Notes on a Cultural Education: When I first delved into all-things literary, uninitiated as I was, I did what most people would do: I turned to the experts. I read reviews. I sought lists. I taped The Modern Library’s list of the “100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century” to my desk and read as many as I could. The Sound and the Fury. Check. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Check. Brave New World. Check. The Great Gatsby. Re-read it. Check. As I crossed each title off my list, I did so with the satisfaction that I was reading important books, but also with a secret clanking around in my heart: I did not enjoy reading them. While there were elements in each that I appreciated, these books won’t appear on my top-whatever list. Perhaps the most useful lesson I learned from reading all of these books was this: the “important” books aren’t necessarily a joy to read.
From a personal reading experience, I’d have to file The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño in this category. Last year, anyone who had an opinion that mattered seemed to tout Bolaño as the next big thing. After reading review after glowing review and hearing his poet-cum-vagabond- cum-novelist biography, I approached The Savage Detectives with great anticipation, like when you hear about a top-secret hole-in-the-wall that serves the best tacos in town. I couldn’t wait to dig in, only to discover, three bites in, that the carne asada did not have as buen sabor as advertised.
The Savage Detectives revolves around the story of the “visceral realists,” a fictional movement of avant-garde poets in Mexico City during the 1970’s. The first section of the novel is narrated by Juan García Madero, who serves somewhat as the novel’s Ishmael or Sancho Panza to the two charismatic leaders of the visceral realists, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Influenced by Lima and Belano, the seventeen-year-old García Madero comes of age with the visceral realist, initiated into artistic and sexual life. They rail against the staid Mexican poetry establishment and pontificate about Art or Poetry, but mostly they just smoke cigarettes, drink mescal, and fuck. When they become entangled with a young prostitute named Lupe, the three boys must flee her menacing pimp in a borrowed car, disappearing into the Sonora Desert with Lupe in tow.
Here Bolaño interrupts the narrative with part two of the novel, titled “The Savage Detectives (1976-1996).” This section consists of a series of transcripts from interviews of people who knew or came into contact with Lima and Belano. It last for 400 pages. Through some of the interviews, we learn more about the enigmatic protagonists from a variety of points of view. Some read as self-contained short stories only fleetingly related to the overall narrative. Some display flashes of brilliance, where the prose achieves a lyrical quality, and Bolaño shares a sliver of his poetic heart. But quite often, he seems content to simply list a series of street names and locations, as a character describes his walk across a city. About 100 pages into this section, the novel feels ponderous and unwieldy, the characters and their stories joylessly banal. Eventually I stopped caring and actually set the book aside twice, only returning with the frustrating hope that eventually I’d get into it.
Each time I returned to the novel, I thought that maybe the final section would make amends, maybe somehow Bolaño will tie it all together, lend some meaning to its girth, and redeem all of the accolades from the literati. But, Bolaño doesn’t seem interested in tying anything together, which would be fine if I didn’t find the previous section such a chore. Section three returns to the narrative in section one: García Madero, Lima, Belano, and Lupe disappear into the Sonora Desert, to escape Lupe’s pimp, but also in search of Cesárea Tinajero, a Sappho-like mystery, a long lost poet, and precursor to the visceral realists. García Madero’s chronicle of their search through the dusty wasteland of the Sonora trudges aimlessly towards a mundane, and predictable, nadir, ending with the confounding drawing of a perforated box (literally).
I went into The Savage Detectives with admittedly unfair expectations, hoping for the literary equivalent of Alejandro González Iñárritu or Alphonso Cuarón, and left with the sense that it should’ve been so much better. Sometimes it takes a while for complex art to sink in deep enough for me to appreciate. I felt absolutely betrayed the first time I listened to Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, which I now consider masterpieces. Perhaps it will be the same with The Savage Detectives. Perhaps I should read Bolaño’s earlier work, By Night in Chile, which James Wood describes as his greatest work. But after 577 pages, I’m not racing to the bookstore. Sometimes the important novel isn’t worth the effort.