Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Distant Star

I decided it was finally time to go back to Roberto Bolaño after a few years: I started this blog with a series of posts on 2666 for a group read, and toward the end asked if anyone had suggestions for where to go next. Really, I had planned to take a break but didn’t think it would be this long before I got to another. Going back to that post and the recommendations now, and looking at the blurbs for a few options, I wound up choosing Distant Star (trans. Chris Andrews, 2004).

This much shorter novel follows the narrator’s experiences before, during, and after the Chilean coup that brought Pinochet to power, focused on his encounters with and 3rd-hand knowledge of Carlos Wieder. Wieder travels in the same poetic circles as the narrator before the coup, then rises to fame as a fascist poet before suddenly disappearing after a show that makes all too apparent the brutality suffered under Pinochet. Wieder is Ezra Pound crossed with a serial killer, his poetry etching Latin across the sky (as in: skywriting) while on the ground he tracks down and murders all the women (but one) associated with the poetry groups he frequented before the war.

The novel, like Bolaño’s other work I would say, is less about the killer than everyone else, all those whose reaction to the dictatorship is to avoid the problem and move to Europe. The narrator, notably, doesn’t even seek out information about Wieder, having it fed to him by a friend who won’t stop writing letters about Wieder and then brought into a search for Wieder by a detective. And yet, he doesn’t really resist these intrusions: he doesn’t want to know, but he does. He just doesn’t want to have to do anything about it.

I found myself engrossed by the first half of the novel, less interested in the second half. I wonder, though, if that is not partially a reaction to the narrator’s increasing distance from the action even when he is involved. The novel gains a lot of momentum from the curiosity spurred by Wieder’s initial indecipherability where his disappearance does not: it is narratively and emotionally anticlimactic, exactly what you want but bringing none of the relief. So perhaps my disenchantment as the novel wore on was part of the point. In any case, Distant Star is short enough to be well worth the read.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

NW

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW, has a remarkable long section beginning halfway through, a series of various-length chapters that recount the life story of Natalie Blake, one of two women at the center of the story. Chapters, maybe, is the wrong word, the numbering and page layout really more suggestive of a life structured like an argument: Natalie is a barrister after all. But the argument is not so legalistic as it is a distillation of humanistic theory, most of the chapters invoking one of a hodgepodge of theoretical discussions. Sometimes these theorists are invoked directly in the text--a party where a bunch of students dress as “Discourse Founders” including Franz Fanon--but more often the language of theory movements frame the narrative. The socialist feminist critique of “the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies” in one section, and later Judith Butler’s use of drag as a model for how identity works. There is the end of history, and then Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and class trajectories—although one mainline of realist fiction has been sounding like Bourdieu since before there was a Bourdieu, so maybe that shouldn’t count.

What is fantastic about this section, though, is how compellingly Smith channels the different theories as a way of framing Natalie’s life and psyche. It is a character-driven story where the character really has very little interior life that is not an internalization of external perspectives, and all these theories are in some ways the best things she grabs from the world around her because they give her some critical distance from the less likeable aspects of herself.

More generally the novel is about a friendship between two women that has frayed over the course of their lives to the detriment of both. There is a homoerotic undercurrent to this friendship, perhaps more strongly felt on one side than another, but while the novel indicates some missed chances for a connection there, it doesn’t really suggest they belong together either (Leah and Natalie’s desires for the future don’t have much in common). Rather, that attraction is just one aspect of the broader friendship that sustains them when they are able to recapture it. Yet, at the same time the narrative searches for ways for them to reconnect, it also paints both characters with faults and shows how the friendship can buttress those faults in addition healing the two. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, although perhaps necessarily so: pushing readers along with the desire that the two women unite yet saving enough criticism to keep us from relief when they do make contact.