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.

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!)

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.