Roberto Bolaño’s Powers of Horror

Scenes of Rape and Murder, Francisco Goya

1. In Powers of Horror philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the idea with which she’s most closely identified, the abject, the intense horror our subjective psychology—and our bodies—experience when faced with corporeal reality: the edges of our body: filth, vomit, shit, blood, death: the me that is not me. Breakdown of subject and object: abject.

2. Julia Kristeva shows up as a character, a phantom from a photograph in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” collected in The Secret of Evil, new from New Directions.

3. (Can there be a more Bolañoesque title than “Labyrinth”?)

4. This is ostensibly a review of that Bolaño collection, but I’ll be riffing on some other things.

5. Bolaño created his own genre. His oeuvre, piecemeal and posthumous at times, is nevertheless a complete fiction or discourse of its own. Think of the Bolañoverse like Middle Earth, like Yoknapatawpha County, like dark Narnia with no Aslan to redeem it.

6. The Bolañoverse is abject. Consider the pile of bodies that heap like rubbish in “The Part About the Crimes,” the cruel center of 2666—has ever a book repeated the phrase “vaginally and anally raped” so many times?

7. Kristeva, in Powers of Horror:

The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanninness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior . . .  Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.

Sex Murder, Otto Dix

8. But I promised to remark upon The Secret of Evil; I used the term “review” even.

A few things:

It’s a beautiful book (I mean the physical book itself; the cover, the design). The name is perfect.

Much of what’s collected here is perhaps unfinished—-scraps, riffs, bits of tales, sketches.

But also:

Much of what’s here is finished, or, more to the point, much of what’s here—scratch that, all of what’s collected in The Secret of Evil—fits into the Bolañoverse, fleshes it out, or stretches it, or condenses it maybe (let me have my paradoxes, will you?).

9.  Bolaño’s friend (and literary executor) Ignacio Echevarría puts it aptly in his introduction to The Secret of Evil:

 Bolaño’s work as a whole remains suspended over the abysses that it dares to sound. All his narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness. The eruption of horror seems to determine the interruption of the storytelling; or perhaps it is the other way around: the interruption of the telling suggests the imminence of horror.

10. I have been slowly, slowly rereading my way through 2666, edging my way into it in the latest of hours. I’m nearing the end, or the end of “The Part About Archimboldi,” and what I find most remarkable upon rereading is how precise, how tight it seems this time, how each book seems to answer to the other. (Take, for instance the female politician who, at the end of “The Part About the Crimes,” seems to peer through a strange mirror into the future (past?) to see the English critic Norton, who, in “The Part About the Critics,” in turn gazes into (the same?) mirror at a woman—not herself but surely the politician. Or take another instance: The visitations to madhouses made by peripheral characters to even more peripheral characters: artists, suspects, lovers, poets, teachers. Or take all the abysses. Or the labyrinths. Or mirrors. Or dreams. Or murders. Maybe I’m tipping into a simple recitation of motifs and themes now).

11. But no, what I want to remark on is how The Secret of Evil is part and parcel of the  Bolañoverse, how it answers backward and forward and throughout  Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” his “eruption[s] of horror.” Fragments like “The Secret of Evil” and “Crimes,” with their journalist heroes and noir lighting seem to dance around the same central mysteries that pulse through 2666. The strange literary criticism of “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Scholars of Sodom” answers not only to “The Part About the Critics,” but to the entire course of  Bolaño’s work as well. And continuing—

12. Of course Arturo Belano appears in The Secret of Evil, as does his erstwhile partner Ulisses Lima. How could they not? They roam the Bolañoverse beyond their own narrative proper, The Savage Detectives (that is what detectives do), even popping up (unnamed) in 2666 where they father (both of them figuratively and one of them literally) that other savage detective, Lalo Cura.

13. And then (back to The Secret of Evil) there’s “The Colonel’s Son,” a sketch of a zombie film, a B-movie, shades of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (recall that Rodriguez is given a vague credit for a surreal porno horror film that plays in “The Part About Fate” in 2666). “The Colonel’s Son” shows  Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness at their sharpest. Our narrator describes a terrible film he sees on late night TV, only he misses the beginning, so we are without context, without rationale or reason for the awful onslaught that happens. There’s a labyrinth, 0f course, a dark twisting complex of passageways that hide secrets under a military facility, and then a twin labyrinth, a sewer system. There’s love, familial and romantic. There are Kristevan bodies, zombies, corpses infected with life (or is it the other way around). There’s horrific indeterminancy.

14. I remarked on Bolaño’s powers of horror back in the spring, making a bizarre argument that 2666 was somehow a werewolf story. 2666 and the Bolañoverse in general is crawling with all kinds of monsters though.

The Murderer, Franz Stuck

15. I’ve used the word Lynchian repeatedly when writing about Bolaño, in reference to the American film director David Lynch—whose name is in fact directly evoked in 2666, in “The Part About Fate.” In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace provides a succinct description of David Lynch’s powers of horror, a description that I believe applies to Bolaño as well:

Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them. This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed.

16. The Bolañoverse is darkly haunted, comically haunted, savagely haunted, haunted by history and the present as well. The crimes of the Nazis, maddeningly, expertly elided in “The Part About Archimbolid” extend in “The Part About the Crimes” to Santa Teresa, fictional stand-in to real-life murder capital Juarez—and Nazism percolates out into neo-fascism, into the horrific confessions in By Night in Chile or the art-terror of Distant Star, or to the absurdity of Nazi Literature of the Americas. Throughout it all though, Bolaño crafts his powers of horror not so much through evil individuals (although they are easy to find there) but through, to use Wallace’s term, “evil as environment.”

17. How often do the characters in 2666 look out on the desert in a horror approaching madness?

18. And then madness, too, madness as a type of possession, but also madness as a kind of inescapable outcome, or madness as even a type of salvation, the sense that we might end up mad or dead (murder or suicide).

19. Let me try to connect these last few points in a citation from late in “The Part About the Crimes,” a few lines from our female politician trying to find justice for her friend Kelly who soon learns about the extensive victimization of women in Santa Teresa:

As I learned about other cases, however, as I heard other voices, my rage began to assume what you might call mass stature, my rage became collective or the expression of something collective, my rage, when it allowed itself to show, saw itself as the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims. Honestly, I think I was losing my mind. Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall. I ended up taking pills for my nerves.

We see here the descent into madness, the rage of it all, the violence of the landscape, the great ventriloquist act of insanity.

20. Bolaño, master ventriloquist, authors the heteroglossic Bolañoverse with an abyssal void at its invisible center. His characters wish to speak some kind of truth or name or answer to this void, but it exists outside of the realm of language, of possibility, accessible instead only in dreams or nightmares or mirrors or strange transmissions, psychic or otherwise. It’s terrifying, of course.

21. But it’s a mistake to cast Bolaño as some kind of malevolent puppet master, confounding his ventriloquized characters and driving them mad (not to mention his poor readers!). Perhaps it’s instructive to dip into Kristeva again, who gives us the deject to go with her abject. From Powers of Horror:

The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays, instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.

. . . wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations. . . the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a nonobject, the abject–constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.

22.  Bolaño the exile. Bolaño the stray.

23. This riff has swollen now, ballooned up, mutated; I can no longer wrangle the rest of my outline into cohesion at this point. Save it for later.

24. I’ll try to end more sensibly, or at least more practically. The Secret of Evil is not some grand intertextual key that unlocks the secret of the Bolañoverse; the “secret” in the title is not a revelation but a synonym for “mystery”. Fans will find some sharp moments here, but it’s not a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his writing (try Last Evenings on Earth or Distant Star). For completists only—but completists will find dark joy here.

Goodbye Blue Monday

A few things:

1. I am still exhausted after my sister-in-law’s wedding this weekend. I was the best man, which was more involved than I had originally believed. Special props to the photographers, the DJ, and the caterer, all friends and family who went above and beyond what was expected. Contact these guys for your next wedding, bar mitzvah, super sweet sixteen, or Guy Fawkes Day party.

2. Luckily, this week is Spring Break, and I have the next couple of days off of work and grad school. What does this mean to you? Well, hopefully I’ll get back on track with the Ontology 101 project, and actually start posting again about books that I’ve stolen (I know that’s what you come here for). You can also look forward to an interview with Eddie de Oliveira, author of Lucky and Johnny Hazzard, to be published later this week. Until then…

3. A few placeholders to quell some of that Monday boredom:

A. Go to Strange Maps. Another great WordPress blog that lives up to its name. Love it!

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B. Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse comes out the first week of April. Looks like good old fashioned fun. Check out the full theatrical trailer–

C. Enjoy this Silver Surfer cover art gallery before the upcoming Fantastic Four sequel ruins the best Marvel Comics character ever.

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Cover art by French artist Moebius, who created a line of comic books with Alejandro Jodorowsky in the 1970s.