preliminary thoughts.

Nearly all the protagonists, thus far, seem to have a few things in common:  they are people of letters, mostly literary critics and university types, with one journalist who writes for a specialty magazine; each seems to be only marginally in control, of themselves and their lives; and each is drawn, for very different reasons, to Santa Teresa, which lurks in the background almost menacingly as they live some portion of their lives there.

This seems, so far as I can tell from what I've read, to be the crux of the work. Not so much the story, because what Bolano seems to be doing here is not so much telling a story as telling many stories which, among and between them, seem to be tracing out something larger than a single story can tell. What that larger thing is has yet to really reveal itself, and seems as if it might take multiple readings to truly suss out (it took me four or five times to get Gravity's Rainbow, although each reading was rewarding in its way), but what seems to be coalescing from out of the myriad lives we're given a glimpse into is the tension between history as nature and the story of a particular life as it is lived by that person. In the first book, The Part About the Critics, each of the four protagonists is a devotee of the work of fictional German author Benno von Archimboldi, and though the currents in academe revolving around his work dominate their professional and, to some extent, personal lives, and they come to Santa Teresa in order to find him (he is, of course, very secretive, with no known photographs or address), their time there serves more as the setting for the resolution of their interpersonal entanglements than for their quest to meet their hero and professional benefactor.

In the first book, the murders barely penetrate, merely local color to the three who come to Santa Teresa seeking out Archimboldi. In fact, their quest seems, not even quixotic, but as if it barely matters, barely registers, though much of their lives is devoted to promoting and writing about Archimboldi's work.

In the second book, this alienation of the personal from the historical, even while being inescapably caught up in it, becomes even more pronounced. Amalfitano, the Chilean critic on the faculty at Santa Teresa's university, who appears as a minor character in The Part About the Critics, has come to Santa Teresa by way of Barcelona, almost by happenstance, and it is clear that he is only barely there, as if he is so disconnected to his life there that he is almost not living it. His sole concern is his daughter, Rosa, and keeping her safe. The murders lurk, still offstage, in that place that monsters in the forest primeval lurk, known but rarely spoken of.

The third book, The Part About Fate, involves an African-American journalist, whose mother has just died, on assignment to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa, because the magazine's sports writer has also just died. His disconnection is even more pronounced than any of the others'. He seems adrift, not unlike Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow, a particle among currents, that other particles latch onto as occasion arises, and who is pulled along in the wake of various events as if he has little in the way of a will of his own, at least until the end, when that will finally manifests and he manages to pull himself together and escape.

Thus far, it is this alienation that seems to be the underlying theme. There is place, a particular place with its history and its trajectory, its secrets and people, who live their lives just as everyone does, in tension between inner and outer, their own stories enmeshed in the larger currents of life and history around them. But the experience of place takes a backseat to the subjective particularities of each protagonist's particular life and story. Much as we each of us experience our lives as a single-thread narrative, even as the world continues around us, huge and ineffable and wondrous and horrifying, so too do Bolano's protagonists. One gets the sense that these larger currents are converging, as history often will. There is definitely a certain circling inward to the structure of the work, as if the thing in the middle, the thing we're supposed to see, must first have the space it occupies defined, woven around it so as to either bring it out into the light or place it on ground from which it can be seen. I haven't finished it, so I can't say for sure, but I am finding the journey of it rewarding.

In terms of the prose and the storytelling, this is clearly the work of a master. The words draw you in, especially in the first story. By the time you get to the second, the alienation is brought home to you as a reader, both by the device of switching protagonists and, indeed, stories, as well as by the Amalfitano's own alienation. By the time you get to Fate, the protagonist of the third book, you're nearly prepared, I think. But the important thing is that it does draw you in, that the prose itself is accessible, even when the subject matter would seem to be something you wouldn't care about (I feel this way reading Murakami, sometimes; I never thought I'd be so enthralled by somebody cooking dinner and looking for his lost cat). It's a testament to Bolano's craft as a writer that so much banality and everyday human drama can be so compelling, while in the background the tension builds, the haunting sense of impending horror hanging over everything slowly revealing itself. I'm looking forward to seeing how it resolves.

It's with some embarassment that I admit this is the first book by Samuel Delaney that I've read. For someone like me, who's been reading science fiction so assiduously for most of my adolescence and adulthood, to have missed out on the work of one of the accepted masters of the genre is a bit glaring of an omission. Chalk it up to my contrarian streak.

I'd heard of Dhalgren, of course. It's difficult not to have, unless you're reading in a vacuum (that may or may not have been a science fiction joke). I knew it was considered one of his seminal works, one of those books that everybody'd already read and that was recognized as a milestone in the genre. So when I thinned the herd on my bookshelf a couple of months ago and went to the used bookstore to do some trading in, I was all too happy to pick up a copy for my to-read pile. When I received my invitation to the Clarion Writers' Worskshop, in which he'll be one of my instructors, it not surprisingly moved to the top of that pile.

I intend to read a fair bit of my instructors' work before the Workshop. If I'm going to learn from these people, I should be familiar with their work. It just makes sense. Besides, if they're good enough to be invited to teach at Clarion, they're certainly worth reading.

I am, thus far, only a bit more than fifty pages in, but I'm already intrigued. It's probably too early to do much more than jot down some impressions, since I've barely begun to really get into it, but from the very first pages, Dhalgren seems intent on knocking the reader out of his or her comfort zone, much as Bellona, the city in which it takes place, seems intent on knocking itself out of consensual reality.

There's a surreal quality to it, but what makes it poignant and affecting are the details that bring it back home. It's as if the characters were just people trying to live their lives in front of this giant backdrop of bizarreness; like the Apocalypse came to this one city, with all its attendant calamities and freedom, and you could go and live your life there if you chose. Enter the Kid, our nameless cipher of a hero, who seems thus far to resemble Fate from 2666, a particle adrift among mysterious currents, drawn in the wakes of others. The Kid is a mystery, even to himself. He's spent time in a mental hospital. He's forgotten his name, and it doesn't seem to bother him. He doesn't seem to know what he's after, but he moves with purpose into this raging mystery, this black hole on the map. As if he belongs there, somehow, and you get the sense that he does, as much as anyone.

The foreword, by William Gibson, explains that Bellona is a mystery, and Dhalgren as well. That it does not reveal itself explicitly, and that few are those who can lay claim to understanding it. From what I've read that makes sense.

It's an interesting confluence, reading these two books at once, so different and yet so similar. The resonance between them is uncanny, yet I can't help but wonder if I would feel it as strongly if I weren't reading them at the same time. Certain obvious themes they have in common are apparent, certainly, but it's the deeper structures I sense in them that has me fascinated, this writing-around something in order to trace its outlines, to say something by not saying it but in leaving it unsaid but implied if the reader is willing to do the necessary work. It seems to me that this is where you get to, once you have acheived a certain level of literary mastery. That you graduate from telling a story to something larger, amorphous and potent, something beyond the bounds of narrative sense as most people experience it. We all live our lives as stories, after all, and we want those stories to make a certain kind of sense, because then we make a certain kind of sense to ourselves and to others. But life, and history, and the world are more complicated than that. There are forces at work too numerous and obscure for most minds to grasp, and it seems to me that very few become capable of even tracing their movements on the page, much less in the world. Those works, and the people who write them, make the world a bigger and more interesting place, for those inclined to read them, and to engage with them as stories and ideas.

They're not the easiest books I've ever read. Both are challenging, in their own ways. But the rewards, thus far, are commensurate, even if you just kick back and allow them to wash over you, and think about them later.

1 comment:

Arin Mason said...

Dallas: I have studied with Delaney and still use his work- both critical and fictional- in my everyday work. We called him Chip and he is amicable, smart as a whip and so incredibly important. He is a genius of our times. If you want to be touched and understand more please read his poignant and soul-questioning autobiography: the motion of light in water which literally changed my life. You MUST read the NEVEREYON series which is a highly intelligent slave narrative told through the optic of sci-fi with beautiful and memorable passages that stick such as: " the hills were vasty and wide" as well as " the fleshy feeling of something that follows" and "the Bridge to lost desire." I have a LOT more to say, but if you are interested message me please. I love him and have worked extensively with him. Best luck to you! Great to say hello!