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13 February 2008 @ 01:26 pm
Unsympathetic narrators: Bolaño, Shepard  
People in my writing group know that I’m a point of view slut.

I’ve been trying to understand why certain highly regarded contemporary literary works annoy me and why it’s a major struggle keeping my eyes on their pages. I keep having this horrible feeling that I have poor taste, or that my brains have liquified and are seeping out my ears, but now I think maybe not. I think I know what's happening.

This came as a result of reading work by two highly regarded writers whose work I can't stand: Roberto Bolaño and Jim Shepard .

Charlie Oberndorf, whose artistic taste, insight, and narrative skills I admire, suggested for our reading club a writer who fell into the category of Highly Respected Writer Whose Work Makes Me Want To Go Wash Dishes: Roberto Bolaño. I read only two of Bolaño's stories, plus some critical material about him. And I just don't want to read more. I just can't think that I'm ever going to fall in love with this guy's work. Sure, his prose (translated, I admit) is interesting. Sure, he doesn't commit clichés. So what is it?

The other writer whose work that makes me want to scream or shred paper is Jim Shepard. Again, I've only read three of the stories in Like You'd Understand Anyway, the shortest of which was almost bearable.

What is going on? Is this me? These guys have major creds: awards, critical praise, ABD's struggling to finish doctoral dissertations on them. So why am I not riveted to the page?

Is it that I don't like to spend a lot of time in the heads of people I consider not just evil, but also kind of stupid?

The narrator of Jim Shepard's " The First South Central Australian Expedition " is R. M. Beadle," an explorer who hauls a whaleboat into the interior of the Australian continent on the belief that there was a huge inland sea there. The narrator is really annoying. He was emotionally abused by his father and has spent the rest of his life trying to prove how brave he is by subjecting other men to his obsessive self-punishing. When the list of horrible diseases, masochistic proverbs, and impossibly high temperatures got to be actually funny, my impulse what to research whether R. M. Beadle was real. He may have been, but I can't find this out without more research than I really think the story deserves. If it's supposed to be a parody of explorer's diaries (and I'm pretty sure it's not) it goes on way too long. I just got tired of being in this jerk's head.

The next story I picked out was "Eros 7," about Valentina Valdimirovna Tereshkova. I have to admit, this story at least taught me once and for all how to spell this heroic woman's name. However, the story has a grim quality I found repellent. The premise is that she was in love with the cosmonaut in the other orbiter and that she really didn't have much interest in the space program, just wanted to get it on with him. Actually, I was able to track down some of Shephard's meticulous research, and he's got a lot of good detail on Valentina. Maybe she really was this stolid and, except for the obsession with a married man, unimaginative farm-girl/bureaucrat, but maybe she wasn't. I really can't understand why none of the incredible glory of the early space program didn't shine out in this story. Valentina did compete for the position; she wasn't plucked off the farm. Surely she would have been excited, exalted -- but no. The only grand passion she feels is for the other cosmonaut. Ho hum. I get the feeling that if I'd had the honor of meeting Shephard's Valentina (as opposed to the real one) that she would have been more interested in lipstick than in Mars.

The third story was "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian," which I picked out for its title. It was about a dysfunctional family where the narrator and his damaged brother are quite gifted but spend their time fighting. This one was short. It was short enough that I didn't feel that I had to slog through pages and pages of these nasty people destroying one another. Thank you!

Oh, and none of these stories had cats.

Do I think Jim Shepard is a great writer? Possibly. My taste for likable characters is perhaps a character flaw on my part. And God knows, Shepard knows how to do research. I have a sneaking suspicion that all that stuff about R. M. Beadle is true, and the reason the story goes on and on is that Shepard wanted to include all his little weird discoveries.

So anyway, unfairly, I'm judging him by three stories. Maybe I'm judging myself. Maybe I'll read another story, maybe even one of his novels, which sound interesting. (But then the stories sounded interesting.)

And maybe I still don't have the insight. I'm reminded of the fact that I love Nabokov's Pale Fire, and that has just as repellent a point of view character as Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I could invite Kinbote into my home and snicker at him behind my fan, but then he'd probably kill me.

(Someday I'd like to see somebody discuss homophobia in Nabokov -- )

As to Bolaño, well, I'm not going to read The Savage Detective until I work my way through that hundred-foot wall of classics.

Maybe if I get very very old and run out of anything else to read.
 
 
Current Location: where else?
Current Mood: curiouscurious
Current Music: Cage, maybe
 
 
 
(Anonymous) on February 13th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Roberto Bolaño
Some positive comments about Roberto Bolaño can be found here:

http://charlieosreadingroom.blogspot.com/

I'm not sure who the stupid people are in Bolaño. They read books, they are in love with literature, and they look for the salvation that literature promises and never delivers. There's not a lot of psychology in Bolaño; people make decisions based based on personality and individual impulses rather than motive, which is probably a more accurate reflection of human behavior. His characters make choices the way we often make choices, little of it influenced by rational choice. Plus Bolaño never works hard to explain or make us like his people; he leaves judgment to the reader. His narrators are eminently empathetic; they accept all forms of human behavior from their protagonists.
--Charlie O.
Marie Lillian Vibbertreasie on February 13th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
Dude, it's not you! I mean, Nabakov made his repellent narrators interesting. That's the writer's job. Isn't it? (Also, at least in my mind, there was always this feeling of, well, the author and the reader being in cohoots, like Nabakov was exchanging meaningful glances with us through the words to say "Isn't he a dick? Don't you hate him? Me too!" Sounds like this guy presents his unlikeable narrators without that wry touch of spice.)

AND I'm foaming at the mouth to hear of this anti-feminist portrayal of a cosmonaut! Grrr! Of COURSE because women don't do anything for anything but men, right? *shreds paper*

Why should we read things we don't want to read? HUFF!
(Anonymous) on February 14th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
Dude, it's not you?
But it is! That's why we sometimes scratch our heads and say why do all these other people think this stuff is so great? I never understood why people thought Perdido Street Station was so well written. But there are many who love it. --Charlie O.
Marymaryturzillo on February 14th, 2008 01:53 am (UTC)
Re: Dude, it's not you?
Okay, I confess, I loved Perdido Street Station. Women with beetles for heads, a guilt-ridden and mutilated garuda, funny little vacuum cleaner guys with personalities, dreamshit -- what's not to like? And I liked Isaac's fundamental innocence.

So here's a question for you, Charlie: what story or novel by Bolanõ was it that first seduced your imagination? I mean, I may be a victim of poor choices by the New Yorker fiction editor.

(And I hope this story or novel is in English -- )
Marymaryturzillo on February 14th, 2008 04:31 am (UTC)
Re: Dude, it's not you?
Okay, I just ordered Last Evenings on Earth and The Savage Detectives from CCPL. We shall see.

By the way, I'm not the one who is screening comments. Apparently LiveJournal screens comments for whatever reason: I think either when a new person posts a comment, or when a person posts a comment disagreeing with the blog host. But I'm not sure. Anyway, don't take it personally. I will unscreen as soon as I find out about it.
(Anonymous) on February 15th, 2008 02:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Dude, it's not you?
Years ago I had an argument with a former Hamster. She called me a snob for not liking Sue Grafton. (How could someone who owns all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer be called a snob, I don't know). I explained that I read about a page a minute, usually 30 minutes a day and before I could finish, she said, Oh, I read her books in less than two hours. They're not worth 5 or 6 hours.

I found the prose of Perdido Street Station to be kind of clunky, and the darkness forced. At some point the monster gets loose and all sorts of things are attacking it, and I felt like I was reading Japanese anime on the page. I just lost interest. A lot of sf readers read quicker than I do, and therefore are less bothered by prose issue and occasional slowness of plot. I'm actually sorry I can't read faster; I think I'd enjoy more genre writing if I did.
(Anonymous) on February 15th, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Dude, it's not you?
Years ago I had an argument with a former Hamster. She called me a snob for not liking Sue Grafton. (How could someone who owns all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer be called a snob, I don't know). I explained that I read about a page a minute, usually 30 minutes a day and before I could finish, she said, Oh, I read her books in less than two hours. They're not worth 5 or 6 hours.

I found the prose of Perdido Street Station to be kind of clunky, and the darkness forced. At some point the monster gets loose and all sorts of things are attacking it, and I felt like I was reading Japanese anime on the page. I just lost interest. A lot of sf readers read quicker than I do, and therefore are less bothered by prose issue and occasional slowness of plot. I'm actually sorry I can't read faster; I think I'd enjoy more genre writing if I did.
--Charlie O.
Mary: kitty and dragon lock eyesmaryturzillo on February 15th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Dude, it's not you?
Hm. Maybe I do read too fast. Slow reading is for poetry or something really really delicious, just like slow eating. I admit when I find I'm not enjoying something, it does make me want to read faster, to get it over with, sort of like an unappetizing dish consumed in front of a proud gourmet cook.

And maybe Bolaño is much better in Spanish.

I also admit I sort of hate "beautiful" style. It makes me want to puke. I like flash, I like vivid metaphors, staccato stabs of novelty -- but I also like respect. I like a feeling that the narrative is aimed at me, not above my head or to somebody much superior to me in either morals or intellect. And a profusion of irrelevant metaphors or a reliance on pretty words makes a narrative seem like what an old curmudgeon I used to know called "word salad." There's a tendency toward this in contemporary fantasy: instead of letting us gather our feelings about the heroine (it's usually a heroine) ourselves, we are offered a buffet table of flowers, colors, pretty scents, musical motifs, and fairy-tale creatures. Pretty pretty pretty and oh, yes, so unfortunate, her stepmother beat her and killed her sister. Pretty pretty.

Let's have a little dissonance, for Pete's sake!

Not that Bolaño or Shepard indulge in word-salads -- I'm just defending my range, or maybe lack of range, I don't know.

However: the original post in this blog was meant not as an attack, but as a plaintive question: why do I dislike some narrators? If I find them boring or repellent, is it okay for me to pass and find something I do like? And is that the issue? Or if I soldiered and read ten more books by the same writer, would some wonderful light dawn?

Does anybody besides (and maybe my husband) have difficulty reading narratives with a point of view character we wouldn't like to sit next to on a flight to LA? (I'm sorry, but I would have put a blanket over my head if I'd been seated next to the Insufferable Gaucho. Or Shepard's whiny fictional Valentina.)

As to Perdido Street Station, I didn't find it dark; I found it playful and wicked and full of claw-pricks like a huge kitten on the attack. I think it's literature. I'm not sure Sue Grafton is literature, anymore than a huge Dove bar is gourmet food, but I like it. She deserves every penny of her royalties.

Oops. Now I'm being commercial. And my own work is not terrifically commercial, heaven only knows.
(Anonymous) on February 15th, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
Are you sitting next to me on the airplane?
I'll write about this at length elsewhere, but the truth is, I really don't want to read about almost anyone who'd make a great travel companion, unless I'm reading a travel book. I actually think you'd love the Insufferable Gaucho as a travel companion while he's a good father, judge, lawyer. But he's incredibly an interesting person as he transforms himself into a gaucho straight out of literature. And given the way Bolano compresses time, I'm not sure he's a point of view character in the very traditional sense. Worse, I wouldn't want to travel with Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Don Quijote, Raskolnikov, or half the characters in Grahame Greene. This is personal taste, but I want fiction about interesting people, not likable people. The likable people I want as my friends. Think of how much great fiction depends on the main character making the wrong choice, the one we hope we wouldn't make ourselves. --Charlie O.
sloopie72.wordpress.com on May 3rd, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC)
I Finally Get It!
Hi Mary - I don't know if you're still keeping up with this blog, but I just read your comments on "The First South Central Australian Expedition" and had to thank you for changing my outlook completely - you're right, it's a comedy! And it's hilarious!

I too have been slogging through this book, though in order, and I've been enjoying parts of it but have been weighed down by the cruelty and bullying that goes on. And, in this case, the stupidity. Shepard said he was exploring masculinity, but I have to keep reminding myself there are men who are capable of kindness and gentleness as I read this. I was on the brink of giving up but your comments here have encouraged me to persevere, keeping a humorous possibility in mind.

So thanks!

Karen Carlson and Zin Kenter
A Just Recompense
http://sloopie72.wordpress.com
Marymaryturzillo on August 1st, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
Re: I Finally Get It!
I'm not posting a whole lot -- too much on my plate. But thanks for your comment. I keep wondering what kind of people Bolano and Shepard are. Many of us, including a woman who used to work as a book doctor, believe that our fiction reflects our character. So, one wonders.

Yeah, bullying and cruelty are not characteristics of masculinity, but rather of fear, stupidity, and anger. They can be feminine, too. Like almost any human vice, or virtue.