2666 And All That

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Carolina and Roberto Bolaño in 2002. Photo: El Pais
Carolina and Roberto Bolaño in 2002. Photo: El Pais

1066 And All That, a sly rewrite of the history of England, was published in 1930 and became a perennial bestseller. Its subtitle was A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates. Written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, the book, in the words of one critic, “punctured the more bombastic claims of drum-and-trumpet narratives … both the Tory view of ‘great man’ history and the pieties of Liberal history.” There is no connection, literary or otherwise, between this satirical non-fiction and 2666, the weighty novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, published after his death from liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50. However, that phrase “all the parts you can remember” triggered an association when I found a battered copy of Bolaño’s novel among some old books discarded on a park bench. But it was a half copy — the covers and last 100 pages of the 900-page tome were missing. “The parts you can remember” reminded me of my spotty knowledge of Latin American writing picked up in those faddy years following the so-called Boom in the region’s literature from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the English-reading world, any serious book-lover felt obliged to mention, at the drop of a dinner-party conversation, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz, or Carlos Fuentes. The ultimate one-upmanship would have been to claim reading one of the authors in Spanish, but in my years in England, I never heard anyone do so. “You don’t read Borges,” one friend mocked. “You read his translator. That’s like washing your feet with your socks on.” Read more »

Reality Hunger: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Reality hunger 1

The format: David Shields’ Reality Hunger is written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs. The content: Reality Hunger, according to the flyleaf, “is a rigorous and radical attempt to reframe how we think about ‘truthiness,’ literary license, quotation, appropriation.’ That means mashups, sampling, the whole ‘meta’ thing. Get it?


The book's numbered-paragraph format is, among other things, ideally suited to presenting ideas as aphorisms and aphorisms as stand-alone objects. David Shields quotes a lot of aphorisms and writes some others himself. I just opened the book at random to look for some, and in the pages that presented themselves I found three.


The above statement about opening the book at random just now and finding three aphorisms is true. That makes it a piece of reality writing about Reality Hunger. Here are the three: “There is properly no history, only biography.” “All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.” “The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” They are from Emerson, Yeats, and Wilde. Aphorisms, especially absent their original context, are a stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying form. They’re popcorn shrimp on the buffet table of literature, postage stamps on the billets-doux and unpaid utility bills of the human spirit. To be honest, I think they're cool and fun to quote just as much as the author does. But then I love popcorn shrimp, too, so my original point stands.


As for those paragraphs, here's one: “In hip-hop, the mimetic function has been eclipsed to a large extent by manipulation of the original …theft without apology …” Followed by this: “In the slot called data, the reality is sliced in – the junk-shop find, thrift store clothes, the snippet of James Brown, the stolen paragraph from Proust, and so on.” See? He’s telling you why he’s throwing all those aphorisms in there without crediting the authors who wrote them. He's doing it to echo what he says is the new, magpie-like structure of 21st Century creation: appropriation without credit. But, as he explains in the end, the lawyers made him credit everyone at the end of the book anyway. He suggests you cut those pages out of your edition with scissors, but I’m not going to do that. It would diminish the resale value of the book.


So this book adheres to a self-referential form of literary construction, the “form follows function follows form” school that looks for a unifying concept and then seeks to mimic it in its own structure. It's not as bad as poems about vases that are shaped like vases, but there's some relationship there.

Read more »