Sunday, January 9, 2011

Savage Tenderness

It's a rare thing for a novel, no matter how great, and no matter how enjoyable, to provide the reader with pure pleasure. As a teenager I experienced this a few times: with Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pride and Prejudice, and The Trial. Not until my late 20s and early 30s did I experience something close to it again: with The Woman in White, Huckleberry Finn, and Swann's Way. All six books are, obviously, extremely different, and many other novels at the top of my “favourites” list (The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, Two Serious Ladies, Pere Goriot, Sister Carrie) do not fall under this category; not to mention the many great novels that I'm glad I read but that intermittently bored me (Middlemarch, Bleak House, Clarissa) or irritated or upset me (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) in the reading.

I was beginning to think that I would never fully have this reading experience of untrammelled pleasure again, that it was something reserved for a young person newly discovering literature that could only be faintly glimpsed by the jaded older reader, when I finally started reading The Savage Detectives. In a couple of days I'm already on page 78, which is speed-reading for this casualty of the internet/ADD era, and there has not been a single sentence that doesn't fill me with delight, wonder, and a cozy, grateful sense of the author's spiritual generosity. This is the first time I've ever read a book that makes me fantasize about buying copies to give, not to everyone I know, but to several select friends and acquaintances who, I think, would also love its ingenuous vision of youthful intellectual bohemia (or vision of ingenuous youthful intellectual bohemia?), and I'd do it if I weren't broke. When I recently read Bolano's posthumously published 2666, I felt fairly certain I was reading a masterpiece, and entirely certain I was reading something brilliant, strange, wild and wonderful that made the 900ish pages pass without any moments of boredom, though not always without effort. In the case of The Savage Detectives, I couldn't care less if it's a masterpiece or not. The pleasure of the reading experience has obliterated those nagging, anxious questions of evaluation that can cloud the reading of contemporary literature.

What's remarkable is just how different The Savage Detectives and 2666 are, although they have the same translator, Natasha Wimmer. 2666 is a dark work, to say the least, which at times seems to have been written by a Lynchian surrealist psychotic. Although Bolano's interest in whores, pimps, sex and sadomasochism are already evident not even 100 pages into The Savage Detectives, its mood is, nonetheless, bright, light, exuberant, and infused with a warm glow of innocence. Bolano has suggested that The Savage Detectives is his homage to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the voice of Bolano's teenage initial narrator, Juan Garcia Madero, isn't nearly as dark and melancholic as Huck Finn's is from the start of Twain's novel. In fact it's hard to say just what allows the reader to be interested in such a naive protagonist. Maybe it's just his Bildungsroman blankness, onto which the reader can project his or her own teenage experiences, but Bolano renders that blankness with tenderness rather than harsh irony. Harold Bloom once made a fantastic distinction by saying that Jane Austen's relationship to her characters is one of ironic love rather than loving irony; I think he was right, but Bolano's attitude to Madero is the more familiar loving irony, which works fine for his novel.

Something I have not seen mentioned in reviews and blog posts about The Savage Detectives is its feminism. I'm one of those cranky female readers who gets tired of the way that later 20th century Anglo-American novels (not to mention films, especially independent films, but that's for another blog) by men almost always feature male protagonists and give the male perspective, in contrast to the habits of male novelists of the 19th century, who frequently centered their works on heroines. I was braced from what I'd read and heard for The Savage Detectives to be a “boy's” novel about a “boy's” world, and so it is, but Bolano's literary utopianism effortlessly includes women (who are strong, in control, and sexually, intellectually and politically active) and homosexuals without ever incurring political correctness (the endless descriptions of blow jobs take care of that). The women in The Savage Detectives may be fantasies (so, for that matter, are the men), but they're fantasies that a female reader can enjoy as well, like so many late 20th century Mexican Baby Millamonts.

I have heard, however, that the formal experimentation to come causes the book to lag and even ruins it for some, so perhaps my initial reading experience will not be my final one. I am not a reviewer, and hence I feel free to check back with more gushing as I go along or with any observations that might merit a post. I've decided, incidentally, to lock posts against comments until I've written a few of them and have a sense of what this blog is supposed to be and until any readers, besides the half-dozen friends who might check in, can respond to a body of ideas rather than isolated flippancies.