Jackie Ess, Eve Babitz, Roberto Bolaño, Amit Chaudhuri, Roberto Calasso

Jackie Ess "Darryl" Eve Babitz "Black Swans" Roberto Bolaño "The Savage Detectives" "Amulet" Amit Chaudhuri "Finding the Raga" Roberto Calasso "K."
Jackie Ess “Darryl” Eve Babitz “Black Swans” Roberto Bolaño “The Savage Detectives” “Amulet” Amit Chaudhuri “Finding the Raga” Roberto Calasso “K.”

Darryl is a wonderfully funny and big-hearted novel about a Taoist cuck. Darryl, the protagonist, gets turned on when he watches men have sex with his wife – but he starts to wonder if the cuck lifestyle is really for him. The novel is a classic journey of self-discovery, of an unhappy man searching for who he might be.

What makes Eve Babitz’s essays so much fun is that she knows exactly who she is. She’s the perfect writer for anyone who loves Los Angeles because she’s able to express one of the city’s most unusual qualities – in Black Swans (and Slow Days, Fast Company) she rides the line between the superficial and the sublime until it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the two. Even when her subjects are depression and failure, her writing feels warm and joyful. Reading her is being with her as she, by writing about LA, becomes person she wants to be – a writer experiencing LA.

I find her essays enviable because she makes that joyfulness, that confident sense of self, seem effortless – and the primary struggle I’ve had with my own writing is finding a sense of self in my fiction. The first novels I wrote were silly attempts at hardboiled crime fiction. I loved the sound of the genre, how its authors described the dullest urban intersections in intense, evocative language. They made the mundane magic. My novels started as Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Chandler pastiches, then spiralled into surreal sci-fi conspiracies.

Eventually, I realized that the surreal sci-fi I always accidentally ended up writing should be my starting point. I switched genres, writing short stories inspired by ‘70s sci-fi greats like Philip K Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and JG Ballard. I wanted to discover how, by undercutting their most brilliant ideas with silliness, self-doubt, and tragedy, they made their stories even more exciting and meaningful. Instead, I wrote stories that felt shallowly pessimistic, that were always rolling their eyes at their own characters and themes.

Every time I try to get closer to Eve Babitz’s confidence, I find myself disoriented and confused, wondering how I wound up just as unable to recognize myself as I was before.

Contemporary American writing hasn’t helped. Whereas Eve Babitz’s writing was irrepressibly joyful, literary culture in 2022 is irrepressibly professional. How-to-write books are full of craft without content, lists of rules that savvy writers should follow. Writing classes are full of advice on drafting cover letters, plotting novels that appeal to agents, and self-marketing tips.

The only time anyone asks why writing matters is in short, dull, pro forma platitudes. Writing gives readers the opportunity to explore another person’s unique experience. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient for readers to talk to strangers about their unique experiences?) Writing creates political change. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient for readers to volunteer or organize or campaign?) Writing helps readers process their own emotions. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient to go to therapy?) Writing is a means to an end. Writing is a profession that should be approached professionally. Writing is joyless.

What makes this worse is that I know what my complaints are worth. They’re the terminal symptom of the mediocre writer – cliché. From the perspective of the unsuccessful, every era is uniquely inhospitable to artistic flourishing. It’s not that our art is terrible, we protest, it’s the times we live in that are terrible!

As much as I try to come to terms with my callowness, to stop wasting time whining about the literary elite, I always backslide into nostalgia for artistic cultures that never existed. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I compulsively read and re-read Roberto Bolaño.

For most of his life, Bolaño was a spectacularly unknown poet. In his final decade, he started writing short stories and novellas in order to support his family. His fortunes turned. He became widely read and widely respected, then died, which made him even more successful.

The primary subject of The Savages Detectives and much of Bolaño’s later work is the lifestyle, society, and attitudes of poets whose work is unknown and unread. What makes his fiction different than that of so many authors who’ve tackled the same topic is that he positions himself from a slightly different vantage point.

Bolaño doesn’t write from the perspective of himself as a younger writer, angry and vain, passionate and hopeful. He writes from the perspective of an older man reflecting on his youth, who sees that young poet as a fundamentally different person from himself. He pokes fun at his younger self, mining comedy out of obstinacy. But he also misses his youthful self-assuredness, the way he was so convinced that art didn’t just matter, it was the only thing that mattered. While the older Bolaño isn’t quite sure how he was able to believe in such an obvious lie as artistic truth, he also wishes that he was still able to believe in anything with that same intensity, even knowing how badly the belief would hurt the young poet as he aged.

Still, the younger Bolaño’s conviction always ends up forcing the older Bolaño to ask: Is there something he knew that I’ve forgotten? Was there a meaning to devoting life to writing obscure poetry?

Amit Chaudhuri’s Finding the Raga is also about the writer’s life as a young artist. Born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay, Chaudhuri was influenced by the Western rock as well as by the Indian classical tradition his mother practiced. When he moved to England to study, he performed Indian classical music by himself in a small apartment above a busy London street. The contrast between the city and his music helped him better understand the attitudes inherent in North Indian classical music and influenced his work as a musician and a writer.

Finding the Raga is an in-depth exploration of those attitudes, full of exciting ideas about the way art interacts with us and the world. Some of them suggest answers to the questions Bolaño poses in The Savage Detectives. For example, in this passage, Chaudhuri talks about why his mother valued precise pitch in her singing:

“Precision is often associated with control and objectivity… But precision has a very long history in many cultures… It means refusing to add, or to supply, meaning, because the detail is significant already…. it’s to do with curtailing the self’s interference with what we hear and see. Tagore (a Bengali poet) says that the first rhyme he was drawn to as a child was the four-word Bengali couplet ‘The water falls, / the leaf trembles.’ On one level, this is indistinguishable from empirical detail; on another, it’s an inaugural registering of the world’s movement. Nothing has been added.”

What hits its target more precisely than an unread poem written for no one? It effects no change, opens no minds, has no purpose. Nothing has been added.

Roberto Calasso makes a parallel point in K. when describing the climax of Kafka’s The Castle. According to Calasso’s interpretation, the novel’s penultimate scene is about the dream-like nature of storytelling, the way that stories evaporate in the waking world. K, who has spent the entire novel trying to get the castle to grant his request, finally stumbles upon a castle official. Caught off guard, the official has no choice but to confess to K “precisely what has happened and why it happened.” But this confession doesn’t have the outcome K wants. The official delays K’s request by telling a meticulously detailed story, explaining exactly why K hasn’t made any progress – and even explaining how K could force his request to be granted. By telling the story so precisely that it puts K to sleep, the official evades K’s request. He tells the story in order to make nothing happen.

Is this a return to the shallow pessimism of my failed science fiction? If poetry is a way of adding nothing to the world, if stories are a way of making nothing happen, then writing isn’t better than nothing; it is nothing. It’s worthless.

Unless nothing can have a positive value.

If we lived in my ideal non-existent literary culture, the novella Amulet would be considered Bolaño’s masterpiece. It’s where he comes closest to answering the question the older Bolaño asked his younger self: Is there meaning to devoting one’s life to creating obscure stories?

Amulet is about Auxilio Lacouture, the self-proclaimed “mother of all Mexican poets” and a semi-employed Uruguayan living illegally in Mexico. She drinks with writers much younger than her and works for writers much older than her, bouncing between bars and studies and literary gatherings of all kinds, taking care of any and every writer she finds.

Auxilio chooses the worst possible time to go to a bathroom in the National Autonomous University of Mexico – right before the university is occupied by the Mexican Armed Forces, during the Tlatelolco massacre, at which 350 protestors were murdered by the military.

When a soldier comes to check the bathroom, Auxilio evades discovery by closing the stall door and standing on a toilet. The soldier leaves and she stays, eating toilet paper and drinking water from the sink. For thirteen days, she’s the only civilian who remains on campus, secretly resisting the army’s occupation from her bathroom stall, daydreaming about the poets she mothered, listening to the ghosts of singing children, existing in an artistic culture that, at that moment, doesn’t exist. After the occupation ends, the story of the woman in the bathroom becomes an obscured legend. Auxilio listens to others tell it to her. They say that the woman in the bathroom was a Mexican medical student. They say he was a Maoist with gastrointestinal problems.

For thirteen days, the mother of Mexican poetry did nothing. No one knew she was there when she did it. And when she was finished, no one knew the story was hers.

Chaudhuri again:

“In Hindustani classical music, improvisation is deferral. If a raga is a cluster of progressions and interrelationships, I, as a performer will delay… a straightforward portrayal of these interrelationships for as long as possible… My not coming to the point will be synonymous with the pleasure of improvisation. Those less in sympathy with khayal may cry, ‘Come to the point!’; but those acquainted with alaap see evasion as the principal activity of creation.”

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