Notable Books of 2016

Here are some notable books I read in 2016 that I didn’t have a chance to discuss on this blog:

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

I read this trilogy while I was sick on my deathbed with the worst flu of my life during my Christmas holidays and it was definitely good escapism. I miss reading sci-fi, and this trilogy cured the itch for now. I first became interested in reading this trilogy when I read a profile about the author in the New Yorker. Overall, it’s very innovative sci-fi. The first book, Annihilation, would most likely be the most beloved among the readers, with its short length and succinct premise, the slow creepy build up of everything that had to do with the Crawler (even the name gives me shivers), the sense of mystery surrounding Area X, and the reserved reticence of the narrator.

There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout all three books, like when a scuttling sound is heard on the roof, or a plant that won’t die is discovered, or when the videos of the failed expeditions into Area X are watched. I like how ballsy the trilogy is in terms of not explaining everything, even if it meant I was confused or frustrated sometimes with not getting all the answers. But the more I think about it, the more I admire the book’s refusal to give me what I want. Please, Lord, don’t let the HBO adaptation dumb it down. I especially liked all the different perspectives in the book, and its overall (potentially anarchist?) message about nature.

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

I first heard of this book because I read an interview with the author on (where else?) the Internet. The interview was basically a scathing rant that I found hysterically funny, so I read this book to find more of the same. In that sense the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s basically a howl in the dark. Reading this for character or plot is not the best mindset with which to approach it. I read it because I enjoyed reading sentences like “Miley Cyrus’ songs were about the same six subjects of all songs by all pop stars: love, celebrity, fucking, heartbreak, money, and buying ugly shit” (264) or “Arcade Fire was a Canadian band which experienced minor popularity in the early 2000s before transforming into a market commodity that aging parents used as a theoretical reference point with their Internet addicted children.” (275) LOL.

This is the kind of book in which Twitter is described as “a mechanism by which teenagers tormented each other into suicide” (130), the Internet as “a wonderful resource for sexism, abusing the mentally ill, and libeling the dead” (196) and as a way “to create content based on inflamed emotion for the sake of selling advertisements,” (212) and Instagram as “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate… Mostly, Instagram’s users uploaded photographs of things on which they’d either spent money or wished to spend money.” (76)

I dug it.

This book reconfirmed my belief that I do not want to live in the Bay Area.

Other brutal satire moments:

“On the Internet, you could be right. On the Internet, you could be wrong. You could love racism. You could hate racism. It didn’t matter. In the end, everything was just money.” (211)

“Expressing concern about racism was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church. They prayed not from any hard earned process of thought or genuine faith but because failing to bow and scrap before the shibboleths of the moneyed political Left might hurt their job prospects. And poor job prospects meant less money to buy consumer electronics built by slaves.” (212)

“The illusion of the Internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit.” (213)

“Global warming and climate change were the methods by which the human species, plagued by guilt and unacknowledged depression, committed suicide. The mechanisms of this suicide were eating too much beef, operating too many electronics and driving too many cars.” (184)

“I am moving back to Los Angeles where gentrification barely works because everything is a hideous strip mall and there is nothing worth destroying!” (270-271)

The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappel)

A good collection of non-fiction essays that at least three different people in my PhD program recommended to me (IDK if Elena Ferrante is making female friendships a hot topic for literature or what, but anyway, I finally got round to reading it this year!). It felt a little East Coast, private college, Brooklyn writer heavy at times, but what can you do. It made the essay set in Jordan really stand out. The pieces that most stood out to me were “End Days” by Jenny Offill (religious childhood friend), “Toads and Snakes” by Elizabeth Strout (very powerful tale of a long term friendship fading), and “Want” (about a copycat friend). The essays two estranged friends wrote about each other were also a cool concept. I would definitely recommend this to people.

Autumn (Ali Smith)

A fun, fast read. It was a unique read in the sense that it’s interesting to read a book that was written very quickly, about such a recent moment (the Brexit election). So it was very trippy to read a chapter set in November 2016 in November 2016 (!). I will always like Ali Smith, especially how she always attempts to do different things with her books. I liked the surrealistic dream sequences in this one. One thing I will say is that I was glad before reading this that I knew the following: 1) it is the first book of a planned four-book sequence, each named after a season (otherwise I think I would have found the ending a bit underwhelming and “whaaaaat?”), and 2) one of the main plot threads of Autumn follows an undiscovered woman artist from the British Pop Art period–it’s explained near the end who she is, but if I hadn’t known before that she was going to feature, I would have found her sections in the novel confusing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this. The sections where the main character is trying to fill out a passport application are particularly memorable, in a painful “have I ever been there” kind of way.

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

Definitely a stand-out of the year–hallucinatory, hypnotic, and strange. A man lives alone on a west-country moor and is stalked by a mysterious beast–gripping stuff. I am definitely going to read Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake, which is apparently a precursor to this one.

I liked the disorienting way we jump between dreams, visions, and the present moment–basically, Beast is a book in which you are never sure if what is happening is “real”, and if that kind of thing frustrates you, this may not be a good choice for you (it was for me, though!). I liked how the style of the book reflected the content (it reads almost like a free verse poem at times). I also liked the slow way that the beast’s horror is unveiled–very rewarding for me. And I liked all the Stone Age, The Dark Is Rising imagery, mixed with apocalyptic doom. This book made me want to wear a wolf skin, speak to ravens, run on the moors naked, and drink the blood of my enemies.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

What a great story collection! I loved The Serialist and I loved this one too. The five star stories (discussed below) truly elevate it to an exceptional collection that I enjoyed reading very much. It explores similar themes as The Serialist: writers, writing, genre, horror, growing old, losing love… if you are a fan of funny, readable writing a la Lorrie Moore or Roberto Bolaño, then I recommend this book.

Stories that stood out to me included the opener, “Man-Boob Summer,” and not just because of its excellent title. I related to the main character a lot, an aimless postgrad, and the simple scenario explored by the story (he goes swimming in the pool of his parents’ apartment complex and gets a crush on the lifeguard). A very melancholy ending.

The second story, “We Happy Few”, was also one of my favorites in the collection. This one explores themes of addiction and recovery as a recently fired teacher gets a job escorting an up-and-coming addiction memoir star, trying to keep him clean and off drugs before his appearance on Oprah. The satire in this story about the writing-as-entertainment world is pretty killer. I also liked how the story explores questions of why we write, and who for. Also, the way the ending jumps forward in time is brutal, and really makes the story.

“Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly) and run (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I didn’t write a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” Or: “I proofread legal documents.” Or: “I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s.” I say to myself, mostly: “I’m alive, motherfucker.” What else do you want?” (20)

“I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth.” (103)

I think my very favorite story was “I Think of Dreams”–WOW. Again, the use of time at the end (in terms of the abrupt flash forward) makes this story BRUTAL. What a lesson. Basically, two teenage boys take acid on a camping trip and things are never the same. I read this story with my mouth falling open. The title story is another star of the collection. You’ll never think of sexting the same way after reading this. Poignant and horrifying. And then you have “Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?”–what a title, right? I liked how the narrator of this story is such a jealous, petty asshole. The plot follows his attempts to write in a coffee shop that becomes occupied by a writer’s group that he finds extremely annoying. The final story is (I think) the longest, “The Amateur”, a layered story reminiscent of Borges and Bolaño in which the narrator listens to a story told by a man he meets in Paris, a story that takes a decidedly unexpected turn. A highly recommended collection.

“Hence the most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when? (It also brings up the second most important question: How much coffee should I drink? But here the answer is clear: As much as you can without dying.)” (235)

Best author I discovered this year was Alex Garland (Coma and The Beach, both great novels, what a shame he has moved away from fiction-writing into filmmaking). In terms of my new Ferrante-Knausgaard (i.e. author I read obsessively), I think Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) might be the strongest contender for 2017.

Books I read this year that I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would were El Sicario by Charles Bowden (while the concept of having a book constructed solely out of a sicario’s words was interesting, the book would have benefited from more contextualizing paragraphs to break up the monotony of the voice), and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I liked the memoir elements of this book, but the literary criticism ones went over my head).

Onwards and upwards to 2017! I am now about the same age (if not a bit older!!) as Adrian Mole in The Cappuchino Years, except I have no illegitimate children and have yet to be comissioned to write a book based on my reality TV show, which I consequently fail to turn in and have to hire my mother to ghostwrite for me. There’s still time!! :D

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Books of 2016

These are the books I read in 2016, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I loved a lot. I read 83 books.

*My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
Killing Mr. Griffin (Lois Duncan) [reread; childhood favorite]
Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger (Louis Sachar) [reread; childhood favorite]
The Dark Portal (Robin Jarvis) [reread; childhood favorite]
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (J.K. Rowling)
Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut) [reread]
El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man (ed. Molly Molloy, Charles Bowden) [non-fiction]
Acceptance (Jeff VanderMeer)
ShallCross (C.D. Wright) [poetry]
Authority (Jeff VanderMeer)
*The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer)
Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life (Luis Alberto Urrea) [non-fiction]
I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)
*Animal Farm (George Orwell) [reread]
*Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (Luis Alberto Urrea) [reread; last read almost 10 years ago) [non-fiction]
The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill, Elissa Schappel) [non-fiction]
My Struggle: Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Ove Knausgård)
Autumn (Ali Smith)
Umami (Laia Jufresa)
The Power of the Dog (Don Winslow)
Harmless Like You (Rowan Hisayo Buchanan)
Conversations With Friends (Sally Rooney)
Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)
Everyone is Watching (Megan Bradbury)
*Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel (William C. Rempel) [non-fiction]
The Beach (Alex Garland)
The Bunker Diary (Kevin Brooks)
My Struggle: Dancing in the Dark (Karl Ove Knausgård)
*The Cartel (Don Winslow)
Feast of the Innocents (Evelio Rosero)
White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)
***One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabo) [yet another reread]
The Argonauts (Maggie Nelson) [non-fiction]
My Struggle: Boyhood Island (Karl Ove Knausgård)
The Vet’s Daughter (Barbara Comyns)
The Frangipani Hotel (Violet Kupersmith)
***Pond (Claire-Louise Bennett)
The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez (Sandra Rodríguez Nieto) [non-fiction]
*Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)
The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty)
Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin)
Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
Foxlowe (Eleanor Wasserberg)
The Loney (Andrew Michael Hurley)
The Hollow of the Hand (PJ Harvey) [poetry]
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates) [non-fiction]
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths (Barbara Comyns)
Them: Adventures with Extremists (Jon Ronson) [non-fiction]
Not Working (Lisa Owens)
*How Should a Person Be? (Sheila Heti)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (Neil Gaiman)
Citizen (Claudia Rankine) [poetry]
*Hot Milk (Deborah Levy)
Human Acts (Han Kang)
Blind Water Pass (Anna Metcalfe)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson) [non-fiction]
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (Matthew Dicks)
Coma (Alex Garland)
Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Danielle McLaughlin)
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (Roald Dahl)
Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)
The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez) [non-fiction]
*My Struggle: A Man in Love (Karl Ove Knausgård)
Bonsai (Alejandra Zambra)
Elizabeth is Missing (Emma Healy)
Chess Story (Stefan Zweig)
The Shore (Sara Taylor)
River of Ink (Paul M.M. Cooper)
Natural Histories (Guadalupe Nettel)
Aura (Carlos Fuentes)
Signs Preceding the End of the World (Yuri Herrera)
*Faces in the Crowd (Valeria Luiselli)
*Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Max Porter)
But You Did Not Come Back (Marceline Loridan-Ivens) [non-fiction]
Crow (Ted Hughes) [poetry]
My Documents
(Alejandro Zambra)
The Vegetarian (Han Kang)
A Wild Swan and Other Tales (Michael Cunningham)

To see books read from 2009-2016, click here.

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My Name is Lucy Barton

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my 90-something (and still going strong!) grandmother, but after reading it decided I should get her something, um, a little more cheerful. I LOVE dark melancholy books with very little plot though, so this novel was basically perfect for me. I’d read Olive Kitteridge and loved it, and now My Name is Lucy Barton has firmly placed Elizabeth Strout in the camp of masterful authors I will consistently seek out, read, and feel awed by. There’s no better feeling than ending the year having read an excellent book that makes you feel like you’ve learned something about life and writing both.

What most impressed me about this book is Lucy’s steady, unwavering voice. Oh, and yet there is so much under the surface! Especially in her interactions with her mother. The style is what you would call “Hemingway-esque,” I suppose, but never annoyingly so. The language is so simple, yet so effective: it really builds on you from how understated it is. Excerpts don’t quite do it justice:

I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

*

Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

I feel like I learned so much from reading this book about the value of silences, of implied but never shared information. The book is all the more powerful for what we end up not knowing, as it’s directly linked to what Lucy herself chooses deliberately not to share (what she wishes she didn’t even know).

The novel opens with Lucy Barton being hospitalized due to a case of appendicitis. Her mother, whom she has not seen in years, unexpectedly comes to visit her for five days. The mother shares gossip about folks back home in Illinois, and in doing so, reveals not only uneasy details about Lucy’s childhood of extreme neglect and poverty, but also Lucy’s somewhat disturbing dependence on pleasing her mother. I thought this was something the book did very well–making us see Lucy’s (at times painful) desperation in having her mother approve of her. It’s a brilliant evocation of an unreliable yet very human narrator.

There are so many interesting themes and motifs in this book: mothers and daughters. Wives leaving husbands. The legacy of World War II and Nazism (Lucy’s father is a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and refuses to speak to Lucy’s husband, the blond son of a German soldier). Men and war, what it means to be a man. Writing, courage, and ruthlessness. AIDS and 9/11. And then there are disturbing references to things that are never expanded upon. What Lucy calls “the Thing,” her father’s episodes in which he lost control of herself, the times in which she was locked up for hours in her father’s truck, her uncontrollable terror at hearing the word “snake”–we don’t learn much more than these details, but they’re enough to deeply unsettle us. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s siblings seem quite worse off than her: whereas Lucy moved to New York and became a writer, her brother sleeps in a barn next to pigs who are about to be slaughtered and develops an obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books, while her sister complains over the phone about her useless husband and sends Lucy requests for money to pay for yoga classes.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year, and one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

 

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The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction.

It took me three attempts to read this book in full but I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely very rewarding. A knowledge of Joseph Conrad and of Panama-Colombia history would be useful, though that being said it was fun to read this and have no idea what was true and what wasn’t (I definitely want to know if the anal abscess story is true!).

What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian?” With this opening question, the book is propelled forward, and as readers we remain curious throughout as to how the narrator, Colombian exile José Altamirano, ends up encountering and sharing his lifestory with the rising writer Joseph Conrad, who goes on to use Altamirano’s story as the basis for his novel “Nostromo.”

In telling us about how he came to meet Conrad, Altamirano also ends up telling us about his journey to Panama at age 21 to meet his estranged father, who is working as a reporter. The tale is digressive, as Altamirano informs us at varying points about how his mother and father met via Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Saenz’s love affair (I loved the throwaway comment about Saenz meeting Herman Melville; can this possibly be true?? Probably not, but that’s what makes fiction so delicious), and how his father came to be excommunicated and exiled thanks to a mummified Chinese railway worker’s hand. This digressive style is one of the book’s real pleasures, and encompasses one of its main themes: that of everyday life versus History, or as Altamirano puts it, how “the small incident had been obliterated by the Big Event.” As Altamirano tells us the story of his family, he is also telling us the story of the Thousand Days’ War in Colombia, of Liberal-Conservative fighting (The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard: it’s done every so often, generally following the same criteria as children at play (‘It’s my turn to govern,’ ‘No, it’s my turn’), and of how the U.S. came to secure both Panama’s independence and a hundred-year lease on the canal zone (I remember feeling embarrassed when learning about this in middle school, and likely had to resort to apologetically insisting to my classmates that “I’m half-British, not all gringo, don’t resent me, please!!”)

There are traces of The Informants and The Sound of Things Falling here with the father-son theme, as Altamirano’s father becomes famous for publishing enthusiastic journalism about the Panama Canal, journalism that is far more fiction than factual (it’s hard not to see echoes of contemporary events here). It’s interesting to contrast the father’s writing about reality vs. Conrad’s fiction: which is a more “true” version of Colombian history? Or as Altamirano puts it at one point, “There are good readers and bad readers of reality; there are men able to hear the secret murmur of events better than others.”

Other echoes with Vásquez’s novels include the impossibility of keeping your loved ones safe (Yes, yes, yes, we’re safe, no one can touch us, we have stationed ourselves outside of history and we are invulnerable in our apolitical house) and the form and style of rhetoric. On this latter point, Anne McClean’s translation (as is per usual for her) deserves heightened praise, for translating the book into such a readable and engaging style.

Part of what made this book a bit hard for me was all the names, but at a certain point I was just like “well, I’m just going to keep reading and not be too fussed if I don’t know who everyone is,” and that ended up working really well for me. Overall, what I admired most about this book is the angle it took towards writing historical fiction, with its focus on juxtaposing, interconnected stories that underly the bigger ones:

Stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own… Here is a humble revelation, the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said, and, since my intention is to tell faithfully, my cannibalistic tale must include everything, as many stories as can fit in the mouth, big ones and little ones.

A big theme throughout is the story of individuals versus that of Big Historical Events, and what gets forgotten as opposed to remembered. One of my favorite sections that best exemplified this was one that focused on a single rifle and who used it. Although the novel comments early on (and very knowingly so) about the mechanisms of magical realism (this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful women ascend to the sky), the rifle section stands out not only for its examination of how do objects “speak” to us, and its haunting question of “what do rifles know of us?”, it is also serves as a sad eulogy (among many) about the constant presence of violence in Colombian history. “It is 9.30 when its shot perforates the right lung of Miguel Carvajal Cotes, chicha producer; it is 9.54 when it blows apart the neck of Mateo Luis Noguera, a young journalist from Popayán who would have written great novels had he lived longer.” At another point, Altamirano says “The things we don’t see tend to be the ones that affect us most,” and it’s passages like the rifle one–where the book tried to show us who and what often gets lost/ignored/”disappeared” from history–that affected and impressed me the most.

All in all, major respect for this book. Another fine addition to the author’s canon, and highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction (especially Borgesian-style). There is much food for thought in here.

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THE LUCKY ONES UK cover + excerpt

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Many things are happening very quickly. HERE IS THE FINAL UK COVER of “THE LUCKY ONES”. The talented people at Faber were able to turn it into a gif–how, I don’t know. I don’t know how to post it as a gif here, but I think if you click on this link, you will be able to see it. Anyway, I love it. Via this link you can also read “Lucky,” the story that opens the collection.

Thanks to the kind assistance of generous people, I also now have a professional website. Ideally I will be posting book related events and news in that space from now on, so that way I can save this blog strictly for the function it’s had since 2007, that of reviewing books that I’ve read.

But for now I have these two forthcoming events:

I’ll be reading at the Swimmers Christmas party in London this Thursday, which will be a fun way to visit London before I leave for the U.S.

And on February 23rd (so this is super early notice lol) I’ll be reading at UEA Live, which will also serve as my Norwich launch.

In terms of my personal reading, I have to read 12 books this month if I want to achieve my goal of 8o books read this year, which I don’t anticipate being a problem unless something unexpected happens, as I usually have lots of time to read during the Christmas holidays (the cruelly long bus and plane rides also help). I’m definitely looking forward to reading people’s Best of 2016 round-ups and writing my own… I already have a good idea of what books are going to end up there but time will tell…

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Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Knausgaard)

I am now officially finished with all the My Struggle books that have currently been translated. What will I read next on long train rides when I’m crammed into my tiny seat, dying to pee but too weary to get up and disturb the coffee-drinking person sitting next to me? Maybe Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy will be a good choice.

This has been a tough year for UK-US-Colombian affiliated people. Not gonna lie. What a hell of a game of Bingo. What a dystopic nightmare. I read the news obsessively, cry, turn it off, call my parents, listen to Tori Amos and R.E.M. songs, cry, feel stupidly helpless, ashamed, enraged, grieving. I went to Stratford-on-Avon for a weekend conference, went for a long walk and saw an owl, which felt eerily prescient, thanks to this poem. My sister sends Leonard Cohen lyrics via What’s App and I read César Vallejo. And I finally finished reading Knausgaard.

Having gotten this far, I can now safely say that a lot of power from these books comes from the chopped-up chronology. The depiction of the father in Book Five–embarrassingly fat, distant, pathetic, no longer a beacon of fear–feels far weightier than it would be if we hadn’t already read of his death in the squalid house in Book One, or his reign of terror in Book Three. Book Two we had the marriage and kids, Book Three was childhood, Book Four teens and early adulthood. In Book Five, Karl Ove moves to Bergen, begins a writing program, and falls in and out of love. Chronologically, this book proceeds so that in the last two hundred pages we race through the aftermath of Book One, and end at the moment where Book Two begins. Book Five is maybe the one that most closely reflects my current age/stage in life: finishing up a writing program, trying to be a writer, trying to look ahead and figure stuff out.

For me, a lot of the power from Knausgaard comes from how mindlessly I can read him. And yet it’s undeniable, the man knows how to build suspense. And so I read on and on, frantic to learn what will happen during the dinner in which he prepares spaghetti carbonara for a date but pours in too much sweet wine, or when he throws out a still-living rat caught in a trap but wonders if it will continue to live on in the garbage, eating the scraps it finds, growing larger and larger, pulling itself along on its little rat arms.

By Book Five the books are dense enough that the details are all blurry in my mind; much of what happens in this book you can easily forget, in the same way you sometimes look up with a dazed look of terror and say Where the hell did the day go? What did I DO today?! Little moments in the narrative stand out: he lives in Norwich with a giant anaconda dwelling downstairs, he lives in a disgusting flat in Bergen, his father grows fat and absent, he works at the radio station, he falls in love, he commits adultery, he interviews authors and writes scathing book reviews, he gets too drunk and cuts his face with glass, he wakes up in prison and bushes, he works in a care home for Down’s syndrome patients, he works suicide watch shifts for the mentally ill, he attacks his older brother, he gets drunk and stamps on a duvet on the floor, shouting “There’s a mink in there!”, he wonders whether he should submit a poem to workshop in which the word CUNT is repeated hundreds of times.

These moments keep relentlessly accumulating: the shopping, the drinking, the trips to drink coffee, the awkwardness of trying to wave down a bartender so that you can get a beer. The books he reads and loves! The albums he listens to! (I particularly liked the Siamese Dream shout-out). And then you have moments in which Karl realizes with a terrifying certainty how short life is, how he musn’t waste it, the danger of what he might become. These moments wouldn’t have nearly as much impact as they do if the book itself wasn’t so long. I can’t think where I’ve read a book where it feels more true to every day, lived experience, in which those tiny moments of illumination are sandwiched in between daily tedium. It’s like that Virginia Woolf quote:

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

I think it’s this balance between non-being and being in these books that is so captivating for me, as well as the author’s unrelentingly honest depiction of himself. The Karl Ove in these books is so helplessly flawed, and yet he keeps struggling on and enduring, trying to be better, trying to change. This raw, unabashed frankness towards his shortcomings reminds me a lot of what I admired about George Orwell’s writing, in terms of its honesty and straightforwardness. For this particular reader, it was hard for me not to root for him, and to wish him well.

Selected quotes I highlighted from my kindle (which sadly does not provide page numbers):

It was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions and achieved nothing. But what spirits I was in before I went!

Writing was a defeat, it was a humiliation, it was coming face to face with yourself and seeing you weren’t good enough.

You can write about boredom, but it mustn’t be boring.

I brandished authors’ names the way medieval knights brandished flags and banners.

Such was my experience of reading Naipaul, like reading almost all other good writers: enjoyment and jealousy, happiness and despair, in equal portions.

Everything is woven into memories, everything coloured by the mind… Once we were seventeen, once we were thirty-five, once we were fifty-four. Did we remember that day? 9 January 1997, when we went into REMA 1000 to do our shopping and came out again with a bag in each hand and walked down to the car, put the bags on the ground and unlocked the door, placed the bags on the back seat and got in? Beneath the darkening sky, by the sea, the forest behind, black and bare?

The trivial incidents that make up all lives and can suddenly shine bright in the dusk of meaninglessness.

What my aim was, well, it was to escape from the minimalistic, into the maximalistic, something bold and striking, baroque, Moby Dick, but not in an epic way, what I had tried to do was take the little novel, about one person, where there is not much external action, and extend it into an epic format, do you understand what I mean?

I’m going to listen to the song below now, and try to figure out what I’m going to do next.

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review

Cheltenham & UK Proof cover

I have been very busy with edits recently (both for the collection and the dissertation) and have thus sadly had less time to read for pleasure than I would like. Hopefully this will change soon. However, I did go to Cheltenham last week for the literature festival, as part of Faber’s proof party. This was my first festival-type reading in support of The Lucky Ones. I’d done a similar reading before, in support of my pamphlet The Tourists at the Daunt Books festival a few years ago, which was good preparation for an introvert like me. I was on a panel with Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat and the upcoming The Doll Funeral, who was so kind and full of advice about Everything. Her partner gave my traveling companion a business card for his mole-killing company–how cool is that? How does one get into mole-killing? #FutureGoals

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UK proof cover! The final one won’t look like this, but I’m really digging the red.

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Onstage on Cheltenham. My mother’s childhood best friend lives nearby and was able to attend, so thankfully there was a familiar face in the audience. It was also amazing getting to meet tons of other people who are obsessed with reading.

I obviously have a lot of Thoughts and Feelings about having finished the book (to put it mildly), but I guess all there is to say is that I worked on it as hard as I could, it feels very personal to me, and I’m glad I’m working on the next one.

I look forward to posting more book reviews soon…! For now, here’s another poem by the great Mary Ruefle that I read recently:

White Buttons

Having been blown away
by a book
I am in the gutter
at the end of the street
in little pieces
like the alphabet
(mother do not worry
letters are not flesh
though there’s meaning in them
but not when they are mean
my letters to you were mean
I found them after you died
and read them and tore them up
and fed them to the wind
thank you for intruding
I love you now leave)
Also at the end of the street
there is a magnolia tree
the white kind
that tatters
after it blooms
so the tree winds up
in the street
Our naked shivering bodies
must be at some distance
missing us come back
come back they cry
come home
put down that book
whenever you read
you drift away on a raft
you like your parrot
more than you like me
and stuff like that
(dear father
you always were a bore
but I loved you more
than interesting things
and in your honor
I’ve felt the same about myself
and everyone I’ve ever met)
I like to read in tree houses
whenever I can which is seldom
and sometimes never
The book that blew me away
held all the problems
of the world
and those of being alive
under my nose
but I felt far away from them
at the same time
reading is like that
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
to China)
Here at the end of the street
the insects go on living
under the dome
of the pacific sky
If Mary and Joseph
had walked the sixty miles
to Bethlehem vertically
they would have found
themselves floating
in the outer pitch of space
it would have been cold
no inns
a long night
in the dark endless
and when they began to cry
the whole world would think
something had just been born
I like to read into things
as I am continually borne forward
in time by the winds like the snow
(dear sister
you were perfect in every way
like a baby
please tell brother
the only reason
we never spoke
was out of our great love
for each other
which made a big wind
that blew us apart)
I think I am coming back
I feel shoulders
where a parrot could land
though a tree would be
as good a place as any
You cannot teach a tree to talk
Trees can say it is spring
but not though bright sunlight
can also be very sad
have you noticed?

 

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Filed under events, poetry, The Lucky Ones, update, writing

“Enjoy your youth / sounds like a threat / But I will anyway”

(Title courtesy of Regina Spektor)

Boy, do I feel the weight of time passing sometimes. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s fresher’s week. Or because I’m almost done with rereading The Savage Detectives and I just realized that the last time I read it was SEVEN YEARS AGO (?!), when I was living in Mexico. Re-reading it this time has sure made me feel old and melancholic. I’ll never forget how the first time I read it in, what, 2007? 2008?–what struck me most about it was its life, its vitality, its obsession with Paris and travel, cigarettes, and cups of black coffee. Reading it this time, what strikes me most about it is its incredible sense of melancholy and nostalgia–the pain of faded youth.

What else struck me about this book, during this re-read?

— > Its obsession with walking, with street names and neighborhoods. As though characters were using the city’s names and landmarks as a way to orient themselves in an unknowable world (most memorably by the architect father, following his release from the mental institution).

—> The way certain sections read as individual short stories. There’s the refugee who settles in Spain and makes a ton of money by predicting lottery numbers, or Belano’s bodybuilding female roomamate, who possibly provides the strongest moral compass of the book, with her emphasis on habit and hard work, or what she calls “life’s responsibilities, the things I believed in and clung to in order to keep breathing.(556) There’s Edith Oster’s story (the anorexic, unstable girl Belano falls in love with), and Daniel Grossman’s final encounter with his friend Norman and their bitter reminisces about their days as visceral realists (maybe the saddest part of the book for me), and Octavio Paz’s secretary. There’s the hypnotically whacko monologue by the seriously disturbed Austrian that Ulises meets in a jail cell in Israel, and there’s also the triple-whammy of Belano stories at the end: his duel, cave descent, and voyage to Africa (all of which add up to my favorite parts of the book). I can’t believe I never realized this before–that The Savage Detectives is basically linked short stories.

—> The role of inconclusiveness, desperation, and rising tension. I frequently felt like something AWFUL was going to happen, especially in the chapter with the hitchhiking British girl, picking grapes in France.

—> The perspective of the book (in terms of who is narrating) is deeply provocative. I can definitely understand and even sympathize with someone who would read this and just find all the young poets incredibly irritating. If you had them in a university classroom, yeah, you probably would want to punch them. And despite all their talk and obsession with poetry, none of them end up being successful in a traditional, published-author, hot-shot literary figure sense. And yet this is one of the themes that resonates most deeply with me. What does it mean to BE a writer, vs. to write? Are they “failures” if they never publish or become famous? How do you live with your life not turning out the way you wanted it to be? What is the definition of “success”?

—> What an unconventional book this is, really.  Boy, was Bolaño influenced by French surrealism (not that I know much about it, I just get a real vibe for Rimbaud-ish weirdness during this reread). Disappearances and absences to play a big role, most notably in Juan García Madero’s complete disappearance from the middle section. What happened to him? Where did he go? Such a key question for so many other Latin American artists and intellectuals, working in the 50’s through the 70’s.

—> I think the most inspiring sentence in this book for me this time around is this one, in the section narrated by Xóchitl García, who keeps trying to write despite all odds: “María and I looked at each other, not pretending anymore but serious, tired but ready to go on, and after a few seconds I got up and turned on the light.”  (396)

“Tired but ready to go on.” That feels like enough of a mantra for me, for now.

Other quotes:

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I try to do things right but everything turns out wrong, I should go back to Peru, this city is fucking killing me, I’m not the same person I used to be. (239)

I was suddenly overcome by the full horror of Paris, the full horror of the French language, the poetry scene, our state as unwanted guests, the sad, hopeless state of South Americans lost in Europe, lost in the world. (243)

Being alone makes us stronger. That’s the honest truth. (315)

You have to live your life, that’s all there is to it. A drunk I met the other day on my way out of the bar La Mala Senda told me so. Literature is crap. (316)

Don’t worry, the poet doesn’t die, he loses everything, but he doesn’t die. (360)

I would think about my next article, about the story I was planning to write… and the time would fly. (393)

I was still myself. Not the self I’d gotten used to, for better or for worse, but myself. (396)

Then, humbled and confused and in a burst of utter Mexican-ness, I knew that we were ruled by fate and that we would all drown in the storm, and I knew that only the cleverest, myself certainly not included, would stay afloat much longer. (406)

I set out to dissect what had become of my youth. And I concluded that everything had to change, even if I wasn’t sure just then how to go about it or what path to take. (407)

Don’t tempt fate, you lucky bastard, be happy with what you’ve got… We aren’t given much time on this earth. We have to pray and work. (415)

Belano, I said, the heart of the matter is knowing whether evil (or sin or crime or whatever you want to call it) is random or purposeful. If it’s purposeful, we can fight it, it’s hard to defeat, but we have a chance, like two boxers in the same weight class, more or less. If it’s random, on the other hand, we’re fucked, and we’ll just have to hope that God, if He exists, has mercy on us. And that’s what it all comes down to. (420)

We weren’t writing for publication but to understand ourselves better or just to see how far we could go. (435)

It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it, and what we can regain. So what can we regain? I said. What we’ve lost, said Norman, we can get it back intact. (481)

The search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind. (488)

She doesn’t see, she never sees, the fool, the idiot, the innocent, this woman who’s come too late, who’s interested in literature with no idea of the hells lurking beneath the tainted or pristine pages, who loves flowers and doesn’t realize there’s a monster in the bottom of the vase. (526)

I’m basically a fighter. I try to stay positive. Things don’t have to be bad or inevitable. (545)

I know the secret of life isn’t in books. But I also know that it’s good to read, that it can be instructive, or relaxing: we agree about that. (551)

Norwegian Wood (Murakami)

Unlike The Savage Detectives, I’d never read this book before, but also ended up completely loving it. Similarly to Detectives, I was intensely impacted by Norwegian Wood’s pervasive feeling of melancholy and nostalgia, and its depiction of being young. Coincidentally, two of Murakami’s main characters are also obsessive walkers of Tokyo, tying in with Detectives’ use of street names and neighborhoods as a contrast to its characters’ disorientation.

Oh, this book is so sad! It’s very different from the other Murakami books I’ve read (Sheep Chase, Kakfa, 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird, After the Quake, Colorless TI think that’s it), in the sense that it’s a very straightforward, realistic story. It begins simply enough, with our narrator-hero Toru Watanabe on a plane landing in Germany and hearing the faintest strains of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” playing on the speakers. And just like we’re transported back to his days in university in Tokyo, narrated in a decidedly detached, passive style. Toru is unimpressed by university and ends up finding his most formative experiences outside the classroom: “By the second week in September I reached the conclusion that a university education was meaningless. I decided to think of it as a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.” (62)

I was very impressed by the structure of this book. Like The Savage Detectives, it’s filled with stories that other characters tell the narrator, who is fundamentally a blank slate. Two characters, Midori (a main love interest) and Reiko (an older woman he meets) verge on being Manic Pixie Dream Girls (and probably would be in the hands of a lesser writer), but are thankfully given a rough rawness that serve to combat any potential Pixie-ness. A lot of this rawness is related to sex, which is another thing that surprised me about this book–I was definitely not expecting Murakami to be this graphic in parts!

I was also deeply affected by the novel’s themes of regret, death, and loss. There’s a scene involving a firefly in a jar that could potentially be corny, but ended up reading as tragically transcendent to me, almost Gatsby-esque (which is fittingly one of Toru’s favorite books). I liked the different examples that Toru witnesses of adulthood, like his friend who is obsessed with acquiring women and power, and an old man who passes away with very little to show for it (in regards to this latter character, Toru wonders, “what had he left behind? A nothing-much bookshop in a nothing-much neighborhood and two daughters, at least one of whom was more than a little strange. What kind of life was that?”) (261)

(The rest of this review contains SPOILERS so stop reading now if you’d rather not know details of the book’s plot, which is actually something I recommend–it was fun for me to read this book and be surprised!)

In terms of the themes of death and loss, both appear early on in the earliest chapters, when Toru’s 17-year-old best friend Kizuki inexplicably commits suicide. This drives Toru into the arms of Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko, who is (to put it simply) somewhat troubled (this theme of madness is another crazy link with Savage Detectives that I just noticed! I wonder why both authors focused so much on the idea of sanity when writing about youth… I guess because it’s a very intense time). Naoko eventually retreats to a rural sanctuary in the countryside for other people like her, who are finding life a bit too intense and difficult to deal with (I liked how the novel pointedly notes that it was only people with money who were able to go there). Toru regularly visits her and becomes friends with her roommate Reiko, an older woman who used to be a classical pianist before (as they say) things went wrong. As Reiko puts it, “Something inside me had vanished. Some jewel of energy or something had disappeared – evaporated – from my body… Here I was in my early twenties and the best part of my life was over.” (155)

But then Toru meets Midori, a fellow university student: vivacious, wild-mouth and vibrant, Midori is the type of character who says things like “The saddest thing in the world is wearing a damp bra. I’d walk around with tears pouring from my eyes.” (90) Intense and vibrant, the contrast between the two is pretty clear: Midori = life, Naoko = death.

And so the main decision for Toru is set up. And in the background to all this is Toru’s flat, tasteless, and solitary life in university, in which he describes getting up every morning as “winding up a spring.” I found these descriptions of his struggle to get through the day-to-day motions of “normal” living very affecting: “How many Sundays – how many hundreds of Sundays like this – lay ahead of me?” (262)

I also found how Murakami depicted the culture of the 60’s (in terms of its daily protests and obsession with revolution) very interesting, via the lens of Toru’s disillusioned perspective. Watching the everyday scenes of his university campus, Toru experiences severe dislocation: “The more I watched, the more confused I became. What the hell was this all about? I wondered. What could it possibly mean?” (218) KEY QUESTIONS FOR US ALL. “Hey, Kizuki,” Toru thinks at another point, mentally addressing his dead friend, “you’re not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their own disgusting image.” (62)

What doe Toru want from society? What does Toru want from life? What kind of person does he want to be? These are clearly the more important questions that propel the narrative in the book, rather than the question of whether he will choose This Girl or That Girl. Early on, he warns Naoko, “You’re letting yourself be scared by too many things. The dark, bad dreams, the power of the dead,” (193) and this perhaps is the best articulation of the danger he faces. Will he let himself be consumed by the darkness? How does he want to see the world? In another passage I found extremely moving, Naoko says to him (speaking of Kizuki): “We had to pay the world back what we owed it… The pain of growing up. We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due… We were like kids who grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we’d just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we’d go to sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing doesn’t last forever. We grew up fast and had to enter society.” (169)

But does it always have to be like that? Is Toru going to adopt a similar view, in which “entering society” leads to a sacrifice of something you’ll never recuperate? Can you ever get back what you think you’ve lost? In contrast to Naoko’s somewhat glum view, there are also perspectives like Reiko’s, who perhaps more than anyone else in the novel tries her hardest to see the best in things: “So what if I had spent time in mental hospitals? My life hadn’t ended. Life was still full of wonderful things I hadn’t experienced.” (156-157) However, she also goes on to pointedly say, “I sure don’t wish I was younger again… Because it’s such a pain in the neck!” (178)

In the end, Toru has to learn to live with himself and his memories, and by the end of the book, when he’s able to say, “Every once in a while, I think about myself, ‘What the hell, I’ll do,'” (301) it feels like a tremendous victory–the biggest one possible, to be able to look at yourself and say, “I’ll do.”

I highly recommend this book, due to its poignant and painfully sad examination of what it means to grow up, particularly in terms of the consequences of deciding how you want to view the world.

Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course. Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt. (355)

Sometimes I feel like the caretaker of a museum–a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself. (364)

 

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Filed under Bolaño, books, review

September news

MOVING DAY (even if it was only upstairs in my current house) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked in the shelf, stacked precariously high in a skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

MOVING DAY (even if it was only moving upstairs) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked on the shelf, stacked precariously high in skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

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The “after” photo! Brand new huge bookcase on the left means all of the books now have a home, plus extra space.

Prior to moving I spent a few days in Berlin and liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials or a work or art? Who knows...

Prior to moving I spent a few days on holiday in Berlin, where I liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials of a work or art? Who knows…

I also got to spend a few days in Berlin + Potsdam, which involved lots of cycling and currywurst.

Holidaying also meant lots of cycling and currywurst, both in Berlin and Potsdam.

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

I also loved this little phonebooth library. I really wanted to go inside but there was already somebody there…

And now it's nice to be back in Norwich, despite the stupefying humidity.

And now it’s nice to be back in Norwich, lolling around despite the stupefying humidity.

In other news:

  • I had a story read on BBC Radio Three, as the interval to a South American orchestra! This was a very niche (as a friend said) and very cool (if surreal) experience. The link is here for the next 18 days.
  • On October 11th I’ll be at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with two other authors (Kate Hamer and Sally Rooney), both of whom I’m very excited to meet. Attending the festival is also an exciting prospect as I’ve always found Gloucestershire to be one of the prettiest areas of England, even if I always got terribly carsick in the back of my parents’ car as we drove around visiting family friends who lived there, way back in the days of my childhood summers abroad. Oh, and Knausgaard will apparently be there too (!).

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Filed under photos, travel, update

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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