[With the bulk of your day likely consumed by work, meals, time spent with the family and mindless internet browsing, it can be intimidating to devote time to a book. Dusk Jacket Dispatch takes every Friday to profile an author worthy of your investment.]
In the last known interview prior to his death in 2003 at the age of 50, Roberto Bolaño — health already well in decline and near the top of a list for a liver transplant — spoke to Playboy Magazine with his typical enigmatic wit. Though he may have sensed the imminency of his death, I’d be surprised if Bolaño had any sense that he’d soon be deserving of distinction as, “the literary Tupac.”
Chilean by birth, but for much of his life an impoverished nomad (who once printed visiting cards that identified himself as “Roberto Bolaño, Poet and Vagabond”), Bolaño didn’t begin to write fiction in earnest until the 1990’s. But he proved prolific, at least at beginning new books — his untimely death left hundreds of unpublished pages, many of which have been collected and released under the term, “unfinished work.” The just-published, Woes of the True Policeman is supposedly the last of these novels, but like we said, Tupac. At this point he’s had almost as many books put out since he died than while he was living.
WHAT ARE THE BOOKS LIKE?
Bolaño’s books represent his own life as if seen through a kaleidoscope. A huge cast of characters recur from book to book (some only mentioned in one, to become large players in another), and many are clear composites of Bolaño himself. But hey, write what you know, right? He mythologizes himself by amplifying the threads that fueled him for fifty years — sex, life and literature. Renegade poets, painters, and social activists collide in his kinetic depiction of the present moment pummeling by. Bolaño can conjure the joyful energy of youth and the debilitating decay of death in equal measure, which gives his books their dynamism.
SOUNDS KINDA HEADY. WHAT’S A GOOD STARTING POINT?
The Savage Detectives. Bolaño’s first “big” book, it bears all the trademarks of his best work. A narrative collage featuring more than fifty narrators, the novel chronicles the many exploits and perceptions of a group of poets known as the “visceral realists.” Loosely based on a minor movement Bolaño himself began in Mexico at a young age, the novel tracks the allure of the mysterious poets and all those in their sphere of influence.
BUT I DON’T LIKE POETRY.
Fear not! Though Bolaño obviously loves it, his prose is fairly direct and easily digestible. Occasionally you’ll find some big robust sentences, but the work is so rhythmic and logical that it only propels you forward.
I WATCH A LOT OF MOVIES. IF HE WAS A DIRECTOR, WHO WOULD HE BE?
Paul Thomas Anderson. I kind of hate to throw out such a great one in the very first of these weekly pieces, but it just fits. Both depict worlds that at times can move at hyper-speed (the protagonist of Savage Detectives scribbling with eager anticipation in his diary every night is essentially a Dirk Diggler equivalent), and then suddenly come crashing to a halt (the only thing missing from the onslaught of grisly women murdered in 2666 is a shower of frogs). Both can do sprawl, but more importantly can drill into a character’s psyche and illustrate it through action.
WHAT’S HIS MASTERPIECE?
2666. If you find it takes you too long to get through the fractured narrative of Detectives, there’s good news and bad news with Bolaño’s best book. The good news is that it is split into five distinct parts, abandoning the broken-mirror style in Detectives. The bad news is that, at over 900 pages it’s not a pleasant one to carry around or read on the subway (but probably makes an excellent doorstop). Bolaño utilizes a horrific true circumstance — hundreds of unsolved murders of women and girls just south of the Texas border in the 1990’s — to frame his imposing tale of a creeping dread-aided apocalypse.
CAN WE HEAR ANY QUOTES FROM HIS WORK?
“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
“The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered in sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other words we never stop clinging to life because we are life.”
“Ivanov’s fear was of a literary nature. That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives. Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear that one’s efforts and striving will come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace. Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. Fear of dining alone and unnoticed. Fear of going unrecognized. Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers.”
Indeed. As you can see despite all his strengths, Bolano was still plagued by very human worries. For all the structural inventiveness and density of thought on display, he maintains that throughline of genuine humanity. So, are you going to check him out?
I’VE GOT TO WATCH THIS REAL HOUSEWIVES MARATHON.