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.


  • A Legacy by Sybille Bedford March 15, 2015
    Sybille Bedford had the benefit—or bad fortune, however you see it—of being born into the German aristocracy in 1911. Her father was a retired lieutenant colonel and art collector from the agrarian south, from a Roman Catholic family in fiscal decline. Her mother came from a wealthy German-Jewish family from Hamburg. A widower from his first marriage, Bedfor […]
  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
    Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Gr […]
  • 39 Africans Walk into a Bar March 15, 2015
    New anthologies of African fiction seem to materialize virtually every year, if not more often in recent years. When presented with the physical fact of yet another new anthology of African fiction, the immediate question, one which I was asked when I pressed the warm, bound pages of the Africa39 anthology into the even warmer hands of a new acquaintance, wa […]
  • The Country Road by Regina Ullmann March 15, 2015
    This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countr […]
  • The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura March 14, 2015
    The Fall of Language in the Age of English stirred up debate upon its publication in Japan in 2008, and it’s possible it will do so in the U.S. with its arrival in Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter's translation. In their introduction, Yoshihara and Winters Carpenter, point out that Japanese reviewers accused Mizumura of being a jingoist, an e […]
  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
    Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic compe […]
  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
    Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you'd expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we're still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collab […]
  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
    here’s a conspicuous history of books that simply should not work: Books like U & I by Nicholson Baker, a book-length exercise in “memory criticism,” where Baker traces Updike’s influence on his own writing life while studiously not actually re-reading any of Updike’s books. Or books like Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book that procrastinates away from […]
  • The Valerie Miles Interview March 14, 2015
    The idea was to uncover the secret life of these texts, why do their creators consider them their best work? What’s the clandestine, the underground, the surreptitious meaning or attachment? Where’s the kernel, the seed from which a body of work grew, what the driving obsession? Is it something sentimental, something technical, maybe even something spiritual […]
  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
    Look up at the sky, or down into the ocean, and what color do you see? We see blue, but not Homer—he never once employs the term throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey, famously calling the sea "wine-dark" and the heavens "bronze." Neither did the Greek philosopher Xenophanes say blue—he described the rainbow as having only three colors. Th […]

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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