Dan

It was one of those strings of good weather days that are so rare here, absurd and surprising. The few clouds that had been grazing earlier were gone, vanished, blown away or drawn up into the deep unshifting blue of the sky. The clean high sunlight and clear air pulled out extra textures in everything: there were more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass (each one catching its identical, individual glaze of reflected sunlight), more ripples and glints on the lake’s rumpled surface, more submarine shifts below it.

I was coming around the lake, finishing the first lap of a walk. A guy was coming the other way, walking towards me, his dog moving back and forth in front of him at the end of a leash. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, of slightly below-average height, stocky and muscular, walking with the straddle-legged walk of short, muscular men, arms bowed out slightly. His nose was large but thin: a hatchet in miniature, a witch’s nose. His skin was slightly tan, and there was a day’s worth of stubble on his chin and mild acne along his jawline. His shirt had an image of the state of Ohio on it; across the image was the word “Ohio.” He was smiling and saying something to me.

“What?” I asked.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

He came nearer to me and stopped, pointed past my shoulder towards the sky. “D’you see it? Do you see it?”

“Where? What?”

“There was a seagull in front of it, but now – there. Do you see it. Or a hawk or something. Way up there.”

Way up, nearing the high central sky where the blue was heaviest, something small and white was moving, steadily, linearly: a cylindrical shape with a single fin on its back end.

“What is it?” I asked.

“See now you’ve seen it,” he said. “My wife and I saw one on the way here.” He looked around for a moment, as if for his wife to confirm his story.

“Yeah…” I said.

“We saw one on the way here, and I’ve seen them before. It can’t be a plane, it’s not leaving a trail behind it.”

“Yeah, I dunno…”

“What do you think it is?”

“Yeah I dunno, it’s definitely not leaving a vapor trail…”

“I’ve seen them all over.”

“Maybe a reconnaissance drone?” I said and laughed. “I dunno.”

“Looks like a little Pez dispenser shape. Yep, now you’ve seen it.”

I was still looking up into the blue sky: burdenless, unsmudged, faultless as a new chalkboard, the sun burning out all the blackness of space and all the other besmirching stars, so that all that remained was the unechoing cathedralized blue, falling up and up. I couldn’t see the flying thing anymore.

“They’re all over,” he said. He shook his head. “It can’t be a reconnaissance drone,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.

“Wow, yeah, I dunno…” I said.

“Well now you’ve seen it too,” he said, and started to walk past me.

“Okay,” I said with a laugh, and started to walk away.

“Hey what’s your name?” he asked.

“Ben,” I said.

“Ben, I’m Dan,” he said, and looked back up into the sky. “I’m glad you saw it. Now you’ve seen them too!”

“Yup,” I said, laughing again.

“The little white, Tic Tac up in the sky!”

“Yup,” I said.

“Alright,” he said. “Thanks Ben!” And he walked off with his dog.

He had just started his walk, and I was only in the middle of mine. I would have to see him again.

Review: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

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I bought a copy of Naked Lunch at the most excellent Book Lady in Charlotte, NC, and read it over the course of a few days.

It was sweltering mad hot as I read Naked Lunch; the nightmare of Ohio’s high midwestern summer spun itself out in days of bright, flat light and soaked air, the white sun unwinking in skies cloud-washed and bleared, like half-finished Renaissance paintings; stupid, cruel, brutal days that came one after another, seemingly endlessly, like a fractal growing out…

Naked Lunch, Burroughs says, is not a novel, which is a helpful fib. The book definitely shambles into view with a much different physiognomy than your average novel. A series of episodes are related, concerning a number of umbrageous characters; episodes sometimes stand in coherent or incoherent isolation, sometimes continue stories that have begun elsewhere in the book, and/or elaborate on ideas or concepts introduced before or after in the text.

The plot with which Naked Lunch begins and ends is the narrative of an addict named Lee as he tries to escape a city full of cops, agents, and other squares. The Lee story quickly fractures beyond repair as episodes begin digressing, snaking in characters, locations, and scenes with no direct connection to Lee’s story other than being informed by the same controlling aesthetic and its metaphors, preoccupations, concerns.

None of this is helpful, none of it gives you the slightest idea what Naked Lunch really is; some excerpts, then. Burroughs intended Naked Lunch to be readable in any order you choose: front to back, back to front, scattershot at random. “You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point…I have written many prefaces,” he writes near the end of the book; and then later, even nearer the end:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and streets noises, farts and riot yips and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bullhead, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trance, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramadan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle…

Burroughs’s prose style: elastic, omnivorous, digestive, panglossal, striking out with a thousand tongues, slipping into different registers at a highwire clip.

Look at that dragontail first sentence, which:

1) Starts with a biblical tang (“The Word”) that 

2) segues into an almost-affectless instructional tone to talk about the book it is a part of (“divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken”) with just a hint of offness in its grammar (“be all in one piece,” “the pieces can be had in any order”), then 

3) flows into a sonic near-free association (“back and forth in and out fore and aft”) before

4) deflating itself with the slangy, lewd, lowbrow (and also still with the torqued grammar) simile of “an innaresting sex arrangement.”

(Note: Burroughs is also capable of straightforward beauty too, plain accessible great writing: “heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells” is frightening, coldly gorgeous; it wouldn’t be out of place in a story from Jesus’ Son)

Naked Lunch is not really a ‘drug book.’ 

But it’s also the ultimate drug book. Characters in it do heroin and cocaine et al., but Naked Lunch shows us drugs and highs that transcend even the degradation of the hardest of ‘real’ drugs; and everybody is an addict of something. Early on there is the case of Bradley the Buyer, a narc so anonymous-grey he can buy from any pusher without suspicion; but eventually Bradley develops strange addictions of his own:

Well the Buyer comes to look more and more like a junky. He can’t drink. He can’t get it up. His teeth fall out. (Like pregnant women lose their teeth feeding the stranger, junkies lose their yellow fangs feeding the monkey.) He is all the time sucking on a candy bar. Baby Ruths he digs special. “It really disgust you to see the Buyer sucking on them candy bars so nasty,” a cop says.

The Buyer takes on an ominous grey-green color. Fact is his body is making its own junk or equivalent. The Buyer has a steady connection. A Man Within, you might say. Or so he thinks. “I’ll just set in my room,” he says. “Fuck ‘em all. Squares on both sides. I am the only complete man in the industry.”

But a yen comes on him like a great black wind through the bones. So the Buyer hunts up a young junky and gives him a paper to make it.

“Oh all right,” the boy says. “So what you want to make?”

“I just want to rub against you and get fixed.”

“Ugh…well all right…But why cancha just get physical like a human?”

Later the boy is sitting in a Waldorf with two colleagues dunking pound cake. “Most distasteful thing I ever stand still for,” he says. “Some way he make himself all soft like a blob of jelly and surround me so nasty. Then he gets wet all over like with green slime. So I guess he come to some kinda awful climax…I come near wigging with that green stuff all over me, and he stink like a rotten old cantaloupe.”

Characters like Bradley are always transforming, mutating, growing orifices, emitting strange liquids in response to their addictions and secret needs – like fucked up renditions of myths, corrupted fables warning against corrupting yourself,  against submitting to the Control that bloods the heart of any addiction big or small.

The plot, the real plot of Naked Lunch is a catalog of horrors. Its aesthetic payload detonates and opens up collapsed shafts in our hearts, ones we’d hoped to keep closed, forgotten or at least ignored. Naked Lunch is a spelunking expedition into depravity and unhappiness; the heightened, hellish scenes of disgusting, demeaning, dehumanizing acts are exaggerations, but still proof of the shuddering dereliction inherent in our sick human souls as we progress through the days, succumbing to addictions more or less quotidian.

Drug addiction is, of course, its own separate thing, an illness onto itself. In some of the ancillary material appended to the text Burroughs makes that clear. But the junky in Naked Lunch is also an everyman, hearkening to the demands of his inexplicable sickness like we all do. I don’t know why I’ll spend an evening paralyzed on the couch, rereading articles I’ve already read on my phone, for hours – but I do it anyway.

Burroughs also highlights the very troubling fact that, when it comes to our secret susceptibility to Control, pleasure and pain are really the same thing.

“I deplore brutality,” [Doctor Benway] said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence, gives rise, when skillfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt. A few rules or rather guiding principles are to be borne in mind. The subject must not realize that the mistreatment is a deliberate attack of an anti-human enemy on his personal identity. He must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him. The naked need of the control addicts must be decently covered by an arbitrary and intricate bureaucracy so that the subject cannot contact his enemy direct.”

See Proverbs for Paranoids 3: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” See your own sick heart.

So the ugliness on display is not a shocky, shlocky thing in Naked Lunch. It’s central metaphor, both narrative and textual, for our spiritual sickness. Here’s the central image of a heroin addict Burroughs refers to again and again:

I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out. If a friend came to visit – and they rarely did since who or what was left to visit – I sat there not caring that he had entered my field of vision – a grey screen always blanker and fainter – and not caring when he walked out of it. If he had died on the spot I would have sat there looking at my shoe waiting to go through his pockets. Wouldn’t you?

Yes, you would.

Naked Lunch is about putting things in front of you. Like all great books, it makes you see – which sounds facile but is both true and profound. The ugliness in the plot of Naked Lunch is a metaphor, but its aesthetic ugliness is a drill, the ice pick for breaking up our own frozen seas, a scourge for finding better ways, a disruption pattern from the last free radio tower.

In no direct way is Naked Lunch a depiction of any hopeful aspect of life or reality, but its total commitment to drilling deep, to being unafraid of ugliness in what it says or how it says it, is vital and hopeful. It’s plausible – likely – possibly certain – in the world we live in, to unremember that life can be more than a series of nonconsequential transactions; it’s even easier to forget that this unremembering is, itself, an addiction.

Naked Lunch, bedraggled subway sage, teaches that the only escape from the bullshit is to jump right at it and show expose it, to impale it on the end of a fork. “The way OUT is the way IN…” As always, Art is the only eyes we’ll ever have.

*****

A note on the text: I read the “Restored Text” of Naked Lunch, which purports to make many textual corrections and also includes a pretty sizable annex of outtakes and other material. I read the three postscripts but none of the outtakes; I generally want to hew as close as possible to the text as originally released unless there are obvious reasons why that original text is not optimal.

If you decide to buy Naked Lunch on the strength of this review, please consider purchasing it from a local used or new bookstore, or from an independent bookstore’s online storefront.

Reasons to Read Gravity’s Rainbow

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Thomas Pynchon is my literary father. Without his example I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to become a writer. He set me my example, not so much with his style, nor even with his ambition, but with his actual achievement, with the living proof in the several thousand pages’ worth of art he has made over his career.

(And to be sure, a lot of it in those early days was also how the way that reviewers wrote about him pricked at my own blossoming ego, my own starving heart).

Gravity’s Rainbow was the second Pynchon novel I read, but the first that I was aware of, and I christened it a personal landmark before I ever sat down to read it. When I finally did read it, I got little more out of it than a few nightmares and lingering images (the banana breakfast, the Kenosha Kid sequence, the Adenoid, u.s.w.) – which I guess isn’t a bad haul from a first read of any book…but either way it was due for a reread.

I’m about 450 pages in. I would’ve liked to be finished already and have a review up today for Pynchon’s birthday, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the stars. Maybe next year. But I did want to write something about Gravity’s Rainbow, so in lieu of a full-fat review here are some reasons why I think you’d like this book.

You Don’t Like Other Pynchon Novels

Gravity’s Rainbow is the least Pynchon-like of Pynchon’s novels. The usual clutch of Pynchon qualities – you might call them tropes – are either absent or, if they are present, they’re subsumed or otherwise reconfigured into the particular aesthetic at work here. Yes, there are dumb songs – but they often seem scary or desparate or sad here. Yeah, the narrative voice has that knowing Pynchon chumminess on occasion, but more often it lapses into prophetic, apocalyptic, or achingly mournful modes, made all the more foreboding/sad set against those lighter moments. Even the names, though they’re outlandish as ever, seem less jokey and more ominous in their connotations, like someone is desperately trying to tell you something but is prevented from saying it outright.

Some very few books demand a style all to their own, a special, unrepeatable language keyed to the task at hand and nothing else. Gravity’s Rainbow is one such book. Even if other Pynchon novels didn’t sweeten your tea, this one might.

You Like Metal Gear Solid

Isn’t there video footage of a V-2 taking off in a Snake Eater cutscene, or am I dreaming? Pynchon references Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima by name in Bleeding Edge; did he ever play Snake Eater, or any other modern Metal Gear game? I know he’s a cool old dude but is he that kind of Cool Old Dude? Did Kojima ever read Gravity’s Rainbow?

Someday somebody, who will either be obnoxious or interesting, is going to write a paper or thesis examining the connections between Kojima & Konami’s Metal Gear games and Gravity’s Rainbow (And maybe you’ll wish that you wrote it…) All the themes of those games are present in Pynchon’s book: the paranoia, an attunement to the metaphysics of war and espionage, the cinephilia, a death-wish fascination with military technology. Pynchon explores these themes on a level that the Metal Gear games don’t reach, but they’re also trying to be a different thing, and if you like what Kojima does at his best, and in particular if you like the vibes of Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots, or Peace Walker, there is a shocking amount of synchronicity to be found in Gravity’s Rainbow.

You Want a Different Kind of War Novel

Pynchon’s treatment of WWII, the Big Sappy Boy of 20th century wars, is singular. The excellent Pynchon in Public Podcast notes that Gravity’s Rainbow is less about war than it is about the bureaucracy of war – which, of course, means that it is indeed about war. It looks at war honestly, as the For Profit enterprise it actually is: a bloody excuse for cosmic levels of Buying and Selling. And thus in Gravity’s Rainbow, nations aren’t mentioned as often as companies are, institutions, organizations, divisions and subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. The cherubic smiling doughboy wobbling off to war with a crew cut and a fat ass is replaced with an accountant you never see. Romance drowns under a mountain of paper. People die.

So much of WWII is obscured behind genial self-satisfied smoke in wood-paneled VFW bars, or wet-eyed reverence towards Brotherhood or Sacrifice or Bravery or any of the other shoddy toys people’re given to distract them from the very real transaction of their death. Gravity’s Rainbow deconstructs these notions and replaces them with something much truer, and much scarier.

You are a Student of Architecture

You read enough books – you read enough great books – and you start to be less surprised by their greatness. Not less moved, necessarily (but that’s part of it too, rare are the reading experiences today that keep you flat against the couch as if pinned there by a spear of light, reading “The Try-Works” with absolute wonder), but less gratefully shocked at the capability of human genius.

But Gravity’s Rainbow manages to impress. Not by dint of its beauty – though it’s as gorgeous and surprising as a second moon would be – but by the faultless precision, the obsessive engineer’s agony that informs the placement of each individual word, comma, period, every ellipsis…The attention to detail here is such that a single word can become, through carefully planned repetition and recursion, a potent symbol all on its own, with the multiple manifestations, the different faces and attitudes, of the old gods.

Sure, you suspect that some of the more overt symbolism may not work as well – the tarot stuff isn’t always as interesting as you wish it were, nor as subtly interwoven as other elements – but you are sure that Gravity’s Rainbow is a triumph of organization and orchestration.

Image Credit: Landschaft mit Regenbogen 1810 by Caspar David Friedrich. This particular image of the painting comes from Otto Sell’s amazing online Pynchon resource. Make sure to check out the artwork he has there from Marca Mericawhich I wanted to include in this piece but were too small to really stick out.

Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

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2666 by Roberto Bolaño, who was born on this day in 1953 and who died 16 years ago, has been the most enjoyable reading experience of 2019 for me so far. It may be matched, but I don’t think it’ll be topped. Bolaño’s body of work has been cracked open for me like a door into a new world, which is not an experience you expect to have all that often as a reader, especially as you get older and your literary polestars have been set in place for years.

What is 2666 about? Primarily, hell. It riffles through reality’s thick dusty grognardian deck of hells: the hell of love, of jealousy, the hell of war and war crime, the hell of violence, the hell of ineptitude, capitalist hell, fascistic hell, hells of forgetting and of being forgotten – and maybe most of all the hell that is our final erasure in death, the only thing, ultimately, to which our ragged souls are inescapably contracted.

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In more practical terms: 2666 is about a dozen or so central characters – critics, reporters, detectives, writers – who are drawn, for reasons arcane and straightforward, to Santa Teresa, Sonora, Mexico, a city cursed with a terrifying crime wave during which hundreds of women are being raped and murdered: primarily young, primarily lower class. Many were workers in the maquiladoras, factories built by foreign corporations that have metastasized across Santa Teresa like cancers and have come to both define and poison the city’s growth. The life and works of a mysterious, elusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi are also an ongoing concern.

It’s also about burned books:

What would those who lived in the tenth dimension, that is, those who perceived ten dimensions, think of music, for example? What would Beethoven mean to them? What would Mozart mean to them? What would Bach mean to them? Probably, the young Reiter answered himself, music would just be noise, noise like crumpled pages, noise like burned books.

At this point the conductor raised a hand and said or rather whispered confidentially:

“Don’t speak of burned books, my dear young man.”

To which Hans responded:

“Everything is a burned book, my dear maestro. Music, the tenth dimension, the fourth dimension, cradles, the production of bullets and rifles, Westerns: all burned books.”

“What are you talking about?” asked the director.

“I was just stating my opinion,” said Hans.

“An opinion like any other,” said Halder, doing his best to end the conversation on a humorous note, one that would leave them all on good terms, he and the conductor and Hans and the conductor, “a typically adolescent pronouncement.”

“No, no, no,” said the conductor, “What do you mean by Westerns?”

“Cowboy novels,” said Hans.

This declaration seemed to relieve the director, who, after exchanging a few friendly words with them, soon took his leave. Later, he would tell his hostess that Halder and the Japanese man seemed like decent people, but Halder’s young friend was a time bomb, no question about it: an untrained, powerful mind, irrational, illogical, capable of exploding at the moment least expected. Which was untrue. (Page 666)

The novel is divided into five parts, best thought of as a series of five full-length mirrors. The first mirror is classically clear, perfectly appointed in a tasteful gilt rococo frame; but if you look closer you notice that the subject matter of the carvings on the frame is odd: no oak leaves tastefully curved like ladies’ wrists, but malformed claws holding the edges of the mirror for dear life; and instead of cherubs, knobby-kneed demons laboring gleefully under grotesque humpbacks peek at you from the frame’s corners. The second mirror has a dull sheen to it, but tracks its reflected images faithfully enough. Its frame is dingy and utilitarian, made of nicked-up plastic gone cloudy with finger oil from much handling, as if it has been moved from room to room; it’s the kind of mirror you might buy from Wal-Mart or another minor hell, trying to furnish your apartment on the cheap. The third mirror has no frame at all, just an angled chamfer around its perimeter to designate an edge. Its serene surface is disturbed by a big star-shaped shatterpoint, splayed out from a fist-sized center on the mirror’s right side, about at chest level, like somebody tried to punch whoever they saw there in the heart. There is no fourth mirror. The fifth mirror’s frame is workmanlike, made from unremarkable but sturdy pieces of wood, covered with a lacquer that makes it dark and glossy. And while the frame is clean the mirror itself is filthy, water-stained, with dark unerasable smudges and running topographies of permanent grime, as if it has been recovered from a shipwreck after decades in some cold northern sea’s embrace. It smells briny.

2666 is also about the utter fuckedness of dragging yourself through reality every day, how human life is at the mercy of things we have named but do not understand: fate, fear, hate, love, oblivion. All the bigguns that baffle us until the day we die.

These five mirrors are set up to form a star or pentagram, each corresponding to one of the shape’s five points. In the center of the pentagram there’s a dark hole, big enough to climb down into. So depending on where you stand and where you look, each mirror will reflect portions of the other four mirrors, the spaces between the mirrors, yourself, and the hole, in proportions you can alter by walking right or left, or by crouching or standing on the tips of your toes, like you’re calibrating a tint on a color wheel.

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2666 is the kind of book that makes you want to address it in metaphors and indirection, like a Heian lover; and that’s not only because it is dizzyingly good but also because it is the most haunted fucking book you have ever read.

To that end: is also about Horror, and horror.

Everything in 2666 eventually feeds into the enormity of the Santa Teresa murders, which are Bolaño’s white whale, his Rocket, his Judge Holden. They rise like a bad dream, gnawing at the edges of the scenery throughout Parts 1 – 3. In part 4, “The Part About The Crimes,” Bolaño plunges right into the eye of the storm, cataloging a large swathe of the murders in detail, from their “beginnings” in 1993 up until 1997. They don’t stop then, and ‘97 isn’t even 2666’s ‘present,’ but by then the sheer number of deaths has reached some kind of horrible apotheosis and moved beyond the scope of human comprehension, and although one potential suspect has been apprehended and others named, it is too late, far too late. Indeed, Bolaño presents the murders as having reached a horrible immortality, as being metaphysically unsolvable, an unstakeable Dracula, not only because the Santa Teresa cops are deeply corrupt and inept, nor because the companies behind the maquiladoras interfered with the investigations, nor even because the Mexican cartel seems involved, but because – I think – the central thesis of 2666 is that it has actually been too late ever since mortality first punctured the frail human dream. Too late for all of us, but also these lost women in particular.

Because the murders are also not Bolaño’s at all. For all its cosmological dread and dark reverberation, 2666 is never deaf to the particular unfairness of these deaths, of all this specific loss of life which has a very real corollary in the reality, the more than 300 female homicides in Ciudad Juárez. Part 4 is often described as being clinical, removed, sterile, like a police report. But it reads to me as an act of humane documentation. Bolaño, unlike many true crime writers, never succumbs to breathless fascination with the violence itself, or a fanatic obsession with the (possible) killers, who are presented as terrifying ciphers, nor even as a sentimentalized empyrean to these women, pretending to know more than he can about who they were. It memorializes the inhumanity of their death, the mystery of it, and the mystery of their individual lives all at once. Part 4 is a monument as much as it is a metaphor.

The whole of 2666 is fixated on memorializing, on making obsessively sure that every character who walks on stage gets his share of humanity, a suitable end to his minor story. You already know this, but Bolaño didn’t quite “finish” 2666 before he died. According to those in charge of his estate he came damn close, and I believe that. But I also believe that if Bolaño had his way, 2666 would have just kept growing, like Leaves of Grass, with more characters, more voices, more stories. The novel isn’t so much digressive as it is all-embracing, desperately human. There’s always time for another tale from another far-traveled stranger, and in its dark profusion 2666 isn’t afraid to deliver some of its most beautiful moments in these ancillary/not-ancillary tales. Consider the sad end of the Soviet science fiction writer Efraim Ivanov, who is actually a character in the journal of a another character, a journal that a third character finds long after the journal-keeper himself has died:

In 1937 Ivanov was arrested.

Once again he was subjected to a long interrogation and then they left him in a dark cell and forgot about him. His interrogator didn’t know a thing about literature. His principal interest was finding out whether Ivanov had met with members of the Trotskyist opposition.

During his time in the cell, Ivanov made friends with a rat he called Nikita. At night, when the rat came out, Ivanov held long conversations with her. As one might imagine, they didn’t talk about literature, and certainly not about politics, but about their respective childhoods. Ivanov told the rat about his mother, who was often in his thoughts, and his siblings, but he avoided talking about his father. The rat, whose Russian was scarcely a whisper, talked in turn about the Moscow sewers and the sky in the sewers, where because of the blossoming of certain debris or an inexplicable phosphorescent process, there were always stars. She also talked to him about her mother’s warmth and her sisters’ foolish capers, how she had laughed at those capers, even now as she remembered them they brought a smile to her narrow rat’s face. Sometimes Ivanov let himself succumb to despair and he rested his cheek on his palm and asked Nikita what would become of them.

Then the rat looked at him with sad, perplexed eyes and her look told Ivanov that she was even more innocent than he was. A week after he had been locked in the cell (although for Ivanov it seemed more like a year) he was interrogated again and no one had to hit him to make him sign various papers and documents. He wasn’t returned to his cell. They took him straight out to a courtyard where he was shot in the back of the head and his body tossed on the bed of a truck. (Pages 727 – 728)

Not a word, not a word is out of place here. Ivanov, with the tender ego of all bookpeople, notices his interrogator “didn’t know a thing about literature.” A talking rat is introduced with no fanfare, no pretense or posing. And I want to be clear about this: the correct reading of this scene is that Ivanov meets a real talking rat whose name is Nikita. He doesn’t hallucinate a rat, or hallucinate that a rat talks to him; the way this section is written makes it clear that Nikita is real. Bolaño brings us right into her world with the perfect, uncanny, inimitable discussion of the way the ceiling of a moldering Moscow city sewer can have a sky, to a rat who looks up. Nikita, is as sad as Ivanov with rattish innocence. And that we never see or hear of her again after Ivanov dies…

*Breathless, slamming my podium with open preacher’s palm* I mean, I mean, I mean, brethren, sistren, othren, allren, this is an ending worthy to conclude an entire fucking novel with, and yet in 2666 it is just one of many such moments, each as exactingly, as achingly realized as this’un. The desperation of connection, 2666 indicates, is the only antidote to death. And it’s not an antidote.

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But-but-but 2666 is also about the hell that is your world, the day- and nightlit ugliness you move through everyday: look at the desiccated houses, the sun-baked roads knocking your car’s alignment out of joint, the streetlights exuding their orange pollution like halitosis into the charmless humid evening air; or those cigarette butt nights of sleeplessness or drunkenness that bring you to some struggling lonely 24 hour diner, the only place with lights still on, uglier and sadder than they ever look in the movies, lit up like a malign jewel in the night’s fat velvet palm.

It also contains an extended vampire sequence.

In tone, in theme, in style and concerns, in ambition and achievement, 2666 is my kinda poison. I like it a lot, and I’d like it lot even if it fell short of true greatness. And I need longer to digest it, but 2666 is only one of two novels I can think of off the top of my head published after 2000 (the other being Against the Day, natch, which I haven’t read all the way through) that is immediately a genuine contender for that capital-G Greatness.

It’s also about how Art runs through the falseness of our lives like a river of blood. If that matters to you, go read 2666.

Image Credit: Various versions of Die Toteninsel by Alfred Stieglitz; from top to bottom: Third Version, Basel Version, New York Version, Sixth Version.

Dinner with Friend

We both waited for minute after paying for our meals – waited, I guess, for one or the other of us to say “Alright” or “I should head out” or “Okay let’s go,” so that we could leave.

So that we could put on our jackets and grab our umbrellas from the third, empty chair where they had been drip drying during dinner.

So I could go to the restroom to quickly wash my hands.

So that he could say goodbye to his ex-coworker who had spotted him from another table and waved.

So that I could hold the inner swinging door open for him.

So that he could then pull the heavy outer door open for me.

So we could walk out from under the tavern’s awning, shake our umbrellas, push them open, raise them above our heads – because it was still raining.

So we could stand there and briefly pretend we don’t know which way our respective cars are parked, pretend we don’t know we parked on opposite ends of the street (choosing to unremember, for this little skit, that we actually met outside the tavern on the way in, each watching the other approach from the contrary direction).

So we could stand far enough out on the street corner not to obstruct the passersby as we exchange goodbyes.

So I or he could say:

“Well it was good seeing you man,”

So that, then, he or I could say:

“Yeah definitely, let’s do this again soon. I don’t know why but I always forget you live so close,” even though both of us know neither of us would have forgotten that, but we laugh anyway at what we’ve said, at this little joke.

So we can then throw out farewells.

So that I or he could say:

“Later dude,”

So that, then, he or I could say:

“Yeah take care, talk soon!” as we struggle out of the last awkward gravity of parting, not knowing if we should hug or shake hands or wave.

So that we could settle on none of these things.

So that we could turn and walk, in opposite directions, back to our cars, underneath the old halogen streetlights, bright as poison, through the deep puddles in the crooked sidewalk and pockmarked street, soaking our good shoes that we wore, wetting the cuffs of our good jeans.

So that I could look up from underneath my umbrella’s brim, pretending to an epiphany, feigning a light heart and a free mind, but feeling, really, only relieved that nothing was resolved, and that neither one of us remarked upon the ways in which we saw the slow death of boredom and frustration overtaking the other’s face.

So that he could put his free hand in his pocket, and half-express to himself a wish that he had taken the time to mention that, for some reason, he couldn’t get this phrase out of his head: “Countries will trade birds in spring and fall,” wishing that it would have been easier to mention this, and remiss but also glad that we didn’t talk about the phrase, or aesthetics, or the architecture of a sentence, because he is tired.

So that we could go home undifferent, unaltered, unalloyed by anything outside of what we had to begin with, and be the same two cowards again tomorrow that we were tonight during dinner and after, as we walked steadily towards our cars, already forgiven by the rain’s long fingers.