The African-American Picturesque

@naptimewriting didn’t like this week’s reading, finding the portrait of Barry Seaman to be a caricature:

Really, my first thought was, what does this Chilean author, who has been masterful with southern Arizona and northern Mexico (what I know of them, anyway), know about aging Black Panthers in Detroit? Yes, some people, particularly those in political and social movements, are caricatures. But seriously?

One of my great flaws as a reader is that I’m over-credulous. I’m too ready to take what the narrator says at face value, and I’m too slow to make judgments of characters. Maybe I lack an innate radar that some have for deciding whether a character is likable or true. At some point during college, I figured out that you couldn’t always trust the narrator or accept a straightforward reading of a character, and I began reminding myself that I had to really think and ask myself whether or not I thought I was intended to like a character. Sometimes when a character is a rascal, you’re not supposed to like him; other times you are. I bring all of this baggage to my reading of 2666. So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that Seaman was a caricature (though in retrospect I suppose it’s obvious; can’t you just imagine Dave Chapelle with a powdered head mugging and talking about poke chops in a grotesque, almost Uncle Remus-like impersonation of this character?).

Upon reading @naptimewriting’s post, I thought of another line that follows shortly after Seaman’s lecture. Having leafed through the volume of The Slave Trade that Antonio Jones had given him and realizing that the author was white, Fate reflects on the reaction to his story about Jones:

To most of his colleagues, Fate noted, the story was little more than a venture into the African-American picturesque. A loony preacher, a loony ex-jazz musician, the loony last member of the Brooklyn Communist Party (Fourth International). Sociological curiosities.

It occurs to me that our critics from the first part of the book are caricatures of a sort as well, providing a glimpse of the academic picturesque. Still, while someone on the fringes of academia can provide this latter glimpse reasonably enough (and nobody complained that Bolaño was off key in part 1), it does seem, as @naptimewriting points out, that Bolaño may be a bit out of his element in trying to portray an aging Black Panther.

But is it possible that he’s doing it for effect, that Seaman is a caricature not because Bolaño happens to be writing about something he shouldn’t and so hits the highlights with none of the nuance but precisely because Bolaño means to be writing about something he shouldn’t? Maybe, that is, he’s missing the note on purpose, with the aim of saying something about the untrustworthiness of writing. He meditates on this later, saying “society tended to filter death through the fabric of words… Everything was passed through the filter of words, everything trimmed to fit our fear.”

Words can’t necessarily be trusted, and the story you get about a character or event can’t necessarily be trusted. What Fate’s colleagues recognize as something of a caricature, his readers receive well enough that he’s hired on as a staff writer. What you’ve read about Mexico, what you’ve heard about coyotes and crummy conditions and squalor across the border may not be trustworthy. What you may have read in bits and pieces about the St. Teresa (née Cuidad Juarez) murders probably isn’t right, certainly isn’t enough; if filters out too much of the horror. Here’s a portrayal of an aging Black Panther reduced to a doddering old man passing out conventional wisdom and recipes, with all the fear and grit of his life filtered out. Coming up next, I can imagine Bolaño thinking, is a more trustworthy account of the set of horrors central to the book, with a much different, much more permissive, filter.

10 thoughts on “The African-American Picturesque

  1. Paul February 22, 2010 / 10:59 am

    I read naptime writing’s comments (and should probably post this there, but whatever) and couldn’t disagree more. But the reason I’m writing this here is that I too am very credulous. This is true in movies and books for me. If I like the work, if I’m engaged in it, then I accept a lot of things which, in hindsight I may criticize. (Of course if I don’t like something I will spot every flaw on every page).

    As I noted in my post (,) Barry Seaman is supposed to be Bobby Seale who co-founded the Black Panther and wrote a barbeque book. Now, I’m not sure why Bolano is writing a fictionalized version of this man with so many details in tact, but I’m starting to wonder if there’s something to a sort of parallel identity with what we know to be true.

    Santa Theresa is Juarez, Seaman is Seale. It’s one thing to base a character or location on something, it’s another thing to use most of the details and just change the name. Either Bolano is being really lazy (my friends and I like to calls this the Blanguage of Blove in terms of lazy name changes)or he’s trying to make a point about something (lord only knows what yet). Or maybe it’s some combination of the two.

    And I’m still curious to see what will happen with Fate.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston February 22, 2010 / 11:08 am

    I saw your post right after I posted this entry and chuckled at how differently people read things, how something one person loves another hates. I’m pretty confused at this point. I can see @naptimewriting’s points, and yet, like you, I was drawn in by some of this section. I haven’t loved any of the book to this point, and I guess I’m susceptible to feedback from both the love and the hate camps.

  3. Dan Summers February 22, 2010 / 1:07 pm

    Well, I’m on record as being in the “don’t love” camp back at my place. Part of how I’m adapting to this particular novel is that I’m abandoning my desire to understand why any specific part is included. For parts that don’t seem to make sense, I’ve stopped trying to parse them, and fit them into the whole, and have simply tried to enjoy the language and form a general impression of where the book is going.

    Since so many of us are here on the heels of Infinite Summer, I hope references back to Infinite Jest don’t get too tiresome. I read IJ with the same credulity you describe, Daryl. It’s my favorite book, and my ability to discern where DFW has hit wrong notes is hampered by the overwhelming love of the book as a whole. This despite knowing that he got some medical details wrong, and some points he made about gay culture in the description of Accomplice! are also completely incorrect. Even with this in mind, I was blindsided when people complained about the “yrstruly” and Clenette sections. “How could anyone question the ineffable brilliance of the book?” thought I. “Don’t they see how amazing it is? DFW must be right!”

    I didn’t pick up on the Seaman parallels, but neither did I have any idea what the whole section meant. I tend to think that in the world of 2666, just about everything is a picturesque or caricature, and that almost everything that goes on is of a piece with that “desert of boredom” referred to in the epigraph. The only real thing is the crimes, the “oasis of horror.”

    Not necessarily a worldview I find myself loving, but certainly one that’s incredibly well written.

    FWIW, my thoughts here:

  4. Dan Summers February 22, 2010 / 1:22 pm

    Oh. Dear. It seems my rather lengthy attempt at a comment just got eaten. I’ll try again, then call it an omen if it gets eaten again. Sorry if they both somehow surface.

    I’m on record as being in the “don’t love” camp. I’ve stopped trying to understand why certain elements are included, or how they may fit into the bigger picture of the novel. I’m sure it all fits together, but I’m just not equipped to see it. I’m trying to get a sense of the novel as a whole, and to let myself get carried along by the language. I may be missing a lot, but it’s helping me enjoy it more.

    Since many of us are here on the heels of Infinite Summer, I hope it’s not tiresome to refer back to Infinite Jest. My ability to read that novel with detachment is severely handicapped by my love for it. I was blindsided by some readers’ reactions to the “Clenette” or “yrstruly” sections, as it never occured to me that any part of IJ could be anything less than brilliant. This, despite my knowing full well that DFW got some medical facts wrong, as well as some nuances of gay culture.

    My sense of 2666 is that just about everything is meant to be a picturesque or caricature. I think the opening epigraph makes this clear. Almost everything that happens in the novel (and, by extension, in the world) is part of the “desert of boredom,” and only the “oasis of horror” (ie. the crimes) is truly real.

    Not a worldview I would love, but certainly one that’s vividly and expertly rendered.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston February 22, 2010 / 5:46 pm

      IJ is never tiresome. I have to keep myself from making reference to it at least once a week as I blog about these other books. 🙂

  5. naptimewriting February 22, 2010 / 4:51 pm

    I think, maybe, part of my strong reaction to this section was I felt so carried along by Amalfitano. I’ve gone back and forth during this read, and found the critics amusing then tiresome then deeply human then supercilious. Paul, I love hearing that you couldn’t disagree more…most of my post focused on my sense that Bolano seems to be trying to get us to distrust people of all stripes for their gross misinformation and skewed perspectives. Seaman, clearly based on Seale, seems to function primarily as a caution against personalities, capital P, who are paid for their opinion and are generally full of crap. I don’t think he’s a caricature in the sense that he’s a thoughtless stand in for a stereotype. I believe Bolaano is way more careful and thoughtful than that; this books is very carefully crafted, and I hope I can get to Dan’s place of letting it wash over me instead of parsing the details. But now that we’ve had three of four critics and a public speaker who are just full of boloney (cholesterol-free butter recipes and a total misunderstanding of metaphors in a lecture about metaphor? that’s a cartoon not a person, though it does serve to show amusing ideas about what happens when a militant ages into twilight years and how people gobble up anything uttered by someone famous even when it literally doesn’t make sense), I’m getting frustrated with the characters who might (Fate, Amalfitano) see through the charade to the root of the painful, twisted, dark truth of this novel—human nature is gnarled and grotesque. Why do we not have a character yet to discern that? Why are we still being hit over the head with the ridiculous when there are murders to investigate? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going along with the narrator, but the narrator so clearly distrusts every single person in this text that I’m left unmoored, wondering where in the hell I’m being carried. The narrator mocks the critics, mocks Amalfitano, mocks Fate, mocks Seaman, mocks Chucho…I’m still very willing to like the book, even if I don’t like the characters. But I have to see more than the flawed surface pretty soon.

    • Dan Summers February 22, 2010 / 5:13 pm

      Oh, thank GOD. I was afraid there was something there in Seaman’s ramblings and I was simply too obtuse to see it.

      Maria has a good post about this on the main Bolaño page. I’m getting the sense that this book has us circling a big drain with the word “Crimes” embedded in the chrome.

  6. Jeff Anderson February 25, 2010 / 3:48 pm

    You know what I’ve found to be a good corrective for overcredulous reading? (For I too suffer from this generosity.) Reading Freud. (I was curious.) He has an amazing ability to sound convincing, solid, correct, and elegant; and then when I closed the book I realized I’d just inhaled an entire windbag-ful of hot air. Very bracing experience, and instructive.

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