Talking Shit About Famous Novels, Dec-Jan

A Modest Allusion

Savage Detectives

I had been told that my novel reminded a reader of Savage Detectives. After reading it that’s praise I think I’d prefer to avoid. What happens in Savage Detectives is the following:

  • 1-150: 17-year-old protagonist joins the ‘visceral realists,’ a poetry  movement helmed by A and U. Is introduced to various debaucheries. Finally departs Mexico City with A, U, and prostitute for Sonoran Desert. Pursued violently by prostitute’s erstwhile employer. Promise of adventuring in the desert; seeking vanished poetic forebear, eluding employer.
  • 151-600: First person anecdotes by various incidental characters from earlier part, mostly Latin American poets living in colorful European poverty. A or U appear frequently as incidental characters in these anecdotes. Anecdotes are from the (near or distant) future, relative to part 1.
  • 600-650: Adventuring in desert. Vanished poetic forebear found. Forebear now corpulent and mostly nonpoetic. Adventuring in desert. Found by employer. Kill employer. Poetic forebear also killed. Vaguely inane thematic gestures towards primacy of drawing as new/improved form of poetry.

For me Part 1 is excellent, from both a prose-craft and a narrative perspective. Something is always about to happen and it’s never quite what we expect. Maybe the biggest gift Bolano shows in 1 is that of imbricating consecutive plot problematics—the transition from ‘hating poetry workshops’ into ‘wanting to be cool’ to ‘losing A and U’ to ‘pining after M’ and from there into everything else is pretty excellently executed. It feels slippery and unexpected and almost always urgent.

And at the end of part 1 the reader (Corley) is actually pretty excited about what happens next. Deserts are fun, as are poetic forebears. Like many great protagonists/narrators this one is basically a reader, a curious interpreter of what’s around him. A and U have been celestial objects to him so far and when they all get into the car it’s easy to share P’s sense that the best thing in the world is about to happen: finally some QT with A and U. It’d be like knowing that tomorrow morning you would leave for a car trip with Hemingway and Neruda. Sick, right? You can’t wait to get to that desert.

So now is obviously a really great time for 450 pages of reminiscence by well-drawn but basically irrelevant side characters, all offering only tangential glimpses of A and U. If you assume that what Bolano’s done well in 1 is to create hunger to know A and U better, then this second chapter is like feeding saltines to the starving: more irritating than sustaining.

Before going any further I want to say that I respect the attempt here. It’s experimental paragraph-level storytelling, which I think we need much more of. About twenty percent of the prose is really exceptional. And I think the basic notion of ‘talking about a main character through the fragmentary impressions of his acquaintances’ is a strong one. I wanted to write a short story like this when I was about 18 but I didn’t know anything and only managed like three vacant stylish paragraphs. Savage Detectives is more evidence for the kierkegaardian charge that what matters in novel-writing isn’t what you succeed at but what you struggle with.

The problem is that he doesn’t struggle very successfully. Only about 1 in 10 of the fragments touches on the great desert quest, and these seem handpicked on the basis of their ability to stultify. In most of them A and U calmly drink mescal with boring old men and read lists of contributors from ancient zines. The others are remarkably self-similar: ‘I was living in [European City] and having [various experiences of colorful poverty] and sleeping with [so and so] when [A or U] arrived and while my attitude towards [A or U] was initially [adjective] I had [experiences] and then felt differently, mostly due to the changing circumstances of my own life.’

There’s nothing a priori bad about this. It’s a good story to tell. But it’s not 450-pages good. The fifth of these stories doesn’t do much of anything new, never mind the fifteenth. It sometimes feels like Bolano had a big stack of fragments-on-colorful-poverty that he couldn’t sort through and figured he could just kind of add A and/or U’s name into each one and call it a novel. It feels vaguely disrespectful to my time as a reader.

What really kills it is that there’s no fluid motion between these anecdotes. If at any point I had been able to detect either (1) a consistent and unchanging or (2) a dynamic and evolving character behind the names A or U, I’d feel a lot better about Savage Detectives. But that isn’t how it’s done. A and U are ciphers, distinguished by traits like ‘handsome’ and ‘dirty.’ Women sometimes fall in love with them but can’t say why. Men sometimes help them but often feel ambivalent about it. Neither seems particularly preoccupied by poetry, or anything else. They’re names in the purest sense: recurring sets of morphemes pretending to a unity. In this case it isn’t achieved, and nothing feels accomplished.

I read the middle 450 pages of Savage Detectives because I constantly believed that the next section of the novel would return me to my desert adventure, which by that point I cherished in the fashion of a little boy with a silver-molded plastic gun and a pair of fringed chaps he wears to watch TV. This sense of infantile expectation was, in all likelihood, the single most notable achievement of Roberto Bolano’s novel ‘The Savage Detectives.’ It was constantly frustrated.

The end of the book is fine. It’s more immediate and less narratively inert than the middle, but by that point we’re rearranging deck chairs.


Here’s another take on Savage Detectives, by someone with a New Yorker byline, which means you should probably listen to him. All I’ll say here is that Zalewski wants simultaneously to celebrate the book’s performed claim that ‘living is poetry’ and its accuracy as a lament for artistic dissipation. The nexus between these two goes unmentioned. And it’s true that Savage Detectives works as a chronicle, or as an argument. It just doesn’t work as a story, which I think is a standard we’re licensed to hold. As an additional note, the New Yorker piece notes the connection between Bolano’s life and the lives of the poets in Savage Detectives—he too was iterant in Europe. What’s frustrating is that he’s chosen to endlessly reiterate the most typical parts of the story and elide the parts which—in Bolano’s own life—are of interest. The real writer’s heroin addiction, his near-execution in Pinochet’s Chile, his extraordinary dedication late in life—these are the constituents of a truly fascinating novel. But for some reason all he gives us is the wandering. I don’t know why you’d bother being autobiographical if you just wanted to leave out all the best bits.

Savage Detectives was the book that made Bolano’s name in the west [it certainly wasn’t the execrable Antwerp, which someone figured they could make a quick buck on selling to chumps like Corley who were in September 2012 intrigued by the name Bolano and exhausted by the thought of such long novels as his others]. And made it quite effectively: though Zalewski never quite gets around to saying why, he’s obviously convinced that Savage Detectives is a Major Historical Masterpiece.

So the question is why? Why should I hate Savage Detectives so much and our broader literary culture love it? Four reasons I can think of. First, I’m an outlier as a reader. Second, colorful poverty is one of the few ‘high’ idioms we still believe in in the west (Diaz, Lahiri, lots of other ‘authority fiction’). Third, Bolano hit at a time (2007) when much of the Anglophone literary establishment was feeling kind of exhausted and worn out and possibly terminally irrelevant. It’s not entirely unconnected that the last time we felt this way, we had saved ourselves at least partially by discovering some hot-blooded Latin American writers who were doing things differently than we imagined. So here came Bolano, who wrote differently, was Latin, and seemed if nothing else vitally engaged. Hadn’t this worked before? If you had lost your glasses, or were a few drinks in, you could mistake him for a Borges or a Marques. For me Bolano is the marginal case we’ve all seen in the bar at 2am, the one who’s better than our own loathful selves, and who we find we can love with all our heart for about the next twelve hours.

The Pale King

Pale King is the second big novel by David Foster Wallace and to hear certain people tell it the reason why he killed himself. In a great moment in skeuomorphism the publishers seem to have made a conscious decision to publish it in the same size as Infinite Jest even though it probably only has a quarter of the word count. You should see that line spacing!

Anyways, it’s good, because Foster Wallace is a good writer, but it’s also incomplete because he is a dead writer. Now is not the time to assert connections between the character of this work and his death, except that: it’s not as good as IJ, or not yet, and I think he knew it. It’s more political, by which I mean that it seems motivated by a basically analytical conclusion about a country or a modernity rather than a sort of unquenchable feral interiority. His prose might even be better here—more control, more maturity—but it just doesn’t burn in quite the same way. I think that must have been hard for him.

But then what do you do? You write one novel and become the Designated Genius for practically an entire society. And then you move to southern California and live with a wonderful artist woman and teach just the few undergraduates you really love. And can one imagine worse circumstances for—not necessarily fiction as a whole but for Foster Wallace’s fictions specifically? The problem wouldn’t be that you didn’t have the time or the resources to write, but that you didn’t need to. It doesn’t feel like he needs Pale King in the same way he needed IJ. I imagine that being hard for him.

A note on style, and one on his identity. The style note is that much of what’s intimidating about Foster Wallace’s writing is that it shares a lot of formal tics and habits with what most of us think as first-draft writing, except it happens to be preternaturally incisive, hilarious, and perfectly sequenced. The effect is terrifying: because it says ‘sort of’ and ‘really’ like our own first unconsidered drafts do, we approach it as though it was his first draft as well, just what fell out of his head. This is part of why it’s so seductive as well. But then our first drafts while they’re (like this here) fraught with unconsidered diction are also generally disorganized and cloddish, whereas the sense of reading Foster Wallace is that of reading someone whose first draft is better than our last. Terrifying! Of course it’s actually his eighth draft, but as with many endeavors the communicated impression of effortlessness is as valuable as any effect won by the effort.

Another thing is that his narrators often demonstrate their intelligence by the depth of the incision rather than the location. Some writers make a name for themselves (Kundera, notably) by simply including thoughts that other people don’t have. By connecting umbrella-brinksmanship with the spirit of sexual liberation after the soviet invasion. Foster Wallace doesn’t want to do that. He wants to connect umbrella brinksmanship with, well, umbrella brinksmanship. His eye is drawn to what feels like a set of conventional places—it’s just that once it lands it  sees deeper and more cogently than almost anyone’s ever. This is part of how he stays accessible. A good trick.

On identity: again because of his idiosyncratic style and (sometimes) his tendency to dwell for too many paragraphs on tennis training, Foster Wallace has a rep as like a revolutionary fiction-writer. But I think if you look more closely he’s basically doing conventional things. Plot exposition with dialogue. Characters struggling with interiority. The odd humor scene. The architecture of his fiction is pretty riskless once you get past the whole ‘sometimes its just happening for its own sake and not because of the plot’ thing. Which when you’re such a charming fucking sentence writer you can often get away with.

The Magus

There was some disagreement over how this title ought to be pronounced. Turns out ‘mag-us,’ and not ‘may-gus.’ Anyways this is by John Fowles and it’s another reader/protagonist/narrator collapse job like the beginning of SD. Nick narrates. He has an affair with an Australian girl and then moves to a greek island where an old greek guy named something like Chiasmus choreographs a series of increasingly bizarre ‘psychosexual’ (hate to use that word) encounters with some different people. Someone commits suicide, and then there’s a judgment, or—maybe there isn’t. Nick works because he’s like Macbeth basically being put in the situation of examining privileged information of some kind and trying to both win and understand simultaneously. It’s a detective story, in other words. And then the novel works because this is exactly what the reader is trying to do, so Nick is a pretty good ally. One vision holds that the novel generally is a kind of puzzle-box, a series of problems with a series of varying solutions. Magus would agree. It keeps you going at a pretty good clip.

What eventually doesn’t work about the Magus is that first of all it goes around too many times with the ‘now you know the truth/now you don’t’ thing (and Nick’s sort of contrived vacillations about who to believe and when) and second of all the ultimate payout to the whole game is roughly nothing. The broader problem here is that while Nick the protagonist is a 24-year-old guy on a greek island and can afford to be awed and tantalized by a vague program of incredible proportions, John Fowles the author was also a 24-year-old guy on a greek island and frankly the ultimate explanation that’s offered for all this is the kind that makes you wish you could have a bit of your time back, given that it’s exactly as sophomoric and insufferable as Nick himself. Reader/protagonist/narrator collapse works pretty well, but the author’s got to have something better hiding back there other than a bunch of silly costumes and the University of fucking Idaho.

What Fowles is truly brilliant on is the vicious-lovers routine you get a few times between Nick and Allison, the girl he left behind. These scenes are among the best fiction I’ve read but there’s probably only ten or fifteen thousand words there, if that. Still, read this and read it fast. A ‘page-turner.’

The Flame Alphabet

I may write a longer piece on this but for now: it doesn’t work, and the question is why. Immediately culpable is Marcus’ inability to contravert his basically experimental (small-e, try new shit) identity as a writer for long enough to finish a whole book. There’s a reason he’s at his best on the ‘Age of Wire and String’ 500-worder program. Novels are about commitment, and he has a hard time committing. Broadly responsible is our scene-wide failure to protest as a set of battle lines that opposed plot novelists on the one hand to language novelists on the other. One has the sense reading these guys (Marcus and Franzen) that you have to really care about either divorces or noun phrases and nothing in between. Which is incriminatingly ignorant on the part of the guys themselves.

As an aside, while I’m pretty nonplussed by Marcus’ prose style—the man makes the ascending tricolon into a way of life—you can tell he’s a smart guy and a good writer. Flame Alphabet isn’t bad so much as its interesting in its limitations, and so if he really is a small-e experimentalist then I suppose that makes it by such lights a success.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The one I like the best and understand the least. May write a separate post or piece on this one, or may just keep on being puzzled. Suspenseful!

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