Read Roberto Bolaño’s short story “William Burns”

Untitled (Two Dogs Fighting), Bill Traylor

I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy). 

I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews. 

“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver). 

Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:

If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.

Another New Yorker Reading List

Art Spiegelman's Eustace Tilley

Art Spiegelman’s Eustace Tilley

So, you’re probably aware that The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the summer.

I posted a reading list last month of some of my favorite short stories from the magazine (okay, favorite open stories), as well as a few I hadn’t read before, like pieces from Janet Frame and Annie Proulx.

Here’s another list, a baker’s dozen, including some stuff I hadn’t read before the archive opened, as well as suggestions offered by some folks on twitter:

“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill

“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders

“Goo Book” by Keith Ridgway

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

“The Five-Forty-Eight” by John Cheever”

“Brother on Sunday” by A.M. Homes

“A Beneficiary” by Nadine Gordimer

“A Village After Dark”  by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Still Life” by Don DeLillo

“Other People’s Deaths” by Lore Segal

“Going for Beer” by Robert Coover

“A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow

“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers

For me, the word “writing” is the exact opposite of the word “waiting” (Roberto Bolaño)

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word “writing” is the exact opposite of the word “waiting.” Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

Roberto Bolaño, in a 2001 email interview with Carmen Boullosa. First published in Bomb and then collected in Melville House’s The Last Interview.

 

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

IMG_3050.JPG

Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.

On the iPad:

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq

My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentorsjust sucking down venom.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

I might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.

The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni

Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

Good lord.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa

What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño

Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews

Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).

(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov

The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.

“Titles for Unwritten Articles, Essays, and Stories” — Samuel Butler

“Titles for Unwritten Articles, Essays, and Stories”

from Samuel Butler’s Note-Books

  1. The Art of Quarrelling.
  2. Christian Death-beds.
  3. The Book of Babes and Sucklings.
  4. Literary Struldbrugs.
  5. The Life of the World to Come.
  6. The Limits of Good Faith.
  7. Art, Money and Religion.
  8. The Third Class Excursion Train, or Steam-boat, as the Church of the Future.
  9. The Utter Speculation involved in much of the good advice that is commonly given—as never to sell a reversion, etc.
  10. Tracts for Children, warning them against the virtues of their elders.
  11. Making Ready for Death as a Means of Prolonging Life.  An Essay concerning Human Misunderstanding.  So McCulloch [a fellow art-student at Heatherley’s, a very fine draughtsman] used to say that he drew a great many lines and saved the best of them.  Illusion, mistake, action taken in the dark—these are among the main sources of our progress.
  12. The Elements of Immorality for the Use of Earnest Schoolmasters.
  13. Family Prayers: A series of perfectly plain and sensible ones asking for what people really do want without any kind of humbug.
  14. A Penitential Psalm as David would have written it if he had been reading Herbert Spencer.
  15. A Few Little Crows which I have to pick with various people.
  16. The Scylla of Atheism and the Charybdis of Christianity.
  17. The Battle of the Prigs and Blackguards.
  18. That Good may Come.
  19. The Marriage of Inconvenience.
  20. The Judicious Separation.
  21. Fooling Around.
  22. Higgledy-Piggledy.
  23. The Diseases and Ordinary Causes of Mortality among Friendships.
  24. The finding a lot of old photographs at Herculaneum or Thebes; and they should turn out to be of no interest.
  25. On the points of resemblance and difference between the dropping off of leaves from a tree and the dropping off of guests from a dinner or a concert.
  26. The Sense of Touch: An essay showing that all the senses resolve themselves ultimately into a sense of touch, and that eating is touch carried to the bitter end.  So there is but one sense—touch—and the amœba has it.  When I look upon the foraminifera I look upon myself.
  27. The China Shepherdess with Lamb on public-house chimney-pieces in England as against the Virgin with Child in Italy.
  28. For a Medical pamphlet: Cant as a means of Prolonging Life.
  29. For an Art book: The Complete Pot-boiler; or what to paint and how to paint it, with illustrations reproduced from contemporary exhibitions and explanatory notes.
  30. For a Picture: St. Francis preaching to Silenus.  Fra Angelico and Rubens might collaborate to produce this picture.
  31. The Happy Mistress.  Fifteen mistresses apply for three cooks and the mistress who thought herself nobody is chosen by the beautiful and accomplished cook.
  32. The Complete Drunkard.  He would not give money to sober people, he said they would only eat it and send their children to school with it.
  33. The Contented Porpoise.  It knew it was to be stuffed and set up in a glass case after death, and looked forward to this as to a life of endless happiness.
  34. The Flying Balance.  The ghost of an old cashier haunts a ledger, so that the books always refuse to balance by the sum of, say, £1.15.11.  No matter how many accountants are called in, year after year the same error always turns up; sometimes they think they have it right and it turns out there was a mistake, so the old error reappears.  At last a son and heir is born, and at some festivities the old cashier’s name is mentioned with honour.  This lays his ghost.  Next morning the books are found correct and remain so.
  35. A Dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael on the night that Isaac came down from the mountain with his father.  The rebellious Ishmael tries to stir up Isaac, and that good young man explains the righteousness of the transaction—without much effect.
  36. Bad Habits: on the dropping them gradually, as one leaves off requiring them, on the evolution principle.
  37. A Story about a Freethinking Father who has an illegitimate son which he considers the proper thing; he finds this son taking to immoral ways, e.g. he turns Christian, becomes a clergyman and insists on marrying.
  38. For a Ballad: Two sets of rooms in some alms-houses at Cobham near Gravesend have an inscription stating that they belong to “the Hundred of Hoo in the Isle of Grain.”  These words would make a lovely refrain for a ballad.
  39. A story about a man who suffered from atrophy of the purse, or atrophy of the opinions; but whatever the disease some plausible Latin, or imitation-Latin name must be found for it and also some cure.
  40. A Fairy Story modelled on the Ugly Duckling of Hans Andersen about a bumptious boy whom all the nice boys hated.  He finds out that he was really at last caressed by the Huxleys and Tyndalls as one of themselves.
  41. A Collection of the letters of people who have committed suicide; and also of people who only threaten to do so.  The first may be got abundantly from reports of coroners’ inquests, the second would be harder to come by.
  42. The Structure and Comparative Anatomy of Fads, Fancies and Theories; showing, moreover, that men and women exist only as the organs and tools of the ideas that dominate them; it is the fad that is alone living.
  43. An Astronomical Speculation: Each fixed star has a separate god whose body is his own particular solar system, and these gods know each other, move about among each other as we do, laugh at each other and criticise one another’s work.  Write some of their discourses with and about one another.

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Read “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” Maxims by Gilbert Sorrentino

Reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s riff/story/essay “Beliefs Reasonable, Unreasonable Beliefs,” I couldn’t help but think of his correspondent, David Markson, whose 1996 novel Reader’s Block is anticipated in the structure of Sorrentino’s piece. Obviously Markson’s project and Sorrentino’s riff have literary roots that go way way back—maxims and riffs are hardly novel. Still, there’s something about the tone, rhythm, and content of the piece that reminds me of Markson’s tetralogy. A few samples below; read the whole thing in the Fall ’93 issue of Conjunctions.

I have never read a review of a play by Samuel Beckett in which the reviewer’s ignorance of Beckett’s fiction was not made clear.

All popular culture is essentially the same, i.e., it cannot transcend its audience-attentive whatness, nor can it escape the universe of camp toward which it is pointed at the moment of its birth. Lawrence Welk really is the same as Mick Jagger and “Saturday Night Live” the “Ed Sullivan Show”‘s other face.

No fatal disease is privileged, and all disease is as natural as health. To believe otherwise is to believe that we are “supposed to” die in a certain, “reasonable” way, sans pain and sadness. This attitude toward mortality makes for a lot of misery.

That Charles Olson made indisputably great poetry does not obviate the fact that he was also the Wizard of Oz.

There are few things more disgusting than a superior, mocking, self-important review of a trashy book by a hack writer.

Abstract love and generalized compassion increase in direct proportion to organized social viciousness.

Frank O’Hara is the saddest of all postwar American poets.

My father didn’t speak English until he was eleven, at which time he left school and went to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. His letters, despite an occasional spelling error or grammatical gaffe, are written in a better prose than can be managed by most of the university undergraduates I’ve taught. He was far from unique.

If, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles says, all theory is gray, theory concerning theory is Joycean brown.

Artists who pretend that they are no more than workers in the arts are neither artists nor workers.

To say that most book reviewers are lazy, illread and addicted to the banal is like saying “war is hell” or “greed is the root of evil.” These remarks hide their truths behind the deadening familiarity of their verbal representations; but they are truths nevertheless.

Popular art reflects and flatters popular culture, or, if you prefer, the Zeitgeist. In retrospect, it sometimes seems as if it leads and influences the true culture, or the innate wisdom of a people, but this isn’t so.

The thinning of language (Doris Lessing)

I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me? 

… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.

From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook.

The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. (William Gaddis)

 

After the injection, he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous. Man fights lion in zoo, barefisted. Cow kills woman. Rooster kills woman. Dogs eat Eskimo. As he turned the pages, folding them smartly back over the bulk of the newspaper, he relaxed a little at his comparative safety away from the news, drew comfort from the train wreck (he was not in it), the bus accident in Chile (nor in that), the meat-ax slaying (he had not done it), the headless corpse (not his), and so the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself. Even though the evening paper repeated the news of the morning paper, he read attentively again, reworded, of the hunt for the unknown person who was releasing birds from an uptown zoo, of the discovery of two priceless art treasures, original paintings of Dierick Bouts, in a pawnshop in Hell’s Kitchen, of the murder trial in Mouth, Mississippi, where just that morning the husband’s heart had been exhibited in court. All of these civilized wonders were brought together, he was made to feel, expressly for him, by the newspaper. True, they kept him in such a state that he often bought late editions of the same newspaper, seeing different headlines than those tucked under his arm, only to read the story from column six suddenly elevated to a banner across columns one to four. True, often the only way he could know whether he had read a newspaper was to turn to the comic strips, where life flowed in continuum; and recognizing them, he knew that he must have read everything else closely and avidly, that nothing had evaded his eye, nor penetrated to his heart round which he had built that wall called objectivity without which he might have gone mad. As the tales of violence seemed daily to increase it hardly occurred to him that he was living in such unnatural density of population that it daily supported disasters sufficient for a continent. Added to this came the blood of the world, piped in on wires, and wireless, teletype, undersea cables, and splashed without a drop lost in transit upon Mr. Pivner, who sat, hard, patient, unbending, wiped it from his eyes, and waited for more.

An inhumanity museum from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I’m citing part of the passage for a bigger thing I’m working on now—it’s a bit too long for that thing, but too good not to share in full.