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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

Bolano and Imperfection

After breezing through the first hundred pages of 2666, I had the feeling that I’d finish the book in a week. I read By Night in Chile in a single sitting, Amulet in two, and Distant Star in perhaps three at most, so by extrapolating out, a week seemed perfectly reasonable.

2666 turned out to be a much slower read than I anticipated.

I think, probably, if it was like a 1,000-page version of By Night in Chile, I would have read the book in a week; but I’m not even sure what I just wrote makes sense. I’m not sure that By Night in Chile could ever be a 1,000-page work. By Night in Chile is so tightly wound that every word feels like it absolutely needs to be there. It is a book that, though complex, deals with very precise phenomena, and deals with them in a sharp, surgical manner.

I would argue that books the size of 2666 simply aren’t meant to do what books like By Night in Chile do. Books like 2666 take on the biggest themes their authors can imagine, and these themes are so large that it takes serious novelistic real estate to even establish them on paper. They end up being so complex and ambitious that even the best authors can get lost in them. This is all a way of arguing that perhaps there is no way to make a book like 2666 feel as clean as By Night in Chile.

I’m a big fan of imperfection in literature. Although I can admire the tautly constructed small novel for the endless arguability and interpretability offered by its enigmatic clarity–think of The Metamorphosis, for instance–I like the imperfect, large novels for the very reason that I can feel things getting lost and going awry within them. It’s these detached or misshapen pieces that often become the most compelling moments in the novel for me.

In his afterword to the first edition of 2666, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano’s literary executor, appropriately quotes this passage from the novel:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to tak eon the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing; they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I can’t imagine that Bolano wasn’t writing this self consciously; 2666 was his last book, by far his most ambitious. It followed a number of those "perfect exercises" and The Savage Detectives, which seems like his attempt to break out of the short novels into something large and ambitious, a midway station between them and 2666.

2666 is also, as far as I know, the only one of Bolano’s novels that directly deals with Nazi fascism, a matter that is discussed indirectly everywhere in Bolano’s works. I imagine that in writing about this Bolano was engaging in the "real combat" mentioned in the quote.

In addition to the Nazis, 2666 is a book about voids–the void represented by death, by cosmic boredom, by literary insignificance, by senseless violence and death. 2666 engages in real combat with all of these, and now that I have finished the book I want to go back and consider how well Bolano has waged his battles, how well he has added to these concepts, how deeply he has probed them, and how well they function as complements, placed, as they are, side by side in the 5 "books" that comprise 2666. This, I think, will be the true measure of the success of the last book Bolano wrote.

More 2666 on Conversational Reading:

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  1. Mucho Bolaño Among other offerings in a strong, new edition of HermanoCerdo, you can read two essays dealing with Roberto Bolaño. One is by me and deals...
  2. 2666 The Literary Saloon and others report that there’s now an Amazon pub date for Bolaño’s opus, in English. I’m a little divided as to whether...
  3. 3x Bolaño in The Nation Roberto Bolaño gets triple coverge in The Nation, including, impressively, a review of one of his titles not yet available in English. Happy as I...
  4. Banville on Bolano John Banville writes an essay on Robert Bolano’s newly published colelction of short stories. Banville says there’s 7 more Bolano novels coming fromNew Directions, and...
  5. Bolano on YouTube I had no idea there was so much Bolano on YouTube. Above is an interview with the man.  (Part 1 of 6!) There’s also...

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2 comments to Bolano and Imperfection

  • Thanks Scott, for so generously sharing your thoughts with us. Without having read any of it, I somehow suspect that you are quite on the mark. I hope you will expand these thoughts in a later piece.

  • ThinandLight

    Nice piece. This is next on my BIG BOOK list of 2008. Had you written this before the release of “Nazi Literature in the Americas,” or are you saying that that was an indirect treatment (albeit with an explicit title)?

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