Category Archives: fiction

Cloud Atlas

In 2001 I didn’t remember what it was like to be six years old in 1991, but in 2011 I do remember what it was like being sixteen. When I was six, I was in my second year in kindergarten (we had two years, K4 and K5, before first grade) and I didn’t care about much, other than lying stomach-down on the bed reading book after book and playing let’s-pretend games in the garden. When I was sixteen I was trying to write short stories; after September 11th, I wrote one called “Judy Powell is an Immaculate Heroine.” It was a story about a girl called Mary Fran who makes up a story about a survivor of the Pennsylvania plane crash, the titular Judy Powell, writes fake news stories about her survival and brings them to her English class so her teacher can post them on the bulletin board, fooling everybody into thinking that the story is real. I never finished it but what a vaguely Borgesian plot, no? I even submitted it to a journal; it wasn’t published due to its “violent and intense content” but I think the editors complimented it for its “intense imagery” and “strong writing style.” Go 16-year-old me!

After listening to NPR September 11th-themed broadcasts all…week…long (my weekday commute now has me going out to Vancouver, which means I’m going to be VERY in touch with the news on!) out of curiosity I dug the dusty story out of the archives (i.e. the bowels of my yahoo email inbox—I emailed all my high-school era stories there shortly before going to college in 2004, and I’m really glad I did, because otherwise they would basically be lost as an undiscovered copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls). I’m not going to, like, testify to the quality of a story written by a 16-year-old, but it was a nostalgic walk down memory lane nonetheless. Here’s the first paragraph:

 Mary Fran had a masterplan that rivaled that of the terrorists who’d flown a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center (the Twin Towers in New York City) the other day and knocked them to the ground. Except that her plan was going to make people feel good instead of bad. She was going to create an imaginary character in her head, bring it to life, and use it to reassure people that Nostradamus had left one of the glass frames of his spectacles behind in his bedroom that morning, so his view of the fortune telling stars through his telescope that day were a little blurred and thus his predictions for World Doom and Apocalypse were a little off track.

LOL, gotta love my long sentences. I also like the part where I refer to “google.com, an Internet search engine,” as if that wasn’t clear, as well as all my references to CDs and Discmen, and the part where they talk about how in 2012, they’ll be 27 (“the same age as Kurt Cobain”), “the beginning of the end.” Ha Ha Ha! Gotta love it.

So yeah, 9/11 everywhere. Even the daily poem on 3quarksdaily was the lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen song.  I don’t really have much to say the day itself, quite frankly. This recent letter by an Iraq War vet in my favorite advice column pretty much sums up my feelings about it—that it really, really sucks to live in a world where a violent society and culture can cause that level of suffering, not just to Iraq war veterans or World Trade Center office workers and janitors but to Afghani and Iraqi suicide bombers. That letter has really affected me, to be honest. I can’t stop thinking about it. In yoga class this morning the teacher said “if you have any feelings about September 11th, or whatever, maybe think about dedicated your practice this morning to someone from that day,” and the only person I could think about was that Iraq veteran, wanting to die, and the others like him all over the world. I dunno, I am NOT a fan of soapbox preaching, but I just think it really sucks to live in a society where violence can make people so numb and damaged. It’s HORRIBLE. In this veteran’s letter, he reminds me of these Mexican/Colombian narcos, their brains blasted by bazuco, killing people mercilessly because they’re so numb and dead inside themselves that they’re barely human anymore. I think maybe one of the things that freaked so many Americans out about September 11th is that people just weren’t used to violence happening here. In Colombia, there’s a much bigger culture of people being more unshocked and unsurprised by these horrible atrocities, simply because it happens so much more that people are used to it, numb to it.

One of my favorite books, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (from which the name of this blog comes from), asks the question of whether or not humans can live together in peace, without resorting to conflict or violence. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Or to be more precise, “maybe for a brief period of time, but it can’t last.” On my flight back to the U.S. from Colombia (a Medellin-Miami-Dallas-Portland whammy) I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in one sitting, a book with an interestingly similar message.

 Cloud Atlas is a pretty great book and the theme throughout is that humans just plain can’t get along, due to their inherently violent and power-craving nature. I really admired the ambition of this book, but there were definitely some sections that I liked more than others. Basically, the book consists of six different stories, all interconnected (it reminded me a bit of A Visit From the Goon Squad). When one story ends (usually on a killer cliffhanger), another begins. You move through time and space, starting with 1) a 19th-century journal of an American notary in the Pacific Islands, to letters written by a British composer to his lover, 3) a 1970’s thriller of a journalist trying to uncover an environmental disaster secret, 4) a picaresque adventure in which an elderly publisher becomes trapped in a retirement home, 5) a futuristic society in which human clones work in fast food restaurants before organizing a revolution, and 6) a post-apocalyptic “Avatar”-like world in which people have resorted to a more simple, primitive way of life but humanity’s basic tendency to destroy and kill anything that’s good and worthwhile remains.

WHEW. I KNOW!

So yeah, for a huge literature lover-nerd such as myself, this book was a complete and utter joy to read. Each section is narrated in a different style: we have a journal, letters, airport thriller, picaresque, interview and Cormac McCarthy/Faulkner-like monologue. Basically, Mitchell is a wicked talented author, and considering how radically different and ambitious each section is, he really comes off as a writer who could write pretty much ANYTHING if he wanted to. (Right now I’m reading his Black Swan Green, which is equally astonishing in how simple and straightforward the narrative is!)

One problem I had with the book is that I wish that the characters didn’t have that comet-shaped scar (thus implying that they’re connected through reincarnation, that they’re all the same soul). I feel like I would have still gotten the whole “connected” theme through the literary works that the main characters read in each section. I guess I like the idea of people being connected through ART, rather than a mystical construct. That being said, that’s really more like my own personal beef as opposed to a hardcore critique.

I’m really glad that books like this are still being written in this day and age. It’s a small drop of water in an otherwise very big ocean of war, deformed orphaned children, bombs, widowed wives, traumatized soldiers and mutilated bodies. I guess that ocean also contains things that I find heartening and hopeful, for whatever bizarre and senseless reasons. Like the fact that there’s a documentary coming out about Pearl Jam’s now 20-year career, PJ Harvey winning the Mercury prize for her anti-war album 20 years into her own career, the recent photos of Frances Bean Cobain, now tattooed and modeling, and that I’m still writing short stories with too-long opening sentences ten years later. “Yet what,” Mitchell writes in the book’s last sentence, “is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

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Exciting news

I have been PUBLISHED! Officially! For, like, the first time.

The story is called “Disposable” and you can read it online here, at Inkapture Magazine (a UK publication).

I should also use this post to mention other happy publishing-related news:

– I will have a piece, “Mrs. Bovary,” included in the 6th issue of VoiceCatcher, an anthology of women writers in the Pacific Northwest. The fact that it’s local is particularly exciting for me.

– I also had a piece called “Mt. Doom Elementary” published in the Americorps NW National Service Symposium book, which is a little collection of fiction, essays, poetry and art written by Americorps members. I’m quite frankly a little embarrassed by this story, even though my sister, her co-worker and many of my co-workers were big fans and complimented me on it. All I can say about it is that it was basically my idea of how to distill the experience of working in an elementary school, via the lens of Tolkein. I’m relieved that the piece doesn’t seem to be online anywhere on the website. Oh, well, live and learn; I’m sure Bolaño had pieces he wished would drop dead off the face of the planet as well.

I guess this means that I am living up to my New Year’s Resolution, which was to actively seek out ways to share my work more with others. Feels pretty interesting. I think this is a really good thing for me to do, as someone who suffered from anxiety about sharing my work with others for many years. God, I can’t believe how much my writing class over the past year now has helped me cope with that “fear” of judgement… it feels like a genuine miracle. And to think that it’s all been documented in this here little ol’ blog-o. What a funny, funny thing.

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D’Angelo

Today D’Angelo asked me for a bearhug. “Bearhug!” is what he said, raising his arms up, waiting patiently while I struggled to put the rest of the Lego blocks and battered board games away in the closet. His mother was close by, combing through the damp smelling piles of sweatshirts in the Lost and Found metal shopping cart.

Finally I turned to face him and raised my arms up like an enemy surrendering. “Killer Bear Hug!” he said, smooshing his face into my chest, even though he’s only in 3rd grade.

Tall skinny D’Angelo, that’s D-apostrophe-Angelo, in his hot pink pants that his sister Caroline sometimes wears, as well as that crazy colorful sweatshirt of his, covered in anime cartoon characters that all the other kids covet desperately. “Can I have a turn wearing it? Please?” they ask, their skinny fingers extending pleadingly towards it.

He’ll leave it in a lump on the kickball court or the basketball pole with the peeling paint without a second’s thought. Once from I distance I saw it there, crumpled up on the blacktop, and I thought it was a kid, collapsed, hunched face –down on the ground.

D’Angelo and Caroline, brother and sister, Jade their half-sister (her dad needs to have their aunt present every time he visits because of the court order), and their kindergarten-aged cousin Constantinople, who looks Alaskan-Cambodian, running around in his red plastic fireman’s rainjacket.

All four of them live in their aunt’s house across the street from the school. I park my car in the gap between the tree out front and their blue plastic recycling bins.

We played hide and seek for an hour yesterday, running and racing and shrieking to make it back to homebase (the soccer goal post) before we were tagged out. Looking for them in the concrete savannah, in the hollow tubes of the slides, behind building corners, in the brick doorframes, always that little flicker of fear in my chest, that maybe this time it would really be it; this time, I would have really lost them, lost them all.

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Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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fanfiction?

“I can move that sword with my mind,” the boy Martin says, his chin almost nestled down into his collarbone. He and I and my younger brother Brome are standing out on the back patio. It’s winter and the tropical rains are due to start soon. Everything is grey and we all have our hands shoved deep into our jacket pockets.

I look over at Brome, rocking back and forth on his heels, swinging the sword in his hands listlessly. “Brome,” I say. “You’re going to knock over a flower pot. Brome.”

He stops swinging it but still holds it gripping with both hands, sticking it straight up in the air like a flagpole. “Who cares if you can,” he says.

The boy, Martin, shrugs. It looks like he has no neck, his black scarf wrapped so tightly around him. All around us the wind blows and the geraniums rustles and the air starts to smell like wet metal.

I’d first met him shortly after he’d moved onto the farm. I was bent over by the fence, pulling up weeds to feed the rabbits when I heard a rustling noise behind me. I looked up and saw a black stooped shape stepping neatly over the rusty brown barbed wire.

“Hello,” he said nonchalantly, his hands deep in his pockets, his back so rigid and straight I recoiled from him slightly. He was the first person I’d ever met with yellow eyes. “What are you doing?”

I wordlessly held up the thick bundle of weeds in my hand. I was better at finding the right kind to pick than Brome, who would get impatient and pull up strands of grass or seedless weeds that I knew the rabbits would find bitter or tasteless or in the worst case scenario send them into dying convulsions that would shake the wooden rabbit hutch and turn their fur yellow.

“My name’s Martin,” he said, “and I’m living in the portable…”–indicating it with a jerk of his elbow–“…over there.”

I said nothing, just slowly backed away until I was far away enough that I could turn around without the weeds brushing the stiff bones of his elbows.

But he’d kept coming over. Today he came over to see Brome and I, to see the sword. “You’ve got to see it,” Brome had told him.

“Who does it belong to again?” Martin asks as he helps me pull basil leaves from the bush. I put them in the ziplock plastic baggy I keep attached to my jeans with a long elastic band. They will be good in the bright red spaghetti sauce for the dinner tonight we would eat with out hands. It’s important to know which ones aren’t affected by radiation.

“Me,” Brome says, raising it up in the air a little higher. His skinny little foot slips over the edge of his beach sandal and he nearly stumbles but catches himself at the last second.

“No one,” I correct him, snapping the ziplock bag shut by pressing it tightly with my fingers. “We found it in the farmer’s house, when we moved in.”

“In the yard!” Brome shouts. “We found it in the yard!”

I raise and lower my shoulders to my ears wordlessly. “Maybe it belonged to a grown-up,” Martin says, and Brome starts to laugh as I bend over to examine the yellow stains on the mint bush.

There were only kids living in the portables now, which is what we called the squat collection of square houses clustered on the edge of the field. They were always coming and going, coming and going–arriving with their heavy backpacks or pulling their metal wagons filled with canned food, wearing their bright orange radiation suits, their breath clouding up the see-through plastic across their faces. They were always amazed to see Brome and I walking out of the big white house to greet them, raising our hands in a hello that was both friendly yet tired. “How is this place not affected?”they would ask, shaking their sweaty heads like wet dogs as they pulled the masks from their faces, and I would shrug and look at the grey sky while Brome rambled on about the randomness of geographic positions, wind patterns that blew away fallout, the importance of valleys, things that I knew he had read on the crumpled torn out yellowing page of an encyclopedia we’d found at the bottom of a glass jar in the kitchen cupboard.

That was what had taken me aback about Martin. He had greeted me instead of the other way round, in that low gravely voice of his like he was steadily saying the first word of a spell.

* (The prompt for this from my writing class was “A land where only 12 year olds can perform magic.”)

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Amulet

The opening lines of this book are as follows: “This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror. But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won’t seem like that. Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.”

So what is this crime? No questions in Bolaño’s books ever come with easy answers, but what first comes to mind is the most obvious scenario, the central scene around which the rest of the story rotates: Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s narrator and self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry”, is reading a book of poems in her lap while sitting on the toilet of the fourth floor of a Mexico City University, when the army and the riot police invade campus and start seizing students and professors. Auxilio (whose name translates into the Spanish phrase for “help me!”), an illegal immigrant in Mexico without a real job, spends twelve days hiding out in the woman’s bathroom, eating toilet paper, reading poems, watching the moon move across the tiles and remembering scenes from her bohemian past, as well as dream-like hallucinatory visions of the future.

Bolaño’s narrative voice is very strong throughout this novel… it feels a lot more like the rolling and rollicking Bolaño of The Savage Detectives and 2666, as opposed to, say, By Night in Chile or Nazi Literature of the Americas. The latter two are also good books, but read more like Bolaño learning how to write in the style of what we would now consider “Bolaño-esque” , via the lens of Borges and Cortazar. In Amulet, it really feels like he’s hitting his stride, as though he’s like “I know what my themes are, I know what my style is, and I am gonna show it off and make it shine in yer faces, bee-yatches!” It’s quite glorious, really. I would definitely consider Amulet as the first in a trilogy, followed by The Savage Detectives (which has a chapter that basically tells the same story as Amulet) and concluding with 2666, which is eerily referenced here in a section where the main characters are walking down Avenida Guerrero (every city in Mexico has a street with this name): “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968 or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” (86) Who knows what this passage means, in terms of Bolaño’s future works, and the apparently very personal significance of the numbers 2666? The reference to the “eyelid of a corpse” makes me think of all those bodies, listed one after another, in that Juarez-like section of 2666

I’ve been really fascinated by the poet/artist archetype figure lately. Maybe it comes from having rewatched I’m Not There again recently; still a good movie upon third viewing. This time around I was especially into the Arthur Rimbaud character, who serves as a narrator of sorts throughout the film.

The monologue from this clip is based on passages from this Bob Dylan poem, which has the wonderful title of “Advice for Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday.”

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking recently about The Poet and Artists As An Archetypal Figure, and lately Rimbaud has been the subject of that interest. When I was in high school I used to jokingly say that while I had crushes on Franz Kafka and Holden Caufield, I would never want to date them, because they would probably make horrible, horrible boyfriends. I don’t know much about Rimbaud, but I have a feeling he would probably fall in the same “do-not-date” category, even without the whole gay thing. Anyway… it’s interesting to me, thinking about Artists and Poets, since my whole New Year’s Resolution this year was to Make More Art. I’ve sort of gotten that off the ground with my weekly Wednesday writing class, which definitely has and will continue to feel like a really big and important step to me. And, of course, Bolaño is always one of *the* authors to read, when thinking about Art and Poetry and Life and Violence and how it all fits together.  For instance: Auxilio spends the entirety of the Tlatelolc massacre hiding in the bathroom, reading poetry: was this cowardly of her? Or was it (considering the circumstances) the only thing she COULD do, the only thing that makes sense? Why not spend a massacre, one that will go down in history as one of the most horrifying events to have happened in Mexico, reading poetry? When I was in Nuevo Laredo, I read Henry James and John Steinbeck, and ate spaghetti with meatballs and vegetarian sopes. My sister spends her job reading all day about crime rates and gang activity in Colombia and the Mexican border, and informed me recently that if she knew then what she knows now about what’s currently going on in Nuevo Laredo, she would have been like “OMG ARE YOU CRAZY.” But you know, I was there for three whole months… I’m not saying I should have gone out to actively fight poverty or crime whatever instead of reading The Wings of the Dove, but that’s what’s interesting to me about reading and writing and literature: it can just seem and feel so DISCONNECTED sometimes what’s going on in the world! People getting killed, raped, murdered, the oil spill, etc. But maybe literature is the only effective filter there is that will help us absorb these horrible experiences. Maybe that’s the point Bolaño was trying to get at with that horrifying section in 2666, mechanically naming dead body after dead body, until I would just put the book down in my lap and stare numbly out the Max train window, the Hillsboro scenery rushing by.

That’s why it’s interesting how in Amulet, the writing style is less like a newspaper reporter, and more like a helicopter or a camera lens, endlessly circling and circling around its central subject (the massacre) without directly naming it (the word “Tlatelolc” appears nowhere within these pages). It’s like what Auxilio says about Arturo Belano (the stand-in Bolaño character who also appears in Detectives) after he returns from his arrest and imprisonment in Chile under Pinochet: “What I mean is that everyone was somehow expecting him to open his mouth and give us the latest news from the Horror Zone, but he said nothing, as if what other people had expected had become incomprehensible to him or he simply didn’t give a shit.” (77) I feel like this sentence describes EXACTLY what Bolaño does stylistically in Amulet: he denies us our gratification for “news from the Horror Zone,” and instead delves into a technique that’s a lot more interesting, one that doesn’t refer directly to the horror of which it speaks. It reminds me a lot of Piglia’s approach in Artificial Respiration, which is best summed up by the Wittgenstein quote that is used extensively throughout that novel: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Piglia used this sentence in AR as a way to encapsulate the novel’s approach to history, in the sense that there are some things that are just so horrible, so inexplicable and incomprehensible, that words cannot do them justice. Thus in the same way AR avoided making any references to torture victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship being thrown out of airplanes, Amulet makes no reference of university students being massacred, or of Belano’s experience in prison under Pinochet, or any other violence that is so fundamental and key to Latin American history. It’s an interesting technique, to tell a horror story by not talking about the horror…

There’s definitely plenty of references to the role of violence in Latin American history throughout the book. Even Che Guevara has a walk-in part: “And what was Che Guevara like in bed, was the first thing I wanted to know. Lilian said something I couldn’t hear. What? I said. What? What? Normal, said Lilian, staring at the creased surface of her folder… I admit I would have liked to know what Che Guevara was like in bed. So he was normal, OK, but normal how?” (122-123) At another point Auxilio refers to what she calls “another recurring and terribly Latin American nightmare: being unable to find your weapon; you know where you put it, but it’s not there. That’s just our luck.” (67) She’s specifically referring to being unable to find her knife in her purse while walking the Mexico City streets at night (oh how this reminds me of frantically fumbling for my pepper spray on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, every time a too-dark or looming figure crossed over to my side of the street!), but she could be talking about the role of writing in terms to violence in the novel. Can poetry and writing be a weapon against the horrors of our modern age? Or is it just a salve, a way to numb and distract ourselves, a pretty lie? (“Beautiful bourgeois art,” says the Rodolfo Walsh quote in the sidebar of this blog).

I could say a lot more about Amulet, easily: about Auxilio’s hallucinatory, Phillip K. Dick-like visions of the apocalyptic future (Dick’s influence is insanely prominent through Amulet!). I especially love the passages describing what books and authors will be read, and when, and how: “Cesar Vallejo shall be read underground in the year 2045. Jorge Luis Borges shall be read underground in the year 2045… Virginia Woolf shall be reincarnated as an Argentinean fiction writer in the year 2076.” (159) About the crazy section in which Auxilia meets a character called Carlos Coffen Serpas, who spends at least a chapter and a half summarizing the Greek story of  Erigone to her. About the surreal final passage, in which Auxilio has a vision of hundreds of children, marching towards an abyss (another must-have image for Bolaño bing0!) , while singing songs: “And although the song that I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of Latin Americans led to sacrifice, I knew above and beyond all, it was about courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure. And that song is our amulet.” (184) Hmmmmmm.

But instead I’m going to end with two things: 1) a quote about books from Amulet that I really liked, and 2) an excerpt from an exercise written in my Wednesday writing class, written in response to a prompt in which we were asked to envision two characters getting off of a bus together, who have come to give a gift.

(I) Quote

Leave those papers alone, woman, dust and literature have always gone together. And I would look at them and think, how right they are, dust and literature, from the beginning… I imagined books sitting quietly on shelves and the dust of the world creeping into libraries, slowly, persistently, unstoppably, and then I came to understand that books are easy prey for dust (I understood this but refused to accept it)…  the dust was never going to go away, since it was an integral part of the books, their way of living or of mimicking something like life. (5)

(II) Exercise

“Poems. I have a ton of poems for you. Pages and pages of them.” The skinny, Arthur Rimbaud-like young man, in his scruffy woolen suit, the sleeves ending far above his wrists (his bones look like small bumpy sparrow heads), his hair like a tousled bird’s nest, pulls out sheets of typed white paper from a white manilla folder tucked into his armpit. It’s hard for him to do so, due to the small blond girl he’s holding in his other arm. “Stop squirming now,” he says into her ear and ends up with a mouthful of blond hair.

I sigh. It is exceedingly hot on this stretch of the highway and I have to hold my hand over my eyes like the visor of a cap.

“Oh man, I just know I had more of them here somewhere. If you could just–” and he pushes the sheets into my hand, where they crumple lightly in a sound reminiscent of Christmas wrapping paper. “Celia, shake your book up and down.” The little blond girl obliges, shaking the pages of her book violently up and down, just aggressively enough to make me wince a little at seeing a book treated that way. I can’t read the title but it’s a small paperback book with yellowing pages and a picture of a brown terrier dog on the cover.

“Nothing,” the girl, Celia, says. I take a second to admire her blue dress and the white apron thing she’s wearing on top. I envy her rocking Alice in Wonderland look.

“Damn–I mean, darn.” He pulls his black sunglasses down the bridge of his nose and stands there blinking in the bright sunlight. They both stand there without saying anything, looking expectantly at me.

“Okay–gee, you guys–thanks–” I slowly shuffle through the papers. The paper is very thin-feeling, like the kind of paper a receipt is printed on, and the font is just small enough to make it hard for me to read.

“They’re all for you!” the little girl shouts, and the poet, Arthur, flashes me and embarrassed grin full of crooked teeth with rounded edges.

“Well, sort of. There’s one in there that I really like. It’s called ‘Advice for Margarine on her 23rd Birthday. It’s written list-style, like, and it’s got a whole bunch of surreal images and crazy language in it.” He pauses. “I’m really quite proud of it, actually,” he says, sounding almost surprised. His tone catches me off guard, and makes me wonder when was the last time I said the same thing in the same tone about myself.

“Thanks,” I say again, feeling a little dumb for not being able to think of anything wittier to say. Neither of them say anything for a moment and instead they both just stand there smiling at me. The little girl swings her leg lazily back and forth like a tire swing hanging from a tree branch, Arthur the poet holding her casually with one arm at his hip, and her black buckle shoes accidentally kick into his hip bone.

“Ouch,” he says. “Careful there, girl.”

I start folding the pages, getting ready to put them away somewhere, even if it’s just to stuff them into my sports bra. Too bad I’m wearing a sundress and don’t have any pockets. There won’t be another bus here for hours and hours, probably. It’s just the three of us, standing by the grey concrete highway, desert scrubland all around us, like someone plucked us up and plopped us into the middle of a dramatic photograph of American desert scenery.

“I actually think that might be a line in the poem,” he says, looking up at the sky. “Careful there girl!”

“Good advice,” I say, finally able to think of something. I turn my body slightly more in the direction of the little girl: “Can I see your book?”

Without a word she hands it over to me; I let out a cry of surprise when I read the author’s name. “Oh wow! This guy is one of my favorites! I read him all the time when I was a kid.” I flip through the yellowing pages. It even reminds me of the same copy I myself used to own, with the red splotches from spaghetti sauce (eating at the dinner table was perhaps not the best habit for my siblings and I), pieces of dried food clinging to the pages like petrified insect eggs and holes through which termites had eaten their way through the paper. When I flipped the pages I could see an animated movie of their journey, burrowing through.

“Maybe it is your copy,” the little girl says, and I don’t respond, don’t want to tell her the other reason why this book might represent so much to me: at the age of 7, I wrote the writer a letter, postmarked from Colombia to England, in which I drew a picture of one of his main characters (a Tawny Owl) and wrote “When I grow up I want to be an Arthur like you.” Author, A-R-T-H-U-R.

The writer at age 23

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