In X’ed Out, Charles Burns created a rich and strangely layered world focusing on Doug, a confused and injured young man. In his parents’ suburban basement, Doug parcels out the last of his late father’s painkillers, slipping from haunted memories of his relationship with Sarah into fevered nightmares of abject horror and then into a wholly other world, a realm that recalls William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this alien world, Doug takes on the features of Nitnit (an inversion of Tintin), the alter-ego he adopts when performing spoken word cut-ups as the opening act for local punk rock bands. What made X’ed Out so compelling (apart from Burns’s thick, precise illustration, of course), was the sense that this Interzone was a reality equal to Doug’s own “real world” — that it was somehow more real than Doug’s dreams.
The Hive (part two of the proposed trilogy) deepens the richness and complexity of the world Burns has imagined. The title refers to a location in Interzone. Doug (or Nitnit) has found employment in The Hive as a kind of mail clerk or janitor. His primary role though is secret librarian, catering to the reading needs of the breeders of The Hive. One breeder seems to be a version of Doug’s ex-girlfriend; the other is a double of Sarah, who asks Doug/Nitnit to bring her romance comics—which he does—only he skips a few issues. These missing issues stand in for the information Doug (and Burns) withholds from the reader, the missing fragments that have been x’ed out.
Burns uses romance comics as a framing or organizing device, a motif linking the disparate worlds of his narrative. In the “real world” — which is to say the world of Doug’s memory — we learn that he buys a stack of old romance comics for Sarah on their first date.
Throughout the narrative, Burns plays his characters against the extreme, often hysterical dramas of 1950s and ’60s romance comics; his strong lines and heavy inks readily recall the early works of Simon and Kirby, but more precise and careful—something closer to Roy Lichtenstein, only more sincere, more emotional.
In The Hive, we learn more about Doug’s troubled relationship with Sarah, who has problems out the proverbial yingyang (not the least of which is a violent psychopathic ex-boyfriend).
Burns weaves the story of Sarah and Doug’s relationship into the fallout of Doug’s father’s death—a death Doug was completely shuttered to, we realize. Doug’s drug-dreams dramatize the missing pieces of these narratives, and the Interzone set-pieces propel the mystery aspects of the narrative forward, as Doug’s alter-ego plumbs the detritus of his psychic fallout. Through the metatextual motif of reading-comic-books-as-detective-works, Burns explores themes of trauma, abjection, and distance. Images of pigs and cats, freaks and punks, portals and holes litter The Hive.
Burns has always been a perfectionist of dark lines and strange visions, and his last full graphic novel Black Hole was a triumph of atmosphere and mood. With the first two entries of his trilogy, however, Burns has showed a significant maturation in storytelling, characterization, and dialogue. I often thought parts of Black Hole seemed forced or rushed (no doubt because Burns faced daunting production troubles during the decade he worked on the novel—including his original publisher Kitchen Sink folding). With X’ed Out and now The Hive we can see a more patient artist, working out an emotionally complex and compelling story in rich, symbolic layers.
I reread X’ed Out and then read The Hive in one greedy sitting; then I went through The Hive again, more slowly, more attendant to its details and nuances. We had to wait two years between X’ed Out and The Hive—and it was worth the two year wait. So if we must wait another two years—or more—for the final entry, Sugar Skull, so be it.
I give up. I don’t know how to review The Savage Detectives.
Everyone told me I was supposed to love this book, but I didn’t. There, that’s a review. Not a good review, but there. I can’t remember a book ever taking me so long to finish or a book that I put down so often. When I truly love a book, I am moved. Often physically. Sometimes I have to stand up to read a book, I’m so moved. That’s a good book. (I never had to stand up during The Savage Detectives, although I often had to force myself to read thoroughly and not just skim). When I truly love a book, I’m a little sad and deflated when it’s over. I know a book is great if I’m compelled to go back and immediately reread sections. (Again, with Detectives, this didn’t happen). But it looks like I’m trashing the book. I shouldn’t. It has a lot going for it.
I read the first 140 pages, the journal entries of young Garcia Madero, in a blur. Funny and passionate, Madero’s voice explodes with the immediacy and intensity of youth. He joins up with the visceral realists, a group of anti-establishment poets (who no one cares about). Led by two enigmatic outsiders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the visceral realists gripe about the state of Mexican and Latin American literature, screw around, and argue with each other (no one else will listen to them). Madero paints Mexico City in the mid-1970s as vibrant, a place full of poetry and art. He becomes a biblioklept, God bless him (yet he ethically agrees not to steal from a poor old blind bookseller). He writes poems. He has sex. He runs away from home, sort of. There’s a breathless energy to Madero’s narrative that makes the book hard to put down, and the first section of The Savage Detectives, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” culminates in one of the book’s most exciting events. Madero, Lima, and Belano help a young girl named Lupe escape from her belligerent pimp. Then, that portion of the story unresolved, the narrative shifts dramatically.
In the second section, “The Savage Detectives,” we are treated to, or subjected to, or made to endure, or made to navigate–pick your verb, please–over 450 pages of (one-sided) interviews spanning 20 years. Some of the interviewees appear consistently throughout this section, like Amadeo Salvatierra, who helps Lima and Belano in their quest to find the lost original visceral realist, Cesárea Tinajero. Other voices only pop up once to tell a weird story about Lima or Belano–or more accurately, a weird story about themselves with Lima or Belano playing bit parts. Some of these stories, like Lima’s strange time in a Tel Aviv prison, or Belano’s tenure as a national park guard in France are great; other times they are painfully tedious or repetitive (you know, like real life).
Technically, The Savage Detectives is quite an achievement. The myriad stories in the book’s main section represent the fragmented narratives that might compose a person’s life–a series of perspectives that others have about us, views that can never add up to a unified truth. The bulk of these stories are very much about poetry, art, and travel. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Detectives is a peripatetic novel, full of specific locations and very, very explicit directions (Joyce famously claimed that were Dublin destroyed in a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt based on his novel; the same seems true for Bolaño’s Mexico City). Also like Ulysses, Detectives is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on. Lots and lots of “and so on.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of heroism and adventure–saving kids from satanic caves, stow-away sea voyages, and dodging bullets from Liberian rebels make for interesting narrative peaks. However, most of the novel remains rooted in a realism that is often dreadfully visceral in its painstaking replication of just how depressing a life could be. As the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties, things get more bleak and more depressing for Lima and Belano. And it all adds up to an incomplete picture (literally; check out the last page of the book if you don’t believe me).
By the time we return to Madero’s journals in the third and final part of the novel, “The Sonora Desert,” the sadness and deflation of the previous section infects and tints every aspect of the narrative. Lima and Belano, with Madero and Lupe in tow, search desperately for the forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their search works as a pitiful parallel to “The Savage Detectives” section, a comment on the elusive nature of identity, and the strange disappointments that punctuate our expectations. Even the novel’s climactic ending seems understated after the monolithic middle section. And while this deflationary technique is undoubtedly a carefully considered conceit on Bolaño’s part, the payoff for the reader–this reader anyway–did not merit the effort and concentration that the book required. Or, to put it another way, after hours of time invested, I was unmoved.
As rave reviews of the English translation of his last novel 2666 begin seeping out of the critical woodwork (this month’s Harper’s has devoted a full four pages to the book), it seems that Bolaño will top most critics’ lists again this year. At over 900 pages and reportedly full of grim, bleak violence, it’s hard to imagine 2666 will be any easier to get through, and as FS&G summarily ignored our requests for a review copy, there’s no pressing obligation, I suppose. The critical praise heaped on 2666 this year will surely lead interested readers to The Savage Detectives. I think Mark Twain’s infamous note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would provide the best warning to these potential readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” While no serious critic could dismiss Bolaño’s lyrical skill and complex control of the many voices that populate Detectives, I think a number of readers–serious readers–would not be wrong for considering the tome a bit overrated.
Mathias B. Freese’s slim collection of short stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, relays the weird, miserable, and even sometimes ghoulish existences of people you might pass on the street everyday. The stories read like psychological case studies, and there’s frequently a strange distance between the clinical detachment of the prose and the depressed or depraved sentiment expressed by the narrator. At times the effect is painful, as in “Herbie,” where the titular protagonist’s rage at his abusive father spills over into Oedipal violence. Elsewhere, the stories take on a wry surrealist humor. Freese’s knack for dissonance evinces in “Juan Peron’s Hands,” where a grave robber pines for a head but settles for hands. Far closer to home is “Young Man,” where Freese distills an entire life to a few bitter pages, exploring the modern disconnect between thought, action and identity.
I can’t be who I am in real life, so I can be who I am in thought, but who I am in thought is not who I am in deed, so I live between what is and what should be, and this serves to make sharper the cleavage–the crevices are clearly marked.
One of my favorites in the collection, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” disconcertingly (and humorously) condenses American obsession with celebrity into a fantasy ski trip, complete with the oddly sorta-prescient line: “I might even run for president if I can lose this accent” (the story was originally published in 1991). It is probably the deformed voyeur hero of “I’ll Make It, I Think” who delivers the closest thing to a mantra for these characters:
I’m not hurting anyone. So what if my morning shorts are sticky. I’m a good person. The outside, for sure, is a shambles–that’s not completely true, but I’ve made my point. Inside is fucked up some, but I’ll make it, I think.
Down to a Sunless Sea, for all its monsters and perverts and manic depressives, is never cruel in its darkness or unsympathetic in its distance. Freese creates real people here, and if we laugh at their pain, we’re laughing with them. Highly recommended.