My Avery Edison Moment

Yes, that moment. More precisely, I’m having a crisis of faith in this book. I’m afraid that whatever it amounts to after 900 pages will be a nasty something. Outside of Quincy Williams’s dislocation at the beginning of the the Part About Fate—which I think we can reasonably interpret as grief—I’ve barely even seen anything humane in this first third of the book. (Perhaps I should exclude the Part About Amalfitano; easy enough to do, as much as I like it, since it makes up so very little of the book.) Sure, there are funny bits, but every time I’ve laughed, it’s been in what Mario Incandenza would recognize as a way that isn’t happy. And I don’t expect to find much comfort during the 300-plus pages we’re going to spend slipping down the drain.

I take Steve’s point that these concerns hang on a short nail, but I don’t think it’s unfair of me to say that what I have read of the book (everything up to the current spoiler line) is deeply pessimistic, maybe nihilistic, with respect to the idea that the world can be improved or even understood. And I also don’t think it’s unfair of me to say that I see no indication that the book will suddenly swing sails and beat back into this wind of hopelessness. My apprehension may prove to be incorrect, but it’s hardly unfounded.

When I was contemplating this post, before Daryl struck up the conversation about a successor book, I already had my single reading of Gravity’s Rainbow in mind. That novel seems similarly skeptical of ordering the world, except it takes paranoia as its model rather than pessimism. (By which I mean the world is equally meaningless if it never had any meaning as it is if there have been so many meanings piled onto each other that there’s no viable way to choose one.) It’s hardly an uplifting book: It’s got more than its fair share of rape, torture, and coprophagy (I wonder what a fair share would be), and it was all I could do to get through the extended fantasia of Through the Toilet-Bowl, and What Slothrop Found There. But that book at least had lingering pleasures—the octopus attack, the Kenosha Kid fugue, the divinely silly image of a hot-air balloon fighting back against a warplane with cream pies. It was, in enough places anyway, funny, and it surprised me with its reverence for love. Through everything, it struck me as a basically humanist book. (Folks who’ve read it more carefully or often than I have, speak up.) I don’t have the same impression of 2666 because I don’t see that it cares for anyone. (Naptimewriting’s comment has more.) At least not anyone who’s still alive.

It’s not that I require a book to have a positive message; it’s that I’m distressed by a book that seems so contemptuous of practically every person in it. If the point is merely to show that people are brutish and nasty, and that as one global race we permit and perpetrate atrocities so we’re all complicit—I got that, thanks. I hope that’s not the extent of what the book is going to have to say about the condition of living in the world as a human being. If there’s nothing more, then art’s just for suckers, and there’s no point in writing. I don’t believe Edwin Johns is correct, but my reading so far suggests that the book might.

12 thoughts on “My Avery Edison Moment

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston February 25, 2010 / 9:03 pm

    I’ll see your Mario and raise you a Steeply. I had read Infinite Jest several times by the time I wrote that post last summer, but the bleakness of IJ hadn’t really hit me so hard until then. Yet Wallace’s book is and I think always will be one I love. Whether or not it ultimately does provide a remedy for the bleakness it proposes I don’t really know. Probably not. (There’s always The Pale King.) I don’t know that 2666 provides a remedy either, and I guess the next section will probably prove pretty brutal (my last read was quick and is a blur, especially for the upcoming section). But I do know that the final section was somewhat redeeming for me. Avery, as I recall, had another moment, later, during which she seemed at last (or so she said; maybe it was just all the negative attention that made her recant) to grok something about the book. Maybe you’ll do the same for 2666.

  2. Dan Summers February 26, 2010 / 12:05 pm

    A few scattered thoughts:

    1) I’ll see your Mario and raise you a Pat Montesian. Happiness is incredibly rare and even more hard-won in the (deeply, beautifully true) world of Infinite Jest, but it’s there. It’s one of the many reasons I love IJ as much as I do. Which is a lot.

    2) Jeff, my friend, I am right there with you with this. If the whole point of 2666 is that the world is ugly and absurd, then I got it. Life has already given me enough perspective on that worldview. I’m beginning to think that 2666 is more about the relationship between art and the horrors of life (and it doesn’t look like it puts much stock in art), but it’s not a particularly comforting distinction.

    3) While I’m beginning to “get” this book a bit more, I’m still a long, long way from loving it. I’m starting to think that the best I will acheive is an appreciation for it.

    4) You have my genuine admiration for getting through Gravity’s Rainbow. But I’ve already gone on enough about Pynchon.

  3. Jeff Anderson February 26, 2010 / 1:38 pm

    Thanks, fellas. The whole reason I even brought up Infinite Jest (other than the fact that I always bring it up, because it is tied for my #1 Book of All Time—with two other books) is that, while it is deeply sad and in places remarkably unpleasant, it is not ultimately bleak. Daryl, I read it as offering a remedy through what I guess I might call togetherness: connection, community, sharing, honesty, mutual support and respect, those kinds of things. It pretty clearly signals that they won’t solve the problems of the world—I’d say it probably doesn’t imagine that the world is perfectible, only improvable—but that they are the best we can do, and that they are enough.

    Whereas, like you say, Dan, 2666 doesn’t look like it gives even art very much credit. Steve reminds us that Guerra’s very gay son says “Poetry is the only thing that’s ever good for you,” but I don’t see that the book’s given us any reason to believe him over the voice Amalfitano hears, which says that everything (even art) except calm will let you down. Calm is clearly not going to cut it—it accomplishes nothing, it palliates nothing, it repairs nothing—so why should we expect poetry to do any better?

    I suspect I will end this book with a technical appreciation totally untouched by affection. I’m willing (hoping) to be proven wrong, but it doesn’t look likely.

      • Jeff Anderson February 27, 2010 / 4:14 pm

        Yes indeed, Dan, although I wish I could claim credit for a deathless image like a tree full of hummingbirds.

        Thanks for that link—that was good. I’m always amazed, when reminded of some of the reviews of IJ, how badly some professional readers misread it.

  4. Joan February 26, 2010 / 2:11 pm

    First I have to say – betting with IJ characters is simply brilliant!! I’m still too brain dead to raise you by anyone, wait, maybe Gately who was to me the most beautiful and humane.

    I’m going to combine my comments here for the previous post and this one. I have been struggling all along with this book and this post nailed it for me. It’s exactly that contempt for all of the characters that I was feeling but it hadn’t crystallized for me yet. I’m still catching up a little and last night I read the overheard conversation that Steve wrote about and Daryl commented on. It’s the only part of the book so far that I really sat up and said “yes, exactly”, the only part that has truly moved me.

    I’m not sure where I’m going to end up with this book when we’re finished but right now I’m leaning toward the thought that it’s going to be good for me and something I can appreciate. But I very seriously doubt that I’m going to have even a similar reaction as I did to IJ – immediately wanted to re-read it and it will always be one of the few that are tied for all time favorite.

  5. stevebrassawe February 27, 2010 / 1:02 am

    Jeff, thankfully I have never encountered anyone who has said that they love this book. If someone who had actually read the thing said something like that to me, I would put some serious space between that person and me. The book is harrowing, and we all know, whether we have read ahead or not, that it is going to get worse–we are going to scrape bottom–before we are done with it. Any time it comes up in casual conversation with someone who has not read it, I recommend that they keep it that way.

    When I talk about my own reaction to it, I use euphemisms like, “it fascinates me,” or “I am a fool for this book.” I guess that my motives for rereading it and discussing it here is to try to figure out what really is the nature of my reaction to it and why. I do not feel close to any answers to those questions yet. However, descriptions of the reactions of others to it are very valuable to me. So let’s drive on together.

    • stevebrassawe February 27, 2010 / 1:04 am

      I came perilously close to mixing my metaphors there.

      • Jeff Anderson February 27, 2010 / 3:52 pm

        That’s a helpful reminder, Steve, that maybe it’s not supposed to be a book for liking. I’ll try to keep that in mind and see whether it makes a difference. Thanks.

  6. David Winn February 28, 2010 / 12:33 pm

    This is my second time through the book and I have to say that it never occurred to me to describe Bolano’s attitude toward his characters as contemptuous, although I suppose its fair to characterize the dispassionate, almost reportorial quality of the narrative voice as dehumanizing. While there is more than one narrative register in the novel, for the most part the reportorial voice dominates, and while it doesn’t completely rob the characters of their individuality, it does flatten them out more than a little bit. Also, while its not fair to say that there’s no character development in 2666, there is an almost heroic effort to deprive the characters of the sense of psychological depth and wholeness that is one of the primary pleasures of narrative fiction. So if failing to fully flesh out characters, or to show how their actions fit within some kind of cosmic order, however indifferent or malevolent, equals contempt, then I guess that’s a fair assessment. It just doesn’t feel like contempt to me. More like studied indifference, although maybe indifference is equivalent to contempt when someone is in physical or existential peril.

    It’s funny, there’s a similar aloofness towards the genuinely contemptible characters in Nazi Literature in the Americas, but in that case the effect (to me at least) is to humanize them.

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