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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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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 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 […]

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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