Notable Reads: The Spirit of Science Fiction (Roberto Bolaño)

Brilliantly written, but I’m not sure what this book is. It reads like a preface to something longer and more substantial (perhaps the author’s first attempt at an outline, in 1984, of The Savage Detectives?) while containing the hallmarks of previously published work, including a character set obsessed, unpretentiously, with literature (Distant Star) – its immediate living culture and all things related to its production – as well as a vague air of mystery or intrigue in the everyday (Last Evenings on Earth).

Is it a picaresque? Maybe in the adventures of its two protagonists, Remo and Jan, but I wouldn’t call either roguish (though their friend Jose Arco, the motorcyclist poet, may count as one). They’re both idiosyncratic in very different ways that the author draws much attention to without much significance: e.g., Remo’s inability to get a hard-on even in the intimate presence of his love interest (which, by way of explanation, is due to testicular trauma at some other stage of his life); Jan’s private letters to science fiction notables in an effort – apparently – to unite the North and South Americas (not to mention his vague obsession with authoritarianism, which he sees even in the paint color of buildings). The essence of science fiction is literature containing something bigger than ourselves, than what’s simply on the page. It’s echoed in Jan’s letters to Tiptree, LeGuin et. al, as well as the central characters’ strange, sleuth-like search for a presumed conspiracy: what could have given rise to a veritable explosion of literary zines in Mexico City? (The question, as far as I can tell, is never answered.)

Teenage bohemians, they drink and stay up late, hosting parties in their rooftop apartment somewhere in Mexico City. Jan, ever the homebody, builds a furniture set comprised of science fiction novels. He insists it’s sturdy enough to write upon. Remo buys a motorcycle called The Aztec Princess, in a moment of sadness desperate for life lived to the utmost (or something to that effect), but probably to impress the aforementioned love interest, Laura, with whom he tours – or better, collects, in the sense of strategized experience – the legal, semi-legal and underground worlds of Mexico City’s spas. These scenes appear in a section called “The Mexican Manifesto” and comprise the sexiest of all the author’s writerly abilities. Bodies glistening on bodies; soap-covered sex; performance art slipping into soft pornography; libertinism at its chemically pure and youthful.

So adventurous not in the grand sense of the word, but Jan and Remo are young, smart and looking for their place in the intellectual life of CDMX: this is a fine look at their valiant efforts, erectile dysfunction and all. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I enjoyed being part of the ride, seeing the Mexican sunrise so many times without myself losing sleep.

[Notable Reads] A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye

Leaders of the Tibet Work Committee, 1951

For many reasons, the story of Phünwang’s life can provide much insight into our understanding of one important period of modern Tibetan history. The existing literature on modern Tibet has undeniably been monopolized by the voices of Tibetans such as lamas, lay officials, and aristocrats who dominated the traditional semifeudal society and opposed modernization. Their accounts tend to present an orthodox “good Tibetans against bad Han Chinese” thesis, and have become the face of Tibetan nationalism in Western literature. However, we should acknowledge the role of other Tibetans, among whom Phünwang is one of the most important, fighting for very different Tibetan nations, within the complex and intricate story of modern Tibet.

HSIAO-TING LIN

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

I got turned onto Marlon’s writing with A Brief History of Seven Killings. It’s become his breakout novel and the first I had heard of, but it’s far from his arrival on the literary scene. He’s outspoken about his publishing troubles (something like 80 rejections of his debut before finding a home at the legendary Akashic imprint) and – like George Saunders, Salmon Rushdie – found work as an advertising creative, slogging through dull jobs while writing on the side. I think my experience reading him is a lot like others who were taken by Seven Killings – a Booker Winner (Jamaica’s first) that came, seemingly, out of nowhere like a summer thunderstorm. And he’s quickly become one of my favorites, not just for his singular voice and raw intensity, but as a literary persona. He comes across as approachable, funny, super cool and someone who you could drink with. In fact, since his local bar is pretty close to my own apartment, it’s not hard to picture walking up to him – pina colada in hand – asking, “so which are the two pages your mother’s not allowed to read?”

It started as a joke, apparently: “Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the ‘African Game of Thrones.'” I can understand the marketing reasons behind it (GOT SELLS!), but it’s a shame that every review has come to describe Marlon’s latest in those terms, as though the book requires a reference to be understood. Without giving too much away: yes, there’s a surface-level parallel between much of Martin’s and James’s worlds. A King of the North and a Mad King; evil siblings and swords; monsters (vampires!), violence and a lot of fucking; necromancy too!; and not least of all, temporo-spatial portals providing physics defying shortcuts through a fictive medieval land. So it’s a legitimate comparison, if not the most helpful one for folks intimidated by the page-count (the first one runs out to 620+ pages of dense, challenging prose). And while the comparison struck me throughout my first read, I’d warn anyone looking to experience binge-able entertainment: BLRW might not be for you.

Shame, I said, but the comparison might be helpful if you focus on the differences. Take the sex and violence (please!) – it’s more intense, more brutal and far less gratuitous, which – this is hard to imagine without diving into the book – makes it all the more real and disturbing. I’m not talking in terms of how man people die, though there are lots, children and babies included, but it’s not on the Blood Meridian spectrum. McCarthy’s treatment of violence might actually be closer to Game of Thrones than anything in BLRW in that both works are just ridiculous: a complete onslaught of completely absurd, mindless blood-spilling that’s desensitizing (and maybe that’s the point). Before I read that Marlon makes the same point on this subject, I felt that the book creates an odd and intense sense of suffering – not simply violence. This was intentional, something like a rejection of the uses and abuses of violence in film and fiction:

I actually think this kind of antiseptic, clipped, edited version of violence I see in literature sells it short. If you don’t read the scene of the murder of a child and find it unbearable, then that scene failed. I think people are used to violence, but they’re not used to suffering. In Hollywood films, we see violence, but we don’t see suffering. In my writing of violence I do not escape suffering and I think one of my violent scenes is equivalent to 30 of someone else’s. I get this rap of being too violent, but actually what I’m saying is that violence comes with consequences and suffering and I don’t blink at either. So it’s going to reverberate longer in my books.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/17/marlon-james-interview-black-leopard-red-wolf)

Elsewhere, Marlon has spoken against gleaming contemporary lessons from a fantastical work, but if you frame the book’s concentration of suffering in terms of bodily violence towards the oppressed by those in positions of power it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the news today. The book is riddled with horrible acts of repressive violence and bigotry – slavery, rape, murder, psychological abuse, self-denying enchantments, literal blood-sucking, extreme homophobia – that never come across as moralizing or intended to teach a lesson. The ugliness of the world is ever-present and the characters, like us, must learn to deal with it on their own terms, as they do here so compellingly.

Apart from the treatment of violence – or better, suffering – what makes this book especially unique is its portrayal of sex and, particularly, homosexuality. I’m making comparisons again, but Tracker is the greatest and most surprising anti-hero since Omar from The Wire, both of whom happen to be gay. Homosexuality and gay sex are, like in Seven Killings, explicitly present throughout the book, but unlike Brokeback Mountain, it’s not the point of the story, as if to say, in ready-made Hollywood rebellion, “yes, gay sex is real – get over it!” There are a lot of holes and fingers and other parts going into various orifices with different levels of lubrication, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it on any reading list, even – or especially – for prudish religious weirdos. Sex is sex. Its earthly delights and dangers are indifferent to where your dick goes. And anyway, the world’s readers have experienced a severe dearth of epic fantasies with gay heroes fucking sucking and swallowing while getting on with their badass business of saving the world from eternal damnation.

For me, the most challenging part of the book is its plot, which on the surface is super straight-forward but takes the reader through a maze of places, characters and political controversies that can be totally disorienting. A bounty hunter with a supernatural sense of smell (Tracker) has been hired to seek a boy, who we learn in the first words is dead. Literally:

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

(James, 1)

Great. That’s not a spoiler, but I can understand if you’re asking what’s the fucking point? It’s not a bad question, and it’s what made me nearly give up on the book about 100 pages in. Where is this all going? Why do I care? The boy is dead, and you say that’s all I need to know – so why am I taking this journey? We quickly learn that these sorts of questions nag at the characters themselves, who all experience some form of existential dread and self-doubt at some point in the story. Part of the fun is seeing how their own motivations change and play out, especially Tracker’s, who is constantly challenged by others’ suspicion of authenticity. Part of me wished that the story were maybe 100-200 pages shorter, but those pages provide a rich backstory that – trust me – plays out beautifully in the end. It also helps that the villains and ghouls, to say nothing of the superb world-building and prose (it has a built-in culture of oral history as characterized by the griots: the Audible version has them singing), are complete brain candy.

Final takeaway: 10/10 – read this book, and more like it. If you can’t travel, read and learn some about the mythology of another not-so-faraway place. But if you can travel too, do that and take this as a guide.

(Book 2 is out soon, told by the Moon Witch Sogolon. Soon forward!)

desert recollection

stuck sank down thorns singing in their barrels
ocotillo always ocotillo dodging beer shards down through the distance

ten miles here looking like a footstep
killing fields on our easels
we imagined graced by our disgraced theater of anti-masculinity
first among generations

we ate poison
saw sounds
built castles in the sands
a world in boot treads
slept like dead

pink glow still shadow cast across a pugilist cactus patch
walking rotted wood on rusted horseshoes
peering down a tunnel of nothing
poison killed laughter but made new the sight

seeing through an approaching night toward sick dreams
split mind
internal voice damning
like an awful judge

on their way nowhere passed through camp eight glowing eyes and storming bellies
“narcos” someone joked the poison setting in again
we saw the lie of the city on the edge of the horizon
low city of the same same same same
lost forever disoriented back home in the maze of never there


Waiting Room Poem

The assistant tells me
stand on the scale
let me weigh your body

He proffers a foggy cup
inching closer and says
now move your bowels.

Clerical hens
Tapping away at the keys
Sidelong glances past the lychee.

I trapped a pellet like feed
and offer my shit to someone
anyone who wants a piece of me

(not a place for jokes
apparently)

–my self
In four cornered plastic sheets.

Don’t call
We’ll call you.
Doctor if anything’s wrong–

just wait. Wait
and place that worry on ice.

Francis: Not This Time or This Time but Maybe Next

after Bolaño

The old man sat as he always does outside my bookstore, early in the morning with the rising dawn, the air crisp and promising under a pink sky. Hawthorns chirped with staccato sparrow song and twitched with their movement like electric wires. I never saw the old man arrive, and though his appearance was not poor, I imagined that he lived, perhaps for the rest of his days, on this green bench in the square. That life a mythic sort of routine, and mine too for all he saw, our fates forever crossed in some unknown punishment by an arbitrary god. Or he lived nearby. I nodded hello and he answered by checking his silver calculator wristwatch, smiling with a certain satisfaction as if complimenting my punctuality. I wondered if he had been expecting me.

After switching on the lights and getting my morning tasks in order, I returned to the door and waved him in, but he never came. Only a friendly tip of his frayed scally cap. I had no way of judging the old man’s tastes, but somedays after closing I left him something to read. He offered a faint thank you in return and then placed the book or magazine just beside his right leg on the flaking green paint of his bench. The old man stared ahead peacefully in the soft glow of the square’s sole lamppost outside my bookstore. 

Another quiet summer passed and on Halloween, the square came alive again. Kids bumped around in the leaves with their masks and bags, scattering nervous squirrels up and down the trees in retreat, pillaging the willing retailers of their sweet wares. The bookstore was especially popular, and they came in droves to collect my comic treats, two Peanut Chews taped on their covers. I sat with the old man after closing and offered him a copy of Black Panther. “I saved one for you.” I said. “It’s what all the kids are reading now – I even saw a few T’Challas tonight.” He placed the magazine on the bench, smiled and thanked me in the same small voice as usual, only this time he followed by asking if I’d walk him home. I noticed that he looked weaker than usual, somehow older and perhaps unwell. I helped him up and noticed a pronounced limp, his left leg dragging stiffly behind the other. 

He didn’t live far off from the square, but he needed help with the five flights of stairs to his apartment. As we ascended slowly, I  imagined his bones hollow like a bird, his body weight hanging almost entirely, however lightly, on my left arm. He breathed heavy, with something that impressed me in its strength, like his lungs were still a perfect engine driving his otherwise exhausted frame, and looked down limply at the stairs, his head seemingly oppressed by the weight of the cap. He dug around for the key to the front door, which opened to a lofted apartment filled with desert cactus and exotic plants. The various bookstore gifts stood tall in one stack behind two potted buckhorn chollas, as if in a cage, guarded by the weaponry of their clustering spines. I only noticed then, seeing the books collected in one place, that I had unintentionally gifted books with animal names in the title.

Tiger Man
In the Skin of a Lion
To Kill a Mockingbird
Eight Little Piggies
Under the Jaguar Sun

A Wild Sheep Chase
Dreamtigers

I made a pot of coffee and we spoke for over an hour. Francis had emigrated a long time ago from Northern Ireland. My grandfather came from Belfast, a Catholic fireman, so it wasn’t for nothing that I asked for details of his town, down to the street. Grandpa wasn’t alive anymore, but Mom might remember, and I felt a strange urgency to commune like old countrymen with this man who had been so long a silent part of my daily life. Francis never wed, a father and sibling to none, friend to very few, but never unfriendly or lonely. He worked as a bomb defuser in Belfast throughout The Troubles, the only man in the department not to have taken an early retirement or worse, despite a near fatal blast that split his femur like rotted wood. That’s when the long walks became longer, he said, but he continued out of an enviable sense of duty. He assured me that he found goodness and satisfaction in this quiet life alone, and even felt fated to solitude — or perhaps happily resigned — by the curse of a profession that could in a blink steal him away and hurt those closest to him.

I left the apartment feeling something bigger and more specific than happiness, like I had read a book that I knew I would re-read again and again. I couldn’t wait to ask my Mom about Grandpa’s Belfast neighborhood and if he may have by wonderful chance known this Francis. But it wouldn’t matter now the way I wanted. The old man was gone the next day when I opened the bookstore, and it took several days and a call to police to find his little body among his flowers and cacti. Francis died alone as he knew he would. I installed a plaque on the green bench in his memory.