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: “The Dialectic of American Humanism”

Some insight into John Kennedy Toole’s debate with an old professor at Columbia, as “burlesqued” by his chaotic lead character, Ignatius. There’s a lot more here than a failing pyloric valve and its owner, the beastly pseudo-intellectual, raining bad vibes on New Orleans. Toole reproduced in comic form a great pissing contest on the origins of modern humanism.

The Dialectic of American Humanism

Notable Reads: Level (and Revel) to Some Purpose


The Badasses of 17th Century Britain…

Whether the Ranters comprised a cohered organization of religious heretics is still under historical scrutiny, though there’s a great deal of evidence that their practices and beliefs made up among the most radical in the first decades of 17th Century British heretical movements. They cursed incessantly, they fucked whoever whenever*, wore hats in-doors and threw ‘Thou’ and their clothes to the wind whenever they damn well pleased. Principled in their antinomianism, the belief that man was not bound by the Laws or Writs of religious institutions, they anticipated a much less violent Raskolnikov by a few hundred years. It was the duty of the Ranter to sin in order to prove his liberation from such shackles, an expression of extreme and democratic individualism born of the more moderate Calvinist elect ideology. The Vice Squad par excellence; impassioned advocates of vulgar anti-statism, perhaps, but a model of early Modern social protest to be admired today. Click here for an excerpt of Abiezer Coppe’s A Fiery Flying Roll, one of the best surviving examples of Ranter thought. The document cost Coppe a long unjustified imprisonment.

*well… Maybe. Their “lascivious” character was often leveled as a slander by their moderate Parliamentary and pro-Monarchy opponents, but whatever. Only the prudish were turned off.

Notable Reads: John Cheever

If you’re looking for a new read over this long weekend, don’t hesitate to start from Cheever’s beginning, The Wapshot Chronicle.

To the best of my knowledge, a screen adaptation, sadly, has yet to be written. I imagine the result to look like a David Lynch collaboration with Wes Anderson: dark and surprising facets of suburban life expressed through the personal episodes of a highly developed cast of family characters.

Notable Reads: “A Divine Comedy” by Elif Batuman

This month’s Harper’s Magazine includes an in-depth, beautiful picture of the Dante Marathon of Firenze – a collective effort of Florentine Who’s Whos, international academics and common Dante enthusiasts to read aloud the entirety of La divina commedia –  as presented by Elif Batuman, “writer-in-residence at Koc University.” Batuman’s ability to place Alighieri in a sweeping historical context of medieval demonology, contemporary politics, forensic anthropology and even wine production is remarkably natural (at one point she uses the word “douchebags” to describe a subset of la commedia’s cast of characters). Attached you can find a PDF of the essay; also below, links and images to some of its most striking details.

Batuman’s “A Divine Comey” – Harper’s Magazine / September 2011

In a move Feurbachian in technique, Batuman flips the notion of figuration, “a mode of analysis originally devised to reconcile the Old and New Testaments,” into a secular humanist historical device for explaining Dante’s modern legacy. She writes, “The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus in this world.” It’s a nice way of capturing – and negating – the pull religion continues to have on thought (for many) today. Maybe you’re blessed not to have dealt with Catholics growing up, so I will remind you that their lives often are – even if it’s simply in the nagging guilt of, say, sloppy pre-marital boning (“oh my!”) – guided by the notion that their actions in this world can take meaning only in the posthumous judgment of God. Incidentally, it was just in last month’s Harper’s that Vince Passaro, in his excellent review of Scorsese’s unique voice (the working class Italian-American worldview in Hollywood), quoted “America’s last tragedian” thus:

For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects.
[“Scorsese on the Cross: America’s last tragedian” by Vince Passaro
]

Compare this alongside Dante’s description of Ugolino – He raised his mouth from his atrocious meal, that sinner, and wiped it on the hair of the very head he had been ravaging – and we have the graphic literary vernacular of Dante as a figura of Scorsese’s cinematic perspective.

Finally, a photo I snapped of Ugolino at New York’s Met – those arms wrapping around him? Just the kids he is alleged to have eaten in a fit of cannibalism… Dante left very little to the imagination.