Selena’s post on The Savage Detectives pointed me to this New Yorker Book Bench blog post, an alleged “user’s guide to Bolaño.” I’m not sure if I’d say so much I “disagreed” with the post as that it “depressed” me; is there a word for some mixture of the two? And it might seem hard for me to disagree per se because I’ve only read two of the books discussed, but I sort of do.
Putting aside the somewhat bizarre first paragraph, a necessary lede, at first I am almost taken in by this nice “For Completists Only” shelf idea. As a sometime-completist, I think these would be very sensible shelves to have. But then, Giles Harvey accuses Bolaño’s prose of being “often as flat as old seltzer water,” giving this as an example of such, from The Third Reich:
Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze, put everything else—my own daily struggles and the back-stabbing of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them
Am I dazzled? No. But wait. Let me go on before I justify this.
Harvey goes on to say that “prose-flatness is not atypical of Bolaño” and that he was “a great novelist who was not a great writer” with “little interest in the sentence” and “disdain [for] Jamesian refinement and polish.” Now, this Jamesian refinement and polish is, let’s not forget, a particular type of “good writing,” not some mathematical proof of it. He goes on to give an example, I suppose, of just this polish, but which Bolaño gives to a “moral toad” of a narrator, proof of said disdain.
But then as Harvey goes on to recommend five of Bolaño’s best works, you realize: gee, he keeps talking about narrators, and what the narrator is like. And what the books sound like—not just what they are about, but everything about what they sound like—completely depends on what their narrator is like. The Savage Detectives is great because the “ebullient” young narrrator “is at once comic and poignant,” and, well, that means he sounds good.
So back to that first quote above. I don’t know anything about The Third Reich (truly, other than what I read in this very blog post). But I immediately assumed that the narrator was not Bolaño, because it never is, I mean it always is, but it never is, and by never being him that’s part of how it’s always him. I’ve only read two of his books, but I’m pretty sure I know this. Anyway, point is: who the hell cares if it’s “flat”? It’s whatever it’s supposed to be.
And this idea that there is normally some link between fine, “prince[ly]” prose and moral propriety seems unfounded. It’s not Vladimir Nabokov who writes most of Lolita, after all, it’s Humbert Humbert, ephebophile extraordinaire.
Separately, I cannot help noting my extreme disagreement/depression/disappointment with Harvey’s final warning about 2666. “The book is a desert of negative space,” he writes, “across which the panting reader will search in vain for the traditional pleasures of the novel: form, character, coherence, meaning.” It is what it’s supposed to be. Complaining about “The Part About the Crimes”: “The result is neither horror nor sympathy. It is exhaustion.” It is what it’s supposed to be.
What reader doesn’t long to be impressed by the effective?