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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.

Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.

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Stills taken from the theatrical adaptation of McCarthy’s novel.

I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.

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Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.

Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.

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Tommy Lee Jones as the overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.

TheOutsider

Albert Camus was a French writer and philosopher whose principal school of philosophy was absurdism, and the study of the Absurd. From my very basic understanding* the main conflict posed by absurdism was the human mind’s tendency to rationalise and assign meaning and value to the meaning of life, and the inability to do so. His works often explored man’s desire for significance and meaning in the face of the silent and cold existence of the universe. While many of his works and essays are linked to existentialism, Camus was always keen to point out that he was not an existentialist.

*Having only read Camus’s The Plague and The Outsider, I am keen to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus next, in which Camus explains his understanding of the absurd in more detail. From the little I’ve read on the subject it seems fascinating.

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L’Étranger was published in France in 1942, and was later translated into English in 1946, published as The Outsider (or The Stranger in the US). A philosophical novel, its outlook centres on the Absurd, and an odd character named Mersault, the narrator of the book and the titular ‘outsider’. The very first line reads “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Immediately Camus introduces us to a protagonist who is distant and does not conform to the same emotions one would expect a man in society to do.

The first part of the book details the funeral of Mersault’s mother, and Mersault’s general indifference and lack of grief is noted by several characters. Just days after the funeral he meets with a female colleague, Marie, who he begins a sexual relationship with, as well as becoming acquaintances with his volatile neighbour. On a weekend at another friends beach hut, Mersault carries out a spontaneous act of violence and shoots a man dead. The reasoning for this is never explained in certain terms by Mersault. The second half focuses on Mersault in prison and standing trial for his crimes. To his surprise the prosecutor focuses not on the murder itself but Mersault’s lack of empathy, his quietness, his passiveness. He believes this points to his guilt, and through further trials, accuses the defendant of lacking remorse. As such, he believes the only appropriate punishment is death.

Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.

Mersault is described in sparse detail. If he has opinions he keeps them to himself. His actions and the consequences of those actions have little affect on him. The overall plot is simplistic and at around 150 pages The Outsider isn’t a difficult read, but this gives the reader a canvas upon which to prescribe their own ideals. Depending on your morals and understandings of human nature, this book could disturb you, it could anger you, it could depress you. At times I was sympathising with Mersault, at others I despised him.

Less of a story and more of a fascinating character study, The Outsider is an interesting introduction into the philosophical dilemmas that Camus and the Absurd pose. If you have any interest in the Absurd and existentialism, take a look.

suttree

While not composed of the intense chases (No Country For Old Men), brutalistic violence (Blood Meridian) or nihilistic bleakness (The Road) of some of his other works, Suttree is arguably McCarthy’s most ambitious, sprawling novel; a tale of a man’s abandonment of clean living and a rebuttal to his former life of privilege. For the most part any semblance of plot is absent in Suttree. And while vivid, rich descriptions in McCarthy’s And so I can’t really describe what the book is about, other than detailing the titular protagonist, Cornelius Suttree.

Suttree describes the life and times of Cornelius Suttree, in particular the events taking place in and around Knoxville, 1951. We are introduced to a setting of a post-war city, growing quickly while leaving its poor and injured to survive and attempt to co-exist on the periphery. Suttree lives on the banks of the Tennessee River, aboard a listing houseboat slowly disintegrating and sinking out of existence. Suttree has rejected a life of privilege, leaving a wife (a girl he met in college) and their son, to catch the occasional catfish in his fishing skiff. Suttree is an alcoholic, a lowlife, and yet he is not a psychopath or murderer. He rejects society like Ballard does in McCarthy’s earlier work Child of God, but he is nothing like Ballard; Suttree attempts to have a code. He has friends and while he doesn’t see them all that often, he cares for them. He helps them where he can. Suttree’s decision to dissociate himself from the normal path of a man is done in an almost noble way.

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Once or twice the narrative might skip to an acquaintance of Suttree, the most notable being the young Gene Harrogate, a naive and misguided man child who first meets Suttree in jail, or work camp, having been caught violating a local farmer’s melons (and subsequently nicknamed the ‘moonlight melonmounter’). Suttree attempts to help Harrogate settle down after his release, but Harrogate’s boyish ambitions are far higher (and a great deal more stupid, although involving a certain strand of ingenuity) than a lot of the elder men he surrounds himself with. Some of his foiled and hair-brained schemes include mass poisoning bats to collect a bounty on them, stealing coins out of pay-phones and tunneling under the city using dynamite to find hidden and forgotten treasures.

There are some hilarious capers, mainly observed from Suttree’s wry, understated viewpoint. I’ve seen Suttree described as a twisted, debauche version of Huckleberry Finn, and the similarities are there. It’s one ‘adventure’ to the next. There doesn’t seem to be an endgame, but a succession of conversations and experiences that lead Suttree to where? It is clear that at times, he himself does not know. Suttree often finds himself waking up in fields or on the floors of brothels or unrecognised surroundings, with the sole purpose of getting himself back to his boat, away from the hand of the law. And while his relatively decent nature (in comparison to the ensemble cast of criminals, drunks, perverts and reprobates) earns him an unspoken respect among Knoxville’s delinquents, it also puts him at the mercy of friends, or attached friends. A personal highlight was when Suttree is roped into the dumping of the body of an old man in the river with Leonard – the poor old man who had been rotting in his home for months, and never moved so the family could continue to collect welfare.

So there is humour in Suttree, more so than in any other McCarthy novel (which in their bleakness can often contain small portions of dark gallows humour), but Suttree as a character holds immense sadness, and as comic as the book is, there at times it is heartbreakingly sad too. Such is the desperate struggle of Suttree and his associates with poverty that a scene in a bar or a cafe, where the men collect their coins and pass them across the counter for a coffee and a grilled cheese and cuss and swear at one another with affection, is genuinely warming.

I never did blame ye for leavin out. Poor luck as we had. I reckon ye’d of done better never to of took up with us to start. Did you ever know anybody to be so bad about luck?
Suttree said he had. He said that things would get better.
The old man shook his head doubtfully, paying the band of his cap through his fingers. I’m satisfied they caint get no worse, he said.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse, only Suttree didnt say so.

At over 20 years in the making Suttree is not only McCarthy’s longest novel at nearly 500 pages but also his most personal. Autobiographical or not, Cornelius Suttree’s understated nature and descent into squalor is a fascinating character study. We understand his want to shy from the restraints society once held on him. And there is hope by the end of the novel, where is considers his stance that has removed him from a normal life, with wife and child, to leave Knoxville, and find some kind of happy medium. Suttree is not my favourite McCarthy book but I will say it is his most enjoyable, and an American classic.

pedro paramo

At times during Pedro Páramo it is difficult to know if the person to which Juan Preciado is speaking is alive or dead. Or at which point the story is being told from Preciado’s point of view, or from one of the many ghosts that still haunt the town of Comala. Or, whether the characters in this book know they are dead or alive, or that they still exist in the present, or if they are in some kind of  purgatory resigned to retell their tragic and mythical pasts.

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Published in 1955 Pedro Páramo is written by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo and remained his only true novel. Yet its impact and legacy on literature, particularly the magical realism movement often associated with Latin America, is clear to this day. Gabriel García Márquez, renown Colombian novelist (and author of one of my favourite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude) famously said of Pedro Páramo that he could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards. And in my copy of Pedro Páramo (1994, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) is a foreword by García Márquez, a sincere and adoring homage to Rulfo and his novel, in which he writes “That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it twice. Not since Kafka’s Metamorphosis in a down-at-the-heels student boarding house in Bogotá – almost ten years earlier – had I been so overcome.” High praise indeed, even more so that he so openly admits that “my profound exploration of Juan Rulfo’s work was what finally showed me the way to continue with my writing”.

This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustling. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away.

The premise is simple enough; to fulfil his mother’s dying wish, Juan Preciado sets off to Comala to meet his father, a certain Pedro Páramo, of whom he has never met. But upon arriving across the barren Mexican plains, Preciado discovers a ghost town ruined by the reign of his infamous father, hearing whispered tales of the past and present between the worlds of the living and the dead. In all honesty the novel did not seem to have a plot to me, or at least not in a traditional sense. Pedro Páramo is more a series of memories, experiences and streams of consciousness. On first read (at least I found so) it may be difficult to place who is speaking, and at what time, but once adjusted to the dream-like flow of Rulfo’s story-telling Pedro Páramo becomes a beautiful, mysterious nightmare. A short tale that will not take long to read but its haunting ideals will linger with you with its profound messages from the dead. A wonderful little book.

The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.

Annihilation is the first part of American author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, focusing on the mysterious region known as Area X. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any science-fiction, reviews had been mostly positive and the book was released in 2014 (it occurred to me recently that I haven’t actually read that many books from the 21st century).

annihilation

The trilogy focuses on a dystopian future in the location known as Area X, a quarantine zone cut off from the rest of the continent. Within is a wild and thriving ecosystem filled with scientific anomalies, unusual wildlife and unexplainable, almost supernatural, events. Little is known of what caused this catastrophic change in the environment, but the government has been sending expeditions to the area to document and record their findings. Each expedition has ended in disaster; one group ended up shooting each other to pieces, another came back with aggressive forms of cancer and died, another all committed suicide. The narrative focuses on the twelfth expedition, an all female group consisting of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist. It is from the biologist that the perspective of the story is told.

It really is a fascinating premise. VanderMeer does well to create a scenario where a chunk of the world is now unchartered, due to circumstances not explained to the reader (at least, not yet), eliciting wonder and tension and unknowing. And Area X is a bizarre world. There are a few science-fiction cliches to be found, but generally I found the concept to be original and was key to drawing me towards the book in the first place.

But unfortunately I was disappointed. VanderMeer can clearly write – his descriptions of the events transpiring in Area X are creepy and suspenseful for the most part. My biggest gripe was that the protagonist, or point of view, was never particularly interesting. She is not even underdeveloped – there is a lot (maybe too much) that is spelled out to us about her as a person, about her past, the links between Area X and her husband (who was part of the previous expedition and eventually returned a changed man). Nothing about the biologist gripped me to read on. As I was reading I considered other narrative styles that may have worked better. Perhaps switching between members of the team, focusing on their increasing paranoia towards each other, but ultimately the angle VanderMeer went for could have worked so much better if the protagonist was a little more compelling.

I have absolutely no problem with the open ending, the scores of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of Area X; it is a trilogy after all, and some aspects are all the more intriguing the less we know of them. Overall, my desire to uncover the mysteries of Area X was undermined by a bland and meandering cast. Some highlights for sure, but I don’t think Annihilation did enough to make me want to continue with the Southern Reach Trilogy – not any time soon at least.

2666 part5

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about archimboldi

The Part about Archimboldi is the final chapter of 2666 and follows the life of Hans Reiter, who from humble beginnings in Prussia goes on to fight in the Second World War, before turning to writing and transforming into the elusive Benno von Archimboldi. The very same, Nobel Prize nominated Archimboldi that the academics from The Part about the Critics travelled to Santa Teresa in the hope of finding.

Once again Bolaño delivers the unexpected. After The Part about the Crimes the reader may have expected to continue in Santa Teresa, perhaps getting closer to the reason behind the violence, or to the identity of the perpetrators. But no, and now, having read the chapter and had time to reflect, I am completely fine with that. At first I was disappointed that the final chapter we have for 2666 focuses solely on the life of Hans Reiter. While there are some fascinating and beautiful pieces of Bolaño prose, it does not initially address (at least, not directly) the events in Santa Teresa. But is that a problem? Given the sprawling nature of 2666, would it have been naive to expect answers to the questions; what is the truth behind the killings? what is wrong in Santa Teresa? who is responsible? Perhaps these questions are too narrow, too focused. Are these the questions Bolaño really wants us to ask?

Literature is a vast forest and the masterpieces are the lakes, the towering trees or strange trees, the lovely, eloquent flowers, the hidden caves, but a forest is also made up of ordinary trees, patches of grass, puddles, clinging vines, mushrooms, and little wildflowers.

Some stories don’t need answers, or can’t be answered. Some problems can’t be solved. In fact I’m sure I wasn’t alone in a sense of relief and peace of the beginnings of the life of Hans Reiter; a far cry from the horror and bleakness that the previous chapter had inflicted. Sure, there are some dark and ominous overtones that are present throughout each part of 2666.

But the introduction to Hans Reiter is an almost pleasant change of pace after the bludgeoning Part about the Crimes. The Part about Archimboldi reads like a fairy-tale (or perhaps a more accurate term I’ve seen used for this part, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale of German origins). We are introduced to the strange child of a one-legged man and a one-eyed woman, taller than boys twice his age and obsessed with seaweed, feeling more at ease underwater than on land. As time passes Bolaño fills Reiter’s life with a plethora of strange and fascinating characters and relationships (some indirect).

Healthy people flee contact with the diseased. This rule applies to almost everyone. Hans Reiter was an exception. He feared neither the healthy nor the diseased. He never got bored. He was always eager to help and he greatly valued the notion — so vague, so malleable, so warped — of friendship. The diseased, anyway, are more interesting than the healthy. The words of the diseased, even those who can manage only a murmur, carry more weight than those of the healthy. Then, too, all healthy people will in the future know disease. That sense of time, ah, the diseased man’s sense of time, what treasure hidden in a desert cave. Then, too, the diseased truly bite, whereas the healthy pretend to bite but really only snap at the air. Then, too, then, too, then, too.

A friendship with the son of a lord, whose manor is full of collected paintings of dead women. The readings of the journal of a Soviet writer, Ansky, and in turn, Ansky’s friendship with Soviet science-fiction writer, Ivanov. The intense, sexually charged, terminally-ill Ingeborg, the love of Reiter’s life. Mr. Bubis, the owner of a publishing house and Archimboldi’s editor (once Reiter turns to writing after several disturbing and haunting experiences at war). The Baroness Von Zumpe (later Mrs. Bubis), with whom Archimboldi shares a relationship once Ingeborg passes, and whom continues to support and publish Archimboldi when Bubis dies (his prolific and expansive body of work eventually gains him a nomination for a Nobel Prize, and of course a critical following).

Yes, there are frequently stories within anecdotes within spiralling narratives that allow Reiter/Archimboldi/Bolaño to speak in depth on literary circles, publishing, history and politics in particular during and after the Second World War, what role if any can art and literature play in tolerating this inherently evil world. In tones satircal and philisophical. It’s difficult to tell which is which at times. And are there moments when it is all overblown, it can be too much, where we start to wonder if Bolaño is showing off? Maybe. But few and far between. In all honesty Bolaño’s prose often leaves me with a big grin.

Reiter said the first thing that came into his head.
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi.”
The old man looked him in the eye and said don’t play games with me, what’s your real name?
“My name is Benno von Archimboldi, sir,” said Reiter, “and if you think I’m joking I’d better go.”
For a few seconds both were silent. The old man’s eyes were dark brown, although in the dim light of his study they looked black. Archimboldi’s eyes were blue and to the old man they looked like the eyes of a young poet, tired, strained, reddened, but young and in a certain sense pure, although it had been a long time since the old man stopped believing in purity.
“This country,” he said to Reiter, who that afternoon, perhaps, became Archimboldi, “has tried to topple any number of countries into the abyss in the name of purity and will. As far as I’m concerned, you understand, purity and will are utter tripe. Thanks to purity and will we’ve all, every one of us, hear me you, become cowards and thugs, which in the end are one and the same. Now we sob and moan and say we didn’t know! we had no idea! it was the Nazis! we never would have done such a thing! We know how to whimper. We know how to drum up sympathy. We don’t care whether we’re mocked so long as they pity us and forgive us. They’ll be plenty of time for us to embark on a long holiday of forgetting. Do you understand me?”

But going back to those loose ends; towards the end of The Part about Archimboldi, and the conclusion of 2666, Benno von Archimboldi is an old man in his eighties, and his sister Lotte calls on him for help. For Lotte’s son, and Archimboldi’s nephew, is none other than Klaus Haas, the German living in Santa Teresa whom has been accused of the rape and murder of several women. And it’s here I remind myself of an earlier confrontation between Haas and his cellmate, a rancher.

Don’t cover your head, he said aloud and in a booming voice, you’re still going to die. And who’s going to kill me you gringo son of a bitch? You? Not me, motherfucker, said Haas, a giant is coming and the giant is going to kill you. A giant? asked the rancher. You heard me right, motherfucker, said Haas. A giant. A big man, very big, and he’s going to kill you and everybody else. You crazy-ass gringo son of a bitch, said the rancher. . .A little while later, however, Haas, called out to say he heard footsteps. The giant was coming. He was covered in blood from head to toe and he was coming now.

Foreshadowing in the form of a gangly and tall Reiter, a man who fought in the war, killed and murdered, a man who is capable of incredible violence.

“It’s me,” said Archimboldi, “your brother.”
That night they talked until dawn. Lotte talked about Klaus’s dreams, the dreams in which he saw a giant who would rescue him from prison, although you, she said to Archimboldi, don’t look like a giant anymore.
“I never was a giant,” said Archimboldi as he paced Lotte’s living room and dining room and stopped next to a shelf that held more than a dozen of his books.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Lotte after a long silence. “I don’t have the strength. I don’t understand anything and the little I do frightens me. Nothing makes sense,” said Lotte.

In part one Archimboldi was almost mythical. His story builds him into a figure of unearthly power, and yet here we are at the end of the book, with an eighty year old man. A brilliant writer yes, but what kind of a man is he? What kind of a life has he lead? And what will he be able to do in Santa Teresa (which he does at the end of the novel, confirming his presence in the country in part one), that the rest of the world can not? Is he going to free his nephew? Or does he hold a much larger role to play, in the stopping of the crimes?

“Look, the sun is coming up. Would you like some tea, coffee, a glass of water?”
Archimboldi sat down and stretched his legs. The bones cracked.
“Will you take care of it all?”
“A beer,” he said.
“I don’t have a beer,” said Lotte. “Will you take care of it all?”

…Soon afterward he left the park and the next morning he was on his way to Mexico.

I expect the obliqueness of a piece of work like 2666 will not appeal to all and The Part about Archimboldi is no different in its certainty to divide readers. Some may expect a novel that hits nearly 900 pages to deliver a little more in terms of definitive answers. In a piece of work this diverse I don’t believe answers are necessary, nor would they add to the novel in any meaningful way. Truthfully they would change the very essence of the story Bolaño is trying to tell. It’s taken the best part of six months since finishing the novel to fully absorb this novel, and even then I feel the surface has barely been scratched, and nor am I under any illusion that justice has been done. 2666 showcases Bolaño’s obscenely gifted imagination, remarkable grasp of language, and a willingness to create a piece of literature that is not bound by accord or expectation, but instead will have the power to challenge and induce debate for decades to come. In other words, 2666 is a masterpiece.

2666 part4

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about the crimes

Between reading 2666 for the first time (I finished the book in January 16) and revisiting each part months later, it has become clear to me that this book is one of the most challenging, multi-layered, indescribable pieces of literature I’ve experienced. In the three parts that proceed The Part about the Crimes (The Critics, Amalfitano, Fate), going back to these characters and narratives has been a hugely rewarding experience. There is so much more to gain, things I have missed, subtleties recognised. Crimes has been a little more difficult to revisit. Given the chapter focuses, in detail, on the titular crimes that are taking place in Santa Teresa – the murders of hundreds of women – it is harrowing and brutal in a way the previous chapters were not. They disturbed, or rather, they unsettled the reader with untold dread and unseen violence. Now they are unavoidable, the crimes, they are here. They are catalogued explicitly and in depth, and Bolaño’s delivery behind this technique is something that has caused a lot of debate.

Santa Teresa is Bolaño’s fictional portrayal of the northern Mexican city Ciudad Juarez. The events of 2666 are somewhat based on reality; a reality where hundreds of women have being violently killed since 1993 (from what I gather, the overall murder rate in the city, and the percentage of which are female victims, has declined steadily since 2010). The chapter marks a change in content and tone as Bolaño systematically delivers the murders of 112 woman in Santa Teresa between 1993 to 1997.

…January 1993. From then on, the killings of women began to be counted. But it’s likely there had been other deaths before. The name of the first victim was Esperanza Gómez Saldaña and she was thirteen. Maybe for the sake of convenience, maybe because she was the first to be killed in 1993, she heads the list. Although surely there were other girls and women who died in 1992. Other girls and women who didn’t make it onto the list or were never found, who were buried in unmarked graves in the desert or whose ashes were scattered in the middle of the night, when not even the person scattering them knew where he was, what place he had come to.

Bolaño shocks the reader with the repetition of the discovered bodies, which read like police reports: forensic, detailed, frequently explicit. They feel detached and indifferent and seems to mirror the frightening lack of action being taken in Santa Teresa to combat the murders. It’s an incredibly difficult chapter to read. Hundreds of women (and many young girls) are found in various states of decay, having been shot or stabbed or strangled and their bodies discarded in Santa Teresa or the surrounding desert. Often raped. Sometimes tortured.

A week after the discovery of the corpse of the thirteen-year-old girl on the outskirts of El Obelisco, the body of a girl about sixteen was found in the Cananea highway. The dead girl was a little under five foot four and slightly built, and she had long black hair. She had been stabbed only once, in the abdomen, a stab so deep that the blade had literally pierced her through. But her death, according to the medical examiner, was caused by strangulation and a fracture of the hyoid bone. The victim, according to the police, was probably a hitchhiker who had been raped on her way to Santa Teresa. All attempts to identify her were in vain and the case was closed.

There are few patterns to the killings. The victims are female – generally, they are young, and often have long dark hair (but, as someone says, that fits the profile for many women in Santa Teresa), and many of the victims work in low-income jobs at the numerous maquiladoras across the city. But establishing motives and culprits is more difficult. Most, but not all, are raped, vaginally and anally. Most are strangled, but some are stabbed. Some of the killings exhibit common traits, many do not. The killings do not make sense, no matter how hard the police or the reader tries to link them – an effort which might go some way to making some sort of sense, and therefore an explanation, from the crimes. Some of the murders are by husbands or boyfriends, results of domestic violence, but the vast majority are carried out by unknown killers and remain unsolved. What is clear is the life of women here in Santa Teresa is cheap and violence is nothing out of the ordinary.

On November 16 the body of another woman was found on the back lot of the Kusai maquiladora, in Colonia San Bartolomé. According to the initial examination, the victim was between eighteen and twenty-two and the cause of death, according to the forensic report, was asphyxiation due to strangulation. She was completely naked and her clothes were found five yards away, hidden in the bushes. Actually, not all of her clothes were found, just a pair of black leggings and red panties. Two days later, she was identified by her parents as Rosario Marquina, nineteen, who disappeared on November 12 while she was out dancing at Salon Montana on Avenida Carranza, not far from Colonia Veracruz, where they lived. It just so happened that both the victim and her parents worked at the Kusai maquiladora. According to the medical examiners the victim was raped several times before she died.

Throughout the 300+ pages of the chapter the reports continued to have a profound effect on me. I would have imagined the repetition of the reports would start to lose their effect somewhat, but they do not. Perhaps the shock wears off – perhaps a sense of numbness to the reports of rape and murder – but that blunt trauma is replaced by an equally unpleasant anger and frustration at the inevitability of it all. Questions begin to be raised. When did this start? Is there a pattern? Who is responsible? What is being done to prevent this? Is the world watching? Does it even care? But one thing is certain; the murders continue to plague the city.

In The Part about the Crimes, the central characters are the crimes and the dead victims themselves. Bolaño intersects several narratives, following an ensemble cast that support and contextualise the chapter rather than drive it. Juan de Dios Martínez is one of the many police detectives in the city tasked with investigating the femicide as well as a serial church desecrator, and is romantically involved with the director of an insane asylum. Florita Almada, a seer and psychic who makes an appearance on local television to speak of the crimes. Harry Magaña, a US sheriff who arrives in Santa Teresa after a woman from his town becomes one of the victims, and becomes overwhelmed himself by the darkness.

Arguably the most intriguing subplot in Crimes revolves around Klaus Haas, the tall German inmate we were introduced to at the end of The Part about Fate. Haas becomes a suspect when a girl who once visited his computer store is murdered, and despite a lack of evidence is incarcerated in the Santa Teresa prison. The media celebrate and many believe that Haas had been involved in many more of the deaths, yet despite Haas being locked up, the crimes continue like before. Haas is a fascinating character, one that could be analysed in more depth, as so much is left open and unconfirmed by Bolaño. We don’t know whether Haas was involved in any of the murders – I suspect not – but he is clearly ‘different’. He thrives in the prison, making allegiances, obtaining cell phones and organising press conferences for himself. He is unsettling, resourceful, mysterious; for me, Klaus Haas is the character that most embodies what 2666 is all about.

While Haas does some awful things while in prison, I don’t believe he can be called an antagonist. I don’t believe there is an antagonist personified, which makes the crimes all the more hard to take – there is no one for the reader to hate, to detest, to pin the blame on. Let the catharsis of hate absolve them of the pain. The sense of injustice and inevitability is exhausting. On the whole, the lack police force appear corrupt and rotten to the core. Former bodyguard turned policeman, young Lalo Cura’s professionalism, honesty and dedication to the job is mocked by his peers. Fellow officers who reel off sexist jokes, gang rape incarcerated prostitutes, and are incapable of halting the never-ending string of death.

Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows where was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost.

 

The Part about the Crimes is the dark, horrifying heart of 2666, the epicentre of all that has been whispered of, alluded to, seen through disturbing visions and vidid nightmares, overheard on the streets and seen in violent patches. Frightening but absolutely necessary, for without the crimes there is no book. Despite that it reveals next to nothing of the possible culprits, nor their motives. What can we understand of Bolaño’s cryptic and mystical personal view on the world? Is there anything positive we can extrapolate from such a view, when the book is concerned almost entirely by violence and death? After reading Crimes it’s hard to be optimistic.