Category Archives: violence

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

Yesterday, while N. and his brother played vintage games (such as Street Gangs, and one that involved a knight wandering around a castle, killing bats and snakes), I bought a book on the kindle app on my phone and read it. We’d gone out the night before for N’s birthday, during which I had a very long and interesting conversation with someone about an Indonesian Christian who praised the coming of colonialism (I know…). So the next day I wanted something easy to read, relaxing, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of lounging about, like ya do. So what better choice than a novella filled with VIOLENCE, GRIMNESS, and THE TRAUMA OF AN ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD?

I wanted to read this book because I loved the film (one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with First Reformed and Netflix’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The film genre of “Joaquin Phoenix plays a lunatic” is one that I decidedly enjoy, and I also loved how it reminded me of Taxi Driver. The book definitely did not disappoint, though (SPOILER WARNING): the book is decidedly different from the film – most specifically, the book ends MUCH earlier than the film does. The film also gives more dialogue and presence to the kidnapped girl, which is good. I did read an interview with the author somewhere (who incidentally used to date Fiona Apple, and had a song written about him) that he’s writing a sequel – I wonder how similar the sequel will be to the film, or not… if it’s a George RR Martin kind of situation…

I was surprised by how much this book reminded of The Remains of the Day – not only in the sense that Joe, the main character, is somewhat of an robot, but in the sense that (like Stephens the butler) he was deliberately CONDITIONED to be that way (in Joe’s case, by the Marines and FBI). This… is something that fascinates me about masculinity, about young men who are purposefully PROGRAMMED to be mindless killing machines. Or unknowingly allow themselves to be. As Homo Deus would put it, putting the lizard brain over consciousness.

Overall, You were Never Really Here would be perfect to teach in a novel writing or crime course (and indeed, I might very well use it this academic year): it’s very short, very well-written, and very readable. What I found particularly interesting about the book, in contrast to the film, was how much we were able to go inside Joe’s head – whereas in the film, you’re just “watching” him (or seeing his flashbacks). OK, this is a very Basic Creative Writing 101 observation, but it’s true. Joe’s interiority is presented in a very matter of fact, almost deadened way that I often found very funny (because I’m a dark, sick person):

“Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.”

“He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.”

“Joe tortured himself, imagining what McCleary’s toes must look like. He thought of putting them in his mouth. Joe hated his own mind. He wished he could be put down like a dog.”

Yeah. So clearly, self-hatred and trauma are a big element of this character. There’s something brutally comical about how he approaches every situation so logically, so coldly: “He thought of burning the house down, but he didn’t want to risk killing any neighbours. The house would have to be left intact.” He’s even explicitly compared to a weapon at one point. Is this… the future of humanity? In terms of automation?

Another impressive achievement of this book was its handling of action scenes, or “choreography,” as my students like to call it. Not that I’ve ever tried writing a complicated action scene, but what made the ones in “You Were Never Really Here” compelling (and there are indeed quite a few setpieces) wasn’t just the force of the violence, but these beautiful, unexpected observations, like this one.

You break your adversary’s fingers, you have an immediate advantage. It frightened even the hardest men to have their fingers snapped, and in a fight, like a dance, you often held hands.”

Comparing a fight to a dance – wow! Never thought of it that way before. Playful and memorable.

What was also very interesting to me were the parts where the narrator is just so DIRECT with the reader about Joe. In the sense that it’s the narrator who’s giving us information, as opposed to Joe himself:

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started.”

At his core, Joe was a very angry boy who had never gotten proper vengeance on his father, which is what a boy like Joe needed. Though it’s not always vengeance; sometimes it’s justice.”

So explicit! Some of my students would definitely be like… YO, this is TELLING, not SHOWING. But I think it creates a lot of pathos for Joe. SEE… WRITING HAS NO RULES… U CAN DO ANYTHING…

The last thing I want to say about this book is that there are two VERY interesting moments in which we leave Joe’s head and enter the consciousness of two other characters – this is something we definitely don’t (and indeed cannot) see in the film. I won’t spoil it, but both moments tie in very beautifully with this passage (I know I’m sharing a lot of excerpts here, but I can’t help it):

Joe knew that all human beings are the star of their own very important film, a film in which they are both camera and actor; a film in which they are always playing the fearful and lonely hero who gets up each day hoping to finally strike upon the life they are meant to lead, though they never do.”

These brief forays into the other two non-Joe characters are like sneaky glimpses into these other films – and the idea that everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, when they’re really just… cannon fodder. It reminds me how I used to feel curious as a teen about the nameless and faceless henchmen who get massacred in films, like those poor dudes getting killed by raptors in the long grass, in that one The Lost World scene.

Overall, this was exactly what I want out of fiction: down, dirty, and readable.

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The Cartel

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

This book is utterly gripping and irresistibly page-turning, as well as extremely violent. It provides a fascinating contrast to Bolaño’s 2666, which was written pre-Mexican drug war, but is similarly interested in violence, the visual, and the language and structure of thrillers and crime novels.

This book is a highly commendable achievement: a novelization of the Mexican drug war, weaving fact with fiction, bringing news stories to life. I felt like I learned so much from it, that it really “showed” me things that had previously just been headlines or statistics. Talk about proving the power of fiction. The research for this book must have been no joke (I’m definitely going to explore some of the books he lists in the acknowledgements). Most notably, this novel deserves major respect for how it depicts the most troubling of topics: the existence of undeniable, apocalyptic evil. There are some people in this world who are just plain bad. You can try to analyse it: they want power, they want money, they’re messed up in the head from being militarized in the army, violence is all-consuming and soul-killing, etc. But as a co-worker in Nuevo Laredo once said to me, Hay gente muy malo en este mundo. And that’s just the way it is.

Following the news can sometimes feel like plod. On this day, this happened. This guy escaped from prison. This election, this mass grave, this murdered journalist. The advantage that this book has over non-fiction is that of foresight and form. I’ve always loved Bolaño’s quote from this interview about form vs. plot: “Form is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Through linking together individual stories in an intentional way that non-fiction wouldn’t be able to do, The Cartel is able to use the form of fiction to make us notice wider patterns and causes, to learn things that we might otherwise not realize from simply reading the news.

While the “I don’t play by the rules” DEA Agent Art Keller and his obsessive revenge-plot with the head gangster is engaging enough, and certainly serves as a way of driving the plot forward, the book’s real strength for me are its supporting characters. The stories of Chuy the child-sicario, Pablo the journalist, the borderland ranch owner taking a stand against the Zeta’s seizure of his land, and  the solo female police chief will stay with me a long time, and are by far the main reason for reading this book. An interesting parallel to The Cartel would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which similarly try to turn this massive historical event into this very personal, human-level story driven by person-to-person interactions. The Cartel is as deliciously suspenseful as any classic Michael Crichton novel, but what was notable to me were the individual human stories, and how it turned what would otherwise be an atrocity headline into a narrative. 

It’s SO interesting to me that to a certain extent, Bolaño’s 2666 doesn’t do that. The focus in 2666 (at least in the famous Part IV) is on a mass scale, on overwhelming accumulation, as opposed to individual human stories. Bolaño’s fiction is also much more driven by experiences of interruption and suspension rather than narrative satisfaction. There’s a key image at the very end of The Cartel (you’ll know it when you read it–trust me) that emphasizes the “face” of evil being exposed (brutally so). There is undeniably a sense of satisfaction with this ending, despite its terrible violence. It’s the kind of satisfaction that you come to expect (even crave) with thrillers and crime novels–a clear resolution that’s not necessarily happy, but in which major threads are definitely resolved. This is not a clear-cut satisfaction we get from Bolaño, or from authors like Evelio Rosero, whose emphasis is on abrupt disappearances and absences. 

The other strength of the book for me was its analysis of the drug war. I found its discussion of the increasing visualization of violence and atrocities fascinating, in terms of gangs now broadcasting their beheadings and tortures online, and the parallels between Central American narco gangs and ISIS, in terms of online propaganda and recruitment. How it’s not enough to commit a violent act anymore, it has to be publicized and broadcast. I also found it very interesting to read about certain gangs’ movement towards trafficking gasoline and oil (and how this has piqued the interest of the U.S. more than if it were “just” drugs), as well as the emphasis on the trafficking route rather than the product. 

I’ll definitely read The Power of the Dog, the book that was written before this one (The Cartel is apparently its sequel). Overall, this book is an excellent example of fiction’s ability to make the violence we so often skim over in the news digestible and and undeniably memorable, as well as raising important moral questions about the desire for power and how to do what’s “right.” As one narco puts it, “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit. It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” It’s hard to deny that he has a point…

Quotes from this book:

It’s the new face of the narco gang war, isn’t it? They’re becoming media savvy. They used to hide their crimes, now they publicize them. I wonder if they haven’t taken a page from Al Qaeda. What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it? And maybe that’s the lede on my story. “The crimes that used to lurk in the shadows now seek the sunlight,” or is that a little too “pulp”? (309)

It’s not so much that we’ve now defined the narcos as terrorists, Keller thought, but that there’s more of a psychological leak from the war on terror into the war on drugs. The battle against Al Qaeda has redefined what’s thinkable, permissible, and doable. Just as the war on terror has turned the functions of intelligence agencies into military action, the war on drugs has similarly militarized the police… Certainly, Keller thought, my war on drugs has changed over the years. It used to be all about busts and seizures, the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of getting the shit off the street, but now I barely think about the drugs themselves. The actual trafficking is almost irrelevant. I’m not a drug agent anymore, he reflected, I’m a hunter. (392)

Americans take their strength in victories, Mexicans’ strength is in their ability to suffer loss. (403)

“Post-traumatic stress disorder”? There’s nothing “post” about it. Nothing is over, nothing is in the past. We live with this shit every day. And “disorder”? It would be a disorder if we weren’t stressed. (474)

America’s longest war is the war on drugs. Forty years and counting. I was here when it was declared and I’m still here. And drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever. But it’s not about the drugs anymore, anyway, is it? (500)

You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? (511)

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A Little Life

(There are spoilers in this review; so if you’d rather read this with a clean slate, I suggest only reading the first paragraph.)

I love this book and think it is an absolutely incredible achievement, a monumental work, but I cannot recommend it to anybody that I care about. I guess I feel downright feel strange, telling somebody “oh, you simply MUST undergo this incredibly painful experience! I highly endorse it!” Not to imply painful reading experiences are bad, right? Pain is one of the undeniable facts of life (as the majority of most world religions emphasize), and is a big theme (if not THE theme) of this book. But when was the last time a book made me feel this profoundly, spiritually anxious + despondent, while simultaneously exhilarated by the writing? 2666? That book always inevitably takes me weeks to get through, but I read A Little Life on a 10-hour plane ride. I don’t know what that means, but it means something: I could NOT put this book down. I will not be shocked at all if it wins the Booker prize.

It starts out so normal, too. “Tricksy, tricksy,” as Gollum would say. Oh my gosh, I thought as I zipped through the first few chapters, furiously clicking away on the kindle turn-page button, the stewardess drink cart clattering down the aisle. What a good campus novel this is! I can’t think of when I last read a book that was so focused on the post-college life of early 20’s-men. This book is so cool, the way it’s evoking the friendship and intimacy between these four male friends. I love that they’re not all white and heterosexual and rich. I love that with one exception, their careers all focus on art or creativity of some kind (Willem the actor, JB the painter, Malcolm the architect and Jude the lawyer respectively–guess the exception!). I love quotes like the following about early adulthood life; they really ring true for me:

“There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.” (39)

Yeah, this is really enjoyable. I wonder what’s going to happen in the next 700 pages?

Thankfully in regards to this last question, I’d already read some reviews online, so by the time the first “moment” happens, I was (or so I thought) prepared for it: Jude and Willem have moved into their new dumpy apartment in New York together (so reminiscent of my current dirt-cheap abode here in England, with the sink-less bathroom, temperamental shower and giant manhole in the front yard which has claimed the foot of one delivery man already). A few references are made to Jude’s difficulties in navigating flights of stairs, the pain in his legs he’s had since they all met in college. And then the night of their housewarming party, Jude comes to Willem with his arm wrapped in a towel and says that well, there’s been a little accident, he’s cut himself you see, no big deal, but he’s bleeding a lot and it’s probably best if he were to go to the emergency room.

And so it begins. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book so relentlessly focused on physical suffering and pain. I’ll just say it: the reason I kept reading this book was because I wanted to know exactly why and how Jude was suffering. I even skipped ahead at times just to get it over with. It was the same morbid fascination I felt as a pre-teen, thumbing through my mother’s copy of Reviving Ophelia and wondering what “bulimia” meant. So yeah, that is the book’s main narrative drive: Jude’s life, his secrets, and his relentless, never-ending trips to the bathroom to reach for razor blades. This entire book would make the trigger-warning community of tumblr run screaming hysterically to the hills and hunker down in bunkers.

And god, the things that are unbelievable about this book! (I’m going to get very spoiler-heavy now…) In the first fifteen years of Jude’s life, he is basically raped by EVERYBODY. Virtually everyone he encounters is a violent pedophile. Is this an exaggeration? An overblown metaphor so that Jude becomes an embodied symbol for people who have to live with trauma, for those who have survived the unsurvivable? “Not having sex,” Jude thinks at one point, during one of the novel’s most devastating moments: “it was one of the best things about being an adult.” (303) When the book’s title is uttered by basically the worst of characters, it’s cause to throw your hands up in the air and give up on everything and everyone that’s good in the world. “You have to show a little life,” Jude’s pimp says (Jude is twelve years old at this point). “They’re paying to be with you… you have to show them you’re enjoying it.” (415) And trust me… this is not even the worst part of the book. I promise. Oh, there’s a lot more in store for you after that!!

Fortunately, for the rest of Jude’s adult life (with two big exceptions… you’ll know what they are), things go extremely well. It’s almost comically unrealistic–to put it simply, this whole book is relentlessly melodramatic, deliberately exaggerated. Everything is either HORRIBLE or WONDERFUL. During the WONDERFUL phase, Jude becomes an astonishingly successful lawyer. His friends win Oscars, start firms, get exhibitions at MOMA. He’s adopted by a father figure. Everyone loves and wants to look after Jude, though I actually found myself wondering (and feeling guilty for doing so), what’s so great about Jude? Why does everybody want to be his friend? I don’t really see what’s THAT appealing about him. I guess there were a few scenes in which he showed he was, like, a good listener. And he was also very intelligent. At one point he sings a German lied that pretty much defines his character: “I have become lost to the world / In which I otherwise wasted so much time.” (108) At another point he thinks of himself as “a blank, faceless prairie under whose yellow surface earthworms and beetles wriggled through the black soil, and chips of bone calcified slowly into stone.” (121) (How mental is that simile?!) At yet another point, he compares himself to the nasty walls of his apartment,  “walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers.” (317) Everything about Jude is initially buried, hidden–the novel’s opening even places him at the margins of the group, but as the others fade he emerges as the primary narrator, the main focus.

In terms of theme and content, this book reminded me of Like the Red Panda (another book I greatly admired but could never bring myself to reread), or if All My Puny Sorrows was unfunny and deeply melodramatic. I also thought at times of Poor People by William t. Vollmann. Why go on? this book asks. What’s the point? What if you just plain don’t want to show “a little life”? Isn’t that your right? Big, painful, intense questions. “So much time,” Jude thinks, “was spent trying to repair something unfixable, something that should have wound up in charred bits on a slag heap years ago. And for what? His mind, he supposed.” (140) But then there’s the moment that occurs early on in the novel, when Willem tells Jude I’ve got you, standing on the fire escape, holding onto Jude as he opens the window of the apartment they are locked out of, “and Willem held on to him so tightly that he could feel the knuckles of Jude’s spine through his sweater, could feel his stomach sink and rise as he breathed, (78) and after Willem crawls in first he then helps Jude, “careful to avoid his bandages.” (78)

God, I thought after I read that. Isn’t that what life is? Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to hold on to us and not let go and say “I’ve got you” and help us not to fall? Someone who is careful and respectful of our bandages but recognizes that they’re there? Friendship is definitely represented as the great “love” arch of this book and is probably the #2 theme after pain. As Jude himself wonders at one point,

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. (223)

The other amazing thing this book does is turn Jude into an embodied symbol for suffering and pain, the “billions” of people (think traumatized Syrian refugees, Colombian desplazados, etc) for whom life is arguably hardcore suffering… This is best exemplified by the following two quotes, occurring late in the book:

When he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace. (619)

[Jude] had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible–he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer? (686)

Life is basically suffering, says the Buddha, and that’s what this book deals with. Relentlessly. Mental and physical. Or as the book puts it, “the terrifying largeness, the impossibility of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days. (498) By the time this sentence on the last page arrived, I was in tears: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see.” (718) Because what else can ya do?

This book made me think about the students I used to work with at the elementary school and Boys & Girls Club, which is maybe another reason it broke my heart. It’s gloriously imperfect, and it achieves what it sets out to do in a powerful, unforgettable fashion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read it again.

(P.S. I highly recommend the following article by the author, in which she talks about the different photographs and images that inspired the novel.)

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Heart of Darkness

I was fascinated by this book, far more than I was when I first read it in college. I feel like that’s more of a reflection on more than the text. In the past six years since I last read it, I’ve traveled a lot, held a job, seen the world (?), had lots of Really Deep Thoughts about Really Big Issues and all that other grown-up stuff. All of my own experiences as well as my current interests helped contribute to my reading of Heart of Darkness this time around.

For better or worse, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia reading about the Belgium’s involvement in the Congo in the 19th century. It was a good reminder to me that you can espouse lots of theories about how this story is the representation of the decaying European mind in Africa and la dee dah, but then you also have the historical reality of like, well, this is what people do to each other. Like, when I look at the photos of rubber plantation workers (mostly children) who had their hands or feet cut off for not meeting their quotoas, I’m reminded that THIS is the heart of darkness. Like, you want to analyze or have a discussion about what the “heart of darkness” is? Just take a look around–it’s happening all around us, all the time.

I guess that was the main question I was left with after reading this book: HOW do we use literature or art to make sense or to depict these horrible, unspeakable experiences? I can’t get this these two images out of my head: one shows Conrad traveling on the boat down the river in Congo, seeing all these things and then going back to Europe and being like, “I need to write about this.” The other image I keep coming back to are those heads stuck on sticks that Marlowe sees when he first enters Kurtz’s camp. The footnote in my edition notes that heads were used as decorations around flower beds in the front of houses, and tended to surround stations where white men stayed. I feel like this text is Conrad’s effort to deal with these heads and with the photos below: the story keeps circling around these scenes of violence, coming back to them over and over again, trying to deal with them, but it’s like it doesn’t know how to. There are no words.

But to his credit Conrad tried; he really did. He stared into the heart of darkness and tried to write about it. What do I think of his attempt? Well, I think this book is pretty heavy, fascinating and brilliant at times. A couple of things stood out to me, especially the narrator, the ambiguity and the absurdity.

The story is told with a narrator-behind-a-narrator technique: Marlowe (Conrad’s stand-in) is the main narrator and then we have this second, unidentified shadowy person who is listening. I guess this was one way for Conrad to create extra distance between himself and the tale. It also has a really fascinating effect on the narrative in parts, especially in this section early on in the story (on the first two pages, when they’re settling down and getting ready to listen to Marlowe):

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled–the great knights-errant of the sea…What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

(104-105, Oxford World’s Classics edition–FYI this was a great edition of the novella, with lots of extremely helpful and fascinating footnotes). I find this section fascinating because later, just as Marlowe is beginning to speak, he makes a reference to “you say ‘knights’?” (pg. 106), thus implying that this quoted passage is not just the narrator’s reflections, but is actually implied speech. I thought it was really interesting how Conrad presented this perspective of these imperial pirates and failed explorers as these “great knights-errants” in this very straightforward tone, as though we’re supposed to accept this view of the narrator’s, when actually he’s setting it up to be refuted.

On one hand this technique is fascinating, on the other hand it’s unsettling. It made it very difficult for me to assess when I was supposed to question what the narrator was saying and when I was supposed to take what he was saying at face value. I’m going to be honest; it was VERY problematic and very difficult for me. One example of when this was an issue for me was at the end, when Marlowe says “that is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz for the last” (179) and calls him “a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.” (178) I’m not really sure how to interpet that, if I’m supposed to accept this assertion or be suspicious of it the way I was with the knights passage at the beginning. The same goes for all the infamously racist sections (and perhaps the less famously sexist ones): does Conrad KNOW that they’re racist? Is he being racist on purpose so that he can be like oh, actually I’m refuting this perspective? WHAT is going on when he compares a tribal ceremony to a satanic ritual? Like, does he really mean that, or is that just the narrator’s perspective, because his head is all ****ed? I don’t know. I can’t write about the racist passages in this book without getting really upset and agitated. They REALLY bother me and they make me really sad. The last thing I’ll say about this is that I wish this book had a moment in which an African was allowed to speak for themselves. But they’re not. And it’s like, OK, this book is a portrayal of the decaying imperialistic European mind, not about the African experience. But still. Still. It makes me so sad.

I think one of the reasons why it was hard for me to figure out the narrator’s intention was the thematic emphasis on AMBIGUITY throughout the text (rather than on the clarity that comes after a Chekhovian-like epiphany or flash of insight). On a stylistic level there’s a constant insistence on mystery, obscurity, impenetrability (Conrad LOVES his adjective). You can find any description of nature or scenery on any page and what’s emphasized is its unknowability: “The silence of the land went home to one’s very heart—its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life… Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?” (128)

The closest moment we have to an epiphany-like scene or flash of insight comes with Kurtz’s infamous utterance of “the horror! the horror!” What I thought was really interesting about this scene is that before that point what’s really emphasized about Kurtz’s character is his eloquence and his way with words. It’s like what Dennis Hopper says (quoting directly from the text) in this movie clip: “You don’t talk with that man; you listen to him.” Check out Marlowe’s impression of Kurtz before meeting him: “The man presented himself as a voice… out of all his gifts the one that stood our pre-eminently […] was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating.” (152) Or look at this description of Kurt’z writing: “It was a beautiful piece of writing… This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.” (155) And then of course at the bottom of this extremely beautiful piece of writing, Kurtz has scrawled, “Exterminate all the brutes!” How telling.

So what’s interesting to me about “the horror” is that it’s really not that eloquent. It’s more like words are failing Kurtz at that moment and he can’t express any clear or straightforward truth about these atrocities that he’s committed and the horrors that he’s seen and done. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

There were other things in this book that really stood out to me. The pathetic absurdity, especially in Part I: the ship shooting pointlessly at invisible enemies (115), criminals digging holes for no reason (117), men trying to put out a fire with buckets full of holes (125). The office worker who complains that the groans of the sick and the dying make it difficult for him to focus (120) (I should imagine!). Marlowe is often compared to Buddha by the narrator, so maybe the absurdity makes sense if you consider the story to be more like a surreal dream narrative. Even Marlowe says, “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment.” (128) I thought this was one of the most effective things about the book.

Overall I “enjoyed” this book (even though reading it made me feel like I was either being suffocated and/or having a panic attack) and found it fascinating. There are some things about this book though that just really trouble me and that I find very problematic. It bothers me. It makes me very agitated, the squirm in your seat kind.

I’ll never forget that section in Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, in which someone hosts a literary salon, with lots of wine and readings of beautiful poetry, while all the while underneath the floorboards torture of political prisoners is taking place. This image keeps coming back to me again and again, I think, because it feels like a metaphor for literature to me: words on a page can be very beautiful, very aesthetically pleasing, but is it ultimately just a distraction for the horrors that are going on underneath? How do you write about it? How do you write about the horrors?

I don’t know. I keep coming back to those heads, man. I can’t get away from them. I don’t think Conrad could either.

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Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.


I found myself liking this book despite myself. It was a close call there for a while: there were a lot of parts where I scrawled “Eli Cash writing” in the margins.

The violence in this book is truly no joke and will present the biggest obstacle to anybody reading it. I think the only other work that compares in terms of sheer “I Wish I Could Read This With My Eyes Closed” is Bolaño’s rape chapters in 2666; I can definitely see now how Blood Meridian must have been a big influence for him. Throughout BM, McCartney presents us with delightful images of men wearing necklaces of human ears and human skin as cloaks, an idiot sitting in a cage chewing on his own feces (I scrawled Thanks Cormac in the margins besides this lovely image), and castrated men with “strange menstrual wounds between their legs.” (153)The chapter with the heading “Dead bush of babies” almost had me, as did the scenes of swinging babies and bashing their heads against rocks (Cormac sure likes to kill em babies, I scrawled with my pencil).

I wasn’t enjoying this book and I wasn’t looking forward to reading it. I didn’t like picking it up and carrying it around with me. I would stare at it in dread, propped up at the end of the couch, McCarthey’s intense authorly stare on the book cover, nailing me down. I re-read Harold Bloom’s introduction, wondered about his claim that BM is the kind of book he re-reads again and again; re-read Bolaño’s review in his essay collection Before Parenthesis. I read posts on IMDB of people discussing who would best be cast as the Judge (for my part, I’m sticking with Daniel Day Lewis) and long threads of people discussing the meaning of the book’s exceedingly enigmatic ending (if the ending of No Country For Old Men frustrated you or maybe even ruined the movie/book for, then be warned, Best Beloved!). The same questions kept coming up, again and again: I couldn’t get though the first forty pages. It’s too violent. It’s too much. Indeed, what’s the point of reading a book with themes that (albeit relevant and powerful) are also pretty damn depressing? Why should you read a book that’s one big downer of a bummer?

With all this talk, analysis and discussion echoing in my ears, I decided to persevere and give it another try. What eventually ended up making a big difference was that I read more slowly, pencil in hand. I underlined the landscape descriptions (out of the many!) that I liked: the sand crept past in the dark all night like armies of lice on the move. (111) A fire flickers “like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground.” (244) Dead volcanoes rise up “like the works of enormous insects.” (247) The ocean is “where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.” (304) (I can’t help but think of Moby Dick when I read this.) McCarthy can write a mean simile, and in the end I have to begrudgingly admit that stumbling upon these well-written phrases every couple of pages turned out to be one of the biggest unexpected treats of the book.

That being said, this is not an easy book to read, and I totally understand and respect the opinion of anyone who says that they just plain didn’t like it and weren’t able to get past the violence. This is not an easy book to like. Even I feel a little weird, saying that I “liked” it. To be honest, a lot of this book is pretty boring. There’s no plot to speak of. The main character for the first ninety pages disappears until the last fifty. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of wandering around hostile landscapes, and plenty o’ scalpin’ and muderin’. What draws the reader in, I think, is the language and nature of the prose, as well as the strength of one character (the Judge), whose metaphorical heaviness lifts the novel up to another level.

Much is made of the Judge. He’s described as being a dancer, a naturalist, a learned man, a man of reason. He is the character the reader can most easily relate to (talk about an unsettling sensation!), an intellectual lover of books and long speeches. He is constantly described as an infant, shiny and bald all over his body (not even eyelashes), and is always showing up naked. He is also fond of drowning puppies, raping small children and making friends with the feces-eating village idiot. To me, he feels like the representation of a birth—of a new order, a new era for the U.S. (as represented by the expansion into Mexico) or for humanity in general. Or maybe he represents something that’s ongoing, a quality of violence and brutality that is always with us.

McCartney does a very clever thing when the Judge. He creates enough ambiguity surrounding the character so that we are never sure if the judge is just a man (albeit a psychotic one) or a devil (maybe THE devil himself). This is a very clever move on McCartney’s part, because as with the character of Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (who seemed to stand in for Death himself in many parts), this interpretation of the Judge’s character adds extra depth to his words and interactions. “What is the reader to make of the Judge?” Harold Bloom asks in his introduction, and thus earns his tenure by putting the novel’s essential question into very simple words. What does it mean, for example, that the Judge collects stones and presses leaves, only to destroy them later? “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” he offers by way of explanation. (198) Is this just a maniacal, godlike ego craving (as I’m sure many of the current narcos in Guatemala and Mexico have also displayed), as opposed to a more Devil-like desire to destroy the world? The fact that he collects knowledge only to destroy it later implies to me that maybe it’s the progress or advancement of man’s knowledge that he wants to destroy. Here’s another intriguing section:

Books lie, he [the Judge] said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

(116) So by destroying what he collects from nature, is he attempting to destroy God?

Another big theme in this book is violence, obviously, or more specifically the legacy and tradition of violence. The Judge has a speech on page 146-147 that I found particularly worthy of underlining:

What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many … All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity.

The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no warning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day… This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again.

To me, the Judge is expressing a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature and civilization here. Mankind is doomed to repeat itself in never-ending legacies of violence, as did “the dead fathers.” In the same way that frontiersmen stood in the ruins of slaughtered Anasazi villages, so will others one day stand in the ruins of our suburbs and our malls, as in The Road. I don’t know anything about McCartney’s background or personal beliefs, but I definitely get the sense from his books that he genuinely believes that as a human race we are dooming ourselves.

This passage also seems to hint at the meaning of the title: Blood Meridian, a circle of blood, never-ending, that basically represents human society. This book could have just as easily taken place in the modern day era, with Mexican drug lords replaced for Gleason’s gang, slaughtering illegal immigrants and rural Mexican peasants instead of indigenous tribes. (There’s a really great line on page 34 where a character says “There is no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be.”)

Here’s another passage discussing violence, as espoused by the Judge (the first speaker):

“All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work…

He goes on to talk about stakes, and how once death gets involved, say in a card game, the value and the meaning of a game becomes much higher. In the context of a game, nobody goes on to question whether it’s justified for the loser to die, but instead accepts that the man has to die because of the authority of the game: his card was lower, he loses, he dies.

“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination… War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

It’s fascinating, heavy, intense stuff. War as god? There’s another great, classic line of the Judge, in which he says, “If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.” (307) Antic clay? “What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies.” Holey moley.

So is there ANY hope in this book at all, you might be asking? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Some people (Howard Bloom, specifically) see the ending as this Prometheus-like promise of someone rising up in order to fight the Judge, but that sounds a little too much like X-Men to me. I’ve read other theories that the ending represents the building of fences and railroads, the so-called “civilization” and “taming” of the landscape of the West, thus representing a transition to a happier, more stable time—but I don’t buy that as a happy ending either. Civilization as clean and bloodless—where the heck did  THAT idea come from?

For me, what little goodness or hope that comes up in small glimmers in this novel (in a book like this you gotta grasp at whatever puny straws are available to you!) is best portrayed by the main character, the Kid. It’s hard to call him the main character when he remains off stage for so much of the narrative, but he’s there at the beginning and is there at the end and it’s his struggles with the Judge (a fight for his soul, almost) that represents the book’s true climax in a novel full of scenes that could stand in for climaxes. For much of the book the Judge, the action sequences or the landscape are the focus, but the journey is the Kid’s.

The Kid is not much of a 3-D character. Whatever we think of him is going to stem from what we project upon him. He does display a certain resilience and grittiness in his early struggles before joining the gang (as well as his own version of bloodthirstiness and ruthlessness that I guess was normal for the era but still repelled me). I liked his matter-of-fact, blunt nature and his terse smart-ass responses to people’s questions, as when a companion comments “This is a terrible place to die in,” he replies, “Where’s a good one?” (208)

As the violence in the book gets worse, the kid does arguably reveal himself to be more compassionate than the others, like when he’s the only one who volunteers to  try pulling an arrow out of a friend’s leg in order to reduce his suffering. (162) And then there’s the part in the desert where the kid has the opportunity to shoot the judge, at his friend’s urging, but doesn’t. (285) The fact that McCartney uses the name ‘The Kid’ for his main character makes me wonder if the Kid is supposed to stand in for children in general, or future generations. What kind of hope is there for them out there? What kind of person are they supposed to be, if this is the environment they’re living in?

There are several instances in which the Kid does come off as heartbreakingly child-like; such as when he summarizes his story to a dried-up corpse of an old Mexican woman he finds in the desert with heartbreaking simplicity: “He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things had been at war and endured hardships.” (315) Talk about an understatement; it reminds me of the kids at the B&GC who tell me how they ended up in foster care. Even though the Kid seems to be resisting the Judge throughout the novel, he nevertheless reveals himself as not exempt to the Judge’s theories. In the novel’s last chapter, years after the main events, he shoots a young child (no older than his age at the book’s beginning) for attempting to steal from him. And thus the violence continues, as it always does.

I guess the main reason I like the Kid is for how he carries himself during the climatic last scene in the novel in which he encounters the Judge one last time. The plight of the dancing bear onstage in the background just adds to the surrealist and carnivalesque atmosphere. I agree with Harold Bloom: the part where the kid looks the Judge straight in the eye and tells him “you aint nothing” is the bravest thing anyone does in the book, and is arguably the book’s key moment. He looks the judge in the face, sizes him up, and tells him point-blank, “Even a dumb animal can dance.” (331) This feels like a huge victory to me. By telling the Judge “you ain’t nothing” and comparing him to the dancing bear, a bear that dances because it has to, because of the cage it’s in, the Kid is cutting the Judge down to size. You’re no Devil, he seems to be saying. You’re no demon. You’re just a seriously ****-ed up pedophile psychotic guy.

Me, I’m with the Kid here. I don’t really want to give the Judge enough respect or credit by thinking of him as this Devil, apocalyptic character. It’s true that when he re-appears again after twenty-something years he is described as not having aged a bit, and the last sentence of the novel (before the epilogue) is He says that he will never die. There’s one part where he seems to perform magic, causing a coin to float through the air, (246) but quite frankly, Best Beloved, I don’t buy it. Or, to be more specific: I refuse to buy it! On principle! He’s pretty damn evil, sure, but to be honest, he could be a stand-in for any of these narco drug-trafficking lords running around in the world today. It sounds horrible, but it’s true: this story could just as easily have been set in a contemporary era with some tweaking.

In the writing of this novel, McCarthy definitely had his fingers on the pulse of something that we don’t often like to think about: the nature and the existence of evil. It’s undeniable, basically. There are CRUEL people in this world doing cruel, horrible things. Evil exists. It is out there. The question is, does that define humanity? Are we a plague that deserves to be wiped out? Does the fact that we bond over the sharing of bread from time to time balance out the fact that we also bond more often than not over the sharing of our enemies?

In summary, this is a big and important book to read, and I’m glad that I did, even though I almost gave up at the beginning. I’m glad I persevered. I can definitely see why this is assigned so much in universities; there’s a lot of juicy stuff to unpack. If I had to write a paper about it, I would probably steal from Bolaño’s short mini review (found in his wonderful Beyond Parentheses) and write about the role of the landscape. Or I would write about how McCartney is able to achieve the Kid as a stand-in for the reader.

With Infinite Jest and now this I definitely feel a little more ready for Gravity’s Rainbow, in terms of continuing my spree of Conquering the Difficult To Read Contemporary American Novelssally forth.


Filed under books, review, violence

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 “, 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.


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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