Literary culture—the lives of books—doesn’t truly begin without criticism. Despite the anxiety over canons, it’s refreshing to see two new series giving the book-length treatment to recent classics: Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked commentaries, and …AFTERWORDS, launched by Fiction Advocate. Presented as casual meditations for avid readers, these books guide discussions toward an ideal public forum that is rarely given time to grow after an initial rapid-fire book release, or is abandoned altogether by scholarly specialization. Because these books are books, they sympathize with the many roundabout ways that a book can meander toward sustained public attention, while justifying the attention drawn to a notable book with necessary assistance from critical insight.
To consider just three examples from these unfolding collections, books stumble onto the scene in a number of ways, or don’t. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, in Natasha Wimmer’s 2008 English translation, came with New York red-carpet book world buzz (although some American readers and critics had been paying close attention for over a decade). Mark Z. Danielewski’s turn-of-this-century cult classic, House of Leaves, sold many copies for such a formally challenging novel, and continues to enjoy prestige among many younger, adventurous readers. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, along with other Raymond Carver short story collections from the ‘70s and ‘80s, conversely, is institutional, as essential as classroom chairs and the active voice to creative writing programs everywhere. Beyond the recounting of the origins of these artifacts, the new studies introduce a critical distance—in the first two cases, the distance of passing time; in the third, a removal from the classroom milieu. Each attempts to grasp the history recorded in the documents and relate that history with what we’re doing now as readers.
I believe the relationship between such projects and current book culture is extremely, though cunningly, adversarial. The authors of the studies in question, along with their publishers, in some cases internalize the sales chatter that drowns out genuine book discussion; yet, they nonetheless press forward on their alternative project, as a service to readers. They are so aware of the situation that they will even adopt the language of the opposition. Of the Bookmarked series, Ig Publishing positions their wares as “no-holds barred personal narrative.” Nobody can discern this caveat from the enticing graphically-creased cover design, even with the accomplished author credited under each spare title. Since at least Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol or Sartre’s Saint Genet, the value of a respected writer’s take on another writer has been self-evident, without having to dwell too long on the influence one’s work had on the other. If the only measure of a book is how it inspired a later writer to write other books, it begs the question—when do we get to the books??
Introspective autobiographical criticism long predates the deluge of online customer reviews and the dirty habit of retweeting unread links. And landmarks like Nicholson Baker’s U & I (on John Updike’s work and the act of misremembering that work), as well as Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson have proved life-changing for at least one reader. But they are not just readerly and approachable—they’re also writerly (and sometimes slightly baroque). Buried within their achievements lie the seeds of free association and self-searching that have mutated into ghastly purchase recommendations, listicles, and blind neglect of the book at hand, of subjective whims and commercial winds. This opposition to a healthy book culture hides behind an embellishment of modernism’s Intentional Fallacy. Attention first shifts from the inconsequential author’s biography to a dramatic autobiographical testimony by the reader. As with other populist claims, the reason for this shift sounds good at first. Power to the reader and to everybody’s unique reading experience. Oscar Wilde called autobiography both the highest and lowest forms of criticism. But is it the only kind? Are all personalizing critics fully coopting sales speak responsibly, or do some actually think that people should be egged on from book to book by a sweaty Crossfit trainer? From this wider angle, readerly autobiography can be seen as just the endpoint in a sales cycle that began by severing the commodity from its producer, so it could be carried off to market.
None of the new studies discussed here are in any way so rote or enabling. By spending a generous amount of time considering the development of these books, and also attempting to explain their followings, they make a not so modest play on recent history, while also challenging the assumed completeness of the objects they study.
With Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves: Bookmarked, Michael J. Seidlinger settles on a book whose structure alone rehearses these many dialogues concerning fiction, the web, reading, publishing—not to mention romantic anxieties over criticism, scholarship, and theory. In Danielewski’s novel, documentary footage of an interdimensional “haunted” house is described by a scholarly study, the unpublished manuscript of which is discovered and annotated by an excitable junkie, Johnny Truant. Despite these multiple narrative layers, the terrifying suspense in exploring the house is vivid, augmented by Truant’s mental unraveling. Meanwhile, the accumulating clutter of footnotes and sidebars, along with the laughably over-serious film theory analysis wedged in between, produces a functional realism for readers who choose their own way to process the hybrid text. (These choices include whether a reader actually feels like turning the book around, like a steering wheel, to chase the circular and upside-down orientations of some passages.) The steely documentary tone of the situated texts is everywhere betrayed by the unlikely occurrences in the house, the mild-mannered responses by scientists and police, and the underwhelming press coverage in the aftermath, creating an uncanny blend of fantasy and realism, along with some good domestic drama between homeowner/filmmaker Will Navidson and his family.
By any scale, the additional framing conceit of Johnny Truant’s messy editing is excessive. This, of course, is the point. Readers can slip in Truant’s cesspool of strippers and opioids and slide right past the metafictional core of House of Leaves into an Irvine Welsh drug orgy. And this appears to be just the angsty, emo line that Seidlinger’s impressionistic study intends to follow. Strangely, a commentary on a metafiction that already includes layers of commentary can’t help but supplement the original work in a very real way, such that Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves: Bookmarked becomes an appendage, or carbuncle, to House of Leaves, a bodily appendix. But this “real” connection to the novel, a kind of critical transplant, can only be taken seriously if Seidlinger is taken sincerely. Admittedly, at first, when it could be seen that Seidlinger was kicking things off in a Truant way, I had post-traumatic flashbacks of Michiko Kakutani’s Holden Caulfield impression, which the Times critic used when reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. Also, Seidlinger’s personal narrative isn’t drugged or sexed up like Truant’s tall tales, although alcohol makes an appearance toward the end. Instead, his compulsion is writing. The existential dread Seidlinger describes in writing Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves: Bookmarked mirrors the cavernous void that opens up inside the mysterious house in House of Leave, and passes through other uncrossable voids between narrative levels, such as the blindness that makes a dead author’s study of a film documentary impossible.
The critic’s confident adherence to his own story is admirable. His commitment to a partial, experiential engagement with the text, despite itself, manages to get to many relevant topics outside Danielewski, like comparable movies and books. Seidlinger recounts the popular delivery methods of books in the years after House of Leaves’s release, how he first acquired the book as an impulse Amazon purchase recommended by the DVDs he’d loaded up in his cart. Seidlinger also mimics his source by flooding the text with footnoted asides and interruptions, all part of how he orchestrates his own documentary, using a literary equivalent to the shaky handycam used in presenting House of Leaves cinematic cousins, like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Less a gateway than a Big Bang in Seidlinger’s reading life, House of Leaves pulls readers back to origins and fundamental assumptions about art and fiction. Seidlinger gets his readers thinking when he merges his own working method with the creativity on display in the ex nihilo fictions of House of Leaves:
Any artist will tell you: the intention, the concept and the conceit of the project going in is almost never the same thing as the end result…it’s something you wrestle with every step of the way, no matter how many times you fought with it.
This anxiety over the completeness of a work—a romantic indulgence in authorship against larger historical forces—is the central narrative accompanying the career of Raymond Carver today. Carver is both the patron saint and the great scandal of contemporary realist fiction. More than any American writer since Emily Dickinson, the editing of the author’s work stands as the required preliminary debate grounding any discussion of a specific story or poem. Since Carver’s death in 1988, countless exposes have given light to the mutilation these vaunted stories suffered under editor Gordon Lish. The revelation has given life to an alternate body of work to consider—all the drafts Carver produced before serving them up to Lish’s chopping block. Yet, the “original” edited versions are what brought attention to Carver to begin with, and to his brand of ‘80s minimalism across the entire field of American letters. And by comparing the drafts, any scholar can see that it’s just these values that Lish inscribed into the drafts with his ruthless red pen.
As a student in the ‘80s, and a tenure-track creative writing professor by the ‘90s, acclaimed post-horror author Brian Evenson had a front row seat to this craft-focused Grand Guignol. Was Carver secretly a patient from Lish’s asylum, a primitive who the charismatic power broker carted out for exhibition, the entire publishing world held under the editor’s spell? While Evenson asks readers to arrive at their own conclusions, some surprising disclosures come out in Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Bookmarked. If readers didn’t already know—as I hadn’t—Gordon Lish edited Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, put out by Knopf in 1994. Evenson also published a number of his early short stories in Lish’s magazine, The Quarterly. The out-of-the-blue late-night telephone calls the young Evenson received from Lish corroborate the spooky anecdotes Evenson heard from BYU classmates who were confronted with their own devil’s bargain: accept the heavy edits from Lish or be condemned to unpublished purgatory. “Was I comfortable with such revisions?” Evenson asks.
Sometimes yes…At other times, I felt like Lish’s revisions could hijack a story. The first time that happened, I called Lish on the telephone and told him I wasn’t inclined to make the revisions and he said Fine, he was busy, and hung up. The next four or five stories I sent he returned to me rejected and without comment and I thought that might be the end of my time publishing at The Quarterly, and that I was never going to have a book contract with Knopf.
More chilling than any new dish on a famously domineering editor, the structure of Evenson’s personal narrative fixes a constellation of ideological clues for readers to connect. The first half of Carver’s What We Talk About describes the Mormonized culture within BYU that made Carver’s gritty stories subversive. Later, as a consequence of publishing Altmann’s Tongue, Evenson is excommunicated from the Mormon church and forced to give up his teaching job at his alma mater. This picture of a heavily surveilled, closed community parallels Evenson’s devilish fictions—the Christian “Bloodite” sect in Father of Lies or the amputation cult in Last Days. Evenson’s captivity narrative—beginning with his first Carver encounter, a clandestine audio recording of the chillingly titled “Nobody Said Anything,” played by a brave BYU professor putting her job on the line to play it—evolves not from an escape out of an oppressive community but rather as a transfer from one cult to another. Evenson paraphrases a revealing comment from his first phone call with Lish. “Strange, he said, how many good writers seemed to come out of Utah, from the Mormons. What was the reason for it? Did I know? I said I didn’t.”
And Evenson never really says anything conclusive about why any of this matters. As his own fiction proves, he managed to develop a unique voice and turn his experience with potential institutional shackling into quality fictional by any secular standard. He has perhaps distinguished himself as a discrete artist more than Carver could in his lifetime, as bound as Carver is with the Lish phenomenon. The keepers of Carver’s estate haven’t helped scholars loosen this Gordian knot, for another thread in Evenson’s Carver tells of Evenson’s efforts to research and publish an essay about the partnership, obstructed by Carver’s widow and lawyers. Evenson provides due consideration to Carver’s volume, walking through the collection story by story. But probably this is most interesting because Evenson’s work is such a departure from Carverland, at least regarding scenarios and settings. Evenson is clearly the main draw with this Bookmarked title, inviting fans to think differently about his novels and tease out the latent minimalism in his style.
The memories preserved in this book are historically relevant mostly as they pertain to Evenson’s development, not Carver’s. His responses to Carver’s work are more intuitive than the comprehensive efforts Evenson committed to his book-length critique, Understanding Robert Coover (in University of South Carolina’s Understanding series), and yet the Carver book displays the serious intentions of Evenson’s literary scholarship. Evenson offers a page of notes from his archival work, showing how each manuscript page for the Carver story “Where is Everyone?” was stripped down to produce the much shorter “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” the original cut by 78 percent. Seidlinger’s House of Leaves book develops into a similar listing method when recounting long pages of bullet-pointed events from Danielewski’s plot. This bare-bones materialist account of the text—similar to the data-heavy distortion called either “close” or “distant” reading, depending on which university team is executing it—reveals how tentative the cultural significance of a celebrated book is, and how elusive, also, is the practice of mundane reading, which is what all fiction writers are aiming for and what a close studier of a text is always dancing around.
Both the subjects in these Bookmarked editions arrive in the lives of the Bookmarked authors at pivotal moments, as interventions from outside. Seidlinger buys House of Leaves to qualify for free shipping, and, he claims, is born anew as a reader and writer. Evenson begins his narrative by being reintroduced to the Carver text during a bad breakup and health scare. In Evenson’s afterword, another writer intervenes. After hearing about the legal hullabaloo over permissions and access to Carver’s papers, the unnamed writer says what at least half the readers thus far have been thinking: “’Nobody is asking whether Carver is a good writer.’” But Evenson’s claim, from a valid historical perspective, is that you had to be there. And he was. In biographer Carol Polsgrove’s words (who Evenson quotes from D.T. Max):
If you exalt the individual writer as the romantic figure who brings out these things from the depths of his soul…then, yes, the awareness of Lish’s role diminishes Carver’s work somewhat. But if you look at writing and publishing as a social act, which I think it is, the stories are the stories that they are.
Comparing the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to their “restored” longer versions in a newer collection, Beginnings, Evenson concludes that though Lish’s changes are “radical” in the first version, “there is little doubt that had Beginners been published untouched by Lish it would not have attracted the attention it did [as What We Talk About].” As any student socially enforced by syllabus to read Carver knows, the stories are what they are. The Lish-Carver partnership models a factory-like division of labor that resembles the consequent aesthetic of ‘80s minimalism, not to mention a critical ethos groomed to praise it. Individual details (furniture, boozy glassware, the occasional name brand) and sensual impressions are shown, while emotional implications, conclusive endings and narrative meanings are left untold. This extreme aesthetic detachment amounts to a literary fordism that encourages a prescribed method remaining radically open to writers and subjects, whose interchangeability enables the proliferation of Creative Writing programs. Evenson affirms the freshness of Carver, which can’t be appreciated in the same way in work by a generation of followers. If such a mechanical process has a corresponding critical ethos, as opposed to a non-critical ignorance, that ethos would proactively challenge all value judgments in the name of a radical subjectivity, an empty egalitarian promise that hides its hierarchical structure with the fig leaf of cheap romantic holdovers buffed up by Madison Avenue. It would take the form of a Carver cult in the midst of Gordon Lish reality.
There is an apparent collusion between low-stakes, critical minimalism and consumerist reader empowerment. An implied philosophy guides commonsense notions of reading today. Of course, it’s impossible to prove how or why critics would prefer readers buy books instead of reading them. But this is the effect achieved by reader-centric criticism in the web age. Such an approach positions the critic as a model reader who frames how readers get lost in books, as if the reading experience is low-grade VR. Books could never win this contest, of course, nor could they ever match up against big-screen film or dramatic theater on their terms. Yet in the new century, as critics hype the literary quality of binge-watched TV, pop music “albums” and videogames—all promoted indiscriminately alongside books, through the same integrated digital social channels—scholarly reconsiderations raise the same questions about “new media” itself.
In this vein, Timothy J. Welsh introduces the “immersive fallacy.” Used by politicians to blame video games for mass shootings (but also used by video game and headset marketers themselves) the stated fear is that “technology will advance to the point where the frame falls away…[erasing] the boundary between act and representation.” Welsh’s survey, Mixed Realism: Videogames and the Violence of Fiction, emphasizes the symbolic and representative features of games, the mechanical detachment that opens up a world for the game player distinct from the pure virtual world of the game, then applies these “mixed” principles to novels. The book opens with a reading of the controversial free online art-game Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, which translates the events of the 1999 school shooting into a stilted menu-driven role-playing game like Final Fantasy. Detractors who found the game “too interactive,” and hence potentially inciting new violence, failed to recognize how the simple graphics forced players to confront the tragedy and interrogate its social milieu.
In a chapter on House of Leaves, Welsh describes how the narrated world of the haunted house, or Johnny Truant’s escapades for that matter, could never be mistaken for reality, and therefore encourages contemplative detachment, not immersion. Instead, Danielewski “transcodes” the situations in his novel, making the reader’s reading activity a crucial part of the book’s unfolding. As frames from Will Navidson’s documentary roll by, the reader turns pages in the manuscript, which are further embellished by Johnny Truant’s footnotes. Although the structure of House of Leaves is visually captivating, readers are even more engaged by language than by layout. And this engagement, paradoxically, is constructed by deploying critical distance and barriers to immersion, where only through the active reading and decoding of the narrative layers do book and reader meet halfway in a “mixed reality.” The book becomes a part of the reader’s world, out there, just as it did in a major way for Michael J. Seidlinger, accentuating his progress through the work of other writers, as well as through the books in his own career. If it seems like these principles apply to any good book of fiction, that’s because they do. Welsh’s book drives home this point graphically by loading up his House of Leaves chapter with standard “page shot” images of the novel, in place of the video game screenshots in other chapters that illustrate 3D sorcerers and first-person shooters.
Criticism shouldn’t turn its back on mixed-reality. It should never pretend it has any claim on a flat empirical reality, any real life of the reader, or flee toward the supernatural. Books don’t kill people, or magically make them give up their guns. Instead, books nourish the conditions for mixed-reality, and books about books galvanize this clunky, unpredictable centuries-old network. A mixed-reality criticism tries its best to account for all interference assaulting the reader from outside, including existing opinion and the force of the book itself.
In Roberto Bolaño’s final opus, 2666, the career of a 20th-century German novelist is laid out layer by layer, requiring efforts by a transnational team of academics to round up the few known facts about his life. Violent agitations in an opening movement “about the critics” indicate seismic catastrophes expounded in later sections. The murders of so many working-poor Mexican women, each described within hundreds of pages of forensic reports, augment what might be taken individually as inconclusive minimalism into an encyclopedic maximalism, demanding that an answer be found somewhere in the formal or informal social command structure, because even a buttoned-up college professor can beat down a Pakistani cabby like a brownshirt. The authorities, as with shaping effects in the narrative, do their work selectively, often leaving characters and readers abandoned with a sense of vertiginous lostness or hollow dread. 2666 is a beautiful inferno. The only redemption for all the bodies that fuel it is that readers read the many books told of in its pages by the burning flame. There is no equivalent standing between the reclusive writer and all the senseless carnage. There are only books. The critics cling to each other desperately to foster this refuge, keeping the balloon afloat from popping on cruel reality.
The critics, as with their quarry, aren’t oblivious. As we learn later, the fictionalized author witnessed history at its worst during the second world war. Recognizing this disparity and applying it back to fiction can only help the cause of literature by keeping the perspective balanced, not grandiose or middling.
Jonathan Russell Clark hits just the right pitch, I feel, in his 2666 companion, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. (Clark’s title is Baudelaire’s epigraph to the novel.) He recounts his first reading of the book while traveling the New York subways, but only to masterfully describe Bolaño’s work on any reader through “menacing synecdoche”—the blossoming of “seemingly agenda-less language…[into] not only a three-dimensional picture of a complex metropolis but also one filtered through, and thus forever defined by, the incidents in the foreground.” Such a Sontag-worthy encapsulation of another writer hasn’t been achieved by a younger critic (it’s Clark’s first book) since Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters. And to begin with, Clark introduces the mixed-reality effect of reading about infernal St. Teresa in the shiny Big Apple, while also maintaining a sane distinction between stories and life. “To live,” he writes,
in the world of 2666 means accepting things in the narrative that we might never accept in life. This quality—the novel’s resistance to our real-world expectations—makes 2666 both wildly inventive and hyper-realistic.
The resistance Clark anticipates in this well-worded trigger warning comes from a jumpy impulse to summarize and skip past the critical edifice that mediates the novel’s goings-on, making the work blatantly fictionalized, like every other specimen of reality TV reportage produced on the web. Charges of misogyny would have to come from evidence elsewhere, in the biography, and Clark, too, broaches this when describing what’s known of Bolaño’s possessive relationship with his mother. But the broader point, in service to Clark’s commentary on 2666, takes a chapter sussing out fact and myth, showing how Bolaño cultivated his own legend. The pseudonymous author in the novel, after changing his name to Benno von Archimboldi, takes a more hands-off approach by opting for Pynchon-like seclusion. In Bolaño’s case, the writer actively boasted of being imprisoned by Pinochet’s military in Chile, and escaping execution with the help of guards who were old high school friends. (Others contend that Bolaño was in Mexico the whole time.) His reputation as a heroin addict, introduced by his own fibs, romanticized his early death in 2003, at age 50. Clark pairs this myth-building with Bolaño’s very intentional activity in the ‘70s to spark a revolutionary movement in poetry, billed as the Infrarealists, which later inspired his 1998 international smash hit The Savage Detectives. Through an attentive survey of the poetry and the fiction preceding 2666, Clark notes: “again and again Bolaño incorporates the act of writing into the writing itself.” In verse excerpts, Clark maps how fiction insinuated itself in the crossover poet’s meter. For Michael J. Seidlinger, House of Leaves opened a portal to many vanguard writers in other languages, like Borges, Calvino and Perec. Such experimenters were central to Bolaño, too; but Clark drags out an array of influential Americans, including Burroughs and Vonnegut, which clears the air of false exoticism and explains why introductions aren’t necessary between Bolaño and his stateside peers, like William T. Vollmann.
After touching on 2666’s reception by New York publishing and boiling down the life and works into just 50 exceedingly readable pages, Clark summarizes the novel’s five parts in order to set up a battery of interrogations. To again look back at Seidlinger, his House of Leaves: Bookmarked subjectivizes the encounter with the text, gestating from within, experiencing the book’s terrain and falling through its trap doors. No less does Clark follow his book’s m.o., which self-objectivizes. What I mean here can be seen in the theme of aboutness. Each part of 2666 is titled “The Part About…” (“the Critics,” “the Crimes,” etc.). Bolaño’s selectively dominating narrative style implores readers to ask questions, to criticize. Each of Clark’s chapters follow in kind (“The Part About the Parts of 2666,” and so on). This critical call and response captures the spirit of the novel while demonstrating that attempts at explanation are necessary moments in the reading of the book that never exhaust the work or tie it up too nicely. As further evidence, Clark spends several pages examining the evidence against various suspects in the Mexico murders. This is his Seidlinger moment, so to speak—playing the book’s game. The narrative inconclusiveness Clark feels he’s discovered isn’t so much absurd or Kafkaesque as systemic. Clark’s verdict: “Finding and imprisoning (or putting to death) the specific killers in Santa Teresa will not, in Bolaño’s version of the world, stop such killings from happening.”
The mixed-reality moment follows from here, when Clark weighs this seeming thematic “takedown of rape culture and patriarchy” against the novel’s overall depiction of women, in Clark’s opinion “the most glaring problem.” But of course, problematizing is also a valid engagement with the text, especially with such long, varied, messy novels. Imperfect masterpieces produce infinite problems. This is really the great opportunity of a book-length treatment. It can circle positive attributes while attempting to recover lost deficiencies. Especially with the character Rosa and other “damsels in distress” in the novel, as Clark calls them, I wonder if their victimhood, their stunted development, isn’t also due to oppressive third-world conditions, that they wouldn’t be more like the “notable exceptions” Clark cites, like Liz Norton, if they had access to European schooling and opportunities. This is where, in shorter book reviews no doubt, critics get tripped up trying to intervene at the ground level of authorship, harboring their own Gordon Lish fantasies.
If the “immersive fallacy,” as Welsh describes it, tempts readers to lend too much importance to the real-world consequences of an author’s decisions—suggesting for instance, as Clark debates, whether 2666, a novel, might contribute to rape culture, or help in curtailing it, if only certain passages were worded differently—this wrongheaded approach, wielded by critics, would unwittingly succeed in eliminating the need for any criticism at all. Works of fiction would be deemed safe or dangerous, and their supporters and detractors would automatically fall into one camp or the other, corresponding to a Manichean dichotomy. This impulsive non-critical dualism is currently reserved, in the publishing space, mostly for books by politicians and pundits. But the same attitude has begun to bleed into literature, condemning artists from the past for present evils. Instead of maintaining a respectful distance from the work, the distinction between “act” and “representation” collapses, leaving no room for contemplation. Instead of being simply admired, books are immediately sized up for some kind of exchange, for commercial or social gains. Supposedly, a literary technique like Carver minimalism—“show don’t tell”—upholds the freedom of thought encouraged by modernist aesthetic detachment. Only after following Brian Evenson’s extensive journey can a reader appreciate how this form of craft could become a means of control and artistic mutilation. Bloody manuscripts begin to pile up like so many corpses in Bolaño’s borderland.
The book-loving tendency from the first pages of 2666, on through the concluding section about its mysterious fictional author, conveys the same ravenous affection for books that a series of books about books stands for in the present climate. In Bolaño’s novel, details are shown, but excessively so, in a showy way. The gravely ambivalent narrative voice speaks for his band of critics, rendering them at times rather opaque, at other times imparting a mythical grandiosity, an epic mission, to their research and travels. Ironically, as indicated in a note to the first edition, the masterwork was conceived of, in the author’s final days, as multiple novels, which could be sold separately to generate maximum revenue for his heirs. The better judgment of Bolaño’s publishers won out, and the divergent sections were brought together in their rightfully complicated procession. In Clark’s concluding remarks, he responds to the overall effect, if any, such an ambitious and complicated work can have on the culture, or society at large. Clark contends that beyond 2666’s exhausting atrocities, “the work of paying witness, of facing head-on the depths of depravity of our species is necessary for our betterment and for justice, however truant, however small.” Though Clark avoids drawing on his personal life for most of his study—except for confessing his personal readerly impressions inspired by the book at hand—he leaves his reader with a sense of the struggles he’s endured, on the way to publishing a first book and in living a sober life. Any hopeful prospects for society sparked by books and a healthy book culture are filtered, initially, through a single, attentive reader. “My point is I’m still here,” Clark testifies. “I’m still writing.”
In the modernist tradition books like 2666 interrogate, novelists are always rewriting classics. With an inspiring book culture nurturing books about books, new classics can first be minted, and then rewritten.
Christopher Wood is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island. His essays have also appeared in The Millions and Full Stop.
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