Roberto Bolaño: “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker

New Yorker art: courtesy of Jacques Henric

And yet there are certain features of the photo (something about the arrangement of the objects, the petrified, musical rhododendron, two of its leaves invading the space of the ficus like clouds within a cloud, the grass growing in the planter, which looks more like fire than grass, the everlasting leaning whimsically to the left, the glasses in the center of the table, well away from the edges, except for Kristeva’s, as if the other members of the group were worried they might fall) that suggest a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women.

I have spent all my reading/researching/commenting time of the past four days on this story, and I still can’t force myself to finish it. No more. I don’t think it’s a story; I think it’s a joke. Ha ha, you fell for it, reader, this nonsense masquerading as literature, simply because it’s clothed with the name of a Famous Author. And, to boot, fictionalizes Major Authors and Very Deep People as characters, so it must be worth spending time on, to mine for the brilliance therein. Maybe. But it’s way over my head, and not very interesting.

Judge for yourself; it’s available online. The Book Bench won’t help you in this case (it’s more of a guide to Bolaño’s collected works), although there is an interesting observation, considering the story is about this group of extreme intellectuals:

“He was something of an anachronism: a great novelist who was not a great writer. You have to go back to Balzac and Dostoyevsky to find masters of the novel form who showed so little interest in the sentence. Indeed, Bolaño seems to disdain Jamesian refinement and polish, and this disdain is of a piece with his broader skepticism toward literary people, or merely literary people—those whose hunger for books is unmatched by a hunger for life.”

The story starts with three pages of detailed description of the photograph, as you see it above. Each person. What he or she is wearing. Where each is looking. And the plants, which may be the key to the whole story, the interweaving of their lives.

He then imagines one of the diners at a café waiting for someone who doesn’t show; maybe that no-show is another of the diners, and he’s been out gallivanting around Paris, looking for action: “Let’s imagine…that his absence on this occasion is strategic, as amorous absences nearly always are.”

That’s an interesting little thread. But he starts over again, re-imagining the couples. He comes back to the table, then goes into who the ladies are looking at outside the frame of the picture. I can’t even follow who sleeps with whom, except the married couples tend to have arguments. I’m not sure why arguments in literature tend to take on dramatic importance. When I was married, the arguments I had with my husband were merely infuriating. Maybe Very Deep People have Very Deep Arguments, while the rest of us just fight.

Ok, I’m being snarky, and while that’s great fun with reality TV, it’s inappropriate for Literature. I was looking forward to this story, since I recently discovered “I Just Read About That,” and Paul is a major Bolaño fan. But I’m out of my league here. Perhaps the guy who looks more like a construction worker acts in a way that either conforms to that image, or contrasts with it. Maybe the ladies looking off at something/someone else have an interesting reason to be distracted. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn, and I’ve spent far too much time spinning my wheels, looking for something that may or may not be there. So I will back away, and just move on to something else. But by all means, if I’ve piqued your interest, go have a look. And if you find something interesting, please come back and tell me about it.

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11 responses to “Roberto Bolaño: “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker

  1. I feel bad that I inspired you to read a guy and you started with this one! WIthout getting all “Bolano loves jokes” on you, I think you’re right that this was some kind of joke (although really not very funny). This was a tough piece, and probably not all that worth it. I won’t try to persuade you otherwise. Although I did enjoy the opening descriptions of all the people in the photo.

    • Hi Jim – thanks for commenting. I’ll stop by your blog later on to see your post. Several people blog about New Yorker stories – Cliff Garstang at Perpetual Folly, Aaron Riccio at Fail Better, Trevor at Mookse and Gripes, Paul at I Just Read About That. It’s the word nerd’s version of sport, I guess. ;) The more the merrier.

      • “The word nerd’s version of sport” — I may very well quote you on that, Karen, though I may have to defer to the cruciverbalist tournaments on that one. But I’m glad we’re able to connect in the Internet age to discuss stories like this — particularly ones that don’t always make sense on their surface alone, that require some parsing, or benefit from added dimensions. After all, if fiction doesn’t inspire dialogue, then it’s as dead as the paper it’s printed on (or the flickering pixels it’s appearing on).

  2. Pingback: BASS 2012: Getting Started | A Just Recompense

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