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There are many ways of explaining the sudden, stratospheric popularity of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. At his essence he was a writer who was always thinking of new ways to use fiction, attempting to get things across to a reader who has seen it all. Bolaño himself was such a reader, and his books cunningly incorporate that awareness of fiction without turning the enterprise too terribly self-conscious (I would argue that The Savage Detectives courts, and sometimes is overcome by, a preening literary self-concsiousness that leaches life from the enterprise it’s trying so vigorously to stimulate, but that’s a 5,000 word conversation for another day). 2666, however (as in his perfect By Night in Chile), evades that tendency. Consider a paragraph from “The Part About the Critics,” from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, in which two men discuss a difficult matter:
The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American Literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothy. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed. In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.
The two men, Pelletier and Espinoza, close friends, both love Liz Norton. The conversation that we are overhearing is the one about the two men’s awareness of the other’s infatuation, as well as their awareness of the other’s carnal involvement with Norton. A difficult talk, and yet the nature of which one could imagine… having seen so-called ‘love triangles’ since the beginning of literary time. To thwart the reflex to cliché that such familiar territory courts, Bolaño has this ingenious notion of rendering the conversation statistically, keeping score with the two players. To those who have written me to say that can’t imagine why I dislike so violently the first sentence of A Canticle for Leibowitz, I offer these sentences as example of what I do like, very much. They leave something to the imagination, while, at the same time, present quite an imagination at work.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”