Q: Anthony, why is the fiction of Jonathan Littell and Roberto Bolaño currently all the rage in educated circles?
A: Once more to the liberal cesspool. Once more to the conservative craphouse. Clear enough?
Q: Could you expand?
A: As widely reported and discussed, Littell’s prize-winning mammoth novel, The Kindly Ones, which publishers are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to publish (and market), tells the fictive story of a “former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.” It’s a novel about atrocity featuring a sociopathic psychopath conveniently far removed from the sociopathic atrocities being perpetrated today by the respectable, by the more or less normal individuals and officials of the sociopathic corporate-state.
Q: And Bolaño?
A: He was instantly canonized. In the US, at least, Bolaño was instantly exalted once translated. Pervasive through his fiction is a deeply amoral pose. Established “taste” finds this deeply appealing. He strikes the pose purposefully as the centerpiece of his work. It provides a certain suspension, levity, tension – striking an amoral pose in extremely morally fraught situations. Though there are some exceptions to this general Bolaño rule, amorality pervades character and plot and setting. It is the dynamo – more alive than character and plot and setting. Similarly, the weightless is also rendered amoral. For example, early in his long novel 2666 (Time magazine’s “Best Book of 2008”), Bolaño essentially guts the writing of moral and intellectual freight and poses the characters (scholars) as perceiving weight and meaning where there is none. The narrative view remains amoral, clinical, for there is precious little apparent consequence of any kind, of anything. Bolaño’s writing is not entirely sterile, as one can see the ironies tweaked and played and driven. Bolaño has a lot of experience of the world and he shares it. And there is some value in that. He is an experienced guy building experienced worlds of, well, experience – especially as compared with much of the fluff and pap published otherwise. He has been around and he takes readers around with him in a very nonthreatening (if unpromising) amoral way. So the establishment loves him. He is no threat to anybody’s wealth. He may in passing amorally illuminate a bit of the status quo. He will not cross examine it but skips off like a spaceship approaching the atmosphere of earth at too shallow an angle. He just skips off, back into space, away from the density and the most compelling gravity. Some people like that; more have been trained to it; many others merely tolerate it, or ideologically laud the style and effect, for various reasons including those heretofore noted. Bolaño sketches scenes with play and pathos and goes relatively easy on the satire. He alludes to matters of great weight but even in Nazi Literature in the Americas draws little more than what he intends to, comic blood. Even when overviewing mass murder in gory detail in 2666, the notes, as they feel, scarcely leave the state of the clinical. This is a strategy one might plausibly adopt when writing for money. Apparently, Bolaño wrote the bulk of his fiction for money and with some desperation given the illness he died of age 50.
Q: How much of Littell and Bolaño have you read?
A: Do you disagree with my observations?
Q: Actually, I share your views. What can I say? I’ve known you always. We have similar views on things. Bolaño seemed quite a character, some of which surely comes through in his fiction. So, like you, I suppose, I read through his stuff to see what he was all about, what all the hype was about, and while he comes up with some interesting passages, turns of phrase, insights, and gets across some adventure, the whole time I was reading I could not help but think that this guy sounds like a quintessential MFA student, with some talent and with a relative lot of experience. I mean, he reads like a more-or-less mundane workshop – maybe a bit brighter? – overall, in general, I’m saying – bunch of experience, jumpy moments, curio phrasings, and…at the end…ho-hum, not so much. Sort of a drifter, an experimenter, with some interesting and insightful work, yet work that seems sort of frank about struggling to engage even itself, work that works to keep itself awake by constantly toying, playing games. I mean, half the time, the guy sounds bored, and his characters sound bored, and are like, god, I gotta keep going to get something down here, to get some money. The writing shines in patches, as it had better, because overall the work can come off as one big shrug – who cares? Did Bolaño, really? Why? What is at stake? And who cares? You know, the poor guy seemed bored, typically, even with the whole topic of writing. Sort of passionless and pathetic, you know? Like the dude was writing, okay, but in the end mostly writing for grub. And who cares? Sort of pathetic. Sorry, that’s how I see it. That’s how it feels. He has some interesting achievements but in a sea of the dullard, even the abject. It seems not impossible to see Bolaño’s work as too often abject, or just flat boring, and bored. And yet not always unlively, at least in relation to many of the current even more dreadful literary standards.
A: You see now, you are even more harsh and scandalous than I. Your temperamental views are bound to even more greatly offend the establishment than my views – which I would call more considered and analytical. (I’ve read the bulk of Bolaño’s translated work.)
Q: I’m “harsh”? You joke, yes? I feel I barely rise to the level of scrappy.
A: I haven’t read the Littell book. No appeal. I’ll probably scan through it in a bookstore to get a sense of it, see if it’s in some way worth looking in to. So you see I cannot and do not comment on his novel now, only the discussion of it. None of the discussion about the book encourages me toward it, neither the pans nor the many praises. Sensation! goes the essential infatuation with these books. Some critiques delve a bit but root themselves in this: sensation! Thin stuff. Relatively thin and dreck stuff these critiques and the bulk of these books. That said, Bolaño has a few moments in his works. How could he not, as a more-or-less heads up guy who devoted something of an inspired effort to literature. A pity, the life within his work, like his own flesh and blood, too brief – though the establishment moves to enshrine and exalt his way forever.