It’s been months since I posted last. Recently I started a new job. I haven’t written much (or read much) in a long time because I’m always exhausted at the moment. Everything’s a bit overwhelming right now and I really hope that changes soon (it will). I read some wonderful books while I was away and while I don’t have the time to give them the attention they deserve (in the past I might have dedicated a whole post to some of the books listed here) I wanted to write a few brief words on the words I read on the other side of the world.

books

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
The visceral realists are a poetry movement consisting of young idealistic junkie romantics. They are tough and rough yet full of heart and  The journey of Arturo Belano (that’s Bolaño himself) and Ulisses Lima (Bolaño’s friend and fellow poet José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda) as they escape Mexico City to locate a mysterious and elusive poet in the Sonoran desert. The majority of the book consists of interviews and testimonies from dozens of people from Mexico, South America, Europe and beyond, people who saw Belano and Lima and the visceral realists pass through their lives in some vague and spectral capacity. It’s a book about love, the idea and the ideals of love, about the intensity of youth and its brevity, life and its harsh and sad realities, the people who wander into your path, those who settle, those who die, those who change and those who can’t, those who are remembered and those who are forgotten, fond memories and past lovers lost and found. It’s a powerful book. A road trip that spans twenty years, The Savage Detectives is funny, melancholic, beautiful.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
A heartwarming little book that champions the human condition. On the surface it may appear simplistic and humdrum but Steinbeck’s descriptions of Cannery Row and its inhabitants reveals a charming set of characters, pimps and whores and homeless drunks, who despite their ordinary lives share wonderful experiences together. You can read this in an afternoon, but it will leave you enchanted for some time afterwards.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
In just one or two thousand words Denis Johnson can write a vignette that transports you to rural America, puts you into the life of a relapsing drug addict, in the company of other addicts, drunks, petty criminals, burnouts and wasters. The narratives are chaotic and often inconclusive in these interlinked tales but the imagery contained within dimly illuminate this world in a hopeful light.

Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Despite being published back in 1955 Lolita remains a controversial book. And for good reason. What the poor, hopelessly romantic Humbert Humbert would have us understand as a tragic love affair, we know to be the lusting (and ultimately, rape) of an eleven year old girl. Humbert is despicable and depraved, veering from unapologetic manipulation to self disgust at his perversions. Nabokov succeeds in making Humbert both a vile villain and a sympathetic protagonist. And his prose is so playful and deep and full of symmetry. A disturbing book that is at times tough to read, but equally tough to put down.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August by William Faulkner
You know, I’ve read essays and critical analyses for both Absalom and Light in August, and it left me feeling inadequate and underprepared. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I find Faulkner easy to read but I enjoyed these two books and I thought I had a good grasp of what occurred within each narrative. Turns out I missed a hell of a lot of symbolism, double meanings and thematic values the first time around. Faulkner’s writing is heavy and severe and his stories sprawl in a nonlinear way. Sometimes I get lost, sometimes I have to turn back and start again. Sometimes it’s the getting there, the way a story unfolds, that makes it a story worth telling.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is considered a sci-fi classic by many, so I was a little disappointed when I finally got around to reading it. Perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as other science fiction? While the desert planet of Arrakis is a fascinating setting and the world building by Herbert is superbly vivid and rich, almost everything else I found to be lacking, the prose, the dialogue, the cliched fantasy characters. I can see the influence Dune has had on the science fiction and fantasy genres but it doesn’t quite hold up to those high standards now.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
In some ways my criticisms of Foundation are somewhat similar to my criticisms of Dune. Asimov, as he did countless times during his life, created an innovative and original premise. The sense of scope and scale is impressive too. But again, one dimensional characters engage in fairly dry (and sometimes downright dull) discussions of politics and trade negotiations and faith in the Foundation itself. Some of the concepts are interesting, but others really did feel like a slog to get through.

London Fields by Martin Amis.
A bit rubbish to be honest. Amis creates a lot of ideas, potentially interesting ones at that, but none of them stick. Unlikeable characters pegged precisely into their social classes do awful things over and over again. It’s all rather aimless. Not too dissimilar to this blog.

Cheers, N.

Good news! My short story ‘Post Youth’ was selected to be part of Thoughtful Dog’s latest issue. You can read it HERE.

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‘Post Youth’ follows a man plagued by dreams of his youth as he struggles to move through difficult times in later life. It’s a story I wrote roughly two years ago and to be honest, I had nearly forgotten about it. It had been rejected a few times so I’m delighted to have the chance to share it.

An online magazine, Thoughtful Dog publishes literary fiction and non-fiction inspired by the world around us. The current issue also contains fiction from Lauren Villa, Paul J. Laverty, and an interview with Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books.

Please don’t hesitate to pass on any comments: I would love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

I have returned.

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Playing with perspective in the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Having spent six months exploring twelve countries across two continents, taking hundreds of buses and dozens of planes and of course using my own feet to walk an indeterminable number of miles, I’m finally home. It feels strange to be back – but a good strange, I think.

Travelling exhausted me. It broke me, it humbled me, it pained me. It was the best thing I have ever done. I’ve met amazing people, seen beautiful places, and lived out some amazing experiences. If you get the chance to get away, to explore the world, even if it’s just for a month at a time, do it.

Did I get any inspiration? Hell yes. Did I write? Nowhere near as much as I would have liked to. But yes, a little, and I hope to share the results soon.

I trust 2017 is now firmly in the back of your minds, and I hope 2018 treats you right.

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I’m writing this from a motel room in Banff, Canada.

Roughly three weeks ago I quit my job. Over the next six months I will be travelling through Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

And so this blog will come to an end. Or maybe not. Certainly an indefinite hiatus. Ideally I’d like to update when I can over the coming months, but more than that I’d like to keep writing several projects as I travel – short stories, longer pieces, as well as general impressions and observations along the way. It’s going to be hard enough for me to devote time to that.

I’d like to thank those who have regularly read my posts on here, especially those who have taken the time out to give feedback, positive and negative. And perhaps some of you will still be around if/when I do come back.

All the best,

Nick

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Photograph taken by Andy Schwetz. See more of Andy’s work on his website here.

The crowd grew restless. They had been waiting a long time for tonight’s performance. But the speaker was late. It was quarter past nine, with the speaker due to start at eight. It was a warm evening and in an attempt to keep the noises of the city out, all windows had been sealed, and the hall was already at full capacity, so the doors had been locked, and in these conditions the atmosphere was fevered and close and the audience began to foam at the mouth. Any spark threatened to ruin them all.

Half past nine: several people get to their feet, and are followed by the rest. They climb onto their chairs, they shout obscene chants. A member of the entourage emerged from behind the curtains. She reached for the microphone and began to apologise, but programmes and plastic cups and even chairs themselves were thrown onto the stage, and the entourage and venue staff soon retreated. In anger the audience swept into the aisles and stripped the wood panels from the floors, the padding from the seats, the paintings and the light fittings from walls. Like a rising tide they engulfed the stage and tore down the decorations and the displays. The curtains were set alight and burned down as ashes in a matter of minutes. Howls and roars erupted from the mouths of the protesters. A brick was hurled through a window. The doors were hacked open. In their frenzied hysteria they ran down the steps of the theatre into the streets, where onlookers stopped and watched in bemusement. Feeling somewhat sheepish the protesters fell silent. Their anger dissipated into the starless night sky and they walked away the streets. The damage was done and the accused speaker forgotten.

Several years later, the accused, a tall old man of lean build with dark glasses, tottered forward onto the stage, using a stick for guidance. Shattered glass cracked beneath his feet as he went. There was debris strewn over all. Animal droppings covered the aisles and splintered chairs. Graffiti decorated the walls and doors. He found a square tile of carpet and stopped, knowing he was stood in the centre of the stage, but as he reached out ahead of him, the microphone stand was not where he expected it to be. He got to his knees to feel for it, but all he could pick up was trash, and he dropped his stick to kneel on the ruined stage. The sound startled a bird in the mezzanine above, which cried and flew out one of the holes in the ceiling, and the old man looked up and smiled. He gave up looking for the microphone and sat himself down, cross-legged, on the tile of carpet, allowing his hands to rest gently on the glass shards and rotting flyers.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. I want to apologies for the circumstances surrounding this evening, most notably my lateness, but also the troubles we’ve had with seating arrangements. I trust you are all now seated comfortably. Now,” the speaker paused, tilting his head as if straining to interpret something inexplicable in the air. He thought he heard footsteps, but it could have been the echoes of his own words. Or perhaps the bird had returned.

“We can begin.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

Roberto Bolaño’s dreamlike prose is something I adore – I’ve made no attempt to hide the impact his sprawling classic 2666 has left on me, along with the compelling short story collection The Return, containing some incredibly dark and saddening tales. The ‘floating’ feeling Bolaño’s words can elicit is in plentiful supply in Last Evenings on Earth, published in 1997 and translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2006.

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The collection of stories written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, found within Last Evenings on Earth, are profoundly character – rather than plot – driven, focussing on the thoughts and fears of the protagonists. These narrators are often struggling poets or writers (and seem to me like imprints of Bolaño himself) and frequently speak in the first person as if confessing, or re-examining, their actions and thoughts, trapped in a paranoid and tortured void between Europe and their various (Latin American) homelands.

The titular Last Evenings on Earth is one of the highlights, in which B (presumably Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego) and his father go on vacation to a beach resort in Mexico, which ominously builds to a violent climax. Dance Card‘s narrator returns to Chile in 1973 to help rebuild socialism, is arrested and imprisoned and accused of being a terrorist, only to be released by a pair of detectives he knew from school (the class mates from Detectives, the story within The Return). 

A quote from Gómez Palacio, where a 23 year old poet takes a position teaching creative writing in the titular town, and goes on an unusual car ride with the writing director.

…at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two… And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light, that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road – a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground – but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

In Dentist, the narrator visits an old friend, a dentist, who introduces him to a poor Indian boy who is a literary genius and whom the dentist appears to be in love with. A fantastic quote from Dentist on the nature of art in one of many tequila-inspired conversations:

That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.

Bolaño is, here and throughout his body of work, evasive, elusive, transparent, but also observational, coherent, inspirational. The dreamlike quality of his texts blend surrealism, wit, political and philosophical analysis, and I will continue to study and enjoy as many of his stories as I can.

What’s the hurry, son?

hocus pocus

Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.