Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of Punk Fairies, Millennial Fiction and Two Dead Authors

Are Roberto Bolano and Stieg Larsson strange millennial literary doppelgangers? Two foreign-language authors who have become North American literary sensations, they were born in 1953 and 1954 respectively, started writing fiction late, and each died at the age of 50, leaving behind the works that made their fame, Larsson's bestselling triology and Bolano's 900-page masterpiece, and fans entranced by the “mystery” of their lives and ouevres. I haven't discovered such an intriguing, unlikely generational connection since I learned through idle googling, thanks to Wikipedia, that Jerry Lewis and Allen Ginsberg were born four months apart, in 1926, in Newark.

I haven't read Larsson's “Millennium Trilogy” and have no intention of doing so, but this New Yorker article by Joan Acocella caught me up on it and Larsson. Even if Larsson obligingly turned himself into an enigma by dropping dead of a heart attack (he subsisted on hamburgers and cigarettes, according to Acocella) and the publishing industry decided to cash in on his posthumous moment of fame by coming out with books about him, it's still quite unusual to see this much attention devoted to an author of commercial fiction, unless they're Stephen King. Larsson, it would seem, and as Acocella's article suggests, captured the flavour of the millennium – much like his warmer climate-twin, Bolano.

What does millennial fiction look like? Well, it looks about exactly the way we might expect it to. Larsson and Bolano, in the “Millennium Trilogy” and 2666, are overtly feminist authors who are obsessed with rape and other horrific crimes against women to such an extent that one might suspect that their graphic interest in the subject has a prurient aspect for both author and reader. (2666 could easily – if somewhat clumsily – have been called Men Who Hate Women, the Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) Larsson writes detective crime fiction; Bolano incorporates this pulp genre into his postmodern pastische style. Both authors have a grisly fascination not only with violent crimes against women but with anal rape (either gender). It just goes to show how, as Leslie Fielder asserted in Love and Death in the American Novel, high art has more in common with trash than it does with the middlebrow (the latter the real enemy of art, according to Fiedler). And if, as Acocella suggests, Larsson's turn-of-the-millennium technological up-to-dateness is a strong part of the trilogy's appeal, Bolano's quirky interest in the occult (UFOs and other New Agery) infuses 2666 (which, as a sci-fi fan friend pointed out to me, has a vaguely sci-fi title), in particular, with a dark and eerie portentousness that's perfect for millennial representation. Which, incidentally, hasn't changed much since Ziggy Stardust in the 70s and Blade Runner in the 80s. (Bolano was a Philip K. Dick fan.)

Of course Larsson's novels also have more fashionable trappings of up-to-dateness, notably the tattoos and piercings of his heroine, whom Larsson has transported from the cult genre of steampunk (or cyberpunk, or whatever – I don't follow them) into the thriller mainstream. And it's about time, since the average middle-class North American teenage girl shares Lisbeth's fashion sense nowadays, and its absence from mainstream fiction (literary or commercial) suggests just how conservative mainstream writers are. And unnecessarily conservative, because I can tell you as a sometime bookstore clerk that the readers most excited by the trilogy are women over 55. But then, we're talking about puritan millennial North America, where the mere fact that Bolano and Larsson smoked makes them seem like daring, dangerous radicals in a way that their leftist politics never could, and where forbidden vicarious thrills are the rule. Hell, even Norman Mailer quit smoking before he died (which he goes on about at some length in, I believe, On God)!

But it was the nonliterary Swede, not the Latin American genius, who created a memorable female protagonist, thus defying the rule of 20th century fiction (at least Anglo-American fiction and fiction popular in this part of the world) by male authors that I lamented in passing in an earlier post. One can lay it at the doorstep of Proust, Joyce, and Kafka, perhaps, that as the novel became increasingly subjective, protagonist and author became more closely aligned, and male authors moved away from occupying the perspective of women; or perhaps we should blame creative writing courses and their tiresome “write what you know” dictum. What's perhaps a bit depressing is that even in cutting-edge 21st century fiction, the female detective thriller protagonist is the same sexy, sensational, “futuristic” anomaly that she was when Wilkie Collins published The Woman in White in 1860, inspiring male readers to propose marriage to his anti-Victorian heroine Marian Halcombe.

I have to confess I was puzzled by Acocella's complaint about the “anti-masculinist” qualities of the male protagonist, Mikail. (Her description of him immediately put me in mind of John Simm's character, the problematic 21st century male par excellence, in the recent BBC detective crime/sci-fi series Life on Mars.) Perhaps there's a problem with going to anti-masculinist extremes in the portrayal of a male protagonist, but Acocella doesn't specify what those problems are, which makes it seem like a personal distaste. Her description of Mikail's lack of interest in sex intrigued me, dangling the possibility that the kinky Swedish author has psychological peculiarities to which formula thrillers are immune, and which enliven Wilkie Collins's work. One readily believes, looking at photos of the elfin, willowy Larsson that he had what Acocella calls "a sprite - a punk fairy" inside him dying to get out and wreak havoc.

Who knows – Larsson might even be a new Wilkie Collins, a bestselling thriller author who'll stand the test of time but only very gradually be accepted as a classic. I'll never know, since I'm unlikely to read his trilogy due to my allergy to bad prose of either the commercial fiction or literary fiction variety. “Good prose” (e.g. Faulkner) often dates; whereas bad prose (Collins, who even in his best work, such as The Women in White, The Moonstone and Armadale, is often floridly melodramatic) may age well, because as the decades pass one becomes less concerned about the author getting everything right and simply willing to accept the pleasures that have given lasting works their reputation (in Collins's case, gloriously eccentric, bewilderingly androgynous characters, Gothic melodrama thrills and roller coaster plots).