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.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


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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Group Reads

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.

Life Perec

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

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

Why Did Carlos Say It?: Las Batallas en El Desierto / The Battles in the Desert Video


(This is the first in a recurring series that I am calling the Latin American Bookshelf. As my reading comes to be more and more consumed with translated literature, it becomes clearer and clearer that the non-U.S. literature I most enjoy comes from Latin America. So from time to time I’ll highlight what I consider to be essential Latin American literature, as well as works of nonfiction that I think provide useful context for understanding the it.)

To the best of my knowledge, this is a video put together by 8th grade students somewhere in Mexico. If you push play, the soundtrack you hear will be a song called "Las Batallas," written and performed by Cafe Tacuba, one of Mexico’s most popular pop music groups. The song is an homage to one of the canonical works of Mexican fiction, Las batallas en el desierto, The Battles in the Desert, by Jose Emilio Pacheco. (Pacheco is also well-known in Mexico as a poet.) It’s no coincidence that a class of eighth graders put together this video, as all Mexican students read this short novel, although they would probably do well to read it again as adults.

The lyrics to "Las batallas" start out like this:

Oye, Carlos, ¿por qué tuviste
que salirte de la escuela esta mañana?
Oye, Carlos, ¿por qué tuviste
que decirle que la amabas, a Mariana?

Oh Carlos, why did you have
To leave school that morning?
Oh Carlos, why did you have
To say you love her, to Mariana?

These lyrics reference the main action of the second half of Las batallas, which tells the story that leads to one of the most-pondered question in Mexican literature.

The first half of Las batallas, about 45 pages, is largely non-narrative. It sets the scene while describing, through the eyes of a grown man trying to see through the eyes of his childhood, a Mexico of the 1950s. This postwar period of intense economic growth, often referred to as The Mexican Miracle, a time of sharp economic growth, but also a time of growing social inequality and growing influence of U.S. culture on Mexican life.

In its episodic approach to childhood memories that intersect with historical realities, the first half of Las batallas becomes "a look at memory—individual and collective—and the way that collective memory fuses into history and national identity."

The second half marks a definite break, as the narration becomes far more personally involved with the life of the adolescent Carlos. As alluded to by Cafe Tacuba, and as you can see in the video, Carlos for some reason runs out of school one day to declare his love to his friend’s mother, Mariana. What at first seems a comical episode like many others from one’s youth suddenly spirals into unmitigated tragedy: strangely, many of the adults in Carlos’s life completely overreact to this simple mistake, Carlos is sent in for psychological testing, taken out of school, and separated from his friend and his mother. Years later, he comes across one of his old, impoverished school friends making a living off selling gum on a bus, who tells him that he heard that Mariana died but Carlos finds that when he tries to prove the rumor true or false that he can find no evidence that Mariana even existed. The story becomes a parable about lost childhoods, lost memories, lost chances, the impossibility of wandering back through your past.

And thus is born one of the great conundrums of 20th-century Mexican literature. What exactly happened? Did Mariana ever exist?

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Murders in Ciudad Juarez–Art and Video If you know one thing about 2666, it’s probably that the plot circles around the murders of hundreds of women that have occurred in Ciudad...
  2. Video Games at the Library Somewhat horrifyingly, the New York Public Library is using something called "Game On @ the Library!" (the "@" must be so that you know it’s cool)...
  3. Friday Column: Reading in a Foreign Language I recently finished the first book I have ever read entirely in a language other than English. It was Las batallas en el desierto by...
  4. May Letras y Libres For the Spanish-reading among us, some interesting articles in the May issue of the Mexican magazine Letras y Libres. First off, just in time for...
  5. Mexico In a San Francisco Chronicle article, Monica Campbell explores some key problems facing Mexican literature. One of them sure sounds familiar: But the real problem...

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