Roberto Bolaño’s Expanding Universe

The first English translation of one of Roberto Bolaño’s novels was published in 2003, the same year he died, at the age of fifty, of liver failure. Susan Sontag was his anglophone herald, referring to him, in her notes on By Night in Chile, as “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The Savage Detectives in a translation by Natasha Wimmer in 2007; it sold 22,000 copies in its first year. 2666, a colossal work unfinished at Bolaño’s death, followed in 2008. As Chris Andrews reports in his new book, “Within days of publication, Farrar, Straus rushed out a second printing, bringing the total to more than 75,000 copies.” These are exceptional figures in the realm of translated fiction, not least as only two or three percent of books published in the US each year began life in other languages. Why Bolaño?

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe (Columbia University Press, 2014) is the work of a person who can perhaps answer that question with greater authority than most. Andrews has translated six novels and four short-story collections by Bolaño, and his close readings of the work are the bedrock of this fascinating study. He tackles the tricky question of reception — why has Bolaño become so popular? — as well as providing a convincing poetics for the work as a whole, which, considering the complex interrelations between Bolaño’s fictions from The Savage Detectives onward, will surely become indispensable to students of it.

Bolaño’s own life provides a way in. Pick your myth: the impoverished writer; the political prisoner (following the 1973 coup in Chile); the heroin addict (not true); the iconoclastic poet; the stratospheric rise (with The Savage Detectives); the prodigious late output; the early death. This would not be enough, though, to sustain the level of critical interest with which his work has been met — and in translation, too. Andrews suggests that Bolaño works well in translation because it doesn’t rely too heavily on wordplay or “subtle sound patterning.” Unlike, say, Flaubert, the majority of his style is reasonably replicable in English. This is a liberation (and a relief) for non-Hispanophone readers who want in on the action, because there is very much to discuss.

As the title of Andrews’s book might suggest, Bolaño’s style is characterised to a large degree by “expansion”:

His prose has a contagious, joyful energy, even when treating desolate themes. This energy springs in part from a literally expansive quality: it moves forward by expanding and opening up what has already been written, from the scale of the sentence up to that of the book.

This is meant literally: over and over, Bolaño reworks characters and scenarios he’s already written. The final chapter of Nazi Literature in the Americas, for instance, is reshaped and expanded in Distant Star. These expansions are often destabilising or digressive. He encourages, Andrews suggests, apophenia in his readers: a tendency to over-interpret, jump to conclusions, join too many dots. Doubtless this is partly why critical interest has been so keen — Bolaño’s is an extraordinarily fertile corpus. The recurrence of many of his characters, sometimes with different names, sometimes near-unrecognisable, also serves to “create intriguing puzzles” for the reader. His work is a crime scene awaiting investigation.

This is an apt metaphor, for crime is one of Bolaño’s great subjects. Indeed, “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666, an inventory of the violent deaths of over a hundred women in and around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, is perhaps the most famous fragment of his work. “No one pays attention to these killings,” says Klaus Haas, the principal suspect, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” This ominous pronouncement is surely an invitation to apophenia, just as 2666‘s vastness encourages multiple readings, interdisciplinary study, semiotic fireworks. It’s a book in which one might expect to find the secret of the world; a work sui generis; a novel containing writhing multitudes. As Jonathan Lethem put it in the New York Times Book Review, “the composite result, though unmistakable, remains ominously implicit, conveying a power unattainable by more direct strategies.”

Part of this is due to its Chinese-box structure. In the opening pages, 2666 is the story of four critics searching for the great writer Benno von Archimboldi. The murders that will take up such a huge portion of the book later on are alluded to, but seem immaterial. Part II opens on a different set of characters; Part III likewise. Narrative tension is, in Andrews’s phrase, “decentralized or devolved,” and it is not till seven hundred pages after the end of Part I that the possibility of the writer and the critics meeting reemerges. The story moves about in time, characters come and go, the relationship between the crimes in Part IV and the rest of the action occasionally seems merely thematic. Bolaño’s fictional universe expands; his text metastasizes with it. Proliferating incidental narratives and minor characters circle like vultures around the horrors of Santa Teresa. The conventions of fiction conspire to color events that may bear little or no causal relation to any other. Bolaño’s assertion that there is a “hidden center” (“centro oculto“) at the heart of 2666 will only provide further motivation for his readers to keep the casebook open. To answer every question, Andrews says, “would be to shut down a motor of writerly invention and dry up a source of readerly curiosity.” He needn’t worry — asking every question seems a daunting enough mission.

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction benefits hugely from Andrews’s intimate familiarity with the work. In other chapters, he provides a sketch of what he deems to be Bolaño’s “minimalist” belief in literature; his attitude towards identity construction (diachronic vs. episodic); and an anatomy of the evil present in his fiction. He also considers the relationship between Bolaño and Jorge Luis Borges, one of the few writers he seems to have revered. It’s a relatively slim volume — a couple of hundred pages — and there are no fully developed readings of individual works. But the lines Andrews draws between texts are highly illuminating, and this book will light the way for many scholars to come. Bolaño studies, as it develops, will likely be a discipline that disdains hermetic readings. The way his books speak to each other will demand of his critics a frame of intertextual reference that the casual reader will not be equal to. As this study reveals, though, in such difficulties lie vast reservoirs of pleasure.

You can buy Chris Andrews’s book and many titles by Roberto Bolaño at McNally Jackson.

Curtain Call: Are You For Sale?

March_banner-4As spring finally seems to be bursting out over a thawing Gotham, so the House of SpeakEasy is bursting with excitement about the line-up for next Tuesday’s show. It’s quite the team: writer Susan Cheever, composer/lyricist Michael Friedman, author and cartoonist Jeff Kinney, writer Kate Mosse and journalist Michael Riedel will all be answering (or maybe asking?) the question “Are You For Sale?” By way of introduction, here’s a short gallery of video gems.

Susan Cheever is famous for both fiction and nonfiction. We took a look at her latest book, E.E. Cummings: A Life, last week (see here). Other biographical writings include My Name is Bill – Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics AnonymousHome Before Dark, a memoir of her father, the writer John Cheever; and American Bloomsbury, which tracks the lives of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott and their hugely influential set in the mid-nineteenth century. Her novels include A Handsome Man and Looking For Work.

Here’s Cheever at the New York State Writers Institute on becoming a writer. “It was clearly not something I wanted to try and do in my family! […] And you spend most of your time worrying about paying your child’s orthodontist’s bills…”

Jeff Kinney is one of the most successful writers on the planet. In 2009 he was even named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine. His Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which now runs to eight volumes and details the trials and tribulations of middle-schooler Greg Heffley, has sold over 115 million copies worldwide. Since 2010, there’s even been a Greg Heffley balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Here’s Kinney reading from the first volume of Diary of a Wimpy Kid:

Michael Friedman is a composer and lyricist whose satirical emo musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson earned many a plaudit on Broadway in 2010. His latest work, written for The Civilians, which he co-founded in 2001, is The Great Immensity, and opens at the Public Theater on April 11 (tickets here). It’s a grand, continent-hopping show about climate change. Well worth checking out The Civilians’ breakout website here for more on the ideas and research that inspired the show.

In this hilarious address to TEDxEast in 2012, Friedman talks a little bit about his musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, currently playing in Dallas, and how to construct a song for theatre:

“I don’t need to be nice to Bono and The Edge… If you don’t have a bold, strong voice, you’re not gonna be good at this game…” So says Michael Riedel, the New York Post‘s outspoken theatre critic, in this funny, candid, wide-ranging interview from 2012. Riedel has been reviewing Broadway shows for more than 20 years in print and on the PBS show he co-hosts, Theater Talk (the website for which is a video feast). The theatre producer David Brown once called him “the enfant terrible of the New York press” for his sharp observations.

Riedel talks about how he became a critic, the true heirs to the classical Broadway musical, the phenomenal success of Glee, and star power in the theatre.

Kate Mosse is best known for her historical fiction, in particular the hugely successful Languedoc trilogy — LabyrinthSepulchre and Citadel — which has sold millions of copies and been translated into over thirty languages. The TV miniseries of Labyrinth (watch the trailer here) will debut on US television on The CW on May 22 and 23. Mosse has also written plays, short stories and nonfiction, and in 1996 she co-founded the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s a UK-based award that honours the best writing by women around the world. Over the years, winners have included Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith.

In this interview conducted at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival last year, Mosse talks about the dangers of “putting imaginary words in real people’s mouths”, her debt to Dan Brown, and what comes first when she writes.

We hope to see you at “Are You For Sale?” next Tuesday, March 18, at City Winery NYC. Tickets on sale here.

Bloody Brilliant Michael Friedman


Michael Friedman

Michael Friedman is the composer and lyricist behind an astonishing range of theatrical output over the last fifteen years. He wrote his first musical for The Civilians, a downtown theatre group he helped co-found in 2001. Canard, Canard, Goose? was also The Civilians’ first show, taking as its subject alleged geese abuse on the set of the Hollywood movie Fly Away Home. The Civilians’ method of working is a little like verbatim theatre in that the shows are based on interviews with real people. What’s different is that the final product is a heightened version of what emerged from those interviews, as you can probably tell from the sublimely silly Canard (the plot of which effectively disintegrates when the Civilians team realises that the movie wasn’t in fact shot in the hamlet where it was set but in Ontario). You can hear the whole show in this podcast recording of the 10th anniversary concert performance at Joe’s Pub.

Canard set the offbeat tone for an eclectic career. Friedman went on to write the music for a series of shows, some with The Civilians, some not, including In the Bubble, based on the John Travolta movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble; the children’s show Katie Couric’s The Brand New Kid; Gone Missing, an ideas-driven musical on the subject of loss; and an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude, previews of which have just begun in Dallas. He’s written for Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and many more spaces in New York and beyond. The Civilians’ new show, The Great Immensity, which opens on April 11, has songs by Friedman. He’s certainly a busy man; as this funny New York Times profile from 2007 reveals, he can get “overly busy because I get excited by things and can’t say no”.

One of Friedman’s biggest successes to date is the satirical “emo” musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which he co-wrote with Alex Timbers. Bloody Bloody opened in Los Angeles in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in the last months of 2010. Emo, as Ben Brantley in his New York Times review defined it, “for those of you who don’t download your songs, is a postpunk rock variant that wears its shattered heart on its tattered sleeve, throbbing with the narcissism, masochism and frustrated powerlessness that come with being a teenager”. It also tends to involve a lot of male eyeshadow and black clothing, which lends itself well to the high theatricality of the show.

Bloody Bloody opens in the early nineteenth century with “Populism, Yea, Yea”, a call for power to be returned to the people from the hands of the elite. This is no Les Mis, though; rather a political movement born out of the pent-up frustration, angst and sexuality of adolescence:

Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?
You always went out with those guys who thought they were so cool
And I was just nobody to you, nobody to you, nobody to you…

But it’s the early 19th century and we’re gonna take this country back
For people like us, who don’t just think about things, people who make things happen
Sometimes with guns, sometimes with speeches too,
And also other things…
Populism, yea, yea…

Here, Friedman discusses the opening number and the origins of the show:

It’s a highly literate show with a broad referential field that includes Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault and Alexis de Tocqueville. But it’s also relentlessly un-highbrow. “The Corrupt Bargain”, for instance:

John Quincy Adams says, “If we steal the election, then Jackson will surely cave.”
John Calhoun says, “You can be president if you don’t try to take away my slaves.”
Henry Clay says, “You won’t get Missouri because I know how to play realpolitik.”
James Madison said something prescient about this but he was kind of a dick.

And in “Rock Star”:

John Adams tried to be an American Idol,
Jefferson tried to be a rock star,
Madison tried to make the Presidency vital,
James Monroe was a douche bag.

It’s a fun show, a fast-moving and irreverent survey of President Jackson’s controversial life. We see his early military career, which stoked his belief that the government was not doing enough for the people on the frontier; his astounding success at the Battle of New Orleans; the overturning of his popular election in 1824; his eventual election four years later; the institution of Jacksonian democracy; and, ultimately, the violent confrontations with the Native American population that make him a hotly disputed figure to this day. And all set to rapidfire rock music.

The success of the show lies in the unlikely melding of emo rock music with history. As Ben Brantley wrote, “Long before rock ’n’ roll was invented, it seems, the United States was a sucker for the rock-star charisma of a maverick politician.” American presidents have been immortalised in music elsewhere, of course: a host of them — at least obliquely — in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins; the disgraced thirty-seventh in John Adams’s Nixon in China; even FDR in Annie. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, like the best of them, succeeds because it finds a musical correlative for the atmosphere of the time and its writers’ take on their subject.

Michael Friedman will appear at the next House of SpeakEasy show, “Are You For Sale?”, on March 18. Tickets are available via the City Winery NYC website.