Tag Archives: books

fear and loathing


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was written by Hunter S. Thompson, originally for Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, but was published as a book in ‘72. The novel was received a somewhat mild reception upon release but has since achieved cult status, for two main reasons; Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ style of writing, and the commentary of the extravagant but ultimately doomed, drug culture of the 60s. One of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, was a big fan of the book, recognising it as one of the great, modern novels and a classic of our time.

The story is narrated by journalist Raoul Duke, and his attorney, the heavyset Samoan Dr. Gonzo (The plot is loosely based on real trips taken by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney and friend Oscar Zeta Acosta; as such, we can safely assume that Thompson is Raoul Duke and Acosta is the Samoan attorney) as they travel to Las Vegas for Duke to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. In the trunk of their car sits a stash of illegal substances, including but not limited to: cocaine, mescaline, LSD, ether, marijuana. And a lot of rum too.

As a member of the press Duke and his attorney are able to stumble with relative ease, via hotel bars and motel rooms, from the desert heat of the Mint 400 to a police conference for the war on drugs (the audacity of attending is not lost on Duke), but due to the volume and variety of drugs they ingest, are often in some mental distress. Vomiting, damage to property, confrontations and distorted, twisted visions of their environments are present and described with vivid and hilarious detail.

But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country-but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.

They drive from place to place in a hallucinatory, surreal haze and the pair represent a counter-culture from the commercialism and consumerism that is rife in America. Las Vegas centralises this mainstream American culture, and the duo try their damnedest to stretch and scratch at the glossed and shiny facade of American insincerity, their private and internal commentary both twisted and painfully honest.


The book is illustrated by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, often depicting the protagonists (and their surroundings) as monstrous and grotesque. ‘The plastic torn away…’

“The wave” has become known as a speech synonymous with Thompson’s work. The book had served largely as a wacky and hilarious, over-the-top road trip for me, but when I read ‘the wave’ I found it both beautiful and tragic. The shared feeling of achievement and hope for the future, the depression and sadness to find it quashed before it could begin.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Lost Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Fear and Loathing also introduced the literary world to gonzo journalism and was popularised by Hunter S. Thompson himself. From what I’ve read, the gonzo style is generally narrated in the first person, the narrator often a journalist or similar, and is filled with observations, experiences and emotions (rather than facts) and usually incorporates humour, sarcasm and profanity. Throughout the book potentially serious events are interspersed with humour and it can be tough to identify between the fact and the fiction.

An over-the-top, outrageous book. The absurd insanity will disgust and entertain but there is a surprisingly touching and profound commentary of a generation of broken (American) dreams and the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s.

2666 part3

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 fate

While The Critics and Amalfitano skirted around the topic of the ongoing femicide taking place in Santa Teresa, in Fate it is, in the very least, acknowledged. But initially the  unsettling foreshadowing that we have become attuned to so far continue in this chapter. The Part About Fate begins far from the Mexican border city and doesn’t deal with Fate in a philosophical term; rather it refers to the nickname of the central protagonist for part three. Quincy Williams is a thirty year old African American journalist for Harlem based magazine Black Dawn, mourning the recent death of his mother, and haunted by internal ‘ghosts’. Known by his colleagues (and referred throughout part three by Bolaño) as Oscar Fate, we are given the picture of a man, much like Oscar Amalfitano, clearly not in a great state of mind – albeit for different reasons. An inner turmoil and pain seems to have set upon him.

Where did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get away? How do I take control? And the questions kept coming: Was getting away really what he wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind?

Before Fate is thrown into the malevolent vortex of Santa Teresa, he tends to his dead mother’s house then travels to Detroit for an interview with Barry Seaman, former member of the Black Panthers. Fate is present for a speech Seaman gives to a small local church, addressing five subjects (DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, USEFULNESS). The speech is fantastic – I couldn’t pick a preferred quote but Bolaño flexes his muscles to deliver poignant and humorous anecdotes and absurd monologues, as he does throughout 2666. And while you begin to wonder what all this has to do with events down in Mexico, a report of an American missing in Santa Teresa plays on Fate’s hotel television while he sleeps.

After he has finished interviewing Seaman Fate receives a call from his editor: the magazine’s sports editor has died suddenly, and an opportunity arises to travel down to Mexico, to the border town of Santa Teresa, to cover a boxing match. Despite having no expertise or knowledge, Fate agrees to cover the match, admitting to himself that some time away from New York would probably do him some good. En route he stops at a diner in Tucson, and overhears the following conversation.

“And what’s your unofficial opinion about what’s going on there?”
“I have several opinions, Edward, and I’d prefer that none of them be published without my consent.”
The young man covered his face with his hands and said:
“Professor Kessler, my lips are sealed.”
“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”

Albert Kessler will reappear in The Part About The Crimes, but his forthright views on Santa Teresa are ominous. So already Fate, who has yet to reach Santa Teresa, has been subconsciously touched by the news of the murders. Then, upon crossing the border Fate’s presence as a member of the press is assumed to be for something very different to sport.

The customs officer asked for his passport and Fate handed it to him. With the passport was his press ID. The customs officer asked if he was coming to write about the killings.
“No,” said Fate, “I’m going to cover the fight on Saturday.”
“What fight?” asked the customs officer.
“Count Pickett, the light heavyweight from New York.”
“Never heard of him,” said the officer.

Once in Santa Teresa, Fate is soon disillusioned by the task at hand, an inane and unimportant bout of fighting. He meets several contacts at the hotel: sports writers, trainers, sparring partners. In a local reporter, Guadalupe Roncal, Fate receives a brief insider report on the crimes. Her colleague (predecessor) who was previously working on the case “was killed, of course. He got in too deep and they killed him”. Another local reporter Chucho Flores takes Fate out with his friends Charly Cruz, Rosa Méndez, and eventually he is introduced a beautiful young woman called Rosa Amalfitano- the daughter of Oscar Amalfitano, the Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa whom by now we are familiar. It becomes clear that Fate is attracted to Rosa – he sees a goodness in her, in contrast to the detached malice he can sense in her friends Chucho and Charly amongst others.

Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, and they seemed unreal, faces glimpsed in a dream.
“This place is like hell,” he said to Rosa Amalfitano.
“You’re right,” she said, looking at him sympathetically, “but the food isn’t bad.”

After the (anti-climatic) fight is over, the gang take Fate out to a series of clubs and cafes where they get food and proceed to get very drunk. Increased pace and an erratic narrator leads to a breathless and tense climax to part three. We know Fate is drunk and we know the people around him have questionable morals. Location to location we read descriptions of dark corridors and surreal paints and defaced religious statues, all adding to the ever-building dread. Subtle observations of places and people that could mean everything or nothing. And while the reader wants Fate to get out of there, we don’t want Rosa to be left behind either. He acts impulsively, boldly, to ensure her safety. The final passages are chopped into disarray, an indication of Fate’s state of mind, or the inability to process what happened on his last night in Santa Teresa. And to end, a giant, singing German prisoner, the prime suspect in the murders.

The Part About Fate gives us our best indication yet on the status quo in Santa Teresa, possibly in an attempt to make the crimes taking place in part four easier to comprehend. Violence is celebrated, a brutality towards woman, and a tendency to look away from the horrors at hand could not be encapsulated better than this scene Fate witnesses in a club.

Fate thought about Spain. He was going to ask her what part of Spain she was from when he saw a man hit a woman in a corner of the room. The first blow made the woman’s head snap violently and the second blow knocked her down. Without thinking, Fate tried to move toward them, but someone grabbed his arm. When he turned to see who it was, no one was there. In the opposite corner of the club the man who had hit the woman stepped next to where she was huddled on the ground and kicked her in the stomach. A few feet away from him he saw Rosa Méndez smiling happily.

The Part About Fate is less speculative than the previous parts of 2666. Something more akin to a defined narrative (for Bolaño) is present which makes this chapter more accessible. At times it reads like a crime noir or thriller with its changes of pace, but there is still plenty to chew on here. And in Oscar Fate we are given a conflicted, fascinating character and, I’d also say, one of the most likeable characters in the book. When he consciously becomes aware of the scale of the murders, he acknowledges them. He wants to investigate, and write a story for his paper. In Fate we encounter a character that takes an active interest in the problem strangling the city, rather than someone with their head stuck firmly in the Sonoran sand, like Amalfitano*.

*Although, perhaps this is due to a higher understanding Amalfitano, and the rest of the inhabitants of Santa Teresa, have – a fear, or knowing, that the crimes are like the seasons; they will keep coming, and they can’t be stopped.

of mice and men 2

Not every book listed as a piece of great literature or heralded as one of the ‘classics’ is going to appeal to you as a reader. But there is a reason texts such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet are often chosen for school curriculums. They have something valuable to teach – something that these particular authors have done well. Allegory, characteristics, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) themes and meanings, commentaries on periods or cultures. And from my perspective books such as Of Mice and Men can educate you on writing; even if they aren’t, in a narrative sense, your cup of tea.

Of Mice and Men will never be one of my favourites books. I’ll remember it fondly as it sits on the shelf but I can’t get excited about it. But for a book that barely hits the 100 page mark, John Steinbeck does a lot right and I appreciate that.

of mice and men

I appreciate how Steinbeck creates dialogue that is natural and flows. Spoken throughout in heavy Californian US dialect yet each character has their own tone, and the words they use have weight. I’ve read that Of Mice and Men was originally written as a play, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the small number of ‘scenes’ throughout the book and the rather wooden and descriptive introductions to them, which read a lot like stage directions.

The friendship and responsibility George feels for Lennie, even though their past (and reasons for companionship) are never covered in depth. They don’t need to be, because Steinbeck’s tale is set in the Great Depression, and the consequential struggles many faced to make something of their lives (a theme common throughout Steinbeck’s work), and in George’s case in particular, the fear of loneliness. He admits that Lennie is a nuisance, and deep down knows he is a danger to himself and others. There is a stigma against mental illness in this time, and there is a fantastic chapter in which one of the farm workers convinces an elderly ranch-hand to let him mercifully shoot his old, stinking, worthless dog. It’s a clear metaphor for the relationship between George and Lennie, and it makes for a surprisingly sad and uncomfortable scene.

I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.

Of Mice and Men reinforces the fact that a book does not need to be lengthy to be compelling, emotional and hard-hitting.

2666 part2

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 amalfitano template

Óscar Amalfitano is a Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa. Also, he is an expert on Benno von Archimboldi, and acted as a guide to the critics when they came to Mexico in Part 1. They did not think much of him at first…

The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place…Espinoza and Pelletier saw him as a failed man, failed above all because he had lived and taught in Europe, who tried to protect himself with a veneer of toughness but whose innate gentleness gave him away in the act. But Norton’s impression was of a sad man whose life was ebbing swiftly away and who would rather do anything than serve them as guide to Santa Teresa.

But it was clear to them all that the Chilean professor was distant, not entirely functioning and present in his own mind. Something is affecting Amalfitano; inner turmoil, the effect of Santa Teresa, stress, a cry for help. Help.

“Amalfitano was here today,” said Pelletier.
In his opinion, the Chilean professor’s nerves were shot. Pelletier had invited him to take a dip in the pool. Since he didn’t have bathing trunks Pelletier had picked up a pair for him at the reception desk. Everything seemed to be going fine. But when Amalfitano got in the pool, he froze, as if he’d suddenly seen the devil. Then he sank. Before he went under, Pelletier remembered, he covered his mouth with both hands. In any case, he made no attempt to swim. Fortunately, Pelletier was there and it was easy to dive down and bring him back up to the surface. Then they each had a whiskey, and Amalfitano explained that it had been a long time since he swam.

And in Part 2 it becomes obvious that Amalfitano appears to be losing his mind. Madness is contagious. This line is uttered not once but twice in this chapter, and whether or not Amalfitano is crazy, or is going crazy, is certainly up for debate – but Amalfitano is at least aware enough to realise this fact for himself, as he struggles to cope in the spiralling hell of Mexican desert that is Santa Teresa.

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

Amalfitano moved to Santa Teresa from Barcelona with his daughter Rosa, of whom he alone has raised since she was two. Her mother, and Amalfitano’s (ex?)wife Lola, walked out a long time ago, and Lola’s travels and letters to Amalfitano form the first half of Part 2. Already a healthy dose of ‘unhinged’ characters have appeared in 2666, and Lola certainly fits the bill. She has an obsession with a young poet whom she believes she can cure of his homosexuality. She seems to seek madness. We read of Lola’s bizarre relationship with the poet, with a truck driver named Larrazabal, her journey across Europe to cemeteries and insane asylums – although it’s worth mentioning that at all times I was sceptical of Lola’s exploits for she does not strike one as a reliable narrator. Lola’s quest and adoration for the poet is not without similarities to the critic’s search for Archimboldi in Part 1. Eventually Lola returns to Amalfitano and Rosa, but not for long – even more distant and somewhat clairvoyant, she leaves again and Amalfitano does not hear from her again, but he strongly suspects she is dead.

One afternoon while sorting through boxes of books Amalfitano discovers the Testamento geométrico, by Rafael Dieste, a book detailing complex geometry – ‘a subject that meant next to nothing to Amalfitano’. And he cannot remember for the life of him where he got this book, why he would have brought it back from Barcelona, and rather than let it go he allows the mystery to consume him.

At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste’s book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?

Unable to let go of this small perplexity Amalfitano becomes obsessed with Dieste’s book, and decides to hang it from the clothesline in his back garden, ‘leaving a geometry book hanging exposed to the elements to see if it learns something about real life’, transforming it into a Duchamp-inspired ‘readymade’. This is referenced neatly in Part 1 as the critics take an interest in the book one afternoon when having lunch at Amalfitano’s house.

Amalfitano watched them from the window, biting his lip, although the look on his face (just then at least) wasn’t of desperation or importance but of deep, boundless sadness.
When the critics showed the first sign of turning around, Amalfitano retreated, returning rapidly to the kitchen, where he pretended to be intent on making lunch.

And so the book transcends into something much more than a book. Subconsciously he draws triangles, he lists the names of philosophers and formulas. Supply+demand+magic. Perhaps hope that, left, to nature, the book can become, something more, a compass that can steer him out of troubled waters amid blood and mortal wounds and stench, something thus far his mind has been able to do. Like Amalfitano, the book is now rootless.

Amalfitano’s madness could all too easily be related on the deaths of the young women in Santa Teresa, yet the crimes are never explicitly spoken or thought about by Amalfitano. Strange, considering he has a young daughter who frequently goes out late into this city. If Amalfitano’s descent into madness is caused by the worry for his daughter’s safety in such a violent and dangerous place, then why does his response seem to be inaction? Is Amalfitano’s inaction his way of rationalising the things that are occurring in Santa Teresa, happening all around him? And soon a voice begins to speak to him (never a good sign). The voice(s) Amalfitano hears, portrayed to be his father’s, or possibly grandfather’s, asks him a series of questions that he can’t answer. Why are you here? What are you doing here? Are you a homosexual?

And you’ve also thought about your daughter, said the voice, and about the murders committed daily in this city, and about Baudelaire’s faggoty (I’m sorry) clouds, but you haven’t thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand. That isn’t true, said Amalfitano, I have thought about it, I have. If you had thought about it, said the voice, you’d be dancing to the tune of a different piper. And Amalfitano was silent and he felt the silence was a kind of eugenics. He looked at his watch. It was four in the morning.

Because unlike Amalfitano, the voice does speak of the murders in Santa Teresa. Which made me think that when the voice considers them, perhaps this is the only way Amalfitano can confront the fear he has been trying to suppress. Is it Amalfitano’s subconscious? Perhaps berating himself for not taking Rosa and himself the hell away from Santa Teresa? The voice could have a point – why, when Amalfitano has a 17 year old daughter, who goes out and stays out late like young girls do, does he not take action, in a city where such heinous and unstoppable crimes are being carried out? Or does he feel like there is no escape? That the problems lie not just in Santa Teresa?

The son of the University of Santa Teresa’s Dean Guerra, Marco Antonio Guerra spends some time with Amalfitano towards the end of Part 2, and together the critics suspect the two of being gay, but later decidethe bond between the Chilean professor and the dean’s son was more socratic than homosexual, and this is some way put their minds at ease, since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano’. Young Marco Antonio is full of youthful and privileged arrogance but displays menacing aggression and perversely admits to Amalfitano of purposely getting into fights at bars against homophobes, whom he seems to try and bait, to elicit combat. Violence is everywhere in this city. I did like this quote that he tells Amalfitano very close to the end of Part 2, however.

“I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry – and let me be clear, only some of it – is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”

I can’t help but feel this is a playful jab at literature, and maybe even self-reference. Because to me, Bolaño’s prose is poetry. It ebbs and flows. The Part About Amalfitano is so wonderfully intrinsic compared to Part 1, and despite the ongoing themes of darkness and insanity and violence, it remains remarkably calm for the most part. On first read it may seem meandering and inconsequential, but subsequent visits reveal so much more. I regard Amalfitano as a man almost at peace with his descent into madness. As if it has caught him in its tendrils and hope is lost. But perhaps there is a way he can save his daughter Rosa, more of whom we will see in Part 3.

mother night

Howard J. Campbell, as you might have discerned from the letter above, is not a popular man. Quite the opposite. After the end of World War II, he had plenty of enemies and very few friends. Born an American, Campbell moved to Germany as a child before WWII, only to eventually become an illustrious figure in the Nazi regime as a propagandist, issuing malicious anti-semitic campaigns.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

Branded a traitor and despised by the world as a Nazi war criminal he currently sits in an Israeli jail, on trial for his crimes, using an old German typewriter to pen his memoirs – his version of events. Campbell, who worked under Goebbels and became a celebrated figure in Germany during the war, says his actions were a result of a secret deal to become a spy for the US military.

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

Published in 1961 Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, and it is typically Vonnegut; heavy topics and dark themes narrated with prose that is light, funny and painfully human. Vonnegut states the book’s moral right from the off: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be. And so we read Howard J. Campbell’s memoirs, as he tries to justify his vile and hateful deeds. As he would have us believe, his frequent radio broadcasts (in which he X) were containing codes which were providing intelligence to the Allies throughout the war. But Campbell, and by extension, the reader, is in constant turmoil. Are evil deeds justified, if they service good?


While Campbell confirms he was approached by Frank Wirtanen, a US military agent (or his ‘blue fairy godmother’, as Campbell describes him) to work as a spy during the war, this is not acknowledged by the US government once the war is over, and Campbell is unable to prove his innocence. When he is discovered after the war, alive and well, back in the country he betrayed, the mob bays for his blood. Campbell is forced to seek shelter and support from his only allies – fascists and racists that still see him as a hero for his Nazi propaganda. This supporting cast are reprehensible for the most part but Vonnegut is able to find something good (and entertaining) in most, even if they are still awful people.

‘You hate America, don’t you?’ she said.
‘That would be as silly as loving it,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.’
‘You’ve changed so,’ she said.
‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else what are world wars for?’

Vonnegut creates a whole void of grey, a million shades away from black and a million shades away from white, in which you genuinely are unsure whether to root for and sympathise with Campbell, or condemn him. But while Campbell is beautifully conflicted and guilt-ridden, he was not quite – for me at least – as compelling a character as I am used to reading about in a Vonnegut, nor the cast of satirical support. They did not affect me in Mother Night as they have in other novels, such as The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle.

Let there be nothing harmonious about our children’s playthings, lest they grow up expecting peace and order, and be eaten alive.

Having said that, Mother Night is still an outstanding book and while it is not my favourite book by Vonnegut, it is written by Vonnegut, and so it has its trademark gallows humour and moments of bittersweet and humanistic victory, as well as terribly sad conclusions.

It was late autumn. Oysters had come back in season, and we were feasting on a dozen apiece. I’d known Kraft about a year then.
‘Howard — ‘ he said to me, ‘future civilizations — better civilizations than this one, are going to judge all men by the extent to which they’ve been artists. You and I, if some future archaeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter.’
‘Umm’ I said.

2666 part1

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 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 in coming weeks I intend to cover 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 critics

2666 is apocalyptic, dark, complex. For a long time I have wanted to read this book but its length, among other factors, has pushed it back. But in December 2015 I finally started (and finished) 2666, and it matched, surpassed and shattered my expectations all at once. But The Part about the Critics was an…interesting opening that did not comply with my assumptions for the book; at least, not at first. Part 1 consists of a mere 159 pages, but those pages are strewn with feverish ideas and a dark foreboding.

As the title of the chapter might suggest, Bolaño introduces us to a group of European literary critics: Jean-Claude Pelletier of Paris, Manuel Espinoza of Madrid, Liz Norton of London, and Piero Morini of Rome. These four academics share an expertise is one particular author, the German Benno von Archimboldi, an elusive, seemingly introverted figure largely unknown by most of Europe. But these critics meet, and their shared passion for Archimboldi leads them to form a fiercely loyal clique in which they frequently talk on the phone and travel together to meet at conferences and literary gathering across Europe.

Initially the relative mundanity of literary academia shouldn’t be as compelling as it is – but it is compelling. We are given a glimpse into the world of the critics. We hear the Archimboldi-obsessed critics compare the author to the greats of German literature, the likes of Mann and Goethe, yet we are never really given a reason as to why, nor any evidence of his literary accomplishments. They are possessive of Archimboldi. They regard other critics outside of their group as inferior, below them, and that they are the defining rule on Archimboldi. Note, that all four critics are not German themselves.

The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier’s fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.

I feel there is the possibility of self-reference, in terms of Bolaño and the cult of Archimboldi – maybe Bolaño is poking fun at himself, and academic satire is rife in this first chapter – but at this stage I know relatively little about Bolaño’s career and work; indeed, 2666 is my first experience of the Chilean author, but it won’t be the last.

The academic friendship between the critics grows into something much stronger as time passes, especially between Norton, Pelletier and Espinoza, the three of whom become entangled in a bizarre sexual relationship, of which there is no jealousy between the two men, rather an enhanced form of camaraderie and a shared love for Norton.

What I adore is the dark and unsettling tone the chapter has – a feat especially impressive because I still can’t put my finger on what, or why, this is. Yes, there are outbursts of violence and disturbing dreams towards the end of the chapter, but the sense of ill-feeling comes well before all that. A steadily increasing and menacing threat of violence, of a descent in madness. Finally it comes to a head, in a brutal and sudden attack by Espinoza and Pelletier on a cab driver, with Norton looking on.

When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the ménage à trois they’d so often dreamed of.

As mentioned violence is present in the traumatic dreams, or nightmares, that haunt the critics, particularly in, but not limited to, Santa Teresa. Part 1 may not share the blunt and descriptive brutality of Part 4, but violence is visible throughout, from the mentally unstable artist Edwin Johns (who cuts off his own hand in the name of art and money), to the brawling ‘war’ between taxi drivers and bouncers in Mexico City. Violence begins to cloud the minds of the critics, bringing both subtle and hard eruptions of disagreement and confrontation. Indications of darker times ahead.

How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.

The catalyst for the change is the search for Archimboldi. Through anecdotes and visits, the critics manage to pin down the author in a Mexican city named Santa Teresa (…the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape…) and they all agree to fly out to Mexico in the hopes of finally meeting their revered writer. Interestingly, at the last minute, Morini (who is permanently wheelchair bound due to an accident earlier in his life) chooses not to travel; perhaps he anticipates a change in the normally (once?) civil Espinoza and Pelletier, and fears things can only get worse in Santa Teresa.

They were convinced the city was growing by the second. On the far edge of Santa Teresa, they saw flocks of black vultures, watchful, walking through barren fields, birds that here were called turkey vultures, and also turkey buzzards. Where there were vultures, they noted, there were no other birds. They drank tequila and beer and ate tacos at a motel on the Santa Teresa-Caborca highway, at outdoor tables with a view. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.

The critics are well-versed in Archimboldi’s work, but are seemingly out of their depth in the actual hunt for the elusive writer. In Santa Teresa, their behaviour and states of mind become increasingly chaotic as they struggle to rationalise their environment. In Santa Teresa, even intelligent people can be easily lost. The critics obsess over finding Archimboldi, but instead they find – Santa Teresa? Standing on the precipice of a void, unfathomable to such an extent that they will never comprehend it without losing their sanity.

These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. But Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn’t understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them…And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself…

invisible ink

Brian McDonald is an award winning American author and screenwriter, having taught classes on screenwriting and the art of storytelling at several major studios such as Pixar and Disney. He has released books containing his knowledge, his teachings of the craft, one of which, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stores That Resonate, is the focus of this post. He also regularly posts analysis and criticism of popular films on his ‘Invisible Ink’ blog (

McDonald’s angle is this; there is much, more more to storytelling than what is said, or written, by the author, or screenwriter. Dialogue and description only goes so far. ‘Invisible ink’, as McDonald calls it, is just as important. A structure beneath the surface of the story, perhaps not immediately noticeable when present, but jarring and distracting when it is ignored, or not given enough consideration.

invisible ink 2

Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about “the script” for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together – the beauty of a sentence. These are all forms of “visible ink”. This term refers to writing that is readily “seen” by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing. But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller’s point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing. These are all forms of “invisible ink”, so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.

McDonald draws on a wide and varied range of popular films, plays, TV shows and books to illustrate his points Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Twilight Zone, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz and many more are referenced.

With any writing guides (or indeed, any advice for pretty much any topic, ever) it’s worth noting that this is not a strict blueprint that must be followed and if ignored, your story will fail! because of course, there are no concrete rules to writing stories. What McDonald strives to get across, is that certain aspects of story can be too easily overlooked, and in the majority of cases, this can lead to a weak theme (or armature, as McDonald likes to use), unreliable characters, unsatisfying endings and the like. With the rise in postmodernist literature, standard narratives are experimented on and played with, many techniques I like to read and enjoy deploying myself. But you’d be surprised how many books which you would consider as unorthodox still play by a lot of the ‘rules’, and how different aspects like ‘ritual pain’ and ‘personal hell’ are present in films that on first glance are nothing alike.

What does it mean to tell the truth when writing fiction? For one thing, it is not about facts. Storytellers are not concerned with facts, just truth. Sometimes facts can even get in the way of the truth. When you are watching a horror movie and you know that the girl in the tank top and panties shouldn’t go into the basement alone, and you know she has other options, but she goes into the basement anyway – that’s a lie. It only happened because the storytellers wanted it to happen, but not because it was a logical thing a reasonable person would do. On the other hand, if the girl does everything you would do, and is even a little smarter but the monster gets her anyway – now that’s scary.

The final chapter contains the screenplay for McDonald’s award-winning short film WHITE FACE, a satirical documentary style affair (mockumentary? I’ve never used that word before but it seems apt) in which several clowns are filmed and interviewed in America, living lives as doctors, engineers, old people; basically, as members of society. It deals with racism, and the prejudice these clowns face in the real world, our world. It’s incredibly well written, and is still used today by businesses as a diversity-training tool.

I didn’t find too much in this book that I would call groundbreaking. But I did catch myself nodding in agreement frequently (no, I really did), because a lot of what McDonald writes makes senseMcDonald’s insight into storytelling is refreshingly sharp and accessible and he teaches you valid and simple points in an effortless way. It’s a short read because it doesn’t need to be long. McDonald makes a point, reinforces it with a myriad of references. And you find yourself thinking – yeah, okay, that makes sense. Writing stories clearly comes naturally to him. Just like Invisible Ink, a good story doesn’t necessarily need to be complex.

station eleven

My reading list of the previous eighteen months has consisted largely of classics. The books by renowned authors, the entries that feature in every to-read-before-you-die list, and as such I’ve managed to avoid picking up too many duds. But this has lead to me falling behind on what is good now. Books that took 2015 by storm, The Martian, A Brief History of Seven Killings and Go Set A Watchmen, to name a few, which all remain on the list. But one book that piqued my interest, and was subsequently fast tracked, was a book written in 2014; Station Eleven, by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven describes an apocalypse where a strain of flu (from Georgia of all places) wipes out the majority of mankind and cripples civilisation. Yet I’d struggle to define its genre as science-fiction, or post-apocalyptic – these both fall short. It’s a tale of human survival on a deeply personal scale, focussing on a core group of characters that are loosely linked with narratives before and after the epidemic. All written elegantly by Mandel in her understated way.

station eleven3

When Arthur Leander, famous actor and at 51 playing the role of a lifetime as the titular King Lear, dies on stage along with his lifelong faults and regrets, his death is overshadowed by a flu epidemic, a modern plague that plunges civilisation into darkness, hunger and fear. Leander’s death is witnessed by those in the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and a young girl on stage, aged eight, who watches the paramedics struggle in vain to save him. Unknown, humanity stands on the brink.

No more countries, all borders unmanned.
No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space.
No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

Twenty years later, that young girl on stage in Toronto is now 28; her name is Kirsten Raymonde and even in this shattered world she continues to perform, is a member of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians that are devoted to traversing through settlements performing Shakespearean plays and live music with tattered and scavenged instruments. The world is as you might expect; without electricity, humanity scattered and dirty, adapting and surviving, all progress halted when the focus turns to staying alive.

All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.

The book has a very human feel to it, a tenderness that runs to its very core. Its, and the Travelling Symphony’s, devotion to the arts in the apocalypse of all places is a refreshing aspect and the Symphony’s mantra, Survival is Insufficient, is relevant and understandable. And while this world does not seem as dangerous and bleak as other post-apocalyptic tales (The Road, I’m looking at you) I like to think it’s the hope and good that most of these survivors need to possess, and their determination to not only survive, but bring the elegance and the arts, so difficult (impossible) to maintain in the early years but that the Symphony strive for, live for. But it also results in the threat of the (somewhat generic) religious prophet as the ‘bad guy’ never seeming that strong or dangerous. Whats more the origins of the prophet felt a little forced and all rather convenient.

“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance”.

Where Station Eleven shines brightest, for me, are the alternating periods of time, before and after the outbreak of flu that stopped civilisation in its tracks. In particular, Leander’s ex-wife Miranda and her self-illustrated and eventually self-published graphic novel, the titular Station Eleven. I’ve spoken about my fascination with the premise of a book-within-a-book before when I posted my thoughts of The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and there are parallels with the post-Georgia flu world and Miranda’s Station Eleven comic book which propelled (but never quite satisfied) my interest.

Despite Arthur Leander’s death at the very beginning of the novel, he shares the protagonist mantel with Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor in King Lear on stage when Arthur dies. And there are several connections between the central characters. Jeevan Chaudhary, a former papparazzo (who lurks outside Leander’s house) turned entertainment journalist (whom Leander takes a shine to during a one-to-one interview) turned trainee paramedic (who is the first on stage to assist Leander when he dies of a heart attack on stage in Toronto). Miranda Caroll, Arthur’s first wife who is obsessed with creating Station Eleven, with Doctor Eleven and his dog Luli on a planet shaped space station, refugees from their home on Earth, and in which Miranda draws several inspirations from her real life troubles with Arthur and his celebrity lifestyle, which are indirectly relayed to Arthur himself years later when Miranda finally finishes the project in the months leading up to the plague. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who advises and consults professionals while sleep-walking through life, and sees the development of Arthur’s son Tyler (from his second wife Elizabeth) from troubled boy into deranged religious prophet.

Perspectives shifting back and forth in a story is by no means new, and at first I wasn’t sure on Mandel’s reasoning for it, on her choice to tell the story in such a way. But the book grew on me, and while it has its slower moments (a section towards the end of the novel detailing Clark’s experiences in Severn Airport while the outbreak spread was…tedious, especially after the book had begun to gain momentum), it has far more touching moments, beautiful moments, moments that come out of left field and make a page far more memorable than you might have expected; and to finish, one such example, on how to sleepwalk through your life.

Okay, say you go into the break room, and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word. You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”

in the penal colony

Written in 1914 and published five years later, In The Penal Colony is another of Franz Kafka’s famous short stories, or novellas, which reads in that Kafkaesque way that is so unique to one of the major writers of 20th century literature.

The story takes place in a penal colony, unsurprisingly; a settlement of prisoners and officers on an island plagued by the crumbling and fading traditions of a past leader, with only one living supporter. Now long gone and forgotten, the only legacy of the previous commandant is a brutal machine, a device of capital punishment, of which he designed, built and enforced during his reign. Most have shunned its barbaric methods but the machine is kept alive by an officer who is devoted and strongly believes in its form of justice, carrying around the indecipherable blueprints for his eyes only like a sacred crutch.

The unnamed explorer is a visitor from Europe, a guest to the island, invited by the officer to witness the execution of an unknowing man condemned to death on the machine. The device etches, carves – over the course of twelve hours – the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin: a living, suffering canvas. The officer wishes the explorer to change the mind of the current commandant, of which the machine and its brutal justice has fallen out of favour. If the explorer can only see the epiphany, the mystical enlightenment experienced by the condemned as he dies, with his own eyes, he can advocate the continued use of the machine to the current commandant.

The explorer thought to himself: It’s always a ticklish matter to interfere in someone else’s affairs in some decisive way. He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the country it belonged to. If he wished to condemn the execution or even prevent it, they could say to him: “You are a foreigner, keep quiet.” He would have no reply to that, but would only be able to add that in this case he didn’t even understand his own motives, since he was travelling purely with the intention of seeing things, and by no means that of altering other people’s legal codes, or the like. But matters here were truly very tempting. The injustice of the proceedings and the inhumanity of the execution couldn’t be denied.

The officer tries to sway the explorer with a long and passionate speech on the justice the machine provides, of the glory days of the old governor. When it becomes clear to the officer that the explorer, who has deliberated over whether he should state his opinion at all, despite internally expressing bemusement at the officer’s fanaticism and horror at the seemingly unjust and violent sentence, will not provide support for the officer (and in turn the regime and device created by the old governor), he acts in one last of desperation to sentence himself; “be just”. The office removes the condemned man from the machine (of which his sentence had already begun to be etched) and configures the dilapidated machine to accept its final orders of ‘be just’ before laying down to accept his fate. However the malfunctioning machine breaks, cogs fall and needles break, and the officer is denied the revelation of those he has put to death, dying quickly and half tossed into the bloody pit below.

the device

The explorer arrives at a teahouse with the now free condemned man and the soldier who had been guarding him. Amongst the tables and chairs lies the grave of the old commandant; above his bones the current inhabitants live on smoking and drinking, unperturbed at the possibility of disrespecting any memories. The gravestone reads “Here lies the old governor. His followers, who may not now reveal their names, dug this grave for him and erected this stone; There exists a prophecy that after a certain number of years the governor will rise again and lead his followers out of this house to reconquer the colony. Believe and wait!” The explorer leaves by boat; the condemned man and the soldier run down the harbour, presumably in an attempt to leave with him, but the explorer picks up a heavy mooring rope and prevents them from coming aboard.

“The Old Man is buried here,” said the soldier; “the priest refused to allow him a place in the cemetery. For a while people were undecided about where to bury him, finally they buried him here. I’m sure the officer didn’t tell you anything about that, because he was naturally more ashamed of that than of anything else. He even tried a few times to dig the Old Man but at night, but he was always chased away.”

How deep can we go in analysing Kafka’s work? How much is allegory, what can we extrapolate, speculate on? What can be taken at face value? Everything of Kafka I have read has enthralled me. A deep unease, an uncertainty of exactly what the hell is going on, and what (if anything…?) Kafka is trying to tell us. I wouldn’t say I read to analyse deeper meaning or to critique, any more than I read out of enjoyment for a good story and the beauty of excellent prose, but I can see why an author like Kafka can create such varied discussion and thematic dispute even now. I understand that In The Penal Colony can be considered in a number of ways; personally its strongest themes are tradition and old customs, how they stand the test of time, and how they are perceived (and altered, forcibly or subtly) by outside agents, i.e. the explorer.

The explorer looked at the harrow with furrowed brow. The information about the judicial procedure had left him unsatisfied. All the same, he had to tell himself that this was, after all, a penal colony, that special regulations were required here, and that a military code had to be followed, even to extreme limits.

We get an early (and upon my second read of the story, a blindingly obvious) hint at the steep tradition the officer adheres to, as he explains the reasoning behind wearing such inappropriate clothing in the heat, purely for tradition.

These uniforms are too heavy for the tropics, surely,” said the explorer, instead of making some inquiry about the apparatus, as the officer had expected. “Of course,” said the officer, washing his oily and greasy hands in a bucket of water that stood ready, “but they mean home to us; we don’t want to forget about home.

The explorer seems eerily nonplussed at the prospect of witnessing the condemned man die, and his often relaxed attitude contrasts the savagery the officer describes. And it is hard not to admire the officer, for while his believes are gruesome and antiquated he is utterly devoted to them and the ideals of the old governor, and his belief that he can still rescue the old ways. I felt religion was being referenced throughout In The Penal Colony, not least because there is an almost God-like aura to the Old Governor, with his one remaining disciple, the Officer, still attempting to instill his teachings and beliefs, despite many thinking them outdated and some even ridiculing them openly.

“Designs by the governor himself?” asked the explorer. “Was he a combination of everything, then? Was he a soldier, judge, engineer, chemist and designer?”
“Yes, indeed,” said the officer, nodding, his gaze fixed and meditative.

The officer’s devout faith to the old ways in which he clings to with religious zeal are clear, and always speaks of the old governor with reverence and nostalgia. Even the message (or warning) on the old governor’s tombstone under the teahouse is something akin to religious commandments on a stone tablet.

With so much of Kafka’s work, everything is up for debate. But In The Penal Colony can be enjoyed, no matter how deep you chose to read into it.

cities of the plain

And so The Border Trilogy – Cormac McCarthy’s sprawling coming-of-age epic set in the Southwest and Mexico – comes to a close. In All The Pretty Horses young John Grady Cole leaves home with a friend and throws himself deep into an impossible relationship in a dangerous land. And in The Crossing we are introduced to Billy Parham, whose multiple crossings into the unforgiving country of Mexico leave him battling his inner demons and chasing the ghosts of his past for years to come.

There were grounds in the bottom of the cup and he swirled the cup and looked at them. Then he swirled them the other way as if he’d put them back the way they’d been.

Cities Of The Plain sees these two cowboys together, working on a ranch in New Mexico. In 1952 John Grady Cole is twenty, Billy Parham twenty-eight. They are brothers and friends, working amongst other brothers and friends. Life is good on the ranch, for these two still enjoy and revel in the cowboy life and the old ways of the west, ways which are not long for their world or time. Billy has matured and his experience in the years that have passed stand him in good stead for the harshness of the West. He looks out for John Grady as he used to look out for his brother Boyd, whom he lost in The Crossing. John Grady remains a romantic, enthusiastic chasing his passions with optimism and hope. During a visit to a whorehouse he spots a young girl, Magdalena. She is beautiful and John Grady has fallen for her. Boy, he sure knows how to pick them. For Magdalena not only is a whore, but she is epileptic and her health frail, and the owner of The White Lake – the malicious and possessive Eduardo – is in love with her too.

border trilogy

I didn’t mean I’d seen everything, John Grady said.
I know you didn’t.
I just meant I’d seen some things I’d as soon not of.
I know it. There’s hard lessons in this world.
What’s the hardest?
I dont know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They aint comin back.

A tale is set in motion by an author with a masterful, mystical grip on the language. John Grady’s justifcation for his hearts wants, his anxiety waiting for his girl to make it out of Mexico and the clutches of evil, his desperation and despair as he realises he has lost her. Magdalena, murdered at the command of Eduardo, who is unable to allow her to leave to have a different life, to have happiness with another man.

Eduardo as a villain is sophisticated malevolence in the small glimpses we get but in the final act we see extended dialogue from him, to both Billy and John Grady. His jealousy and innate desire for superiority over his rivals builds to a brutal climax with a tense knife fight that sees Eduardo taunting and playing with John Grady, the two intertwined in a ritualistic dance to the death with John Grady the narrow victor.


When John Grady took his plate to the sideboard and went out it was just breaking day. The old man was still sitting at the table in his hat. He’d been born in east Texas in eighteen sixty-seven and come out to this country as a young man. In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.

Cities Of The Plain in comparison to its predecessors is dialogue heavy. Of course there are still wonderful passages of McCarthy’s meandering prose, but in this book the pace seems quicker due to the increased talk between ranch owners and ranch hands and friends and prospective horse sellers and Mexican street vendors and perhaps, because of the inescapable feeling that this vaquero lifestyle is doomed for all that continue to live it so impassionately. The emotional weight of the conclusion between these two characters is tragic but in a way fitting. With the world changing around them a man like John Grady needs to adapt to survive, something that he and his ruthless idealism are ultimately unable to do.

When you’re a kid you have these notions about how things are goin to be, Billy said. You get a little older and you pull back some on that. I think you just wind up tryin to minimize the pain. Anyway this country aint the same. Nor anything in it. The war changed everthing. I dont think people even know it yet.

The epilogue of the book (and the trilogy) sees Billy Parham at 78, an aged vagabond, travelling through America to nowhere in particular, with hands ‘gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it’. He has a meandering conversation with a man he believes to be Death about dreams, and dreams within dreams, and the whole ordeal leaves him thoroughly confused. Finally, Billy questions his identity, his purpose, his life, to a kind woman who takes him in; she assures him that she does know him, and to go to sleep. Perhaps in the release of consciousness and the escape of dreams Billy can finally rest.

He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.

I can’t recommend these books enough.