Monday, March 02, 2009

Say It Don't Spray It: Another Note on Bolaño

Nearing the end finally of 2666, which is bound to leave a lasting and deep impression upon me. One insight I've gleaned about the challenge the novel poses I've obtained from Adam Kirsch's review in Slate of the book: his first sentence ("According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly") goes some distance toward expressing what I and others have tried to say about Bolaño's seemingly un- or antiliterary qualities. But a more profoundly practical insight comes from an Amazon review by one Stephen Balbach—here's the key paragraph:
Bolano successfully breaks one of the basic rules of fiction writing - rather than showing what happens, he tells what happens, like a journalist. Thus he is able to say as much in one paragraph that others take in a chapter. Bolano says as much in 900 pages that might normally take 2500. He does not use line breaks and quotes for dialog (except in book 5), so there are often long blocks of text with no white space - it's a 900 page novel of high word count, but smooth reading. Ironically I never felt I was wasting my time, as if every detail mattered, even though I guess none of it did, all of it did.
This explains to me better than anything else I've read what I find so fascinating and attractive about Bolaño's style. As a teacher of creative writing, I'm constantly admonishing students to show-don't-tell—that most axiomatic article-of-faith in the field of creative writing, heir to Ezra Pound's "Go in fear of abstractions" and as such an exception to the rule of our generally anti-modernist literature: it's the one little fragment of modernism universally adopted and passed on, like a virus. And to be sure, it's damn good advice, easier to offer than to accept, and students prove time and again that telling about or describing characters, thoughts, and themes rather than showing through action is the quickest path to dead-eyed and amateurish prose.

I don't regret repeating show-don't-tell to students that need to hear it, but I am beginning to regret my own internalization of that rule, and to recognize that much of what I find most valuable in writing is in fact in violation of the rule. This is part of a larger or longer pattern of education and Bildung that I've perceived in myself as a writer, which in the past I've expressed as a kind of pyramidal view of Pound's trio, melopoeia (sound), phanopoeia (image), and logopoeia ("the dance of the intellect among words"). That is, it's a pyramid I've climbed as I've become more confident and experienced as a poet. When I was very young, I was fascinated above all by the sound of words, by the way they shift and deform in your mouth through repetition. Then in the first poems I wrote to find readers I was preoccupied primarily with the creation of striking images, and this impulse carried me some ways into graduate school. Finally—it took discovering the Language poets for me to conceptualize this—I became most interested in logopoeia, in the complex and subtle interactions between the connotative and denotative levels of language, a level of linguistic action maybe best described by Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia. That's territory at a considerable remove from show-don't-tell, which it required a certain amount of conceptual machinery and experience for me to distance myself from in my poems.

At the same time, I've wanted to try narrative, and that's where show-don't-tell has stymied me, because fiction that tells is lifeless, or so I believed, while fiction that shows bores the pants off of me. What's the distinction between lifelessness and boredom? Well, the former is a corpse, interesting only for its history as something alive: the experience that you try to transform and render in prose like a coroner's report of an autopsy. There's at least a certain honesty to that, but I find most "good" fiction to be bankrupted by its slavish adherence to show-don't-tell: I can't read mainstream short stories or novels without being acutely conscious of the machinery of manipulation that gets vividly realized character X across the pages to ambiguously revealed goal Z—Y being the more-or-less beautiful, more-or-less serviceable and vehicular sentences and paragraphs that even most literary writers hope to disappear (disappear is here a transitive verb, as it is in South America) in favor of what John Gardner, archdeacon of realist fiction, called the "vivid continuous dream."

Bolaño breaks the stalemate. He tells, and yet his prose—no, that's not quite accurate, his narrative—is full of life and interest and urgency, forcing attention to details (which is what I go to poetry for, that slippery savoring recoil from individual words, clauses, lines) through intense compression (thus Balbach's intimation that the novel is "really" 2500 pages long). How does he achieve this? I think quite simply from his adaptation of the hoariest of narrative engines, going all the way back to Oedipus Rex: the mystery. Because each of his fictions ultimately has the obsessive drive of the detective seeking to unravel a crime—a crime that, in the best hard-boiled tradition, is always also an existential or even ontological crime, and not just a murder, though it's murder too, murder most foul and unbearable in its endless iterations, as the deliberate flatness of the prose describing the murders of women in "The Part about the Crimes" makes plain. The novel takes us deeper and deeper into multiple mysteries mysteriously aligned—the parallel hauntings of the literary critics, the mad Mexican professor, the black reporter whose nom de plume is Oscar Fate, the savage naif novelist Benno von Arcimboldi whose story I'm currently unraveling, sure to leave a morass of threads in my hands at the end without anything resembling a resolution, and yet bound to satisfy through its truth content, the respect Bolaño holds for mystery, a mystery that he throws everything he's got at (and he's got a lot) and which still resists him, and us, and that's its truth, though it takes us close into its heart, and wraps us and holds us there, and will not be forgotten.

If I write narrative prose, then, I must write it like poetry, so that the details matter. But neither can I tie those details together—compress them—in a way that falsifies them. The third, most difficult thing is to coalesce them with an urgency that gets fully transmitted to the reader—otherwise I'm doomed, as so many are doomed, to produce writing that only a handful of other logophiles will be willing to parse. Not the worst fate if that's the price of integrity; but Bolaño shows—I hope he shows—another path.

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