of Maine

Roberto Bolano, 2666
December 11, 2008, 1:21 pm
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Let’s work our way to summarizing comments here. And before I wear you out, if you’re looking for a great beginner’s guide to the awesomeness awaiting you in this book, read Jonathan Lethem’s review.

Left thinking about: the five sections, all somewhat distinctive stylistically, that just end; how we learn everything about the life and nothing about the work of the fictional author that motivates much of this tale; the characters all searching for clues – to the whereabouts of a lost writer, to the murderer(s) of hundreds of young women in northern Mexico, to their sexual and romantic needs and desires, to how to escape squalor and grief, to the importance of identity, to the symbolism of their dreams – which, in many cases, they find and lead to nothing.

Most of all, it’s Bolano’s craft more than his story that resonates. There’s something inherently contradictory about his style. His sentences won’t stop you in your tracks. You won’t find yourself highlighting virtuoso moments very often. He’s not one for adages, morals, or grand statements. His series (plural) of ideas don’t culminate in a-ha moments or philosophical revelations – when they do, they’re usually comically naive.

At the same time, Bolano’s syntax is so distinctive and (more importantly) intuitive that you’re unlikely to forget many of his sentences upon a rereading. If they’re, line by line, unmemorable, they’re a perpetual motion machine of details, asides, and insights. His rhythm is addicting; it’s difficult to stop reading 2666, because you want the high to be the same the moment you jump back in.

Try this two-sentence paragraph out, from “The Part About the Crimes”:

For many days Juan de Dios Martinez thought about the four heart attacks Herminia Noriega had suffered before she died. Sometimes he thought about it while he was eating or while he was urinating in the men’s room at a coffee shop or one of the inspector’s regular lunch spots, or before he went to sleep, just at the moment he turned off the light, or maybe seconds before he turned off the light, and when that happened he simply couldn’t turn off the light and then he got out of bed and went over to the window and looked out at the street, an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street, and then he went into the kitchen and put water on to boil and made himself coffee, and sometimes, as he drank the hot coffee with no sugar, shitty coffee, he turned on the TV and watched late-night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, and then Juan de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when finally he removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.

Okay, let’s assume you thought that was awesome. (You were right.) But what happened here? Nothing that didn’t happen in that first, short sentence.

What does that second sentence do to enhance the first one? Emotionally, for Juan de Dios Martinez, almost nothing. His inability to cry is affecting, but all we’re told aside from that is in what settings he’s thinking about Herminia Noriega. Bolano makes no assumptions about Juan’s psyche.

What else do we learn? Indelible tics of Juan’s behavior, things about his daily routine. Bits about Santa Teresa, the fictional city much of the book is set in. Just this broad series of adjectives – “an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street” – is extremely evocative, and the description of television personalities, “in Spanish or English or Spanglish” speaking “unintelligible greetings,” brings up the murky mélange of life on the border. The not much of this sentence still seems widely encompassing.

It’s one of hundreds of such sequences in 2666. They add up to nothing like a resolution, but they encapsulate generations, cultures, nightmares, and the author’s boundless energy and ambition.


Chris Adrian, more books
December 8, 2008, 3:31 pm
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It’s been up on the web for a while now, but I finally got around to perusing the NYT’s 100 Notable Books of 2008 yesterday, and was pleased to see Chris Adrian’s recent book of short stories, A Better Angel, on the list. As you may recall, I ditched this blog for a couple months to write a very lengthy review of it (which I may post soon, once I abandon the idea of submitting it to other publications). The title story, one of the better ones in the collection, is freely readable here.

In other news, the Literary Event of the Season is now complete. Commentary coming tomorrow or Wednesday.

NYT’s Best Books of 2008 (and Row Hard, No Excuses)
December 4, 2008, 6:25 pm
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Back! And just a shade under two months. In lieu of excuses, I’ll be posting a lot of the work I’ve been swamped with in the past two months in the coming days (and catching up on movies, books, and – once I decide how to do it – a series remarking on the pretty underwhelming year in music). Every intention of being back in the daily habit now.

Moving on.

The New York Times published (online, at least) their 10 Best Books of 2008 list. One should expect the list to be a little tame – this is the paper of record, after all – and it is. But I’ve already read two of these books, am in the thick of another, and have another one at the top of my queue, so I guess I’m becoming the contemporary-canonical reader I’ve always hoped to be. Anyway, COMMENTARY! (Note that decent-sized excerpts of the books’ first chapters are linked from the article.)

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser – The lone welcome surprise on this list, a book of short stories that sounds pretty irresistible.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison – Next on my reading list (unless I decide to tackle Beloved first, in which case it’s first on my reading list for 2010). The selection’s somewhat controversial, given the mixed reviews the book’s earning so far. But at the same time, every disapproving review of this novel I’ve read has a irratatingly snarky tone (calling it “slight” and what have you).

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill – Yessiree! Zadie Smith did an ace job unpacking this novel (and one of last year’s best, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) in the NYRB recently. If you’ve read either book, print it out. Netherland’s the undisputably Gatsbyesque tale of a naive and curious wanderer’s crumbling marriage and brief fling with cricket and a mysterious Dutchman. It’s something of a plotless, man-overanalyzing-everything story in the vein of many books I like that many people (especially women) don’t, but it’s got a grace and nearly perfect pitch you can’t help but cherish.

2666, by Roberto Bolano – About 2/3 through. Comments forthcoming. A “holy shit” will suffice for now.

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri – Book’s sitting on my shelf, and I can’t say I plan on reading it anytime soon, until I need some Chicken Soup for the Soul. (Her work is, fortunately, much sadder than that, but Lahiri still falls into my semi-unconscious bias against many female writers – working on it.) I’m sure this is a fine story collection, but I’m stunned the slot wasn’t given to Marilynne Robinson’s Home.

Guess I won’t bother to parse this list, but overall it seems like a sturdier collection of picks. I’m stunned at how eager I am to buy or loan Jane Meyer’s The Dark Side, and The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, is exemplary war writing. Here’s a review I wrote of the book last month. (“Recommended by 6 people”! Really enjoying this corny new thing on the office website.)

Nurture Through Nature Fall News

This is the first edition of “post titles from actual subject lines of emails I receive at work.”

– From the shocking coincidence department, I got around to watching Old Joy last night (which I wrote about yesterday… accurately, it turns out), and discovered that a clip of dialogue from the film is included in Why?’s album Alopecia, which I spent the bulk of Sunday writing about (link to come Thursday). The one unfortunate aspect of this coincidence is that one line of my review is about how all of Why?’s pop-culture references are too weird/specific/on-the-nose to get people to cheer along with them. I would totally cheer for an Old Joy dialogue clip at a show.

– The new album by Megafaun, which is kind of sort of a band that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon used to be in, sounds great.

– Slate is publishing excerpts from the forthcoming collection State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (out next week). In it, fifty writers tackle the fifty states (there’s an afterword on Washington, D.C.). Just some of the writers involved: the New Yorker‘s George Packer, William T. Vollmann, Benjamin Kunkel, Rick Moody, current literary heartthrob Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End), Dave Eggers, Alexander Payne (director of Election, Sideways, etc.), Susan Orlean, Jhumpa Lahiri. There are other familiar names too. Awesome. The volume is co-edited by Sean Wilsey, who wrote the pretty good memoir Oh the Glory of It All and this excellent essay/diary, which I highly recommend printing out (he also slept in the window of SPACE Gallery for a week the summer I moved to Portland).

– I hereby predict that by the time the next Okkervil River album comes out, the band is going to get even more popular and most of their torch-bearing critics are going to turn on him. They are getting seriously overheated, and these reviews read like old Decemberists praise. Remember liking them? Sure you do. The Stand Ins isn’t bad, though.

– And, bummer of bummers, one of the better music crit sites on the web has shuttered. Visit Paper Thin Walls for their preemptive singles and album of the year, complete with streams.

– I’m taking a week off from the election. Everyone’s talking and thinking crazy and, worse, talking to me about it.

Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital
August 22, 2008, 1:45 pm
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Depressing, frustrating, dazzlingly imaginative, and intensely confrontational in equal measure, Chris Adiran’s The Children Hospital is one meaty read. It’s an apocalyptic novel – one night, a proverbial great flood arrives, leaving the world buried in seven miles of water while the titular hospital remains afloat – and tackles the issues that come with it in surprising ways. The Children’s Hospital deals in gore, illness, miracles, spirituality, imminent doom, social experimentation, and random quirk, resulting in a style that’s something between a prototype of magical realism and a horror story. The hospital, seemingly controlled by a “preserving angel” (who, confusingly for a while, narrates the novel), mutates to fit its inhabitants’ needs. Food and necessities can be replicated by machine, rooms expand and contract, warped children near death and are healed by supernatural encounters.

Much of the challenge of finishing the 600+ page book comes from the way Adrian is unafraid to pose hope, despair, and inevitability in unwavering confrontations. You get the feeling that its author, both a doctor and a divinity student, is constantly burdened by those battles. The Children’s Hospital is powerful and audacious enough to put you through the same wringer.

My colleague at the Boston Phoenix interviewed Adrian about the novel last year, which resulted in this essential, emotional article. And my Chris Adrian experience has just begun: I’ll be reading his first book, Gob’s Grief, and his brand new collection of short stories, A Better Angel, in the coming days as I get cracking on this contest.

I’ve read a whole lot more this week; work permitting, some links coming later in the day. There will be termites.