Tag Archives: road novel

The Savage Detectives (1998) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The hype surrounding the name of Roberto Bolaño has been massive over the last year or so. His major works, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, have received the most coverage, so why not start with them, right? And since you could build houses with 2666, I figured I’d start with the (slightly) smaller of the two.

In Mexico in 1975, a group of experimental poets, the visceral realists, are making headways in publishing their new, revolutionary poetry.  A young man is caught up in the excitement of the newness of poetry, and is drawn into the adventures of these poets, led by two enigmatic men – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

I don’t think that brief little blurb does this giant novel any justice, because there is so much more going on here. There are three sections: the first and last are told, diary-style, by the young poet caught up in the excitement of the visceral realists. Straight out of school and into university, he meets up with a group of poets raging against the magical realist movement of South American literature worldwide, determined to come up with something different, something unique. What it is exactly that makes this group unique is never explicitly dealt with – instead, the lives of these people takes precedence. In this first section, Bolaño shows us his true genius – characters that are confusing, contradictory, but above all else, normal. They are real people with real concerns. Much of Bolaño’s work deals with his own experiences, and the visceral realist movement is no different – his own work in hyperrealism is here mirrored, and the fractured nature of the visceral realist group perhaps allows him to take out som of his own frustrations with his real-life literary movement.

The middle section (taking up most of the pages), however, is a history of the activities of Lima and Belano between 1975 and 1995. Yet, this history is not told by these characters, or even one omniscient narrator. Instead, we get snippets and short stories from people they have encountered around the world in their travels. This makes pinning down anything definite about these two men very difficult, but also very rewarding. For they are the savage detectives of the title – in a quest to find a young female poet, they do things that are often only hinted at, but also are occasionally explained in graphic detail. From the pieces one can piece together, it seems that Lima is the more adventurous of the two, more willing to go that extra mile – at one stage, he ends up in an Israeli prison. And while each of these narrators is a separate entity, they have similar narrating styles and observations, helping to create something more of a solid image of these two runaway poets. Some of these narrators only give us a few paragraphs; others whole chapters. Some even last the entire novel – the first narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, has a story that has to be told over several nights, with several bottles of liquor.

There are two main themes here, too: Arturo Belano; and literature. The first, Arturo Belano, is the pseudonym for Bolaño himself, allowing him to fictionalise his own experiences, as I’ve mentioned above. But as a person, how do we see Belano/Bolaño? He is difficult to peg down, but in comparison to Lima, he seems a far nicer, if somewhat more awkward, person. He is more content to go with the flow, and chill out. But hey, I could be completely wrong.

And what do we get of literature? Bolaño is definitely an author concerned with writing, with reading, with reacting to other texts. There are gratuitous references to authors – both real and imagined – and unless you have a very deep background in South American literature, you won’t get most of them. I certainly didn’t. But, then, he mentions Stephen King, too, so that’s nice to see. It’s hard to describe just how important literature is in this novel – it’s woven into the very fabric of what’s going on all the time, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. Arguably, the main plot is Lima and Belano trying to find a lost poet – Cesárea Tinajero – so right from here, it is clear that the written word is important. But each and every character’s obsession with books – writing in particular – is so very ingrained. If someone’s feeling a little sad, they’ll write a short poem. If they’re happy, the same thing. Again and again, we encountered people obsessed with literature, some unhealthily so, as one of them has the self-reflexive nerve to point out.

Look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of what this novel is trying to say. It definitely needs to be read probably two or three times before you can begin to understand what Bolaño is trying to say. If I reread this novel in five years, I’ll probably look back at these thoughts and hit my past self over the head. But to begin to try and understand, or at least think about, what Bolaño is trying to say is worth it. This truly is a masterwork – the hype is real for a reason.


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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John STEINBECK

So, uni holidays are upon us, and this has been sitting on my shelf staring at me for ages. What better way to spend one’s time than by reading a piece of literature that is widely considered one of the greatest American books ever? Though the last American classic I read, Moby-Dick, was really not that good. So I didn’t come into this book with high expectations. Which, it turns out, was probably the best thing. Oh, and it hasn’t taken me three weeks to read – I just haven’t had access to the internet.

The Grapes of Wrath introduces us to Tom Joad, recently out of prison, and returning to his family home after several years away. Picking a preacher up on the way, he soon discovers that the family are moving west – their land is worth nothing, and they feel that they will be better served in the promised land of California. Along with millions of others, they begin their journey to a better life.

On the surface, the plot of The Grapes of Wrath is not that exciting. But, it is an insanely excellent book. Steinbeck is such a genius writer, that I think I could read a novel from him about paper bags that would still be exciting, gripping, and brilliantly written. Seriously, this guy writes like a poet, but in prose form. And I haven’t read it for two weeks, but if I could remember any of it, I would give it to you. My bad.

Steinbeck was very clever when he chose his characters, trying to find a unique point of view that would present a cross-section to be explored in the face of the Depression. Read this book over any history of the Depression to get a glimpse into real life. Mama’s arc in particular is a nice touch for an early sense of feminist uprising, and the inability of men to act in the face of imminent collapse, with the woman coming through to save the day. Several times. Similarly, Jim Casy, the preacher, and his disillusionment with God and the Church is a fantastic look at the effect this massive world event (the Great Depression) has on faith.

It’s not even the characters that make this book, though the Joad family is very nicely done. It is the alternate chapters of the book, which comprise a more holistic telling of the Depression, taking the action away from the trials of the Joads, and instead looking at other people, who sometimes turn out to be the Joads. Sometimes, this is just an excuse for Steinbeck to show off, but that’s ok, because he is very good at it. And this clearly works well – regular readers will remember that James Frey riffs off this in Bright Shiny Lights, in which a similar construction gives us the history of Los Angeles.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is an impressive award. To receive it, you have to make some kind of impressive contribution to humanity. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel in 1962, he won it for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” And that pretty much sums up this book. Don’t let the Nobel tag scare you off – this is one of the most accessible classics, and certainly one of the most brilliant.

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The Memory of Running (2004) – Ron McLARTY

So, this book got a lot of hype when it came out, thanks to Stephen King recommending it as a fantastic book, and then berating the publishing industry for not publishing it when they first saw it. As such, McLarty became a first-time author at the age of 56 – not something that happens very often in book land. But, is the book any good?

The Memory of Running is a good, old-fashioned road book – much like the road movie, but in book form. Our protagonist takes the massive shape of Smithson Ide, who weighs in at a whopping 279 pounds (127k for those of us using real measuring systems.) After the unfortunate death of his parents in a car accident, he discovers a letter in his parents’ house that tells him of where his long-lost mentally disturbed sister is. She is also dead. Smithy gets on his childhood bike, and starts cycling to the other side to see his dead sister’s body, to pay his respects. On the way, he meets many exciting people blah blah blah. You’ve all heard it before.

As road novels go, this is, perhaps, not the greatest one you’re ever going to read. There are many better. Jack Kerouac, for example. It is pretty formulaic, with Smithy meeting people that are outside his comfort zone, who teach him lessons about life and all that kind of good stuff. To be fair, some of the characters he meets are quite interesting, including the man dying of AIDS, and the three young girls he meets on an accidental bike ride, but the vast majority are not. The love interest is also not particularly interesting, either. And, after he gets shot for the third time over a simple misunderstanding, you also want to knock some sense into him. Quickly.

However, the road book part of the novel is not the only part. Every alternate chapter is a flashback to his childhood. Well, his sister’s childhood, really. This is actually done quite well. His sister, Bethany, is an excellent creation, and watching her try to live a normal life, despite the problems she clearly has (at home, as well as in her head) is actually quite enthralling. This doesn’t, unfortunately, take all that much of the book, and I found myself wanting to get back to Bethany’s life, and skip Smithy’s journey, which becomes painfully repetitive at times.

Look, this is not the most terrible book I have ever read. It certainly isn’t the best, though. The repetition of the same thing over and over again really grates after a while (much like this review) , and the redeeming features are not enough to overcome the few parts that are quite interesting. If you want a road novel that actually looks at America properly, as McLarty tries to do, read Kerouac.

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