Well, it's not dead yet. The modernist idea, which is really a Romantic idea, that the truest art comes from the margins, from the social depths, from revolt and disgust and dispossession, from endless cigarettes and a single worn overcoat, is still, in this age of MFA's and faculty appointments, when Pound's “make it new” long ago became Podhoretz's “making it”–is still, still, however improbably alive. A young man can still get up in a Mexico City bookstore and declare war on the literary establishment, give the finger to coffeehouses and Octavio Paz, plunge like a burning wreck into willed obscurity, toil in poverty for twenty years, and wind up forging, at the cost of youth and health and finally life, works that mark a time and point a new way forward.
This was Roberto Bolano's story, and beyond his works' particular merits–which are indeed great, though not quite as great as generally claimed–their value is just this: the tremendous courage that they bespeak. The audacity of Bolano's fiction, its disregard for convention and even probability, puts me in mind of a remark a friend once made after a jazz concert. I said I thought the keyboard player had really been taking chances, and he said, “No, he wasn't taking chances, he was doing whatever the fuck he wanted.” In every sentence he wrote, every image he conceived, every compositional choice he made, Bolano did whatever the fuck he wanted. In his art as in his life, he left a record of headlong daring that will become a rallying point for young writers for years to come. His myriad-minded fiction adumbrates no theory and swears allegiance to no school, embodying instead an unending search for new aesthetic and moral questions. At a time when the novel, at least in this country, has retreated into caution, he demonstrates again what is possible in fiction–which is to say, anything. His forms are sui generis, there is no emulating them, but his form-making is exemplary.