Thursday, January 27, 2011

Of "Incidental" Contributors to Literary Meaning

A friend pointed out to me that there was no need to cite a friend (or other expert) on the topic of the sci-fi-ness of the title 2666. Also, that although the novel/author may properly be described as "vaguely sci-fi," the sci-fi-ity of the title is not in question. I suppose what I'd meant to indicate by citing my friend is that I would not have thought anything about the genre of the title (if titles have genres), even if I couldn't help but notice it. In a work as vaguely sci-fi as 2666, a specifically sci-fi title contributes something (I couldn't tell you the exact amount) to the overall sci-fi-ness of the work.

What caught my eye, or imagination, a lot more than the title, actually, was the cover of the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition, depicting Gustave Moreau's Jupiter and Semele - one of the cleverest acts of upscale book marketing I've seen. I am normally quite adept at resisting the attempts of publishers to appeal to overeducated tastes with their beautiful and elegant cover designs and image choices. The truth is, though, that without the Moreau cover, I may never have bought or read 2666 despite the strong recommendation of a friend (the same friend who debates my use of "vaguely" above). In the first place, there's simply the striking visual impact of that busy painting on a giant trade paperback. Second, there's the "insider" appeal of throwing out a reference that assumes the reader will have a working knowledge of art as well as literary "taste." Third (and it is last and least, at least for me), there's the thematic and stylistic connection (and if I recall correctly, Bolano does namecheck Moreau in the book, but not a specific painting). The connotations of the Moreau painting include decadence and a crowded Mannerist complexity that not all readers/gazers will appreciate; a certain obscurity of meaning combined with obscure menace and undercurrents of sexual violence.

All of these connotations are, of course, an appropriate preparation for the reading experience. But it goes further. Did the person or team who chose this cover also consider the connotation that Semele is the mother of Dionysus - referenced in The Savage Detectives? On the apocalyptic connotations of the title - did the person consider that they were creating a link with Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" (where rape, prophesy and fate are connected as in 2666)?

Hey - in the internet age, this is easy to find out! Charlotte Strick is the cover designer, and the choice of the Moreau painting (19th century, not 18th century as the journal has it!), "apocalyptic and kind of insane," came from her editor (the FSG editor, I assume?), Lorin Stein. However, the edition discussed in this interview features three volumes with three art-referencing covers. I had one hardcore po-mogasm (wow, horrifying coinage) when I learned that the second cover featured the work of Cy Twombly - brilliant! Even more obscure - the artist and the meanings of his paintings! Oh, the taste involved! The exclusivity! (I'm not joking about my excitement, although I'm being sarcastic at my own expense.)

Twombly - introduced to me by the same friend who reprimanded me for my vague use of "vaguely." Perhaps this info will make it up to him, if he didn't know it already. But all in all, it's probably time to open this blog to comments, not that I'm expecting a flood, or for that matter trickle. Maybe an occasional tickle.

So, what does Twombly contribute to "The Part About the Crimes" (weird choice)? Discuss! My instinct is to say that we've gone a little bit too far in taste, and something is being masked here - but, I am almost wholly ignorant of Twombly as a context, or as much more than a name.

And what does this sort of packaging do to our interpretation not just of the book, but of Bolano as an author? Personally, I find Bolano, even in 2666, barely experimental. He's idiosyncratic, like Jane Bowles or Robert Walser transferred from the brain of a miniaturist to the brain of a maximalist; at times he's surrealist, at other times Lynchean (a particular kind of dark surrealism for which there's no other word). And he likes really long sentences, but they're not particularly syntactically complex - on the contrary, they're usually comma-spliced together. Yet the packaging seems to want to flatter the reader: to beckon: you with the references, this stuff is difficult to understand, but you've got the intelligence and cultural preparation for it. In contrast, I look at a Twombly and I don't have a clue what he's after or what I'm supposed to think (sometimes I think: "pretty," but that's as far as it goes). But maybe that just goes to show that I'm less comfortable with abstract expressionism than I am with narrative (literary or cinematic) surrealism.

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