In an era of information super-saturation, the ritual of year’s end lists is less a matter of definitive “best of” status than a glimpse into the fragments of media which most influenced each individual observer’s worldview and experience over the previous months. In this spirit, for personal reflection and for anyone who might take interest, I want to use my next few posts to highlight some of the pieces which most impacted me over the past year, starting with novels. What were your favorite reads during the last year? I’d love to hear suggestions in the comments!
(Trauma warning: The discussion of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 includes references to sexual violence.)
One of my most pleasurable literary experiences of the past year was finally discovering the work of Cascadian sci-fi author Ursula K. LeGuin. The psychological parable The Lathe of Heaven offers a panorama of LeGuin’s philosophical themes: the corrupting allure of authority and the danger of social engineering, war and environmental destruction as the culmination of civilized hubris, the mysterious bonds of compassion and love. The Word for World is Forest, which can be read as an eco-feminist critique of imperialism, and which was savagely plagiarized by James Cameron in Avatar, depicts the struggle of an ecologically advanced indigenous culture to resist their rapacious human colonizers. Unlike Cameron’s troubling and simplistic portrayal of “white savior” archetypes, LeGuin’s indigenous cosmovision, based in lucid dreaming and deep ecology, enables the ultimate triumph of the colonized peoples while also acknowledging the inevitable changes caused by the experience of oppression as well as by violent liberation struggles.
The Dispossessed, however, comes as close to a masterpiece as any sci-fi book I’ve read: insightful and inspiring as political philosophy, with a plot that is both gripping and touching. LeGuin vividly imagines a living anarcho-syndicalist society, which in all its contradictions is based in a deep sense of hope for the power of human solidarity. Scientific and political progress, ideological stagnation, insurrection and revolution, the tension between the individual and collective will… describing the novel in terms of its thematic scope diminishes its true beauty and impact—suffice to say I have never wanted so much to live in an imagined reality as in that of LeGuin’s Anarres, nor felt that it may in fact be possible to live that reality, even if only in momentary glimpses of the transformative power of resistance and solidarity. Another novel exploring similar themes was Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, an elliptical, dreamy tale of a post-apocalyptic commune confronting internalized repression and violent dissatisfaction with self-imposed cultural limits. Brautigan undermines the hippie illusion of collective utopia, while simultaneously critiquing social control and presenting a pessimistic vision of individualized impulses of artistic creation and rebellious destruction; all written in mysterious, lyrical fragments of devolved prose.
I also have two recommendations for readers immersed in the detective novel craze. I enjoyed re-reading the collaborative novel The Uncomfortable Dead, written by Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II and EZLN Subcommandante Marcos. In interwoven storylines, Elias Contreras, Zapatista Investigation Commission, and D.F. private eye Héctor Belascorán discover a frighteningly plausible conspiracy that links sinister figures from “dirty war” counter-insurgency structures with transnational corporations that threaten indigenous communities and the environment in the supposed “Protected Areas” of the Mayan Biosphere—sound familiar? China Miéville’s The City & The City also felt surprisingly relevant to the experience of living in Guatemala, with its unique magical realist setting in the Eastern European metropolises of Besźel and Ul Qoma, cities which share the same geographic space but occupy different psychological and legal jurisdictions. Citizens of one city must learn to unconsciously “unsee” anyone and anything that exists in the other, with those whose who trespass subject to disappearance by the secret force which polices the invisible border. How could this not feel like real life in a country where the law, as a rule, enforces impunity for the rich and powerful and acts with equal impunity to repress the weak; where shanty towns huddle almost in the shadow of luxurious shopping centers; where one must habitually “unsee” the homeless old woman forced to piss on the sidewalk, the six year old girl begging alone in a corner at the gas station?
The most powerful and engrossing novel I’ve read recently, however, has to be Roberto Bolaño’s masterwork 2666. Harrowing and beautiful, hilarious and terrible, the book is broad enough to weave in many of Bolaño’s characteristic themes, such as the role of art and the intellectual class in society, the experience of political exile, the fragmentary nature of identity, sex, madness, detectives… but the book is of such a stature that it seems necessary that it confront the most fundamental of questions, and I would argue that 2666 is about nothing less than the character of evil in the 20th century. In its structure, 2666 starts in the present, as four European academics investigate the whereabouts of the mysterious German author Archimboldi, rumored to have been seen in the Northern Mexican border-city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have been murdered in recent years. (An article by Marcela Valdes in The Nation provides an excellent summary of the novel’s multiple plotlines, as well as details on its creation, which incorporates the experiences of a Mexican journalist whose life was threatened for his investigations, which revealed the complicity of local authorities in the ongoing murders.)
Santa Teresa, of course, is an analogue for Ciudad Juárez, and from here the novel moves backward in time, ever closer to the apogee of 20th century evil. If this is to be found in the bureaucratized slaughter of the Holocaust—the emblematic nightmare excess of modernity—we must deduce that the signature atrocity of the post-modern, globalized world is the impersonal murder of women in the Juárez femicide. These women, though their lives and deaths are all too real, exist in a typically post-modern limnal zone—at the margins of society while working at the most crucial points in global chains of commodity production; invisible in life but coldly registered by forensic analysis and in journalistic (and novelistic) accounts; simultaneously justifying the existence of the state repressive apparatus while giving evidence of its structures of corruption and impunity (See fellow human rights accompanier Moira Birss’ account “The Hidden Side of Violence in Ciudad Juárez” for a glimpse of what military occupation means for citizens of that city). They inhabit geographic and economic bodies scarred by clandestine dumps and cemeteries, narco-mansions and maquiladoras.
Bolaño’s conception of evil is not as an individual phenomenon, but as a social pathology. As in Juárez, the rapes and murders of women in Santa Teresa do not cease with the arrest of an individual suspect—Bolaño makes clear that social norms of machismo and inequality are the sources of this particular manifestation of evil, and the ongoing crimes (because we know that these crimes continue, in Juárez, in Guatemala, in all communities where women are objectified and subject to domination) become all the more horrific in their mass character. All of society is implicated in a world where vast numbers of beings are subjected to life on the margins, to survival in the place of dignity and well-being. Evil is complicity, corruption, an unconscious undercurrent of inhumanity in human interactions, surfacing in irrational explosions of violence such as the beating of an immigrant taxi driver in London by two of Bolaño’s literary critics, violence charged with racial and patriarchal dominance and quickly subsumed by justification, by self-serving guilt.
Similarly, the irrational logic of dreams breaks into waking narrative—Bolaño uses his characters’ half-remembered dreams as a powerful form of characterization, and his strongest imagery is found in moments of impossibly sharp, surrealistic detail. Bolaño’s omniscient narrator looks back on our era from a vantage point from which disaster extends to the horizon, the metropolis as a cemetary in the year 2666. Instead of the kaleidoscopic rush of monologues used in The Savage Detectives, here we experience a subtly shifting tone, with moments of clinical realism, noir dread, picaresque biographical episodes drawn against a backdrop of biblical horror, with divergences into found literary fragments, remembered letters, e-mails. As well as an exploration of the social metaphysics of evil, the novel is meta-literature about how we can come to partially know others, and the impossibility of truly knowing others, through text.
Looking forward to in 2011: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Charles Burns’ X’ed Out, Hombres de Maíz by Miguel Ángel Asturias (annotated version! …I’m such a geek), The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, investigating contemporary Guatemalan poetry, and anything else I can get my hands on by Roberto Bolaño…