Tag Archives: roberto bolano

Simone and Pearl and the Power Cosmic! part 7: Simone loves butt jokes.

21 Apr

(Except for the Chicago Public School strike diary, I’ve avoided writing about topical things. This week is no exception, but like everyone else I’ve been riveted by the Boston tragedy, disturbed by the explosion in Texas, and bamboozled by the speed of the conspiracy dudes to somehow turn both into a government cover-up.)

1.

Simone loves butt jokes. I blame Beth. One of Simone’s favorites: “Say hello . . . to my butt,” and then she turns around. Sometimes she lifts up her dress, shakes her derriere around, giggling. I can never stifle my laughter. Yesterday morning she said to me, “Daddy, I shouldn’t show my butt to my friends. It’s impolite.” Pause. “Only to mommy and daddy.” Big smile.

She’s a mischievous imp.

Last Christmas, at my parents’ dinner table, she started singing “Deck the Halls.” The family stopped talking and everyone looked at her to listen. “Deck the halls with bells of holly, fa la la la, la la la la.” She paused for a second, looked at me with a devilish grin, and started singing again. “Deck the halls with lots of butts,” and then an enormous grin. Thankfully my mom didn’t hear the last word.

She has a new favorite movie, Peter Pan; Simone is in love. Pan has taken possessions of our household. She talks about the characters like they are her friends. She tucks Michael in at bedtime, talks about him incessantly. She drives him to school. She dislikes Wendy.

Simone: "I like Captain Hook, too, daddy!"

Simone: “I like Captain Hook, too, daddy!”

Peter Pan has dated well. It contains a deep magic. The source material is strong. The songs are catchy, the pacing is punchy and the Schmee/Hook jokes are still funny.

But.

It also has an achingly uncomfortable portrayal of American Indians. It isn’t all negative—they aren’t the bad guys, or anything like that—just insensitive and stereotypical. Simone picked up the undercurrent right away. “The Indians are bad guys,” she said. Not sure how to handle this one.

The movie is also scary. Simone now has nightmares. But she’s clever. We can’t tell when she’s actually scared, and when she’s pretending to be scared so she can stay up later. Last night she said, “I had a nightmare. There’s a scary mean dragon. I think I need to sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed.” This last little bit is delivered with the barest hint of a smile.

2.

Pearl walks now, and like an angry gorilla. She has her arms above her head, her hands in the air, often a crazed smile on her lips. Her favorite books are Hop on Pop, which she just loves, Where is Baby’s Belly Button? and Where Is My House? When we try to read her a book she doesn’t like, she shuts the pages and begins slapping the back of the book. It’s hysterical.

She and Simone often play together now, and when they are both happy and smiling and engaged—it’s a wonderful sight. Simone still slings Pearl around, knocks her over, snatches toys out of her hands, but they seem to be getting along quite well.

Pearl likes to put Simone’s clothes on her head and wander around. She seems to understand us when we speak, more than other children, and I don’t know what to make of it. This morning I asked her what she was doing and she looked at me and said, “What?” Can’t tell if she meant it. Her eyes remain . . . discerning, for lack of a better world.

3.

“Literature isn’t innocent.” Roberto Bolano wrote that (and it’s true). I continue to re-read Bolano, after reading his entire oeuvre over the last few years: By Night in Chile then Nazi Literature in the Americas then Distant Star then all the best of his short stories. I just finished The Savage Detectives[1]. On a second read, it’s a major novel, byzantine and sexy, dense, challenging and contradictory, fun. What he’s done is infuse youth culture and poetry with madness and death. The book disturbs. It unnerves. It jangles in my thoughts.

Detectives follows teenage poets scrounging their way through an impoverished existence in 1970s Mexico. The first section is a diary of a seventeen year old poet. He has sex. He drinks too much. He writes poems. He reads. He pursues Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (Bolano’s fictional alter-ego), two renegade poets who have formed a poetry group called the Visceral Realists. Dark thoughts begin to appear, premonitions of catastrophe, portents of doom. The poets are living on borrowed time, they just don’t realize it yet.

One of the great novels, sexy, scary, weird, riveting, artful and complex. But fun to read.

One of the great novels, sexy, scary, weird, riveting, artful and complex. But fun to read.

The second section follows two dozen or so monologues of various characters across the globe, and their experiences with Lima and Belano. This section begins in the 1970s and ends in the 1990s, with characters interviewed in three different decades.

The third section returns to the diary and back to Mexico, and the whole jagged story—why Lima and Belano are floating through life like ghostly vagabonds—is explained.

A specter of death hangs over Bolano’s entire body of work, and Detectives is no exception. Detectives is about ghosts, exiles, voices from the dead, failure, leftwing politics, the power of the Spanish language and an obsessive disassociation with reality. It’s a furious read, at times alienating, saturated with sickness, despair, horror—plus plenty of humor and brilliant writing.

Bolano is a polarizing figure. Plenty of readers find him bizarre, hard to follow. The big problem for some readers is his tone and high/low approach. He’s obsessed with poetry, Literature, but he writes like some perverse, polyphone mash up of James Ellroy, George Bataille, and John Cheever as well as a synthesis of the entire Latin American literary canon. He’s a pulpy, violent, artful, beautiful soul.

He’s also a great reading companion. His novels are filled with recommendations, summaries of novels, lists of great poets, dismissals of overrated artists.

He was dying of cancer for his entire novel-writing career, and the sickness in his cells imbues his work with an obsessive, driven, often horrifying pulse. Much of his work is unclassifiable. Some of it is terrible. But the bulk of it remains the great literary treasure trove that was published in my lifetime thus far. I plan to re-read 2666 next.

4.

Me. Just not in the mood.

I’ve been working on a new manuscript. The blog has moved to a once-a-week post. (I have lots of mostly finished entries.) When I write essays and blog posts fiction recedes. When I work on fiction, the blog seems flimsy and a sham.

My latest manuscript is, at least right now, going to consist of three novellas. I have a draft finished of the first; I’ve mostly written the second, although I haven’t typed it up yet; and the third I haven’t even begun.

I’m feeling a bit . . . deflated tonight, so I’m going to move on.

5.

I saw Wake in Fright, the fantastic (mostly) forgotten Australian film about desolation, despair, weird sex, kangaroo hunting and binge drinking in the Aussie outback. It follows a bitter schoolteacher named Grant on his way to vacation in Sydney. En route, he stops in at Bundanyabba, a little city in the middle of nowhere, for an overnight rest. The denizens of the Yabba are excessive drinkers, gamblers, hunters and fighters. They appear friendly, but are easily offended and insist that Grant partake in their bad food, warm beer, and repugnant social life. One day turns into two and Grant, hungover and broke, wakes up in the apartment of a drunken scoundrel doctor named Tydon, played by Donald Pleasance.

Pleasance gives an outstanding performance, wild and wooly, vile and vicious, yet somehow decent and kind, too. It’s better than his Biblical madman in Will Penny (also a great performance in a great movie), and it reshapes my thinking on Pleasance. I always saw him as a buffoon, really, miscast in The Great Escape and pretty terrible in Prince of Darkness[2] the first two Halloween movies. But now, I’m not sure. He’s so fucking alive in Fright, so present in each frame, channeling his intellectual reprobate with clarity and force. Maybe he was a genius all along, just misused.

An amazing, deeply disturbing performance in a fantastic, horrifying film.

An amazing, deeply disturbing performance in a fantastic, horrifying film.

Grant’s plunge into dissolution and despair, his urge to prove himself amongst the smiling thugs and snarling bastards, is scary, heart-breaking and even a little funny, too. He doesn’t understand these people, and he doesn’t understand his own desire to earn their respect. His learning and intellect are slowly peeled away as he descends into a lurid mania. Days pass. And all the while there’s Tydon, pushing Grant into more and more extreme situations. The penultimate scene involves a surreal night hunt of kangaroo, and it has to be seen to be believed. It will turn your stomach.

The movie has been described as an Australian Deliverance, but that’s not quite right. There are similarities—both films are stunningly beautiful and horrifying at the same time—but Wake in Fright has a moral outrage over the collective madness of this rural town. These two movies, along with Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Two-Lane Blacktop (all four of them were released in 1971, what a year for movies!), and a handful of others, manage to combine high art with grindhouse savagery. Wake in Fright is probably the best of the bunch, and that is high praise indeed.


[1] The first time I read it in a blaze; he ferociously entered my life. This second time I cherished the book, took my time, lived with it for a while.

[2] An underrated, and incredibly strange, film.

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Best short stories ever written, and when Simone can read them

18 Jun

Quick: think about the best short stories you’ve ever read.

I went to a teaching conference last year where a speaker named Alfred Tatum explained his method of using literature as therapy. What he does is this: he asks students—usually inner city males—to write down all of the important stories, novels, poems and movies that have shaped them. He would then teach a number of stories and novels that he felt spoke to the urban male’s experiences. And he claimed anyway that the males he taught came out of his class better writers and better people. This moved me, so I spent the rest of the lecture writing down every novel, short story, and non-fiction book that matters to me.

These are the stories I hope to share with Simone, although that’s probably a few months away. I’ve forgone the usual summary/response/reflection to let these stand alone, instead opting for the age when I think she’ll understand them. If you have any stories you think need to be added, drop me a line.

“Holy Quarrel” by Philip K. Dick (artificial intelligence gone awry; age 6)

“Faith of Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick (amnesis and the discovery of awful reality of life, and perfect encapsulation of everything that makes PKD so great; age 7)

“In the Park” by Herbert Huncke (young boy loses innocence; age 50)

“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s one shot at a crime story; age 10)

“A Good Man is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor (Best short story ever; age 3)

“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor (philosophy of nothingness; age 4)

“Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe (carnival in face of apocalypse; age 12)

“Two Fragments: Saturday and Sunday, March 199-“ by Ian McEwan (disturbing exploration of dystopian weirdness; age 13)

“The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” by Patrick Somerville (wacky tale of graduate students studying dada style nonsense; age 15)

“The King In Yellow” by Robert Chambers (early horror about a book that will drive you mad; age 16)

“The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges (Memory, time, identity loops, Borges; age 18)

“Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolaño (A boy sees the complexity of his father; age 2)

“Delicate Prey” by Paul Bowles (Ghastly revenge tale in the Sahara; age 30)

“Dragged Fighting From His Tomb” by Barry Hannah (Offbeat story of Civil War with my favorite line of all time: “Tell me the most exquisite truths you know”; age 15)

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill (Story of a editor of horror anthologies who falls into the plot of a horror story; never quite shook it; age 45)

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner (Studied it in college, never shook it, hard-nosed father seeks constant revenge; age 11)