The Savage Detectives

Why does everyone love The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño’s new old novel? I say new because the English translation just arrived—to ecstatic reviews—and old because it was originally published in 1998 in Spanish. James Wood loves Bolaño:

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño’s reputation, in English at least, has been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, ”The Savage Detectives,” will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño’s name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño’s extraordinary novella ”By Night in Chile.”

He goes on to cement, rather than knock down, that reputation. Francine Prose does too: “The novel seamlessly blends surrealism, lyricism, wit, invention and political and psychological analysis — and the same brilliance illuminates “Last Evenings on Earth.”” As if that weren’t enough, she concludes:

Like Bolaño’s work, this definition of fiction is at once transparent and opaque, lucid and elusive. And yet we intuit what he means. Reading Roberto Bolaño is like hearing the secret story, being shown the fabric of the particular, watching the tracks of art and life merge at the horizon and linger there like a dream from which we awake inspired to look more attentively at the world.

Accolades on the back of The Savage Detectives include one from John Banville. The Millions thinks Bolaño’s great too, although any post that includes a sentence like “[t]o borrow from Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big books, and I cannot lie” is suspect.

More love from the New Yorker here.

Amid the hype I picked up a long, pointlessly digressive, and irritating novel, like Faulkner at his worse. Bolaño most reminds me of Faulkner, but he can’t pull off the multiple narrative voices, who consume the latter 400 pages in a frenzy of confusion and uncertainty. I’m also reminded of Richard Farina’s English-language novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, another, equally irritating novel with the principle attribute of narrative uncertainty leading to reader boredom. In this respect Bolaño and Farina resemble the Beats, an overrated group of nominal poets whose work should be forgotten like the days their adherents spent getting high. The Millions noticed the connection: “For Bolaño, as for the Beats, the poem is a way of finding beauty even (or especially) in insalubrious circumstances.” The context implies this is a good thing, but I take it as a bad—very bad—thing, as the Beats are incoherent, not visionary. Since Bolaño is Chilean, he may not have read any of them, but he still reminds me of them.

To be fair, some sentences in Bolaño are great, as when a chapter ends, “[i]t was Lupe and she was smiling like a spider,” which loses its resonance taken out of place, but is unexpected and wonderful. Occasional thoughts like this are okay: “And then I realized that something had gone wrong in the last few days, something had gone wrong in my relationship with the new Mexican poets or with the new women in my life, but no matter how much I thought about it I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, the abyss that opened up behind me if I looked over my shoulder.” The Savage Detectives has them too frequently. Comment one: Bolaño is not Proust. Comment two: Enough self-indulgent speculation. These seemingly random comments, deracinated from the action, fill the novel. One character, Quim Font, says ironically, “At a certain point you need to steep yourself in reality, no?” You don’t need reality to tell a good story, but you at least need a novel that hangs together. The Savage Detectives doesn’t, and it has no sense of place, too many characters, and too little narrative cohesion to make it worth reading. Novels with different speakers and different points of view can work, as The Bridge of San Luis Ray and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion demonstrate. Sadly, I just read 160 pages I’ll never get back that don’t.

A Terry Teachout Reader

Terry Teachout, critic, blogger, and probably much else besides, has collected his pieces in A Terry Teachout Reader, a compendium of critical wisdom that is a pleasure, though only about 20% seriously interested me. He also observes the larger culture in a way narrower critics can or do not and doesn’t assume the merit of what he writes about. Best of all, he has sensibility. This includes respect and acknowledgment of high culture while still paying attention to low culture and a voracious appetite for everything significant between without losing sight the cultural top rising above the detritus, even interesting or worthy detritus.

He’s not an elitist, but he also isn’t going to take silly music or TV or, yes, books, seriously, and culture is ultimately about people more than ideas. One of his best essays discussed the Book of the Month club and showed how important it was the cultural conversation of its time—a kind of Oprah’s book club for an era without good bookstores in every down. In this case, something many writers would consider mundane, like book distribution, affected how people responded to books and how books got sold. It’s fashionable to bemoan the loss of independent bookstores, but one time there simply weren’t many good bookstores within a reasonable radius of a large percentage of the population, and now, thanks for Barnes & Noble, there are. The company serves a purpose, as Teachout reminds us, and he also respected the Book of the Month Club for the way it exposed ordinary people to unusual books. Sure, it picked plenty of duds and was the object of much condescension from the literati of the time. But it was better than nothing. Jonathan Franzen’s tizzy with Oprah has the same sentiment underlying it, as does the lit blogosphere’s distaste for the New York Times Book Review. Mass culture and group experience matters, if for no other reason than authors need to eat and people who are readers are often much more interesting than people who watch reality TV. It would be a boring world without someone to share your latest find with, and a duller world for many of those who wouldn’t otherwise read.

I perceive all this because Teachout’s writing reflects his underlying beliefs, and he has mastered the plain style of Robertson Davies or George Orwell, thus offering knowledge in the clearest and most precise language possible. I’d like to think I eschew needless complexity to the extent teacher does, but then I find myself writing words like “eschew” inappropriately, and sometimes those words slip into the blog.

Despite my general admiration for Teachout, I skipped some pieces, just as I might not like everything at a buffet. While I share many of his convictions, the pieces on books and larger American culture captivated me, but I skimmed most of the music pieces and anything relating to dance. I like music and listen to everything except country, but I have no technical knowledge about music or ability to criticize it beyond very basic likes and dislikes.

Some passages make me rethink much of what I’ve thought. In my own unpublished fiction—perhaps, as I fear, unpublished for a reason—I commit some of the sins Teachout observes in others: I don’t care for or about religion and have trouble making my way out of what Teachout, quoting a literary scholar named Joan Acocella, calls “the boundaries of the sex plot.” I’d never considered sex plots in those terms, save from a few essays pointing out that the marriage plot engine has been exhausted, or how they drive so much great literature, just as murders drive so many contemporary pop novels. The sex/murder dynamic is so intertwined that decoupling a plot from either is hard, at least with realism. Tolkien does it, as do many fantasy and science fiction writers, but among realist writers I’ve read Robertson Davies and Graham Greene (in some novels) do it best. Is that because writers are obsessed with sex, or readers are, or humans are? I’m not sure the answer, but it is striking how few novels in the Random House 100 Best Novels have sex as their driving plot. Again, this artifact may come from the selection committee, the literary tastemakers, something genuine, or something else. I can only ask because Teachout helped me pose the questions I couldn’t have formulated before.

The Unknown Terrorist

The New York Times led me to The Unknown Terrorist, a novel the reviewer mischaracterizes as “a fast-paced, sexually charged whodunit that suggests a far more complex reality.” Well: it might be sexually charged, and a whodunit, and suggest a far more complex reality, but it definitely isn’t fast paced. At least the first hundred—where I stopped—weren’t, and the novel should have started around page 60. Even then very little happens over the next 40 except a lot of interior commentary from the protagonists and annoying exterior commentary from the third-person narrator.

I gather from the tone of paranoia and uncertainty about large, sinister forces that Flanagan’s heroes fear, he is supposed to be recalling Philip K. Dick and his acolytes, including the cyberpunks, but he doesn’t do it as well as them and forgets that they always served up their anti-government sentiment with a strong helping of story that didn’t just intimate Bad Things, but showed how they did happen. Flanagan could too, and there’s a good novel that could have been written from The Unknown Terrorist’s base, and passages of very good writing could be salvaged. Those good passages make the novel more frustrating; Flanagan draws the linkages among money, sex, machines, technology, and economic forces together well, as when he implicitly compares a strip club to a casino. The good passages also have their problems—the amateur sociology behind the strip club scenes could have been much improved by reading Chelsea Girl.

The novel fails because of numerous reasons, including the many vague, portentous comments, as when the Doll sees a cloud: “It kept changing, like the world,” that have no payoff. Yes, we know the world is changing, and globalization means that Australian strippers can sleep with Middle Eastern computer programmer/maybe terrorists, and that governments overreact to terrorism, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hammered over the head with it in metaphors—or in place descriptions. The often clumsy attempts to establish a modern noir setting, where everything is plastic and fake instead of grim and dirty, and nothing is as it seems, fall flat. I keep returning to Dick because he invented and adapted the settings Flanagan wants to use. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a strong setting that doesn’t detract from the plot—which begins on page one and stops on the last page, and in which philosophical musings are organic the topic.

I hesitate to condemn a book where so many of the technical aspects, like individual sentences, are right, but so many of the big ideas are wrong because most bad or mediocre books go the other way around: good ideas and plots poorly executed in sentences. Some details utterly wrong aside from the strip club, as when the narrator observes that “appliances were all of the best quality” and everything was white and gleaming in Tariq’s apartment. For the last ten or more years, the nicest appliances have been silver and steel colors, although over the last few years some designers have favored black. Mistakes like these stop me from reading and make me question the author’s knowledge concerning what he writes. The Unknown Terrorist is not worth reading, and I shouldn’t have given it 100 pages.

As long as I’m on the subject of Philip K. Dick, in the New Yorker Adam Gopnik published this essay. I don’t agree with all his (re)assessments, which, as others have noticed, he strains for at times, but even when I don’t agree he makes provocative points and packs a lot of ideas into very little space, as with, for example, this:

Dick tends to get treated as a romantic: his books are supposed to be studies in the extremes of paranoia and technological nightmare, offering searing conundrums of reality and illusion. This comes partly from the habit, hard to break, of extolling the transgressive, the visionary, the startling undercurrent of dread. In fact, Dick in the sixties is a bone-dry intellectual humorist, a satirist—concerned with taking contemporary practices and beliefs to their reductio ad absurdum.

If Dick is treated as a romantic, he’s only capital-R Romantic like late Blake, or in the sense of the ironic genre of Romance as begun by Conrad at the start of modernism. I can reconcile him being a bone-dry intellectual humorist and a romantic, but Gopnik treats them as separate ideas. This powerful and interesting essay, however, is worth reading even if I think some of it wrong, and it is worthwhile much like A Farewell to Alms, a book with loads of insightful premises that may not add up to the author’s conclusion. I love anything that makes me really think, even if I conclude that the author is wrong. Gopnik and Gregory Clark both more than accomplish that end.

The Exception

Book/daddy Jerome Weeks posted a review of The Exception, a book about genocide:

A philosophical thriller, The Exception considers the question who among us could commit atrocities, and sets it not among soldiers or sadists but the staff in a Copenhagen think tank devoted to studying genocide. In other words, take the most humanitarian, high-minded Westerners around — people like us, you know, the best people — and given the right circumstances, circumstances that needn’t even be that extreme, we will still savage each other.

His review—and probably the novel as a whole—complements The Lucifer Effect and my recent post.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel Elmore Leonard recommends in interviews—he did recently in one with The Wall Street Journal—and he wrote the introduction, explaining that “What I learned from George Higgins was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities.” Not only did he learn, but he surpassed his master: The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not an outright bad book. What I learned from it is that you can show too much through dialog. It accomplished something new in its genre, a feat very few novels—including self-consciously literary ones—do. But it reads like a movie—dialog predominates to such a degree that I could barely track where the characters are, or why they are there, or what they are doing. At the same time, Eddie’s “friends” are so slimy and foolish that I cannot care for them and their fast talking. If anything goes on in their heads besides lust for money, it’s not evident.

Guilty of all the alleged sins I defended in The Prisoner of Convention, The Friends of Eddie Coyle would probably make Myers self-immolate. If he thinks Leonard’s heroes are amoral verging on immoral, then the ones in Higgins’ books are simply animals. The Friends of Eddie Coyle also shows that at some level Myers is right: I could not care about Coyle or his friends in part because all of them are so bad, and not only bad but vain and petty. Richard III and Othello at least had contrasts with the villains even if they fell for the villains’ schemes, but Coyle doesn’t even have that. Eddie, Jackie Brown, Dillon, and the rest of them are unredeemed by any glimmer of humanity’s positive traits. Leonard’s have some honor or dignity, even that of a thief. Few if any of Leonard’s protagonists, for example, kill without provocation, and he raises more moral questions through his work than Myers seems to realize.

As with the work some nineteenth-century authors, The Friends of Eddie Coyle appears significant more for its influence than for itself. If you’ve read Elmore Leonard you’ve read Coyle but better; if you’ve seen Homicide: Life on the Streets or any of the innumerable gritty cop shows on T.V. or in theaters you’ve heard his characters’ voices. They are influenced by film, and, as one says, “It’s like you’re in a movie, and the other guy’s in the movie with you, but he knows you’re both in a movie, and what comes next. And you don’t. I get the feeling, all the time, he’s playing me” (emphasis in the original) (85). Maybe some of Higgins’ other books are better—Elmore Leonard improved with age—so he might too. But I’m not going to find out.

The Lucifer Effect — Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil will probably have the misfortune of being an extremely important book that does not find the larger audience it deserves. Its author is most famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in the 1970s, in which he divided two groups of normal Stanford students in “prisoners” and “guards” and observed the students assuming their respective roles with frightening quickness and, on the part of the guards, alacrity. The Lucifer Effect is the first time Zimbardo has detailed exactly what happened in the SPE, and he links it to the recent scandal in Abu Ghraib. To judge from recent events, it will not be the last time scandals like Abu Ghraib happen.

If I could sum up The Lucifer Effect, I’d change a quote I recently posted from Robert Heinlein, “secrecy begets tyranny,” to “bad systems beget bad results.” Zimbardo’s argument, made in meticulous detail on the SPE and then paralleled with Abu Ghraib, holds that in some situations normally healthy people can quickly take roles leading them toward brutality and that our personalities may play less of a role in the extent to which we fight injustice than many of us would like to think. These claims are extraordinary, and The Lucifer Effect must be read in full to understand them and the situations, which usually involve lax oversight by supposed authorities and arbitrary rules, that allow abuse to occur.

Some details from The Lucifer Effect haunt, as when Zimbardo says that when prisoners in the SPE were “released” early, other prisoners or guards often said nothing and made no mention of those who had come or gone, as though they were the trapped rabbits in the bizarre warren from Watership Down. The world the prison creates seems almost independent of the world prior to the prison, bringing to mind Kafka or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon The latter’s portrayal of psychological torture is political in nature, but the parallels between the SPE and it are there: the uncertainty, the apparent lack of thought on the part of guards, the sense of timelessness and the extent to which people become the role rather than vice-versa.

Despite these issues, Zimbardo’s last and too short section deals with how to combat bad systems. He writes: “Heroism often requires social support. We typically celebrate heroic deeds of courageous individuals, but we do not do so if their actions have tangible immediate cost to the rest of us and we can’t understand their motives.” Such was the case of rabble-rousing prisoners, and such is often the case with political reformers. Passages like this remind us of the larger ideas implicit in the particular actions, and Zimbardo skillfully generalizes from specific incidents and then brings the generalizations back to concrete examples, zooming in and out with the precision of a philosopher and the writing talent of a novelist. In the last and perhaps most important section Zimbardo discusses further research concerning how people disengage their moral senses and conform to communal norms and the like, and, in particular, dehumanization as it affects those in positions of power compared to those who are not.

Only occasionally does Zimbardo go too far afield with his theories, as happened with the long description of burnout inventories and the Abu Ghraib scandal. His puns sometimes elicit groans even when they’re appropriate, as when he has a headline asking, “A Bad Apple or a Chip off the Best Block?” concerning a guard named Chip. Yet the section’s content is so solemn that letting in the joke, even a bad one, prevents reader fatigue—a fascinating strategy in a section concerning how people suffer burnout as a result of stress. While the stress of the reader is nothing like the stress of a prison guard in Iraq, Zimbardo’s reminder of how principles remain the same even as the orders of magnitude of importance changes is reinforced by him using the techniques he describes in writing. That and his tendency to drift into academic language (I will argue x, and then I will argue y…) are the only weaknesses in what is otherwise an excellent book and one that contributes greatly to understanding how social and bureaucratic systems work and can dehumanize both those involved and those controlled.

EDIT: Zimbardo’s next book, The Time Paradox, is probably also of great interest to readers of The Lucifer Effect.


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