Saturday, January 10, 2009

AS A FRIEND & 2666

I don't read as many novels as I used to. But for Christmas I was given these two by two different friends (the 2666 I suggested to my daughter-in-law, who also happens to be one of my favorite artists and friends, the other was an unexpected surprise from my oldest closest friend, TPW), and so, as when confronted with any printed material, I began to devour them. I also noticed that both were getting extremely good reviews and lots of attention (2666 much more widely).

AS A FRIEND was easy to finish quickly. Not because the writing is slight, it's actually very substantial. But because it is a very slim novel. The author, Forrest Gander is known, at least by me, mostly as a poet. Not that I was that familiar with his work, but it's made its mark on the poetry world.

I won't tell you what it's about except in the broadest terms—love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, etc.—because I hate reviews that reveal story and plot points that the author has carefully created to unfold in the book's time, not be jump started from reviewers' summaries or handpicked revelations.

What I can say is Gander sets up some pretty impressive juxtapositions of perspective and language and the structures to carry them in four distinct chapters or sections that make up the book. Any one of which would make a terrific little book.

Though I must admit at first I resisted it. Maybe because of the blurbs and the praise I'd already heard and read, maybe because the opening seemed a little precious, like college workshop writing, or maybe because the opening section of the story just didn't grip me. But, it didn't take long to draw me in.

If I were to compare this book to a movie, it'd be one of those quirky little independent handheld digital camera character studies of young people's confused relationships and discoveries about themselves and each other. One of the heavier versions of those stories.

It's definitely satisfying story telling as well as writing that satisfied my taste for original uses of language and structure. It works, and works well. But, my only caveat, I'm not sure it's the kind of book I'd keep around to dip into again over the years, but I'm uncertain enough about that to keep it for now.

As for 2666, if you're interested in books you weren't able to miss this one lately. Everyone's been touting it, Which is amazing in its way, because Roberto Bolano, the Chilean poet who wrote it before he died (and intended it to be five novels rather than this one enormous one broken into five huge chapters or sections) writes about academic and literary matters in the context of stories that have elements of mysteries and crime novels as well as of meandering philosophical disputations.

I only discovered him recently, as I reported in a post last year, when my friend, the artist Susan Napack, passed a copy of THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES on to me and I fell in love with it. No small novel itself, though puny compared to 2666, it too was concerned with literary matters set in the context of an unsolved mystery, or mysteries.

Something about Bolano's language (as translated by Natasha Wimmer) and the way it flows ends up mesmerizing the reader, or at least this one, into surrendering to its languorousness, and its intellectual curiosity, and it becomes very difficult to put down. I haven't finished it yet, but am well enough into it (beyond the first section) to be able to declare it another favorite book (though so far it hasn't surpassed the delight and surprise and deep connection and affection I felt instantly for THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES).

With original skill and commitment, Bolano manages to make the concerns of literary scholars and writers at work as compelling as a LeCarre spy novel or a Raymond Chandler mystery, but with the added weight of intellectually challenging subject matter and references, that it isn't absolutely necessary to be familiar with, but if you are, it's the amazingly unique seasoning in the whole endeavour.

As i said about THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, any novel that refers to the poetry of Ted Berrigan and can also attract a mass audience is worth paying attention to. Bolano is now up there with Rilke and Whitman and W.C. Williams and Blaise Cendrars in my pantheon of poets who also write novels and prose books that are as compelling as their poems and which I will continue to read and reread as long as I am able to.

[In response to some challenges, Whitman did write novels early on, not as good as his poetry or later prose, so I shouldn't really include him, but his self-edited mostly Civil War journals—SPECIMEN DAYS—is as good as any novel for my taste.]

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