N+1, if you're unfamiliar with it, is a rather precious literary-intellectual journal that eructs politely from Brooklyn a couple of times a year, proposing to rescue Culture from the culture. I'm not sure of the utility of the effort. It has the peony-scented air of a grad-school aesthete engaged in idiosyncratic atavism just to piss of the cult. studies crowd in seminar. But it has plenty of useless charm as a weak preppy counterpart to the old Bucklean inclination to stand athwart history, asking it nicely to slow down just a bit. The latest issue puts on its sailor suit and unleashes a fusillade against the good ship Bolaño. It takes a while for the unidentified author to work himself into full hysteria, but when it arrives, girl, it arrives:
Our problem in America is hardly that our worst politicians speak too well, or that we lack for plain stylists. What is our problem, then—to which Bolaño seems a solution? American critics and regular readers alike usually don't care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels.Given the high esteem for guys like Pynchon and Delillo, I'm not so sure about the assertion that American readers and critics don't care for grand-goofy literary historicism. The more central, unintentionally [?] hilarious idea here is that "fiction" is something in which one believes, like God or astrology. The charge, repeated throughout the essay, would apply in some commensurable fashion to Tristram Shandy or Robinson Crusoe or, for that matter, War and Peace, none of which, I imagine, the literary conservator behind this attempted excision would see struck from the canon, whatever that is. The novel--whatever that is--has never been some singular thing. Don Quixote doesn't read like 19th-century realism either, and yet there it is.
The critique, then, goes something like this: Bolaño (nor Sebald) doesn't write like Hardy.
Whereas ordinary novels, epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place.This would come as quite a shock to Woolf and Joyce. To Ford Maddox Ford. To Mark Twain, for that matter. Like all conservatives, our critic longs for a time that never really existed. It's true that Bolaño's characters don't appear in passages of virtuosic, third-person description like Gwendolen Harleth in the first paragraph of Daniel Deronda, but "mushing after some fugitive poet or novelist," uncharitably phrased but accurate as a description, reveals some very real and extraordinary characters, from the senescent Father Urrutia in By Night in Chile to the horny Juan García Madero in The Savage Detectives. That our critic fails to note them speaks more to his (her?) attention span and quality as a reader than it does to Bolaño as a writer. And, note: Daniel Deronda is not an "ordinary novel" either.
The penultimate paragraph opens with a concluding dismissal:
Bolaño's incoherence—books mean everything and nothing; the writer is hero and jerk—has come to seem one of the few plausible literary attitudes these days.Somehow this put me in mind of a famous observation by another writer, an American, whose epistemologically ruffled novels delivered impeachable accounts of events that never took place:
[T]he young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.I challenge anyone to read By Night in Chile and tell me that it is not, at last, the story of the human heart in conflict with itself. Bolaño populates his novels with characters who are heroic and hideous, triumphant and bereft all at once because his novels are populated by human beings, and the "incoherence" of their (and Bolaño's) attitudes toward their literary calling is in fact the great achievement of Roberto Bolaño; it captures over and over the heart-rending agony that accompanies the discovery of a true vocation. Replace books with God and his writers with doubting priests (a neat trick that he performed, ya know) to see how that works. I always imagine him working with the odd dictum from Graham Greene's priest in Brighton Rock:
You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God.So go read some Bolaño to see who does and who does not believe in fiction.