Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Influence, Reading, and Apocalypse

"I'm a poet now, searching for the extraordinary, trying to express it in ordinary, everyday words. So you think there are ordinary, everyday words?"--Roberto Bolano

The words nearly blew through the top of my head.

Earlier I picked up a small book of short stories and hadn't made it halfway through the first paragraph when I had to stop reading, get up, snatch a beer out of the fridge, take a swig, and marvel at what I had just read. It was a story called Jim from The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano. I can't even say I understood what it was about at first, but the language was just poetry. The words, man! Genius.

What must it be like to read him in the original? I ask my wife. She is used to hearing me talk this way. Making no sense as usual. I would like to hang back a little and be more critical, but when I get excited about a writer I become their biggest fan. No argument or news of a bad review is likely to change my mind. Besides, reviewers, and some readers, thrive on what William Hazlitt termed "the pleasure of hating" from that infamous essay. You could point out problems with his plotting, but I'd hesitate to call them flaws. Stylistically (perhaps that's the word I'd allow) he can be challenging, frustrating even, but when I first read The Savage Detectives I kept trying to put it down. I could not. I kept going back to it. These characters aren't going anywhere, not really, I'll just read a few more pages. If something interesting happens I'll keep reading. Then, of course, something always did. It was a story about writers after all. Young writers who are passionate about poetry! In a way I'm not sure Americans can be. Yes, I said that out loud. Passionate about Surrealism too! Or maybe that's Bolano and the culture he grew up with, which I won't bore you by pretending I understand. I don't understand the subtle and outspoken comments on politics either. It makes me want to learn more about it.

Yes, I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Nerudo, a little Borges, and Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo because the musician Jim White mentioned him in an interview. Bolano though! After Savage Detectives I read 2666. Another book that's starts off more about scholarly book writing critics! That sounds boring, eh? Um, well, it's not. These two hefty volumes are made up of shorter pieces hinged together to make something more with recurring themes and characters. Arturo Belano narrates a tour through the hell of his Santa Teresa, but it's many voices. A multi-layered narrative. Yes, and then if you tackled these mammoth books you soon discover the brevity that makes up the rest of his library. At first blush you might think you are dealing with two different writers, but then you find the short pieces where the characters in the novels emerged from. So very Faulkner like in this construction but the meat of the story is that necessary strangeness that Bloom talked about as a necessity for literary fiction. The enigmatic Amalfitano of 2666. The mysterious writer-philosopher. The innumerable deaths. To what end does Bolano shows us these murders? ah, even the number whispers, hints at, apocalypse. An eschatological mystery that ends more with a satan and chaos.

A university editor I used to know told me he hates to read stories, particularly fiction, about writers. I kept silent just to be polite. I'm like that unless pushed. Sometimes people mistake silence for consent. I, on the other hand, love books about writers. Fiction about unsuccesful (some succesful too) writers is amazing the way Bolano does it. Anyway, it got me to thinking.

My influences. Are they the right ones? I'm an American. Trapped in a certain way of looking at the world that I doubt I could articulate very well if I tried for better or worse. I've been the proverbial ugly American in my reading habits except for the exceptions. What I'm trying to get at is quite difficult. Sometimes I say, I am this kind of writer and others who know me are surprised but they read the stories and novels and know that it's true but sometimes there are hints of another writer's intellect and soul. Seen through a glass darkly I'll give you that. Can I be a better writer of the ilk that I am? Can I evolve, in my forties, to yet another style of writing and a new set of sensibilities? Would I want to? Can't I just improve a bit more before the clocks runs out at the end of the period?

I just read an essay by Raymond Carver called Fire. He hems and haws about his influences. It reminded me of when you ask a writer from the south if he's a southern writer. There's no way he's going to admit to it. A few will, but most will go to great lengths to contradict you. It seems like Carvers going to do this in this piece at first. He says his children influenced his writing the most. In the time we live in now and reading this, you think, okay, here we go. Some touchy-feely political correct bullshit about his little shining stars and how they've influenced him. You soon find that's not what he's saying, not at all. He tells a little vignette about doing five loads of laundry in a laundry mat where he has an argument with a woman trying to give him shit about using too many machines. Then, he worries about not getting a dryer in time to dry the clothes before he had to pickup his kids. The real stuff. The problems. The mind numbing existential nausea, right? This made him by necessity a poet and a short story writer. Oh, he allows it could just be short attention span. It could be. Probably not. Ah, who knows if he didn't?

If you're a writer, it makes you wonder, these are the things you obsess about. It's no wonder some say you are crazy.

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