Sentences — December 17, 2008, 4:01 pm

And the Rivers and the Lonely Roads

2666 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.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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