Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer, trans., 2666
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
Roberto Bolaño’s books should be stacked on your bedside table. They should be battered and dog-eared, coffee stained, and creased. At least one of the books should have been given to you by a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, and so on. You too have just “loaned” one to your current lover, the one who asked you about it through wine-red lips and a veil of cigarette smoke.
Bolaño’s biography alone could justify such a romance. Political troubles in his native Chile left Bolaño an exile por vida. With Mexico serving as a surrogate casa, he spent his life wandering the world, like some crazy cross between a Kerouac hero and Ulysses, until his untimely death at fifty in 2003, just before finishing 2666.
It’s no surprise then that aesthetics and politics are always intertwined for Bolaño. Reviewers often compare him to Jorge Luis Borges. But the infinity-inducing ficciones of the great writer remain ultimately self-reflective.
2666 revolves around the real-life unsolved killings of hundreds of young women, factory workers in the U.S-Mexico border town Ciudad Juárez. The murders continue to this day and serve as a terrifying image of a bloody century’s end, a century Bolaño traces back to World War II and the Holocaust through the figure of a reclusive writer named Archimboldi, proving again the link between history and art.
In the most unrelenting section of 2666, Bolaño describes, in gory detail, the raped and mutilated bodies of literally dozens of young girls, most of whose cases remain unresolved. The picture that develops is one of a politically corrupt country that simply does not deem the lives of these young women worthwhile, whether because of indifference or police corruption by drug trafficking. Bolaño taunts us with our film-fed impressions of serial killers, offering one character as a possible Hannibal Lecter-like solution to the terrifying puzzle. But instead, 2666 affirms what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse 5: “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
2666 may not be the place to start if you haven’t read Bolaño before—it’s quite a commitment—but for those who have, 2666 delivers a familiar blend of gritty realism and hazy dreamscape that instigated the pile of books next to your bed. It’s teetering, threatening to collapse on you. It’s time for a new lover.
Emmanuel Guibert, Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope
(First Second, 2008)
Nothing extraordinary happens to G.I. Alan Cope while serving in the Second World War. Yet his oral recollections, assembled by artist and friend Emmanuel Guibert in the form of a graphic novel, make the book more than just another veteran’s war story.
Recounting Alan’s war memories in multiple vignettes, Guibert portrays a charming, culturally sophisticated young man who listened to Don Giovanni and befriended an artistic couple who associated with the likes of Henry Miller. He shows the naiveté of the young soldier Alan peppered with the wisdom of the older Alan looking back on his youth in uniform. Through Guibert, Alan remembers new and sometimes uncomfortable experiences—sexual advances from a drunken solider, falling–outs with dear friends, becoming engaged to a friend’s sister through letters.
Alan’s stories don’t seem embellished. They are simple, yet moving. At one point he recalls marching on patrol and seeing German bombs or mortar fire in the distance. He then hallucinates and sees a giant city spread before him. “I knew I was gazing at something that wasn’t there,” he says. “I really saw all those lights, as if they shined from all sorts of buildings. It was marvelous.”
These intimate details of a soldier’s life color a larger portrait of Alan not just as a G.I., but as an American experiencing the displacement and struggles of wartime. The book isn’t full of boasts of battle or brave quests. Instead, there are stories of attempting a séance with Gypsies from a Slavic country, of returning to California after the war only to then move back to Europe.
The book is slow at times, like a Polaroid snapshot gradually developing. The pace ultimately works though, because Alan’s thoughts are beautifully rendered and articulated, giving the feeling of turning the pages of an old family album and recognizing the faces in one’s self.
Greg Melville, Greasy Rider
After the final Wall Street institution crumbles and the smoke clears, the world will be left with an important question: upon what grounds will we build a new economic system? In the last three presidential debates, Barack Obama has proposed what he calls a “Green Economy,” the premise of which is pretty simple. Because the furious splicing and trading of debt has left everyone with enormous amounts of untouchable equity, the economy that rises from the dust-heap must be based on a growth industry which emphasizes innovation, production, and trade of tangible products with tangible benefits, both environmental and economic. The trading of “financial products,” abstract representations, and repackaging of material debt, has taken us to the edge of, and right over, a precipice. This new growth economy will hopefully be there to cushion our fall.
Greg Melville’s new book Greasy Rider reads like a reminder of a simpler time, when the Green Economy was just one possibility, when it wasn’t outlandish to believe that things would go on as before, with occasional incremental steps toward a more ecologically efficient world. In the book, Mr. Melville recounts a cross-country journey from Vermont to Berkeley with his buddy Iggy in a Mercedes station wagon converted to run on used vegetable oil. With anecdotes like this, Mr. Melville, in his every-dude way, details the fits and starts of a new, oil-free economy based on innovation and clean, renewable energy.
The book is funny and engaging, and avoids sermonizing almost to a fault. Greg Melville is a regular guy with no political agenda—he’s just a bro testing the waters of the Green movement. And therein lies the problem. Greasy Rider, for all its good intentions, comes off as a dated exploration of renewable energy resources. Mr. Melville relies heavily on the argument that green energy benefits the individual by reducing energy costs, but generally avoids discussing the environmental benefits. He makes the case for the viability of a Green Economy, but avoids saying much about the urgent necessity of one. “The real America looks all the same,” Mr. Melville writes, “that’s the beauty of it now.” He lauds this sameness with an arched eyebrow, blunting both praise and criticism.
That being said, Greasy Rider is a breezy tour of a burgeoning Green Economy, laying out a map of recent developments and issues in renewable energy. Mr. Melville shows, especially in a chapter on wind-turbine power in Minnesota, that inroads have been made in a country resistant to change. What once seemed radical is now increasingly acceptable to mainstream Americans and, if Obama’s rhetoric is not only that, may soon be the foundation of a new world economy.
Kirsten Menger-Anderson, Dr. Olaf van Schuler’s Brain
Dr. Olaf van Schuler’s Brain, by Kirsten Menger-Anderson, is a series of interconnected short stories woven together by themes of love and strange medical practices. Each story is loosely centered around a different member of the Steenwyck family (the descendants of a man named Dr. Olaf van Schuler). As the collection moves through time, it presents an arresting vision of human nature and of the city of New York as it grows from a colony into a metropolis.
The first story in the collection follows Dr. Schuler as he flees persecution from the Catholic Church for studying the brains of cows and pigs in an effort to locate “the seat of man’s soul” and cure his mother’s senile dementia. The proceeding stories continue to explore science’s relationship to the mercurial nature of the soul, following the Steenwycks through time as they drill, lobotomize, shock, phrenologize, and magnetize their patients and loved ones, often changing the trajectory of their lives.
Dr. Olaf van Schuler’s Brain also offers a portrait of New York over the span of four centuries. While the challenges facing the characters in each story are similar, New York evolves. What develops over the course of the collection is a contrast between the timeless sameness of human adversities and the constantly shifting context in which we exist. As the stories move from the first days of New York to New York, 2006, they never quite culminate in epiphanic insight, but they do provide an array of arresting, thoughtful, and touching moments.
Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
In 1945, Han van Meegeren was arrested in a liberated Amsterdam by a Dutch resistance fighter, not only because van Meegeren (an art dealer and painter) had close ties to local fascists, but because during the war he had sold off one of his nation’s greatest treasures, a recently discovered Vermeer, to none other than Hermann Goering, head of the SS and a man who envied Hitler’s collection of Old Masters. But van Meegeren had an excuse, one that turned him from arch-traitor to something like a patriot—the Vermeer he had sold to the German was a fake, painted by van Meegeren himself.
That’s not all. Pride of place in the Dutch Boijmans Museum was held by what more than one critic called Vermeer’s greatest painting, The Supper at Emmaus. This, too, was from the brush of the master forger.
What makes Jonathan Lopez’s book such an engrossing read are not only his details of art forgers and their methods (such as over-painting on canvases fitting a particular period, after scraping them to the base layer), but his description of how van Meegeren read the minds of the collectors he was set on fooling.
A Dutch–fascist theorist of the 1930s, and friend of the forger, claimed that the Netherlands’ earlier glory—don’t forget it was the world’s chief power in the 17th century—was based on the fact that, though the elite was Protestant, the masses were Catholic, and their spirituality gave the era a special, elevated tone. Vermeer, who was a Protestant that had married into a Catholic family, had, aside from a few early, weak works, never painted a religious picture. Since the artist left few works overall, many critics speculated that he may have taken up biblical themes in lost pieces. Van Meegeren obligingly provided them, after being inspired by the kitsch he saw at the Aryan art festival accompanying the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But here’s the crowning touch. Not only did the Vermeer forger dupe Goering and leading art dealers, he even tricked the man who arrested him, selling the soldier the story that he took up forgery because his first gallery show had been trounced by critics, and he was determined to make fools of them (and the Nazis) with his new Old Masters.
All previous books have shared this view of the forger’s life, which, Lopez shows, is also fake. Van Meegeren was an old hand at forgery, way before his first art show, and was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, pouring some of his ill-gotten gains into supporting a right-wing, anti-degenerate art magazine. Lopez does a wonderful job depicting the pre-World War II art world, in which American millionaires like Andrew Mellon proved particularly easy pickings. He also gives a vivid depiction of the crafty and corrupt van Meegeren, a well-rounded portrait depicting his absolute shallowness.
D. Harlan Wilson, Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria
(Raw Dog Screaming, 2008)
In Blankety Blank, a serial killer, whose distinguishing characteristic is a spinning, striped barber pole for a face, terrorizes a suburb of Grand Rapids, decapitating victims and then juggling their heads while residents watch through digitally enhanced picture windows.
This comic, if macabre romp goes against whatever shreds of belief may remain about the myth of garden city suburbs, filled with breadwinners like 1950 TV’s Ozzie, whose return from the office is awaited by Harriet and the brood. Instead, here’s the norm in Wilson’s world.
The children had gone apeshit. Too much sugar. Too much TV. Too much neglect…They screamed and…elbowed each other and punched holes in the walls and held their breath until they passed out and woke up and had more temper tantrums. Their parents ignored them and took turns painting and blowdrying each other.
The book is subtitled as a memoir, but as critic Kevin Riordan puts it in a Rain Taxi review, it’s “not memoir unless he grew up in the future, when cars talk back and TVs want to know why you turned them off.” Living is easy for the middle class here. One executive, bored with his day’s work, tells his car’s computerized office to finish up while he goes cruising.
Drunken, debauched wives, self-obsessed (or porn-obsessed) husbands, kids with weird hobbies (like collecting shrunken heads), outdoing the Joneses (by constructing a barn in one’s backyard) and other suburban traditions all come in for a heavy drubbing as part of a suburb so blasé even the barber pole-headed killer hardly fazes them. “People had gotten used to the havoc, or at least they came to terms with it, accepting the idea of being brutally murdered as an obligatory part of everyday life.”