Category Archives: Essays & Interviews

Hidden Door Theory on Pynchon, Bolaño, etc.

the-crying-of-lot-49-cover

A lot of writers tease the reader with a hidden door. Pynchon does this in The Crying of Lot 49. Wallace does it with Infinite Jest. Bolaño in 2666. And Stephen King in The Dark Tower.

They spend a whole book describing it. They build a history of the eternal search for it. The reader is immersed in the lives of its detectives. He reads about each journey ending in failure after failure after failure but still believes that the author will live up to a certain promise.

He is finally taken right up to the door. He is even allowed to touch it, to turn the knob that leads to the meaning of life, the purpose of everything, and maybe even god himself. But the door is locked, leads nowhere, or vanishes completely.

The reader finishes the book disappointed. He calls the book anti-climactic, like a fool, because he wasn’t paying attention. There was never any deception pulled or promise made. The writer kept telling him that this was a book of dead ends. But the reader hates it because he’s been reading the wrong book.

Or even worse he loves it because he still believes it to be that same book promising the revelation of a cosmic secret. He reads it again and again looking for all the hidden clues that will finally open the door this time around. He convinces himself that the book is a cipher and all he needs is the right key to decode it.

But the true reader knows from the beginning that the author is only a man like himself who is befuddled by the same eternal questions. He knows that life and death are false doors and nothing lies beyond either end. The true reader knows the purpose is to acquiesce to living in the dead ends. He knows that the epic novels of Melville, Kafka, and DeLillo attempt an ordering of reality only so they can confront our mortal inability to ever understand the chaos.

Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?

When an interviewer asked Claire Messud if she could see herself being friends with her unlikable main character, she came up with this great response:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’ “

An appropriate answer to a ridiculous question.

Humanity is inherently flawed, so of course, great literature seeks to reflect this reality. These characters seem exaggeratedly more despicable than those we know in our daily lives because the novel as a form allows us into their minds in a way that is not possible outside of fiction. In life, we present our friends with the best aspects of ourselves. In contrast, fiction sheds light on those parts we would otherwise hide–the shame, the guilt, the embarrassments.

Let us not forget, that in the world of Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert is quite charming. If we were on the other side of that text, we would quite possibly be taken in by this handsome fraud.

You can also head to The New Yorker to read how Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, and other novelists answer this same question.

Review: Varamo by César Aira

varamo

Varamo reconstructs the events that lead a lowly civil servant in the city of Cólon to the creation of a cultural masterpiece. It is an academic detective story about the search for the origin of artistic inspiration, reminiscent of the Borgesian trick of turning literary theory into the mechanics of a plot.

Aira presents this novel as a scholarly essay written as a fictional narrative. The narration even muses on its own use of the free indirect style, a technique that allows the reader into the consciousness of the artist—our main character—thus baring witness to the creative process as it occurs in the mind. An impossible accessibility that our narrator explains is possible because of the vastness of the resulting masterpiece. An epic poem so encompassing of the artist’s time and place that it even captures the moments of its own creation.

The novel begins at the end of a workday, as Varamo picks up his weekly pay from the government and discovers that the bills are counterfeit. This is an incident that is indicative of the deteriorating state of the country, which at that moment, selects him for solitary persecution.  The resulting chain of events is then composed of the routinely insignificant agonies of this meek individual lost among the masses. In these crowds he meets the strange characters that make their home in the chaos of the city, roaming the margins of the greater political movements, where they play the roles of distant spectators, ignored commentators, and occasionally as bit players in the larger drama.

It is within these lives that Varamo, who has never “written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry,” finds the motivation and material to build a voice for himself and others of his kind, shaping their anonymous suffering into epic form. But Cesar Aira hasn’t given us the text of this landmark poem. In its absence he seems to be asking us whether we want the mythic epic poem or the intimate meta novel? Which gets closer to the truth of our lives? Is any form really ever able to capture the complexity of our minds and the vastness of our stage? Is it necessary to choose one over the other?