January 23, 2009
Bolaño and "The Big Book of the Decade"
I'm slightly taken aback by the wave of Bolañomania sweeping the English-speaking world. Like the indie-elitist I am, I tend only to like books or records if they're unknown or unloved by everyone else. The misfittery is part of what makes them loveable. Now I find myself caught up in the giant shitstorm that is the international Bolaño bull market. Was he a heroin addict (who cares?)? How many more "lost" books did he have hidden on a campsite in Southern France (how many can the Jackal write?)? And so on... It's a "buy Bolano, sell DFW" situation. He's the only dead-author stock that's going up.
It's funny how once a decade we get a huge "totalising" book that everyone goes nuts about (even James Wood, who will then spend the next ten years slagging off every book that follows in its wake). There was "Gravity's Rainbow" in 1973, "Life A User's Manual" in 1987, "Infinite Jest" in 1996 and now "2666" in 2008/9. And the rest of the time this sort of writing (which Woods famously termed "hysterical realism," calling for a post-9/11 return to the smaller canvas of books about the sons of vicars writing books about sons of vicars just as his own first novel about a son of a vicar came out...) gets sneered at, mainly by the likes of Alfred Hickling at the Guardian (who said that "Savage Detectives" was masturbatory. Dunce). It's as if one exception is allowed every ten years or so, and everyone waxes lyrical about it before returning to write neat and tidy books with very little ambition at all. So, as the likes of Vollman have found out, if you're going to write "the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown" (Bolaño) you'd better make sure your timing is spot on. And if you're about to embark on such a work now, make sure you spend the best part of a decade on it...