Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Return by Roberto Bolano

If The Return is to be our primer on Roberto Bolano, then we may come to find that he has a fondness for three types: the murderer, the detective, and the porn star. The last of these is the most interesting by degrees, though perhaps by default--Bolano possesses little insight into a killer's psychology, and no one has said anything remotely interesting about detectives since Raymond Chandler.

Naturally then, the best of the stories collected here is "Joanna Silvestri," about the eponymous porn starlet reconnecting with a now aging, somewhat destitute John Holmes. "Jack" has a sort of otherworldly presence:

...I know really photogenic girls who lose it as soon as they start a blow job, they look terrible, maybe because they're too into it, but I like to keep my face looking good. So my mind was on the job and, anyway, because of the position I was in, I couldn't see what was happening around me, while Bull and Shane, who were on their knees, but upright, heads raised, they saw that Jack had just come in, and their cocks got harder almost straightaway, and it wasn't just Bull and Shane who reacted, the director, Randy Cash, and Danny Lo Bello and his wife and Robbie and Ronnie and the technicians and everyone, I think, except for the cameraman, Jacinto Ventura, who was a bright, cheerful kid and a true professional, he literally couldn't take his eyes off the scene he was filming, everyone except for him reacted in some way to Jack's unexpected presence, and a silence fell over the set, not a heavy silence, not the kind that foreshadows bad news, but a luminous silence, so to speak, the silence of water falling in slow motion, and I sensed the silence and thought it must have been because I was feeling so good, because of those beautiful California days, but I also sensed something indecipherable approaching, announced by the rhythmic bumping of Shane's hips on my butt, by Bull's gentle thrusting in my mouth, and then I knew that something was happening on the set, though I didn't look up, and I knew that what was happening involved and revolved around me; it was as if reality had been torn, ripped open from one end to the other, like in those operations that leave a scar from neck to groin, a broad, rough, hard scar, but I hung on and kept concentrating till Shane took his cock out and just after that Bull ejaculated on my face.

I must apologize twice over: Once for the length of that passage, and once again for its filthiness. It is, however, the emotional crux of this collection, not least because in so much of the rest of it emotion is wanting. Crude as it is, Bolano's ironic sense is ebullient here. There is the great disparity between the "lowness" of the act and the angelic luminescence of Jack's presence; the comparison (which feminists have made before, with sterner faces) between the sex act and the violence or surgery; the too-perfect porn names like "Shane" and "Bull" and "Robbie and Ronnie." And best of all there is the way this impossibly long sentence, like the sudden withering of the organs it describes, limps lamely to the finish: "Shane took his cock out and just after that Bull ejaculated on my face." In the presence of a greater connection, physical touch seems ridiculous.

But Bolano's vices get the better of him: Joanna is thinking all this while being interrogated by a detective, who doesn't care about Jack Holmes. He's looking for information about a minor player in the pornographic world that has no relevance whatsoever to the narrative. So why do it?

Probably because Bolano was obsessed with the "secret story"--the answers to the questions that are left unasked. What the detective wants to know is likely important to him, but to Joanna (and Bolano, and us, by extension) it is irrelevant to the point of incongruity. The stories in The Return have a glancing-off quality to them, the relevance of parts to the whole is left explicitly absent. But there are better ways to do this than to populate stories with cast-offs from Allen Ginsberg, Quentin Tarantino, Chandler and Tom Waits. It is difficult to shake the feeling that The Return is peopled by detectives, criminals, mobsters, and prostitutes because they signify grit. And The Return is gritty all right, ground down by Bolano's style into flat, gray sand:

Bedloe's face was a blood-spattered mask, garish in the light of the living room. Where his nose had been there was just a bleeding pulp. I checked to see if his heart was beating. The women were watching me without making the slightest movement. He's dead, I said. Before I went out onto the porch, I heard one of them sigh. I smoked a cigarette looking at the stars, thinking about how I'd explain it to the authorities in town.

This is unconscionably lazy. Comparing a face to a mask; "bleeding pulp;" the cinematic pulse-check followed by the the words "He's dead." If all the hack writers in all the world put their minds together, could they come up with a sentence more cliched than "I smoked a cigarette looking at the stars, thinking about how I'd explain it to the authorities in town?"

Too often Bolano wants this kind of empty cool to do his work for him. There are fleeting moments of brilliance, like the first sentences of the title story: "I have good news and band news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac." But they are deflected by nonsense like: "Pavlov was waiting for me by the fireplace, reading and drinking cognac. Before I could say anything he smashed his fist into my nose. I hardly felt the blow but I let myself fall anyway. Don't stain my carpet, I heard him say."

Danny liked this book considerably, and though it hurts my sense of honor to say anything too negative about books that are lent to me, I think the best I can say on this one is "mixed results." It seems unlikely that I will try to tackle 2666 any time soon.


lawnwrangler said...

I'm okay with a lukewarm opinion from a Hardy lover like yourself. The greatness of Bolano isn't for the meek, or the canonized debutante.

I will say that the sidetracking nature of Bolano is one of two things I love most. The second is the list-like nature of the tangents. To me, Bolano was before his time and the future of literature. In his longer works, the tangential chapters are all about the moments. He'll never fit the cookie cutter expectations of the dead white men of England, France, or Russia. But he does give a good portrait of the real. Real dialogue, real detectives, real shit in Mexican hell.

Thanks for putting your effort into my recommendation though, I'll keep him to myself in the future, but Savage Detectives would be the next suggestion, not 2666.

Brooke said...

Holy run-on sentence.

Christopher said...

It isn't the tangents I minded, it's that the tangents were wholly uninteresting. The idea that Joanna is talking to a detective signifies nothing interesting about her, or the story, but it signifies a lot about Bolano (that isn't that interesting.)

Christopher said...

I do agree that "Buba" was great. (But partially because there were no mobsters, pimps, murderers, or detectives.)