Reading 2666: Part I

In that indeterminate cosmic way, contributors Jacob Singer and Benjamin van Loon both decided—independently—to venture into the monolithic world of Roberto Bolano’s 2666. In the universe of contemporary literary fiction, 2666 is like a wormhole, through which strands of messiahs, murderers, and mysteries swirl together in a strange, self-referential literary thread.

Both Jacob and Ben realized that a standard review wouldn’t do justice to the book—which is more like a tome than a novel. As they were talking about the happenstance of their spontaneous interest, they realized the best way to talk about 2666 was to do just that—talk about it.

Thus begins the first part of an n-part interchange between Jacob Singer and Benjamin van Loon on exactly what to make of Bolano’s message from the future.

– – –

JACOB SINGER:

This is who I am, Ben, with regards to why I am reading 2666 and having a conversation with you about it. First, I want to go back and kind of establish myself as a reader, something we haven’t talked about. In college, I decided to stop being a science major when I took Irish Literature as a sophomore and read JJ’s Ulysses. Later the University of San Francisco accidently let me into their creative writing program and I learned how to think like a writer—it took me afew more years before I learned how to write.

Along the way, I started enjoying books that might be considered experimental, encyclopedic, and hysterical—books like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Teeth. But why? (Ben, have you read any of these? What big books have you loved/hated?) I was getting bored with realism and minimalism. If felt like every “popular, realistic novel” was written with the hope of either being on Oprah or being turned into a bad movie.

I didn’t read contemporary fiction until after college. I first read David Foster Wallace when I was living in Tucson, Arizona. I moved there to live with an old friend who was studying writing at U of A. I got a job working at a café and spent my free time writing and reading. I really wanted to know how to build stories and develop a unique style. But everything I wrote was simply horrible. My friends and I would workshop and look at first pages, dialogue, and exposition. During my time there I came across “the three Davids”, who become influential for very different reasons: David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, and David Eggers. I always joke about my timein Tucson being the “The Summer of Davids”.

Anyways, Wallace’s collection of essays “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again” blew me away and started me on a three year DFW bender. I read everything he’d published while a graduate student. People like Wallace and Pynchon aren’t really addressed or taught. Sure someone does Crying of Lot 49 or a short story of Wallace’s, but nobody was teaching me what I wanted to know about their magic. Their books are too long and the content too complex to be taught in a general course. I agree that they shouldn’t be taught in seminar like “The Development of the Novel”—it would take up the whole class. But there I was, a totally cliché grad student drooling over Wallace and Pynchon.

Living in San Francisco was great for a number of reasons, but one is the accessibility to buying great books. I lived near Green Apple and Booksmith. Just about all my money went to them. I arrived in SF with two books: The Brother’s Karamazov and Infinite Jest. I left with boxes and boxes of books, most of which are still unread. During this time my notion of Wallace and Pynchon changed. They weren’t enigmas but part of a tradition that I would call Hysterical Realism, a term coined by British critic James Wood, and Encyclopedic Narrative—think about Epic poetry with a decentralized plot structure and a lot of detail. While Wood used Hysterical Realism in a derogatory way—I use it in a positive way. It was literature turned up to eleven, if I may be so low as to reference Spinal Tap. I thenbegan to move out and away into this movement, discovering William Gass, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Zadie Smith, William T. Vollmann,William Gaddis, as well as re-framing historical maximalists like Marcel Proust, Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne, William Burroughs, and Virginia Woolfe. Suddenly, I saw a tradition of over writing, longsentences, and playing with language. But these aren’t writers typically taught. I was still in the dark.

I’m not an academic, although I teach college; I’m a generalist, not a specialist. In my reading I found what I would call a gap forming between books like Forester’s Aspects of the Novel and Berressem’s Pynchon’s Poetics (an important book that talks a lot about the ideasof post-modernism and provides textual analyses, but not what I (emphasis on me, I, yours truly—basically, a nobody) would call poetics, no offense to Berressem.

No one was talking about how Pynchon uses point of view, how names influence a reader’s understanding of the text, how he structured chapters, how to see concrete in a text with so much abstract language, etc. Basically no one was talking about the things that Iwas really interested in talking about. I really wanted to know how they built their sentences. If I could figure that out, it would be like a biologist understanding genetics…but that’s not even correct.It would be like understanding anatomy.

I once brought up the idea of talking about grammar in graduate school. The teacher said: You should already know grammar. I felt like an idiot. But I was asking the wrong question. I really wanted to talk about sentences—How can I build different kinds of sentences? This brings me to a point I need to address. (Ben, what’s your background with writing? Did you take a lot of classes in college? Workshops? Are they necessary?)

America needs to get off Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. (Whatdo you think of this book?) That book doesn’t really teach anyone howto write. It teaches how to avoid confusion at the cost of voice, style, and personality. “Avoid jargon because you might confusesomeone” and what you end up with is sentences that all look the same, that lack precision, that lack the ability to zoom in and pull to show a wide range of thought. Recently I discovered Nora Bacon’s “The Well-Crafted Sentence” that explores coordination and parallel sentences, modification, verb phrases, and noun phrases. Elements of Style is only for minimalism, bad minimalism that makes students hate writing. It’s prescriptive and doesn’t teach you to think for yourself or develop your own voice and style—it teaches you to line up and become one of the homogenized voices, forever a B student, never a passionate writer. The voice of Elements of Style is that of the five-thirty news.

Ben, I don’t know about you, but when I think about how superficial the media has become, how stupid discourse is—it makes me sick. It’s so boring and mundane. I have literarily felt ill watching cable news. When I compare that with reading one of Wallace’s essays—it’s night and day. With him, and any great writer, I see the world through someone else’s eyes. His language allows me to see how his brain and heart works.

He marries high and low brow and has the ability to appreciate professional sports and avant-garde art—could you imagine listening to a sportscaster talk about David Lynch or some artist talk about Roger Federer with such heart? And it is because of his fucking language that I became so interested in Wallace’s writing. Same with Pynchon,Vollmann, and Zadie Smith. Wasn’t that why I wanted to write? Where can I learn to do what they did? Not just language acrobats but amalgamate substance and style.

That’s why in 2011 I started a webzine called Hysterical Realism where I could gather all the best resources for people like me, readers who wanted to think deeply about books that don’t really have a place inthe university and whose place in publishing is that of academics (toomuch about ideas and not enough about the text, language, narrative). The idea of research is to provide new information, to participate ina tradition. I see Bolano as a Hysterical Realist and want to read what many consider his masterpiece—2666. I really want this conversation to help people like me to better understand how to read and write big, gnarly books.

Where/when did you first hear of Bolano? I first came across Bolano at the University of San Francisco. Savage Detectives had just beenpublished and my teacher printed off a chapter for us to read. He wrote the title on the page but his ‘v’ looked like a ‘u’. And beingfrom Wisconsin, I got very excited about the prospect of reading abook called “The Sausage Detectives”, the best possible misreading ever! I was heartbroken to find out that I was wrong, but I promised the class that I would write a book with that title–An Israeli commando named Shlomo who breaks all stereotypes of what it means to be a Jew: rides a motorcycle, has tattoos, eats pork, and dates a sexy senorita; all set in Milwaukee—where is he working with the only good cop left in the city (Rico), trying to defeat an evil cartel of Canadian drug lords named Buster and Guyute who are flooding Milwaukee’s streets with drugs and corpses. All taking place in the Cream City and under the lights of Usinger Sausage Company which the two criminal masterminds use as a HQ (to be released by Anobium of course–wink). But how would I write such a story? How did Wallace and Pynchon build characters that were like real people, that were Dickensian, playful at times but serious at other? I guess I wouldhave to use my education to answer these questions.

In closing, what can I offer to the conversation? I am an apprentice writer, this is who I am. I love reading and have an eye for how authors marry structure, substance, and style. All I can do is pointout what enamors me, all the shiny beautiful objects created with only words and punctuation.

– – –

BENJAMIN VAN LOON:

I came at literature in a funny way. Throughout my high school years, though I was raised in a literate home, I mostly dabbled in little young adult fictions about various supernatural phenomena and space battles. Nothing too boundary-pushing, in terms of style. I had been reading for years, but Literature (note the capital L) wouldn’t really affect my life’s path for a few more years yet. I had to get into Philosophy first (note the capital P), and in many ways, the philosophers turned on my interest to literature (small p and small l).

I’m not sure why I thought that way. It was a question of practicality, maybe. For a while, I wanted to be a monk, and then a trainhopper. Any variety of suburban aspirations. Maybe literature seemed quotidian to me, but I probably thought that because I didn’t understand it, or understand how to crack it. I started school up at community college (like a good suburbanite) after taking off a few years off after high school to explore some weird form of pseudo-religious socialism, delving fully into a weird world strung together with ideas from Marx, Chomsky, Jesus, Ghandi, and Adbusters magazine. It was a teeth-sharpening phase, maybe, because when I got into school, it didn’t take long for me to gravitate towards the ideas departments (notably, philosophy and literature). Here I got tied up early with literary and postmodern theory—Lacan, Zizek, Foucault, Derrida, et al.—I was also reading Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and other 19th-century navel-gazers at the time, on an extra-curricular basis. My head was in the clouds, or that’s where I was aiming, anyway. I had some great teachers—one of whom I still consider a close friend—but in most of my classes, it was hard for me to stay interested. I mostly just wanted to read and write about ideas. My post-high-school/pre-college ideological sojourn did a number on me, so the practice of critical thinking was becoming invaluable.
I got more into philosophy, reading a lot of ‘primary texts,’ most of which I didn’t understand, but I caught occasional glimpses of things. The more I read, the more I realized that—even if these philosopher dudes are good with ideas—they’re not necessarily good with words. In fact, some of the ‘greatest’ thinkers in the west are, by no small coincidence, the worst writers. So I gravitated towards philosophers who wrote well; Kierkegaard still championing the cause, but I also looked at philosophers who wrote outside of Philosophy, or writers who were often cited in the Philosophical world, though they never wrote any proper Philosophical works (like Kafka). So I tested the waters, reading many works which I consider to be existential fictions, or solipsisms with pale narrative structures: Sartre, Hamsun… others I can’t remember right now. I was also visiting some classics by Goethe and whatnot. It was a pompous literary coming-of-age.
It wasn’t helped when I transferred to a small university here in Chicago. A school which, by virtue of the student and faculty body, seems—in retrospect—fairly out of touch with contemporaneity as a whole. It worked to foster my interest in classic literature and philosophy, but I concluded my undergraduate career and entered adult life as another useless young adult with a magna cum laude double-B.A., with a lot of pretense to boot. It took a bit for me to come back down to Earth, and really, I think it was when I picked up Lolita that I got turned on to ‘modern literature,’ and that’s partly because the book humbled me so much.
But I was out of school at that point, so like you, I was in the dark for navigating these new waters. Nabokov was doing things with language that I had never seen done, and while much of the other writers I was reading were treating ideas like these lofty, holy things, Nabokov was treating them like jacks. And that style of writing—self-consciously intelligent—it had a certain appeal to me, partly because I felt so belittled by it. But there was something empowering about that emasculating feeling, like, things don’t have to be taken to seriously as all that. The existentialists were finally making sense to me, I guess.
To answer your question, I took some writing classes in college, but never benefitted from groups within the institution. This is because you don’t pick your groups at that stage in the game. I always understood that writing was mostly a solitary activity, which is also maybe why I was so enamored by these solipsistic narratives. They ‘spoke’ to me.
But I was still too bound up in the so-called clarity of these texts. I tried my hand at reading some avant literature – the beats, Burroughs, some Oulipo stuff – and I was picking up more literary journals that had some ‘experimental’ texts in them, but I wasn’t ‘buying’ it. It seemed contrived to me (but this was also during the time where I believed created things aren’t also contrived things), and I flat out didn’t understand it. I picked up Infinite Jest, read 200 pages, and threw it down in disgust. I was of the Nabokov school—mid-century modernism, whatnot—where nothing beats a good sentence. But I kept reading more, and realizing the the lines of ‘good’ get blurry fast. It’s hard for me to trace the exact genesis, but I was very opposed to DFW, Bolano, Pynchon, and others.
Somewhere that changed. Maybe it was by starting Anobium, or playing more with my own writing? I was writing and submitting a lot of fiction at this time, trying to find my voice. I realized how fun ‘experimental’ writing can be, and it takes a lot of balls to actually make it readable. I started to think, bravo to these guys for doing something new, and pulling it off. Maybe there’s something there? This was a few years ago.
So I’ve grown up a little more, worked to cast off some of my naive pretense, worked hard to become more conscious of my influences—people I respect as writers and artists. They always happen to be these kind of fringe folks who operate by their own set of rules, and are often spurned for it. In film, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Errol Morris… Even some of my writers are on the far edge of ‘Literature’—Blaster “Al” Ackerman comes to mind. Basically, I have always admired folks who do things on their own terms, to satisfy their own interests, answer their own questions, or do things how they want them to be done. They’re not proselytizing or trying to ‘start’ something. They’re just doing what they do, drawing cues from various sources, and trying to making work that satisfies. This is the context I’ve began to appreciate work by folks like Bolano. I read Antwerp around the time I started Anobium and thought—I wish there was more writing like this in the world. That’s all it was. It just appealed to that part of me. It had that ‘thing.’ Maybe it’s a polarizing style, and I was on the other side of the pole for a while, but all it took was some time for me to realize that I’ve been in the Bolano camp all along—if that makes sense.
In this sense, my reasons for wanting to read 2666 are the same as yours. I wonder, how can I do what he did? But more than that, I want to ‘watch’ 2666 the same way I watch a movie from a director I enjoy: I want to absorb it. I don’t want to try and have it influence me. I want to simply let it in, and let it become part of my mental chemistry. I’ve only read Antwerp and The Secret of Evil by Bolano, so reading 2666 next is sort of like going from the kiddie pool to the deep end. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe it’s going from the kiddie pool to a February dive off the wave breakers near Belmont Harbor.
So you’re not an academic, by your own admission, though you are more of an academic than I, so you might be more cognizant of the various ‘isms’ happening in Bolano, but one reason I like Bolano is that he’s pop savvy. I recently wrote a review of his ‘new’ book, where I compared him to Borges—an easy parallel. I think their big difference is that Borges welcomed the ‘isms,’ whereas Bolano—from my nascent understanding of him—spurns this sort of conceptual erudition. But then he spurns the other side too. He’s an equal opportunity brain smasher, maybe.
On a final note, a self-loathing Jewish hero sounds excellent. We’ve both also spent time in Wisconsin, and I’m familiar enough with the state to know that one of the least Jewish things a person can do is live in Wisconsin. So maybe that’s all it would have to be. A Jewish guy moves to Wisconsin, marries a blonde shikse (last name Deitz or Schmidt or Bregsma), eats Cheeseburgers, and doesn’t circumcise his sons. But then how would you involve the Canadian cartel? Workshop problems, these.
Anyway, very much looking forward to starting this book and talking about it with you. My thoughts on it will likely be discursive, non-specific, but we’ll see. Maybe he’ll strike a nerve, like the one that’s bothering me in my wrist right now.
– – –
TO BE CONTINUED…
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