Tuesday, January 27, 2009

They Still Write Classics, The Books that Last for Centuries

I bridged 2008 and 2009 reading 2666, and no, I can't tell you what the title means. I don't think I'm supposed to. 2666 is an amazing, brilliant novel by Roberto Bolaño, a writer who has rapidly become a favourite of mine. I first discovered him when I read a magnificent and insane article about his Romulo Gallegos Prize winning novel The Savage Detectives, and having read the book, it immediately became one of my favourites of all time. Bolaño writes about broken characters whose lives stretch around Europe, Latin America, occasionally the United States and Africa, depending on the requirements of the plot (what there is of it).

So 2666 then. I won't try to compete with the long, glowing essays that you can find all over the internet simply by typing the number into google. Instead, I will only give you my dominant impressions of the book. It's an epic, sprawling work 900 pages long, written in five loosely connected parts.

The first thing that stands out for me is its cleverness in the way that its stories misdirect you while leading you exactly to the heart of the work: the murders of women in northern Mexico over the last fifteen years, and the inability of anyone to understand those acts. The book is divided into five parts, each with its own plot and protagonists. The first part is a group of self-absorbed European literature professors, all followers of a German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi, a writer so reclusive as to make Thomas Pynchon appear as if he had the paparazzi on speed-dial. I laughed at their moments of insular ignorance, as when they ask a Mexican colleague, Amalfitano, originally from Chile why he left for Argentina in 1974. Amalfitano can only look at them, amazed at their ignorance of history, even as one of the professors is from Spain, the country that prosecuted Pinochet in the late 1990s. Throughout their story, they are driven with increasing intensity by a quest to seek out Archimboldi, to finally meet the man to whose works they have devoted their lives.

I pitied the Frenchman and the Spaniard for twisting themselves up into wrecks over their love for their British colleague, the only woman among the Archimboldians. I was mystified at the story of an artist the British and Italian professor meet, who had cut off his own severed hand to use as the centrepiece of his most famous installation. I was disturbed by the scene where they beat a reactionary Pakistani cab driver in London, offended by the talk of the British critic's love affairs with the Frenchman and the Spaniard, while all three are in the same cab. I felt an odd peace watching the group fall apart in Mexico, with the Britisher returning to Europe to meet the Italian professor, who had been too ill to come with them. The Frenchman is left reading the Archimboldi novels he brought with him, while the Spaniard has an affair with a beautiful young rug merchant, an ambiguously beautiful and doomed hope of taking this young girl back to start a new life in Europe free from the undercurrents of violence in Mexico. They are fragile figures, lost in the world, only realizing at the end of the story that they must cling to something that seems stable, or else they will collapse.

Amalfitano, the protagonist of part two, seems on the edge of collapse throughout his short, haunting story. He hears voices, makes an uneasy friendship with the violence-prone teenage son of a university official, has a tragically doomed love for his estranged, mentally ill wife, and a loving yet tense relationship with his teenage daughter Rosa. Reading this sometimes hallucinatory story, I was haunted by a concern for Rosa. I knew 2666 revolved around the brutal murders of young women just like Rosa. And I was concerned for her, because when the European critics meet Amalfitano in part one, which is chronologically later than part two, Rosa is nowhere to be found. I read this, and part three where she appears as well, with trepidation, and a silent gnawing of dread.

Part three is based around Oscar Fate, the pen name of a black magazine journalist from Harlem, who finds himself in Mexico covering a beyond-mediocre boxing match when his magazine's sports correspondent dies of a sudden heart attack. Sudden death haunts the perhaps-too-obviously-named-for-an-Anglophone-audience Fate, as his mother also dies at the story's beginning. He meets a group of low-level Mexican gangsters and their girls at the boxing match, and among the group is Rosa Amalfitano.

The night he spends with the gangsters is by turns hilarious and horrific. Oscar is a fish completely out of water, his New York state of mind laughable in Mexico. He may be a black man from Harlem, but black men from Harlem are eaten alive by Mexican gangsters. It's all Oscar can do to take a coked up Rosa away from her unstable gangster boyfriend and flee across the border at her father's blessing. All this while, the spectre of the killings is present, in the form of a looming interview with the tall blond German who has been imprisoned for some of the murders.

Part four, about the murders, should not be read with a weak stomach. The brutality builds by sheer repetition. Bolaño describes the murdered women as corpses, like police reports written in crisp clean language, depicting fatal wounds of rape, bludgeoning, stabbing, slicing, strangling, ripping, suffocating. The most chilling descriptions are of the women who have no families or friends, and so who go unidentified, the short paragraphs describing their mutilated bodies the only recognition they receive.

These passages alternate with the stories of the cops who investigate the murders, among other crimes that pop up on the streets of their bleak northern city. They have a half-heartedness about the task born of corruption, cynicism, jadedness, and a sense that the horrors of modern Mexico are so fantastic as to be beyond even God. There is one cop who strives continually to put some effort into stopping the avalanche of violence, Inspector Juan de Dios Martínez, if only as the sole way to ward off his own death. All he really needs is some idea of how to end the murders, and he would. He's a bleak character, a man striving to find some measure of happiness or positivity in the world. He reminds me of a younger Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, putting all his strength into building bulwarks that will always be helpless to resist a tsunami of blood.

Yet in all this, Bolaño finds humour. The Arizona sheriff Harry Magaña cuts an impressive figure, and reminds me of Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movies. He comes down to Mexico on a vigilante vacation, looking for the murderers of a white American tourist woman, cutting a somewhat violent path through the Mexican underworld. He's just brutal enough to get noticed, but not brutal enough to defend himself from actual Mexican criminals. This gives his own quick disappearance from the story a grimly funny irony.

Yet in all this, Bolaño finds hope, in the person of Lalo Cura (a pun on the Spanish word for priest, 'cura,' and lunatic, 'la locura'), a rookie cop recruited from the ranks of a narco's bodyguards. He seems to be the only one in all the police forces of Mexico that cares about his work without cynicism. It might be a function of his age, or perhaps some deeper part of his character, If you remember Due South, Lalo Cura resembled Benton Fraser in those nights he spent earnestly studying old guides to Become A Good Police Officer, or demonstrating actual interest in searching a crime scene for evidence, in stark contrast to most of his colleagues. I often didn't know what to make of Lalo Cura, but I knew I loved him, a paragon of virtue so out of place, yet so necessary.

Part five carries its own hope, in the wandering force of creation that is Benno von Archimboldi. I think, as Bolaño worked on 2666, he knew his work was on the verge of an English language breakthrough, as quite a few protagonists carry names that are English puns, like Archimboldi's birth name, Hans Reiter. This story follows his entire life, growing up in rural east Germany in the 1920s and 30s, being drafted into the war on Russia, and his life as a vagabond writer. His life intertwines almost miraculously with a sexually voracious Romanian general, a coolly promiscuous German baroness, the slightly mad woman who would become his wife, a Russian science fiction writer who had been disappeared by the Stalinists long before Reiter discovers his diaries, and finally the enigmatic German who connects him to the killings in Mexico. His was the first story to be dominated by hope and optimism, finding creativity, freedom, and love even in the wastelands of the Russian front of the Second World War. It was uplifting that the novel ended with this man, who was never limited by anything, especially not his own will, which in so many other characters in 2666 was found wanting and compromised.

The end of parts one, three, and four are the closing of multiple story strands. Bolaño flips back and forth between them, giving each moment of the dénouement barely a page before cutting back to its companion. The overall effect is propulsive, like a montage in cinema that brings a multifaceted story to its climax. I was put in mind of the climactic montages of the first two Godfather films, a quickening pace towards, if not an end, then a settling of scores.

Bolaño did not have time before his death in 2003 to finish all the edits he wanted to make to 2666, and it shows in some places. Oscar Fate is perhaps a little too stereotypically American at times, and I wonder if Archimboldi's trip to Mexico comes a little too quick, the reasons and history behind it all coming in a flash of little more than thirty pages. But this does not detract from the achievement of 2666, a work marvellous in its size, ambition, and intricacy. Bolaño did not write his stories with their themes and messages prominently displayed. He would talk of the story he told, and the secret story playing underneath, the real engine of the events we saw depicted on his pages.

This underlying pattern connected characters and fictional lives with a fastness that an obvious meeting could never contain. The killings are reflected in the brutality the British artist shows to his own body, or the brutal porno film Oscar Fate watches in the small hours of the morning with the Mexican gangsters. The fragility of women in a violent world is seen in the sad figure of Amalfitano's wife, Rosa's mother, who after their separation wanders Europe until finally meeting her ex-husband at last, disappearing one last time to spare them the sight of her death from AIDS. And the hope that lives in all his works is in the earnest doggedness of Lalo Cura, the stern and tired determination of Juan de Dios Martínez, and the simple honest optimism of Archimboldi on his way to Mexico to accomplish the impossible and free an unjustly imprisoned man who is a total stranger to him. This is the greatness of Roberto Bolaño, that all this comes together as one sprawling multifaceted work, many stories drawing one magnificent pattern in a dark, silent sky.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today Was a Good Day

Now the work starts for everyone. I never expected that after the hideously depressing history of the past eight years, I would see the uplifting history that Barack Obama offers. I only wish we could match this political movement here in Canada, where we're led by reactionary conservatives who are precisely the people who have caused so much pain for our neighbours. And no one in Canadian politics seems to be up to the challenge that the times put before us. So many leaders in my country are consumed by traditional ideologies, whether of the right, the left, or the selfish. I never thought that Canada would let me down, but it has.

But until then, I can believe that America, as a country, is going to do right again. A few years ago, I never thought I would say that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A New Word: The Definition of the verb 'Norbit'

I've garnered a lot of respect for Anne Hathaway over the past few years, starting from when she first played a part that required more emotional depth than smiling and looking pretty: as Lureen Newsome in Brokeback Mountain. How she incorporated that film into her life showed a changing understanding of the importance of film. I could tell from her interviews on the promotional circuit that she had come to understand movies as having larger philosophical meanings than pure entertainment. While I haven't seen her new film, Rachel Getting Married, I've read enough reviews to know that I want to see it, and to know that Hathaway has a chance of winning a best actress Oscar for her part in the film.

Then Bride Wars came out, and it has the chance to Norbit her chances. "To Norbit" is a verb I'm going to try to spread around the internet and my circle of friends. It's defined as when an artist follows a remarkable aesthetic breakthrough with an unequivocal catastrophe that utterly blights any positive affects the earlier breakthrough could have had. The name is derived from the Eddie Murphy film Norbit, a film that was absolutely hideous in every possible way. The film Murphy made immediately preceding it was Dreamgirls, which was the best performance of his entire career. People were thinking about Murphy differently than they had in years. If he played his cards right, he could have began a new phase in his career as a serious dramatic actor. Then he made Norbit and flushed his credibility down the toilet.

Anne Hathaway is doing the same thing with the utterly superficial dreck that is Bride Wars, a film that raises the term 'chick flick' to new levels of offensiveness. It's bad enough that movies are made about brainless women who only care about frippery and shiny objects. There are women like this out there, and they need films for what they care about. But Bride Wars, from what I've read about it, combines that idiocy and superficiality with protagonists who are stupendously self-centred and mean. The result is a wretched piece of celluloid that could have been much better used making another David Gordon Green movie.

I'm not prepared to watch terrible movies now that I no longer work for radio stations or newspapers that are willing to pay for me to go. So I make judgements based on reading a consensus of critics I trust.

There's an old saying in Hollywood that's absolutely true: You're only as good as your last picture. If that's the case, then Anne Hathaway is no longer a brilliant young actress seeking bold, challenging, beautiful material. She is a crass hack who will do whatever miserable dreck has a paycheck attached.

I know she is talented, so I hope she chooses to let her next project make her brilliant again. Even if it's a full-length version of the short film below, it will be a step up from the Norbit-quality toxic garbage that so often floods the screens of mediocre cineplexes over the winter months.

Man Getting Hit By Football

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What I'll Miss About George

George W Bush had his last press conference as President of the United States today, and his entire paradoxical fascinating character was on display. The man and his life is unequivocal proof that consistency has no place in political, social, or ethical philosophy. My own wish for sane government in one of the most powerful countries in the world makes me glad that he's gone, and that someone with as much potential as Barack Obama is replacing him next week. But one thing is clear: There will never be another person like George W Bush.

What I'll miss most about him, though, aside from the intriguing paradox of his own career and personality, is how funny he is. He's one of the few American presidents who have introduced a new word to the English language: Bushism, for that peculiar, yet sometimes savant-like, fumbling of speech. I think my favourite is "There's an old saying in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . . you won't get fooled again." Maybe it's just because I'm a Who fan.

I still say, perfectly seriously, that all most people want to do with their lives is to be able to put food on their families.

And let's not forget, he breaks new ground when it comes to terrible dancing.

We certainly did misunderestimate him.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Here Will Be The Eleventh Doctor

So this is him in 2010, Matt Smith. He'll be 27 when he appears on television as the Doctor. He's worked in television for just two years, and has been in theatre for slightly longer.

What do I think of him? So far, I like what I see, even though I've only seen this six minute interview. But I think his voice, the way he moves his hands as he speaks, and above all his hair will make him a quite distinctive Doctor eleven. I suspect they might play up the detective aspects of his character a little more this time, as well as his alienness. Again, this last is because of the hair, and that very extraordinary jawline.

Russell T Davies has been concerned with humanizing the Doctor, giving him attachments, domesticity. That's been terrific, and we've seen a story over these last four years of the Doctor losing his home and gaining a new one. Smith's Doctor, if I may wildly speculate, seems poised – under Steven Moffat's planning, of course – to be an alien again. Not necessarily alienated from their human friends, as Colin, Sylvester, and Christopher were; but certainly returning the charismatic strangeness to him again. I can imagine Smith and Moffat taking the Doctor into an area more reminiscent of Tom Baker, only with a higher level of sensuality. A kind of weird prince of time.

Pretentious of me, isn't it? Still, 2010 is going to be a good year for this show.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Starting a New Year Almost Too Well

Every blog on the internet is probably talking about year end lists and recollections and highlights and other summative activities. And I suppose I will too, seeing as how I'm here and I'm not that tired. Waking up at two in the afternoon will do it. So here are a selection of things I've done, seen, observed, began, finished, and whatever else you can say to describe 2008 for me.

As we began . . .
This is what I like to call an upswing year. After 2007, it could not have gotten much worse, barring utter catastrophe such as the death of close friends or a meteor striking the city and destroying it instead of giving me marginally badass superpowers. 2007 saw my first genuine professional crisis since deciding to be a university-based philosopher, with my MA thesis examination metaphorically akin to receiving severe shrapnel wounds. That year was bookended by the catastrophic shattering of two of my closest friendships, first KB and then RH. Things only began to look up on New Year's Eve, which I thought would be my last New Year's Eve in St John's. I spent it partying with one of my nearest and dearest, Chris. Arse that he can be at times, he's had my back at moments when no one else was willing, and stood up for me when no one else would and I deserved it least. He helped me end 2007 optimistically, and by the end of that year, optimism was practically a miracle.

Best Professional Deliverance: McMaster's Acceptance Call
On my way out of a Dance Party of Newfoundland sketch show, I turned my phone back on and immediately got a call from my mother. McMaster philosophy called my house while I was in the theatre with good news. I got home and called back to hear Elisabeth Gedge the department head congratulate me for my acceptance and give me a run-down of their funding package.

Since moving to Hamilton for the program, I have found an apartment perfect for me with low cost, in an excellent downtown neighbourhood, near everything that's important for my daily life: grocery store, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, the liquor store, and good neighbours. My friends Johnny and Allyson have both started at McMaster sociology, and I got them apartments in the same building as me. My supervisor, Barry Allen, is ideal for what I want to write, how I want to approach the project, and how I work. The people at my department support experimentation in writing style, outsized personalities, and professional ambition, all of which define me and my work. Right now, I'm ahead of the game on thesis planning, was one of the few grad students who needed no extensions on any course work, connect well with the undergraduates I teach, and have one publication and two conference presentations pending approval.

Most Awesome Energizer: Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, and Fucked Up
Since I don't work at a newspaper anymore, I don't have access to a pile of new music. However, some of what I've heard on youtube and sought out has treated me well. Probably the best new music I've discovered was a Toronto punk band called Fucked Up. Rarely has sound been so visceral than when it's coming out of speakers playing their second record, The Chemistry of Common Life. Being a punk band, one would gravitate to their being rage experts. But their lyrics revolve around all sorts of existential dread and elevation, all the possibility of human emotion distilled into rock and blasted at you. They take you apart and put you back together molecule by molecule.

As for Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, they wrote a work of classical music that drags me to places only Beethoven (among the classical genre) has done before. It's the perfect complement to a damn-near perfect film. More on that below.

Best Ethical Treatise: The Dark Knight
Since I don't work at a newspaper or a radio station anymore, I don't have access to free movies. But The Dark Knight completely redefined what I thought a pop movie could do. No studio head would ever be crazy enough to sink this much money into a film that embodies pure terror and forces it into the audience's gut. But The Dark Knight did, and actually made enough money to buy most of Africa. I saw it five times during its theatrical run, will buy the dvd, and probably see it during the re-release later this month.

The Dark Knight revolves around problems that I think are at the heart of ethics: What will you do in the face of horror so great it seemed impossible? It presents the intensity of every element of life under threat, and asks if it's possible to build the strength within yourself to hold on to your ideals when all that you love most and all that you've worked for is about to crumble. That the answer can be a credible, powerful, fully knowledgeable Yes makes this film all the greater.

Most Unexpected Re-Awakening of Political Ideals: Barack Obama
Speaking of saying Yes, this man is the new President of the United States. For a long time, I've been a cynic who reduced politics to fearmongering, corruption, a dreary pragmatism, and avoidance of violence. Then this guy wins an election by appealing to all the positive potentials of humanity, and is set to govern along those principles. Pragmatism is not dreary, but an inclusive merging and negotiation of formerly competing interests in the face of common problems. Corruption can be fought by enacting that ideal of a fraternal community in your words and deeds every day in your life. Almost everyone I know predicts his assassination, but I expect him to live into the 2050s. He's shown that we can better the world by demanding that the world be better and acting on that demand. My cynicism will never die as long as I can laugh at my enemies, but my pessimism has been strangled. I did it myself.

Most Accurate Picture of My Inner Life: Spaced
This was the best dvd purchase of my life, even more than my Doctor Who collection. The show has a story structure and headspace that displays almost precisely how I think: flying in a hundred directions at once, but all together making perfect sense. And a soul that just wants to be loved, and to love in return. And it's the funniest show in the world.

Sign of Future Film Stardom: Justin Madol
Justin is a friend from my Muse days who's directing a zombie movie in St John's. I ran into him on New Year's Eve when we were each at parties across the street from each other. We talked, drunkenly, for a while about our plans for the future. He talked about the film, and wanting to establish himself as a director. I talked about my novel, which is unfinished, but now almost three hundred pages and good enough at least to publish. He said that I should write something to adapt to film for him to make, and one of the ideas in my vault could work very well as a film. Undesirables is a plan for a novella about people trying to live quiet lives, but are resentfully excluded from it. One case is a Muslim immigrant suspected of terror ties, and the other case is a former sex offender. There might be a homosexual there too, but I'm not sure yet. It could make for a good low-budget drama. Call me when I finish the PhD, JM. Won't be long.