Category Archives: underworld

2666: First Impressions

Now that I’ve knocked off a good inch of 2666, I feel like it’s time to say a little about my reactions to it.

At this point, I can’t say I’m very much reminded of The Savage Detectives (other than in terms of some very general themes that seem to be present in every book Bolano wrote); that book was about youth and what happens to youth as it grows old and forgotten. It focused on people above society–by that I mean it was about rendering a certain kind of emotional response to a life gone awry. The book was more concerned with this than making you understand a certain condition, the way Sebald makes modernity palpable. As a result the people in The Savage Detectives almost always felt fresh and read, and the main characters of Ulises, Belano, and Madero remain vivid in my mind.

2666 is, perhaps, precisely the opposite. It is a sprawling book seemingly most concerned with instilling something of the melancholy and isolation of late-late (or maybe post-late) capitalism, and to that end I feel as though the people are being given short shrift in favor of the set on which they perform.

The book it most brings to mind right now is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Both of these books feel like a sort of requiem towering over and gazing back at their respective subjects. They are both slow reads in which you feel like you’re being taken down more than a few blind alleys, until, tens or hundreds of pages later, you finally see the purpose in where you were taken. Both of these books are immense, sprawling affairs, books full of many
discrete parts that I can somewhat see coming together if I continue
the lines they trace in my mind.

For example. Here are a few of the items I’ve encountered so far in 2666: a book (probably imaginary) arguing that one of Chile’s founding fathers was part  Native American; a philosophical-geometrical tract that a character discovers packed in his moving-box, and then takes out and hangs on a clothesline like a Duchamp ready-made; the text of a sermon of a black preacher who publishes cookbooks to make ends meet; a film whom the possessor claims was the first movie that director Richard Rodriguez ever made. On and on.

The thing about these pieces is that at this point they are by and large more memorable than the characters themselves, which, although they are far from poorly rendered, do not match up to characters from other Bolano books that I have read. Furthermore, these pieces are imbued with a sort of DeLilloesque instability–first they feel like they are about one thing, then another, then perhaps back again. To my mind they remain mysterious and enigmatic, resisting attempts to say exactly what they are about. They also feel startlingly contemporary, as in the case of a radical Muslim sect that marches in New York City under a banner bearing the face of Osama bin Laden.

Some of the writing even sounds, in a way, a little like DeLillo. Here are some quotes that have impressed themselves in my mind:

. . . though not just any nest but a postnuclear nest, a nest with no room for any certainties but cold, despair, and apathy.

. . . the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.

The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly began to think, in vain.

I suppose Bolano and DeLillo have more than superficial similarities, as they both are innovators when it comes to writing about the political in their books. 2666 is no less political than any other Bolano book I’ve read, but, like them, in this one the political is both omnipresent and non-obtrusive. To see exactly what I mean, look how the political ghosts through this paragraph before finally, momentarily, flaring up into outright palpability:

It goes without saying that most of the attendees of these curious discussions gravitated toward the hall where contemporary English literature was being discussed, next door to the German literature hall and separated from it by a wall that was clearly not made of stone, as walls used to be, but of fragile bricks covered with a thin layer of plaster, so that the shouts, howls, and especially the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion, notable larger than the sparse and earnest audience attending the German discussion. Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it’s common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mas conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they’re put into words.

And then we get to the book’s two biggest items, two shadowy images that seem to stand like poles at either end of this book. The first is the author Archimboldi. When the book starts he is an obscure German author–he is nothing. Then a translation, a fortuitous review, some interest from scholars, and suddenly there are Archimboldi symposiums as far as the eye can see, titans of the Archimboldi industry fighting for power of interpretation, willing disciples on each side, and, of course, the perennial Nobel watch.

The Archimboldi part is fleshed out in the novel’s first section, about a hundred pages, and to my mind it’s the most consistent, interesting part of the novel I’d read so far. I don’t know if this relates to the fact that 2666 was never really completed, but the first section feels by far the most polished; there are enormous, page-spanning sentences here that unfurl segment by segment, perfectly paced rocking from comma to comma with their own peculiar logic. And there are many of them in a row. The effect is dazzling,a nd I have yet to see something that compares after the first section.

This part of the book ends with the Archimboldi scholars being brought to Santa Teresa in northern Mexico in a vain, you might say pointless, attempt to finally meet up with the reclusive author, and thus we are brought to the book’s opposite pole, the bit-by-bit murder of hundreds of Mexican women in Santa Teresa. These are ghastly, unsolved murders that have been going on for years, and the residents of Santa Teresa seem to react to them with an odd mixture of outright fear and disinterest. And Santa Teresa seems a little ghastly itself: it’s a huge, ever-growing city made up part of desert, part of sweat-shop style factories. Bolano spends much time evoking Santa Teresa, and I think he does it because in this book Santa Teresa represents something very substantial–I can’t say quite what, but something along the lines of a beleaguered retreat, a final resting place, our collective future.

Still aching for more Bolano? Here are some links to past Bolano coverage:

* Our interview with TSD and 2666 translator Natasha Wimmer

* Our interview with Bolano translator Chris Andrews

* Find out where 2666 fits in to the rest of Bolano’s collective works with Javier Moreno’s awesome Bolano triangle, part of his Quarterly Conversation essay in which he offers a theory of how Bolano’s books fit together.

* Read my own Bolano essay from the same issue of The Quarterly Conversation. In it I take a close look at By Night in Chile and consider how the theme of parents and children works in Bolano’s books.

* Read our coverage of The Savage Detectives as part of Reading the World 2007

* Read my column where I compare two Latin American deathbed confession novels: Bolano’s By Night in Chile with Carlos Fuentes’s The Death of Artemio Cruz

Friday Column: Real Connections

James Wood interviewed in the Kenyon Review.

I then began to think of Smith’s novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pynchon’s recent book Mason and Dixon, David Foster Wallace’s large book Infinite Jest, and so on. Was there some kind of genre here in which the cartoonish was displacing the real? In which the machinery of plot was also blocking out in some way a greater simplicity? I also thought perhaps there was an interesting borrowing from Dickens: It seems to me that if you look at a book like Underworld, it is in fact a sort of quite old-fashioned social novel like Bleak House–it tries to account for the connectedness of society at various levels. But, and here was the thing that struck me, strongly in relation to DeLillo, perhaps less acutely in relation to Smith, was that the connectedness was entirely conceptual. It was asserted by DeLillo and it exists on the level of paranoia and ideology and so on. “This is how we will account for the last fifty years of American life.” There was no human connectedness at all. There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. The really striking difference from Dickens, say.

I can’t possibly even begin to agree with Wood’s take on DeLillo. To say none of DeLillo’s characters had any real life with each other . . . my God. What book did he read?

I’m not quite sure what Wood means by "the connectedness was entirely conceptual." I’ve never actually seen a physical connection between two individuals (except, perhaps, in cases of conjoined twins), so I’d have to assume that all connections between individuals are "conceptual." Sure, some you can feel, like when you see a movie and the two leads are said to have chemistry, but I think that if that’s what Wood is looking for in DeLillo, he’s misreading him.

DeLillo doesn’t strive to make you feel the connections between individuals, because that’s not the way he thinks individuals connect. His novels see the world in terms of meshing systems, paranoia and ideology being two of them. This may not be satisfying to what Wood wants to see in a novel, but–sorry–it’s true to reality.

I think this puts Wood in a bind. He professes to want realism above all–well, DeLillo writes very realistic novels, if we’re judging realism as accurately representing the fabric of reality. Wood may not like the fact that ideology and paranoia often stand in for the kind of warmth and emotion that he thinks should bind people to one another (and I agree that this is an unfortunate part of our world), but he can’t just wish it away by labeling that writing inaccurate or inartistic. So which is it? Does Wood want to festishize chemistry on the page to the point that it pushes out cold reality, or does he want verisimilitude, even if it means that novels will feel cold as compared to those of another era?

But more. More. Watch how Wood crows over Zadie Smith, like a prodigal daughter returned home. Better yet, he didn’t even have to browbeat her into changing her style. No, no, she was good enough to be self-flagellating:

You ask about Zadie Smith; she’s an unusually masochistic writer. And she actually didn’t need me to prod her, she was already disowning her first book, saying that it was something written by a juvenile, a sort of crazy tap-dancing–I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact phrase. But she did indeed reply to me, saying that she felt that “hysterical realism” was an uncomfortably precise term for the kind of thing that she was doing. She then followed her first novel with a book that seemed to me to owe a great deal to the sort of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s crowd. It was full of typographical games, numbered jokes, little boxed read-outs and so on. The third novel, just out, seems to me to really make good on her substantial talent. It’s actually a sort of old-fashioned, what you might call a sort of postmodern old-fashioned book. Postmodern because it has an explicit indebtedness to Howard’s End, but essentially old-fashioned in that it concentrates quite fiercely on the domestic of two families and so on. It’s a good book, I think.

Oh Zadie! I had thought you were lost to us! All that typographical gimmickry, all that hystericism! But you’ve recognized the error of your ways and you’ve written a nice novel fashioned on Howard’s End! And yes, you’ve remembered to include just a bit of the good old Po Mo, because it simply won’t do to write like we’re living in the 1920s, but never again so much Po Mo that you sound hysterical. Zadie, so good to have you home again. Now, off to your room, it’s just as you’d left it.

And remember, novelists, don’t go trying to figure out what the novel can’t do. Stick to what it can. Above all, avoid theory.

What the novel can do, you might define it in circular terms: it justifies itself by making an inquiry which only it can do. It doesn’t need to, I think, be infused with, and this is one of the things I don’t like about Franzen, for instance. I don’t think it needs to borrow the language, the languages of theory or cultural studies. It will make its own formal justification.

So then, I suppose novelists should stick to their pasture, theorists stick to their pasture, filmmakers stick to theirs and so on. I’m sorry, but this is a prescription for, well, for wandering around in circles. Very small ones. Especially when theory has, until recently, been outdoing the novel at noveling. From n+1 Issue 2:

Many of the [theory] classics of the era [i.e. 1970s, 80s] opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Levi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s "Las Meninas." [For my money, the opening of Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault describes an execution in 1757, is riveting stuff.] . . .

Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society–from Bret Easton Elliss’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier–without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable "information" (The Postmodern Condition)–well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989–that was some trivial bullshit.

The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a "Great American Novel" hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists.

I’d add that many of the most successful books/movies of the 1990s packaged the above material into easily digestible frameworks; obviously The Matrix is the best example here. But imagine if artists, as Wood instructs, had kept to their own pasture. Never mind the Foucault and Baudrillard, just write more about human emotions. What kind of literature would we have had in the ’90s to say nothing of the ’00s?

I just can’t see how Wood expects novelists to accurately depict the world without adopting the language and ideas of that same world. What he wants, I think, is for novelists to write about 2006 using the style and tools of 1920. But why?

I was recently told a story wherein a visitor to southern Mexico described it as "just like a magical realist novel." Each morning his hotel was packed with flowers from a local peasant salesperson and he was assaulted with odor when he opened his door. On the street a man walked a leashed lion cub. In the train station a bag started moving on its own, and when its owner later arrived he pulled out a parrot and asked the man if he wanted to buy it.

Yes, life in Latin America can be as strange as Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and life in America and Western Europe can be as strange as the minds of Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. Even George Saunders, who writes incredibly surreal stories, has trouble outpacing postmodern capitalism. If these writers are hysterical, it’s because the society they seek to depict is certifiably insane.

Wood can go as long as he wants pretending that that’s not the case, that we all should read nice button-down novels that keep their tempers steady. He can do that, but he’ll be left behind. I’m sure he’ll read many pleasant books and find much to marvel at in their beautiful aesthetics, but as for the rest of us, we’ll be reading good books too. They just won’t be held captive to certain ideas about what a novel needs to be.

Noise

From a good feature on Don DeLillo’s White Noise at PopMatters.

One of the funniest scenes occurs in the beginning of the book when Jack and Babette are in the grocery store (a location a lot of the book takes place in). Out of the blue, DeLillo alerts us to a woman who falls into a rack of paperbacks at the front of the store. It’s just something that happens in the background while Jack and Babette are shopping, but the weird depiction is dropped into the narrative so suddenly, you can’t help but bust up. You soon learn this is a trick of his. When you least expect it, DeLillo drops the sudden odd and humorous image into the storyline.

He also uses this out-of-the-blue trick to underline the gravity of the book’s theme. The first time I noticed this is when Jack is describing Baba, how she "shovels snow…caulks the tub and sink…reads erotic classics aloud in bed at night…talks to dogs and cats" and then, in a new line and paragraph all by itself, he wonders, "Who will die first?"

I haven’t read White Noise, but I definitely caught a sense of this in Underworld. There are pages and pages of dialog in Underworld that simply feel disconnected. One character will speak for several sentences, and then when the next one replies, the reply will be strangely skewed. It’s as though you can see some sort of connection between the things the people are ostensibly saying to each other, but it’s not the sort of normal direct connection you would expect in a conversation. It’s almost as though there are two things proceeding in serial, like two waves that keep intersecting in points.

In a sense, this is the organizing logic (if I can label something so fundamentally disconnected as "organizing") behind the entire book. The book consists of compelling vignettes that are told in fragments, and DeLillo switches among them you don’t really get much of a clue as to why they’re ordered as they are and how they’re linked. Certainly ideas, themes, and characters do begin to assert themselves in your mind as you read the book, but there’s very little by way of authorial direction to explain why things coincide as they do.

Top 10 Books of 2004: #2

#2 — Underworld — Don DeLillo

Underworld is a book that sifts through 50 years of Cold War America and ends up proving that a Cold War-less America is  a rudderless America. However, if Underworld were simply a polemic with no greater point than teaching this lesson, it would have been made obsolete by 9/11 and no one, other than professional historians, would care much about reading it.

This is not the case for many reasons, but I’d like to focus on just three.

First off, in its structure and feel, Underworld captures something essential about the world we inhabited in 1997 (when it was published) and inhabit still more today. The book consists of several disconnected, parallel narratives. Like a bunch of jumbo jet aircraft leaving parallel sets of contrails, the narratives that make up Underworld are laid out in parallel, but not explicitly made to touch. Then, like a light wind, the reader’s mind begins to make the narratives expand and intermingle and connections are discovered.

This strikes me as an apt portrayal of the idea of our world, with many contemporaneous narratives that are united by an unseen web of connections, just below surface level. Thus, in the way DeLillo has structured his book, he mimics something very important about our world, and in a much more compelling way than several other postmodern writers who have attempted the same thing. Also, as the name "Underworld" implies, DeLillo explores some of these "below surface level" elements that unite our world.

Second, Underworld successfully delves into the question of what unites us as Americans. With the amounts and kinds of diversity encompassed by America, it’s a far question to ask "what’s American?" In mulling over the Cold War, DeLillo comes up with some answers–he establishes a national Zeitgeist that didn’t die with the Cold War, but continued on past the fall of the Berlin Wall and is still present to this day.

Third and most important, Underworld is simply a pleasure to read. The book treads the fine line between being sufficiently coy to engage a reader’s mind and being so coy as to be incomprehensible. It’s a book that keeps a reader constantly thinking, which is another way to say it’s continually entertaining. It’s also a book that, at times, exhibits spectacular storytelling. The first 50 pages is worthy of a novella, and is among the best openings of the 20th century. Also, the book’s final section spectacularly exhibits DeLillo’s fine ear for English as it is spoken, and gives us another novella-esque narrative that is, if not quite as good as Underworld’s opening, still spectacular.

Top Ten:
#3 — Speak, Memory — Vladimir Nabokov
#4 — The Octopus — Frank Norris
#5 — The King of California — Mark Arax, Rick Wartzman
#6 — The Corrections — Jonathan Franzen
#7 — City of Glass — Paul Auster
#8 — Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years — Brian Boyd
#9 — Rise of the Creative Class — Richard Florida
#10 — Madeline is Sleeping — Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Explanation

Underworld etc

Thanks to Dan Wickett for this extremely helpful link to a site called Don DeLillo’s America. It has lists of virtually every critical DeLillo document a DeLillo fan could ask for, including lots of links to reviews and articles on the web (unfortunately, some of the links have expired, but a resourceful DeLillo fan should have little problem ferreting out a copy of the document in question). There’s a quirky FAQ, an interesting bio composed of quotes by and about DeLillo, and lists of his works (broken into novels, stories, plays, and other).

There’s also a "Detractors" section featuring the always vehemently antagonistic Dale Peck. But even better is a little snoot of a gem from George Will where he gets beside himself over Libra, DeLillo’s book about the Kennedy assassination.

There’s an "Odds and Ends" section which tells us, among other things, that current Booker favorite David Mitchell used a line from Americana as the epigraph for his second novel Number9Dream ("It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.")

Lastly, the site helped me locate this NYTimes page whic has a wide variety of DeLillo resources, including two reviews of Underworld, one by Martin Amis and one by Michiko Kakutani. The Amis review is interesting in that he picks up on DeLillo’s excellent ability to write good dialog (”She’s got a great body for how many kids?” ”They put son of a bitches like you behind bars is where you belong.” ”I’m a person if you ask me questions. You want to know who I am? I’m a person if you’re too inquisitive I tune you out completely.” ”Which is the whole juxt of my argument.” — DeLillo has an especially ability for a certain street-smark variant of the New York accent).

Amis also correctly notes that a large part of Underworld is showing how America came to terms with the idea of perpetually living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It also deals with the nuclear check coming due after the Cold War ends — we have lots of rotting bombs, but no way to safely dispose of them or keep them out of the wrong hands.

Underworld Complete

It’s been a long, pleasant journey with Underworld. This is one of those books that I read the final pages of slowly, scrutinizing every word, because everything in the text up to this point has been so rich and insightful that I want there to be something in the end to tie it all together, something that lays it all out for me, that puts that gleam of understanding in my eye.

I want this, but of course I also don’t want this. On a certain level I’ve been looking for that key to tie it all together for the last 826 pages (or maybe the last 726), but on another level I know that the key isn’t going to be in that last page any more than it was in any of the 826 preceding pages, and I wouldn’t want it to be because how could you tie up such a sprawling work into a simple moral anyway?

It’s interesting to read this book right now because some of it has been rendered obsolete. The fact that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are right there on the cover (and figure as a prominent symbol in the book) pretty much tell you right away that the events of the last few years are going to infringe substantially on what DeLillo wrote about.

Although there are many, many levels to Underworld, one of them consists of the idea that with the end of the Cold War, the possibility that a government could mean what the Church once meant centuries ago was more or less dead. Put another way, if people of an earlier era looked to the Church for salvation, many people of a later era looked to government in the same way (think of the hard-core Communist adherents dating back to 1848 and beyond, or even zealous Labour Party members in Britain). Well, the fall of the Berlin Wall pretty much put an end to that, if it hadn’t been dead for years already.

In a way, then, one of the things DeLillo is exploring is the question of in a post-Communism, "end of history" world, what is left for us to believe in? Which brings us back to the Towers on the front of the book. The answer DeLillo suggests is transnational capitalism (and it’s certainly a surrogate that DeLillo expresses plenty of misgivings in as a belief system), but if he was writing it today there would be at least one, if not two, contenders for transnational capitalism to face off against.

Of course 9/11 does not render Underworld’s insights obsolete. Transnational capitalism is still with us strong as ever, and the points and critiques that DeLillo makes are still valid. Also, DeLillo’s rendering of the five postwar decades that led to our present system are just as interesting and worthwhile as they were on 9/10/2001. The sweeping changes in American society and culture, really the very fabric and mode of our relations to one another, are truly fascinating to explore through DeLillo’s somber prose.

I guess what I’m saying is that if DeLillo wrote it today, there would probably be another 200 pages tacked on, which, incidentally, would be bad news for my biceps which already had enough to contend with supporting Underworld’s 3 pounds (yeah, I got the hardcover edition). I’ll have to see what DeLillo has come up with since Underworld, as I’m certain he’s had plenty of thoughts on our post-9/11 world.

This is a pretty long post and I haven’t even gotten into DeLillo’s fascination with condoms, all the ICBM/phallic imagery, his depiction of a Sergei Eisenstein screening in New York in the ’70s, his strange alpha-and-omega-type equation of nuclear bombs to nuclear trash, the several chapters centered around J. Edgar Hoover, Bruegel’s paintings, chess, the hundred-or-so pages from 1951 that read like a DeLillo-flavored excerpt from The Godfather, painting B-52s in the desert.

Yeah, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in Underworld. I recommend it.

Underworld Progress

I’m at the halfway point of this large book, and it seems that after its fast start this title has settled down some. DeLillo is taking time out to explore his characters’ backgrounds, and there’s also the matter of a couple seemingly extraneous characters that we’ve seen glimpses of (maybe 20 pages or so), but that only seem to fit into Underworld as friends of friends. We started out in 1951, jumped to 1992, and now we’ve traveled back, first to the 1980s, then 1978, and now 1974. The book has grown far more complex and I’m beginning to gaze glassy-eyed at the mounting heaps of symbols.

In this cacophony, one motif that has taken prominence is trash, with one particular subset — shit — outpacing all rivals. But let me back up here. The one character that we might call the narrator, Nick, (he’s the only character that is ever presented in the first-person) works for some huge waste management conglomerate. It’s not exactly clear what Nick does, but its along the lines of public relations, speechwriting for the execs.

In Nick’s segments he’s almost always talking about garbage in one way or another — philosophizing about how we buy products at the supermarket while thinking about what kind of trash they will make, talking with his work buddy about a mysterious trash boat that’s been sent from harbor to harbor, but can’t dock anywhere because its load, discussing a huge miles-wide landfill-in-the-making with a waste management industry maverick who reads world history in terms of civilization’s interaction with its trash.

In all this talk of trash, the topic of shit comes up several times. At one point Nick discusses with his colleague how the stuff is carefully, even lovingly, treated for contaminants and then unceremoniously dumped in the ocean 106 miles (less would be illegal) off the New Jersey coast as though the ocean was just one immense toilet bowl. Shit begins cropping up in the segments with other characters, either incidentally or at rather significant moments in their lives.

You could say that Underworld is full of you know what, but I’m not going to go there because even though the book’s pace has slackened just a bit, it’s still excellent. I’ll write again in a couple hundred pages or so. Hopefully by then I’ll have a little more of a thread to hang this book on.

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