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.

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