Yes and yes again about this question of complexity, or difficulty, or opacity. Seems that Greg and Matt and Jason are staging a trace of a much longer debate about that modernist notion of the erudite ideal reader (a la T.S. Eliot), on one hand, and a Whitman-esque aesthetic accessibility on the other. Or maybe the subject beneath the subject here is about our beliefs in the capacities of readers. (Funny, but a version of the debate shows up in the work I did on the way 40s-era postwar German journalists who were invited to the United States to undergo “reorientation” seminars rolled their eyes at American ideas about clarity and simplicity in news coverage. The Germans thought it silly that the Americans would fret over the content of news stories for a paper whose audiences was made up of factory workers; the Americans thought the way the Germans preferred difficult language and sophisticated expression to be a dangerous form of elitism).
Makes me wonder about the ongoing seductions of big fat novels and literary fiction. Consider Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives. Folks are calling it a masterpiece, and rightfully so. I just finished the whopper last week – and I can still feel that sense of having been altered by the experience. Bolano’s 650-page “love letter” to his generation is a book about the literary field of Mexico from 1976-1996. The writers, the life of writers (their networks, associations, idiosyncracies, audacity, sex and sadness), fill these pages so that they brim like a Bosch painting. Bolano conjures the experience of that world as it begins to disappear. He does so via a 3-part structure: diary entries made by a 17-year old aspiring “visceral realist”; a 400-page oral history section (think Rashomon on steroids); a return to the diarist’s perspective.
Among the wash of voices in the middle is a moment that’s still stuck with me. He has his two main characters—Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano- show up at a Mexico City café where they sit for hours with a man in a white suit. The reference is fast, a seemingly inconsequential detail, and the scene is rendered from the perspective of one of the 53 or so narrators who make up the middle section. Part of me hopes that wise-acre Bolano makes an intentionally reference to Tom Wolfe here in the midst of this mega-novel.
Let the man in the white suit be Wolfe.
Why? Because the book’s made me think about the links and differences between “the new journalism” and “the new kings of non-fiction” (see Ira Glass’s recent collection)—about the way Bolano’s novel is a fictionalized version of his experiences as a writer in Mexico City—about genre and methodology—the arts as opposed to the social sciences– the motives for ethnography or for fiction or for essay (which seem to be to find a vocabulary for the range and complexity of the human heart).
All that, and Wolfe wrote a “manifesto” in Harpers’s a few years ago where he called for the “sociological novel.” And I think Bolano nailed it.
Does this demanding “sociological novel” blur the dividing line between complexity and accessibility? Perhaps it reminds us of the pleasures of both.