Last January, after I came home from winter residency at my MFA program, I fell ill with bronchitis. My doctor prescribed antibiotics. I suffered a gripping moral dilemma. I called my doctor.
“Antibiotics are harmful,” I said. “I’m not taking antibiotics.”
“Okay,” she said. “But you risk death.”
I took the antibiotics. I flopped on the couch for five days, recovered from the bronchitis, and suffered the side-effects of the treatment: low-grade fever, chills, stomach cramps, massively high blood-sugar, and a feeling of despondency. I Googled too. My antibiotic, ZITHROMAX®, I learned, is the one antibiotic that might cause mental imbalance.
I also read books. I read Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I read Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men. A passage in Gessen’s novel (about a literary hero named Morris Binkel)–the passage, not the novel–struck me:
“Binkel called for a renewal of an adversary culture – the young writers of today, said Binkel, were social climbers, timid and weak; they stood around at parties in New York waiting to be noticed, waiting to be liked. He reserved his especial scorn for his own people, for young Jewish writers, who had once been the bravest and the most outrageous, and now were the most timid, the most polished, kow-towing to their elder’s ideas of orthodoxy and demeanor…No one spoke anymore from the heart, said Binkel, and it was a shame.”
I wasn’t sure whether Gessen was actually making fun of the “adversary culture,” at least in the way Binkel talks about it (Binkel, in the end, turned out to be an embodiment of abject unhappiness). But the idea spoke to me as a worthy pronouncement: great writing speaks from the heart.
Reading Gessen’s book after Bolaño’s book I felt different forces at work–different voices speaking from different places. Gessen’s book, engaged eruditely with politics, sex, and the modern slacker milieu is product of a keen, wry mind. The sentences are compact; the chapters compact. The novel reads briskly. It seems carefully planned, executed, revised: a calculated affair. Bolaño’s book, on the other hand, engaged with politics, sex, and its own (strange) milieu, is a torrent, sloppy in places, ugly in places, sometimes maddening.
I adored The Savage Detectives.
Gessen’s book wowed me. I was impressed with the pacing, the intellectual rigor. In the end, though, the writing was lifeless, as if Gessen were following some formula he had learned at the great institutions he had attended.
Natasha Wimmer writes in her introduction to The Savage Detectives:
“For Bolaño and the others, rejecting a career in poetry was a way of taking poetry as seriously as life itself—and vice versa. If the author lived what he wrote in spirit, Bolaño liked to say, the reader would naturally feel the urgency and live it too:” If the poet is caught up in things; the reader will have to be caught up.”
To me, Gessen’s book is just too smart, too polished. The moments of introspection and passion come off as hackneyed.
I like messiness. I think you find that in great books: in Bolaño’s book or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao. To call Diaz “messy” might seem ridiculous, but I mean that as a compliment. the courage to be messy, to put the mess of life on the page, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies (the characters in Gessen’s book are NOT weird) and let it stand, despite what it might do to the pace, the plot.
Now I’m reading (fighting?) Bolaño’s 2666. For vast stretches of pages I’ve found myself utterly absorbed. Recently, I had to take a break from the book to read Peter Benchley’s JAWS. 2666 crushes me; JAWS entertains me (even as it freaks me out). As the reviews on the back cover suggest it’s “tightly written”, “tautly paced”, “a fine story told with style, class, and splendid feeling for suspense.”
2666 is often tight, taut, and suspenseful, but it’s also tedious (and it’s often the opposite of tight: unwound, massive). And yet, the sole review on its book jacket calls it “one of the cornerstones that define an entire literature.”
Why do the messy books always end up defining an entire literature?
I like what Bolaño himself has to say about it, in 2666, in the guise of one of his characters, Amalfitano, who has just asked a young pharmacist: What books do you like? What books do you read?
“Amalfitano asked him…just to make conversation. Without turning the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Christmas Carol…there was something revelatory about the taste of the bookish young pharmacist…who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no real interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
What is that something?
I call it heart: bloody, wounded, reeking of mess. Great books, to me, show something of the struggle of the writer and craftsman, but they also show the struggles of a human being, the messy, ugly (and beautiful) life. Of course, not every book has to be about real combat. But really, if you’re not fighting why write?