Fear of Fluids in Mexico, Sentimentalism in the Alps

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Daryl has the gold-star post of these first three weeks. (And I swear on a stack of Infinite Jests that I’m not saying that because I got linked and block-quoted; that’s just gravy.) That makes more sense of the Part About the Critics than anything else I’ve read or thought so far. It also makes me feel better about a slight post, since I know Daryl’s got us all covered.

Before I get to the part of this week’s reading that stuck in my brain, though, I want to make a quick mention of a delightful bit of horror: That toilet in Pelletier’s hotel room. I’m haunted by that toilet. Even before it became an oneiric avatar of body horror, it was menacing. Any toilet that somehow gives the impression that it was damaged by having a human head smashed into it by someone else is a scary piece of plumbing, and it’s one of my favorite extras in the whole book so far.

But to the point: I kind of loved the montage that closes the Part About the Critics. You know the part I mean—where, in a film version, you’d hear Norton’s voice-over (Emma Thompson would be a lovely choice, although Emily Blunt is probably more like it) reading the e-mail she sent to Pelletier and Norton, while the visual action shows how those two spend their days in Santa Teresa. It was beautifully structured, and nicely told. Yet there was one false note that I keep rehearing in my mind, and I can’t quite make sense of it. When Norton writes about Edwin Johns’s death, she thinks about “his hand, now doubtless on display in his retrospective, the hand that the sanatorium orderly couldn’t grasp to prevent his fall, although this was too obvious, a false representation, having nothing to do with what Johns had actually been” (151). And that just sounds ridiculous to me. How melodramatic: Johns slipping off his rock, the orderly leaping to his rescue, grabbing desperately for his hand—and closing his fingers on empty air where a hand used to be, inches from the truncated end of Johns’s arm. All it’s missing is for the orderly to actually grasp the hand and then watch in a confused instant while Johns continues to fall and the wrist end of the plastic prosthesis slips out of his coat sleeve. Picture the aghast orderly accidentally waving goodbye to Johns’s receding body with the stump of Johns’s own fake hand, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost comical.

In plain terms, I don’t trust the narration here. (And not in the “I fear this narrator may be unreliable!” kind of way. Every narrator’s unreliable.) The book has obviously not been maudlin up to this point; if anything, it’s been disconcertingly blasé. And although she’s been presented as intellectually quirky, Norton hasn’t been a sentimental kind of character either. I may be misreading, but I take the “false representation” from the quote to refer not to Norton’s imagined scene falsely representing the real scene—that is, not as a disclaimer of the reconstruction—but to Johns’s hand as artistic artifact representing the man himself. (That’s where “what Johns had actually been” comes into it, in my reading.) So I keep trying to figure out what this little line is for, and I’ve got nothin’. Maybe it’s just a wrong step by Bolaño. That’s not a very satisfying explanation, but I haven’t yet come up with an intentional reason for him to have included such a clanging insincerity with the rest of the book’s matter-of-fact whimsy. And it’s bugging me.

Also: Happy Olympics!

8 thoughts on “Fear of Fluids in Mexico, Sentimentalism in the Alps

  1. Steve February 12, 2010 / 10:11 pm

    Almost comical? Jeff, it is hilarious! As a matter of fact, I was just laughing with a friend earlier today about this business of the orderly grabbing at empty space where Johns’ hand ought to have been as Johns plummets into this abyss in the Alps just like Sherlock Holmes. That was before I stumbled upon your great post here. From my point of view, this is the absurd taken to the sublime.

    Liz Norton is apparently very serious about this all, but I think that she too sees the absurdity in the story. Let me give you my take for what little it is worth. I cannot believe that I have the nerve to try this, but I am gonna.

    Let us consider a choice that Natasha Wimmer faced when translating the phrase fábula tramposa, the phrase that troubles you. She chose “false representation.” I believe that she might have translated this as “deceptive fable.” I have checked this out with a native Spanish speaker and former English teacher here. In fact, she said that of those two choices, she prefers “deceptive fable” after reading the thing in context in Spanish.

    In that case the fable clearly appears to me to be what you first thought, the story of the circumstances of Johns’ death. It is a comic fable about unforeseen consequences. The damned fool cut off his own hand for art’s sake little knowing that this would ultimately cost him his life. Norton considers the fable deceptive because the absurd (hilarious, I think) circumstances of Johns’ death cast an unfortunate light on his very serious artistry in a former time. . .from her point of view. I myself have no idea whether he was worth a damn as an artist or not.

    • Jeff Anderson February 14, 2010 / 4:44 pm

      Thanks so much, Steve! That retranslation is much better for me. (I’ve wondered about the quality of the translation, actually, but having so little experience in reading literature translated from Spanish, I didn’t know whether they were justified wonderings.) It would be a deceptive fable, about the costs of the unrelenting quest for fame and fortune. Which would, as Norton says, have nothing to do with what Johns had actually been, since I read him as having been deeply cynical rather than fame-seeking. If his death did in fact play out as Norton imagines, I can see him smirking the whole time.

  2. Paul February 13, 2010 / 11:48 am

    I also really enjoyed this montage sequence (that lost arm bit didn’t bother me, but I think I didn’t read it as carefully as you guys did).

    But I’m totally in agreement with the gold star post. Reading this first book as a “comedy” makes a ton fo sense with the two of them getting together. I love the idea of this being a romcom movie but you virtually never see the main guy she ends up with. And, if you were to read the other two guys critically, what are they doing in Santa Theresa but getting drunk and lollygagging. Good stuff! But rather subtle.

  3. Maria Bustillos February 13, 2010 / 2:29 pm

    I agree about the gold-star post. Here’s another insight to savor: La Mexicana suggested this morning via Steve that the painter Johns may himself have been Norton’s husband. My god, how that fits. I think!

    • Steve February 14, 2010 / 11:39 am

      I believe that I have turned La Mexicana on this theory that Edwin Johns was Norton’s ex-husband or something akin, Maria. It was intriguing and sent me off another merry trip through The Part About the Critics. Of course she hardly cares now, buried as she in in The Part About Amalfitano.

      Her primary piece of evidence was her own woman’s intuition. La Mexicana said that Norton’s reaction to her discovery of Johns’ death was exactly what La Mexicana’s reaction would be if she were to suddenly discover that her former husband were dead. La Mexicana’s former husband, a wonderful man who is alive and well, is an author of children’s books by profession.

      There is something to all that of course. Characters in the book are suspicious, too. Norton says:

      I remember the glass of wine fell from my hands. I remember that a couple, both tall and thin, turned away from a painting and peered over as if I might be an ex-lover or a living (and unfinished) painting that had just got the news of the painter’s death.

      In the end, however, we have trouble getting around this from earlier in the book:

      As they were waiting, Morini, adopting a casual tone of voice, said he thought he knew why Johns had cut off his right hand.
      “Johns who?” asked Norton.
      Edwin Johns, the painter you told me about,” said Morini.
      “Oh, Edwin Johns,” said Norton. “Why?”

      That exchange seems entirely inconsistent with the idea that there was some relationship between Norton and Johns that we are not told about.

      On the other hand, the whole drill was profitable in the sense that I got a better feel for how important Johns as an artist was to Norton when all was said and done.

  4. Jeff Anderson February 14, 2010 / 4:52 pm

    It’s an intriguing theory, and one I feel like I ought to have at least had an inkling of (given the way Gene Wolfe trains readers to look for bridges over lacunae), but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t hold up. Note that Norton describes her husband (on 34) as “somebody who might have been a small-time thug or hooligan, the extent of his cultural education the old songs he sang in the pub with his mates from childhood.” Doesn’t sound like it could be Johns. But as you say, it’s clear that he was somehow very important indeed to Norton.

  5. Steve February 14, 2010 / 5:27 pm

    I am delighted that you see the translation discussion as helpful, Jeff, because I liked your post so much. It was entertaining to consider it. I am actually happy that you were bugged by that phrase “false representation,” as I think you should have been.

    Yeah, the business about some sort of liaison between Norton and Johns is actually too simple an explanation of her reaction. But the issue surely did get me scratching around in Part I again.

    On a slightly related note. When Morini and Espinoza visit Johns and Morini asks him why he cut off his hand, Johns ultimately answers the question by leaning over and whispering something into Morini’s ear. [p. 91] Later, Morini tells Norton that he believes he knows why Johns cut off his hand. [p. 97] I cannot believe, however, that the reason Morini gives Norton is the same reason that Johns whispered in his ear. Very strange stuff.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Back to Norton’s husband by the way. The passage you quote is certainly apt. But then consider this similar passage, which comes later:

    . . . for Norton made frequent and rather tasteless references to her ex-husband as a lurking threat, ascribed to him the vices and defects of a monster, a horribly violent monster but one who never materialized, a monster all evocation and no action, although with her words Norton managed to give substance to a being who neither Espinoza nor Pelletier had ever seen, as if her ex existed only in their dreams, until Pelletier, sharper than Espinoza, understood that Norton’s unthinking diatribe, that endless list of grievances, was more than anything a punishment inflicted on herself, perhaps for the shame of having fallen in love with such a cretin and married him. Pelletier, of course, was wrong. [Emphasis mine.]

    [p. 40]

    If Pelletier was wrong, what is the right interpretation? Perhaps we are simply to conclude that she was not punishing herself. Just bitching.

    * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Morini is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, too, by the way. [p. 96]

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