Monday, March 23, 2009


In the waning weeks of 1975, a would-be teenage poet named Jose Garcia Madero falls in with Mexico City's oft-discussed and -reviled countercultural poetry movement, who call themselves the visceral realists. The movement's spearheads are Arturo Belano--a Colombian expat who is, perhaps, a very thinly veiled fictionalization of the author, Roberto Bolano--and his cohort, the large and quiet Mexican Ulises Lima. The poets take Jose on a joyride through Mexico City's dive bars, greasy spoons, and cheap motels on a quest for love, sex, booze, and the perfect visceral realist poem. But on New Year's Day, 1976, in the small hours of the morning, everything goes rather awry, launching a madcap exodus across four different continents.

There are some pros and cons about this book, to the point that I can't give it a rating. I saw a girl on the subway reading it and sat down next to her to chat, and found that she felt much the way I did--7 out of 10, how frustrating--so I'll try to discuss these pros and cons in order.

First, I was very much caught up in the first 100+ pages, Jose Garcia Madero's diary. Although it consists of pure, undirected narrative, I couldn't stop reading about the latest crazy characters he came across or his adolescent desperation to get laid, at whatever cost to himself and his friends. All rather brisk and entertaining.

The trouble for me came at page 130 or so, when Jose's diary ends, as does the semblance of any structure or narrative (may I take this opportunity to point out that the book is 672 pages long). The rest of the book is a series of short passages--varying in length from a paragraph to 20 pages or so--told by "witnesses" of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima's exploits abroad. While some of the narrators repeat once or twice, many never repeat at all, and--frustratingly--Jose, the one character I'd gotten to know, disappears entirely.

All this becomes difficult to sum up. Bolano is indeed a skilled writer and an observer of perspective; each of the short narratives is very entertaining in and of itself. But when it became clear to me that none of the mini-chapters was driving the plot forward--that indeed there was no plot--I admit I got frustrated with the mammoth heavy book and began to skim a little. When I realized there was nothing but whimsical stand-alone appeal to each of the sections, my attention drifted.

All this was a real shame, because at the end when it did all come together again--at the very, very, very end--I was sad to see I'd missed some details I was vaguely curious about. Sad enough to go back and reread? No way. I don't have the stamina.

This book was recommended to me by a colleague, who said it is literally the best thing he has read in his adult life. I imagine for a type of reader it really scratches an itch, and like I said, his perspective-building is really extraordinary and largely amusing. For me, it wasn't a perfect enough reading experience for me to be willing to embark on his (even longer) second book, 2666. Perhaps if I'd gone in knowing what kind of mental project the book would be, I would have taken more time to read it. Alas. I didn't.

I would recommend at least sampling, though. If you like the feel at the beginning and aren't deterred by the length, it could be a really valuable read. I do think it's a wonderful departure from "Latin American Literature" as we've been defining it for the last four decades or so, and all aficionados should partake (probably already have).


angelle said...

yeah i couldn't get through it. i think i read the first 100+ pages or so and finally gave up.

Jude said...

Also a DNF for me. I had heard so much hype, but it was like hipster stream-of-consciousness. I stopped somewhere in the part where they are all trapped in the house with thugs outside.

The Pilgrim said...

okay the middle section is a bit of slog but the whole book is such an incredible anti-epic (of epic length)that I thought it one of the best things I have read in the past 20 years. I am now reading 2666 and think it more extraordinary than Savage Detectives.

Carly said...

Chile, not Colombia. Minor factual error perhaps, but enough to make me disregard your reading,