Studies in Coping Strategies: Avoidance

There’s not really anything in this week’s reading or last’s that I want to write a whole post about (in much the same way that Dan’s concerned about harshing the collective buzz, I’m chary of being the bad Zombie), so instead I’m going to backfill and give David a proper response to his comment of a month ago. He says:

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.

I guess I should preface my reply by revising my original remarks to say that they only seem to apply to the Parts About the Critics and Fate. I gave myself a pass there on the Part About Amalfitano (which doesn’t read like entirely good form, on revisiting), but I can’t honestly say that the Part About the Crimes has been contemptuous of anyone; in fact, it’s felt almost psychopathologically dispassionate. So, to crib from the Supreme Court, let me cabin my earlier opinion to parts 1 and 3.

Having said that, I still stand by that opinion. In the first place, Barry Seaman (as an example) is overtly ridiculous. For the narration to present that whole “sermon,” in all its extended nincompoopery, is to invite us to laugh at him. Yet he’s clearly sincere in his belief that this is useful, important advice. Clowns are funny (à chacun son goût, I know) because they willingly make fools of themselves; Seaman we snigger at behind our hands from the pews while he earnestly tries to help. Merolino Fernández (the boxer) doesn’t fare much better: how many pages of buildup? And he’s knocked out in less than a minute. These are characters who are introduced for us to mock.

That’s where I move into the second part of my argument. I’m concerned to find myself double-dipping at the well of authorial intention, but it’s relevant to what David says. I appreciate the distinction he’s making between what is done (the technique of the narration) and what it means (whether it’s contemptuous or not), between the thing and the interpretation of the thing, but I think in this case the one necessarily includes the other. He concedes that the narrating voice may be characterized as dehumanizing—which I think is fair—and to that I say: It was intentionally constructed that way. When “someone is in physical or existential peril,” indifference on the part of the actor who voluntarily put them in that peril must be contemptuous (at least). What bothers me most about the narration’s treatment of (most of) the characters in the first and third parts is that Bolaño has invented these characters in order to make fun of them and to make them suffer. That’s gratuitous and nasty; I’ve given up on authors for it before. (Ex.: Will Self.) It sounds somehow old-fashioned (and a little daffy) even to my own ears to hear myself complaining that the book is cruel to imaginary people who were imagined for the sake of being put through imaginary distress, but that’s basically what it amounts to. I find the introduction of characters for the purpose, among others, of inflicting ridicule and suffering upon them an unsavory practice, and it’s upsetting to read.

And to the objection that I don’t take the same kind of intransigent stance to the degradations that the characters of Infinite Jest undergo—and they are many—I have two related defenses. First, the characters in IJ generally retain their dignity at the hands of the narration, no matter how apparently awful things get. And second, 2666 just doesn’t earn the same slack from me. As Steve aptly put it, “There is not a lick a redemption here nor is there held out the hope of any.” To me, that makes the characters’ sufferings pointless in a way that they aren’t in Infinite Jest.

14 thoughts on “Studies in Coping Strategies: Avoidance

  1. Paul March 29, 2010 / 8:31 pm


    I hadn’t really considered this before, but now that you mention it, it’s an interesting idea.

    I keep looking at this book (and, interesting Nazi Literature, which I just started) as documentary writing. This is what it is and this is how it happened, do with it what you will. Now, I know documentaries all have biases (and yes, as to the original post, I feel the Nazis are humanized in that book) but it feels to me like the butt of the joke is humanity in general.

    I still can’t get past the fact that nearly every specimen is lost on its way to or from the lab. Is that a fact of life, a criticism of Mexico or just a shit happens attitude.

    Okay, now I’m even more confused than when I started.

    • Jeff Anderson March 30, 2010 / 1:21 pm

      Paul, I think with the specimens getting lost you’re on to some of what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m just naïvely optimistic, but it’s inconceivable to me that a modern state like Mexico would be that abysmally incompetent at basic chain-of-evidence procedures. I see that as Bolaño’s thumb on the scales. Now, as you say, whether that’s a satire on Mexico or just one of the rules of the game in this novel is an open question…

  2. David Winn March 30, 2010 / 7:45 am

    Jeff: Thanks for taking my comment seriously enough to address it in a post. I appreciate it. Maybe this is where we get to do the fight club part of Infinite Zombies! 🙂 Sorry, for the lengthy reply–it’s written in a bit of a hurry and apologies if it doesn’t address all your points directly.

    While this is indeed my second time through the book, I last read most of it about a year ago, and still haven’t read the last 80 pages, so I’m almost as in the dark about how things turn out as all the other first-timers. But more to the point, re-reading it after such a long hiatus was almost like reading it again for the first time, and my feelings about the book have changed a bit since I wrote that comment. I’m of three or four minds about this book at least, but I guess I’m even less inclined to describe Bolaño ‘s attitude as contempt now than I was a month ago. Or, maybe its better to say that the contempt, if that’s what it is, is not a deal-breaker for me. This is more of a gut feeling than any well worked out position, and I don’t have time to polish an argument right now, so I’m just going to think out loud.

    First, I increasingly feel like the blunt and dispassionate language used to describe the murders obscures passages of real tenderness and compassion within those sections (this doesn’t address those characters that ARE set up to be knocked down, like Barry Seaman, but they are not the only characters in the book). It’s not simply a matter of the relentless repetition of them building to a feeling of nausea and outrage in the reader. I could find many examples, but here’s one: the passage on page 502, where Juan de Dios Martinez is speculating about how the killers disposed of the bodies of two little girls who, he notes, “hardly weighed anything, and who, if carried between two men, surely were each no heavier than a small suitcase.” This passage just kills me, and beautifully captures the fragility of the little girls’ lives and the pathologically indifferent attitude of the killers. I could dig up innumerable similar examples, and often I think just the recounting of the victims’ lives, situations and aspirations, however cursory, displays genuine compassion.

    Next, while the book probably goes too far in picturing a universe where no one has any good options, and all good impulses are almost immediately turned to naught, I do find this portrait of people hemmed in by socio-economic and cultural structures a nice antidote to the religion of individualism in American culture (I’m all for individuality, but dead set against the religion of individualism). So in a way I’m doing what you are doing. You are finding fault with Bolaño for not treating his characters with the same consideration that one would treat actual living, breathing human beings. I’m finding a virtue in his exaggeration of the existential condition of actual human beings—in his exaggeration of the social, cultural, and historical limits placed on human endeavor. Both of us are going outside the novel to find fault or virtue (as we should!). So I guess I find Bolaño’s exaggerated portrayal of the iron cage of historical/cultural structures that human beings inhabit a salutary and therapeutic antidote to the religion of individualism in American culture (this book was not written for North Americans, necessarily, but I’m a North American reading it in the US, so that’s my frame of reference). On the other hand, The Part About The Crimes is set in a fictionalized version of Juarez, essentially a lawless narco state, where the bars of that cage are likely MUCH harder to bend.

    Finally I don’t think I can adopt the following as a rule for reading: avoid books that are “cruel to imaginary people who were imagined for the sake of being put through imaginary distress”, because that would mean I’d never get to re-read Naked Lunch, which is one of my all time favorite novels. I mean every fifth page of that book features some young boy being sodomized and murdered by a Mugwump! I have a lot of respect for Naked Lunch, but also remember thinking, at a certain point in the novel–what the hell is wrong with me for enjoying this stuff!? I don’t have an answer, but I do think it’s a great book.

    • Jeff Anderson March 30, 2010 / 2:52 pm

      No, David, thank you for the comment! It forced me to think this through in a way I hadn’t done yet, and that’s always valuable.

      That’s a good point about the Part About the Crimes, that the overall flat-affect writing is burying some truly empathetic moments that I would do well to attend to better. (And as for individuality vs. American individualism—not to bring up Infinite Jest again [except that most of my reading is grounded against it], but if you haven’t read it, you should. As a tiny side benefit, you’ll see why Dan, naptime, and I have recoiled so strongly from 2666.)

      And you know, I’ve only read Naked Lunch the once, about eight years ago, but I remember being both exhilarated and repelled. I seem to remember it having a strong programmatic goal to do with disrupting all of writing, in which case I can see delegitimating the process through offensive content as one road to take. Doesn’t make it any more pleasant to read, but there’s a function for it, at least, that I just don’t see here.

  3. David Winn March 30, 2010 / 7:48 am

    For the record, I didn’t expect WordPress to turn my semicolon-dash-comma into an actual emoticon, so I hope the presence of that smiley face in the first paragraph doesn’t render the rest of the post ridiculous.

    • Dan Summers March 30, 2010 / 12:02 pm

      I rather enjoy the irony of a smiley-face emoticon in a comment about Naked Lunch.

      • Jeff Anderson March 30, 2010 / 1:26 pm

        Yes, I think it’s one of the universe’s fabulous absurdities, and I’m grateful to have witnessed it. :)

        (Cross fingers in absence of a comment preview.)

  4. Dan Summers March 30, 2010 / 12:01 pm

    Note to self — “You will probably not enjoy Naked Lunch.

    If my opinion of this novel fails to improve by the end, one of the things I plan to do when I vent my accumulated spleen is to explain why I love Infinite Jest, and why 2666 is no Infinite Jest. I’m holding off on writing my big ol’ screed, though, since Daryl has given me an inkling that there’s still something to be gained by the last Part.

    On the one hand, I hope there is. Slogging through this entire book, only to decide that I well and truly hate it at the end feels deeply disheartening. On the other hand, there’s something cathartic in composing said screed in my head.

  5. Eric Pulido March 30, 2010 / 5:46 pm

    I feel really surprised about these responses. First of all, it really feels weird to me to compare Infinite Jest to 2666 as they are entirely different in:
    a) Themes, style, narrative technique, etc
    b) that DFW wrote IJ on the top of his career while 2666 is to a certain extent an unfinished work (in that sense to me it does feel too stretched out in most parts).

    Beyond my opinion about the Seaman sermon (which I really doubt is a dishonest attempt from the author, yet I would have to reread it) there are 2 things I want to point out:
    1) The Merolino Fernández match paints painfully well the innate mexican proclivity towards magical thinking. Even though (inside the narrative, and in the real world) prior matches between mexican and american boxers have proven once and again that the mexican boxing elite lives in a small world, both the mexican boxer and his fans honestly believe beyond any doubt that this time (he) they really (is) have the real saviour of their honor. To me the opinion that MF and his fans are introduced so we can mock them seems to be a really cynical reading. I feel that this is all expressed by the narrator and should not be lost to outsiders from mexico.
    2) The loss of the evidence. It could be the case that cultural differences really obstruct the author’s meaning regarding this apparent supernatural incompetence. Again in the real world one often hears explanations and resolution that defy both the logic and the imagination. Usually one infers corruption. Every time a foreigner comes to mexico from somewhere up north we’ve both dealt with this cultural shock and the ensuing incredulity.

    I think it’s fair to say that (I feel that) this regarded disdain from the author is not to be found on the other two Bolaño books I’ve read (Amuleto and Putas Asesinas), and seems really particular to the theme he is trying to address. The last thing I would like to comment on is that, dignity in suffering seems a really unnatural to be expected from a tale of brutal murders. (comment written but no read, so sorry for any possible english failure).

    • David Winn March 31, 2010 / 7:45 am

      Eric: Your reminder that 2666 is an unfinished work is a useful one. I mean, I know this, but I’ve sort of factored it out of my estimation of the book. I’m with you in that I still think contempt is the wrong word, and I almost included a sentence or two in my original post noting that this feeling may be colored by my previous reading of other works by Bolaño–in particular The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas. The tone of the Savage Detectives is both highly nostalgic and extremely critical–it’s essentially a record of generational failure–and the tone of Nazi Literature is light, philosophical, with little moralizing. That said, I can see how 2666’s radically different tone can lead to a reaction like Jeff’s. Bolaño’s characters are often sketchy, and in a context like 2666 that sketchiness/lack of depth, can be read as contempt.

      I also agree that, ultimately, it’s unfair to criticize Bolano for not writing a David Foster Wallace novel. On the other hand, I do think its legitimate to say something like Infinite Jest embodies what I love about literature, 2666 is the opposite of that, and this explains my extremely negative reaction to the book. I, for one, would love to hear someone comment on Bolano’s actual antecedents and influences. Who are his influences and how are they refracted in his work? (Borges and Cortazar–that’s all I’ve got) And how do his works relate to recent (i.e. last 1/2 century) trends in literary fiction?

    • Dan Summers April 1, 2010 / 9:18 am

      I should second David, in that I do not expect 2666 to be Infinite Jest redux.

      However, the way that DFW handled human suffering and the quest for meaning and happiness is a world away from how Bolaño treated related topics. At least from my reading.

      • Eric Pulido April 1, 2010 / 3:43 pm

        Sadly, I’m no Bolaño scholar to accurately explain his influences, but there are two widely known tendencies of his generation. 1) There is some truth to the events depicted in The Savage Detectives as there really was a counter-cultural movement in mexico very much in the same vein of the beat generation, that tried to get away from the latin-american cannon (magical realism mostly). Whatever the cultural value of their work was, their influence remained very limited and really hard to find as most people found them to be just a bunch of dirty hippies. Nowadays writers in the same old vein of Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz (like Jose Emilio Pacheco) remain the most awarded and read (sadly). In any case there is something that most late XX century lat-authors share and that is 2) the treatment and preoccupation about social issues at the heart of their works. The reason for this is that all along Latin america, pockets of XIX century injustice and disparity remain.

        In the part about the critics, often we hear about children joining the workforce without even having entered high school, mostly because they need to eat. Their quest for meaning is postponed (if ever) to some unforeseeable future where they will have the time and money to worry about it. In these pockets of injustice, Bolaño’s despair is very real: the police and government are feared: there is no justice, in general there is a feeling that everything will remain like this forever, which in the end makes everybody numb to the problem, even if there are by some estimates 4000 missing girls as of today. The sad thing is that none of this is fiction, and to me it feels that Bolaño simply tries to coldly paint it to the reader. Even if the quest for meaning seems like an universal thing, my view on the whole IJ vs 2006 is that they can never truly share the same themes: Do you want to read about the mexican femicides? Ok, but existencialist intellectuals, nationalism, film theory, AA/NA and in general drug abuse (as opossed to drug trafficking) , academical themes, postmodernism (at least in the media sense), don’t really fit in this novel. Of course some of these are to be found on the part about the critics, but that’s kind of the point, it’s in a separate universe from the part about the murders (none more illuminated, none more real). Then again, I might be missing the point entirely.

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