[I realize the in thing right now is to publish revolutionary, anti-censorship reviews. Alas, this is not such a review. That said, it is highly off t...more[I realize the in thing right now is to publish revolutionary, anti-censorship reviews. Alas, this is not such a review. That said, it is highly off topic through almost the entire thing, not to mention explicit and possibly offensive to the mostly theoretical "Goodreads Team," and so I encourage you to flag it accordingly. --Ed.]
That night, as he was working the door at the bar, he amused himself by thinking about time with two speeds, one very slow, in which the movement of people and objects was almost imperceptible, and the other very fast, in which everything, even inert objects, glittered with speed. The first was called Paradise, the second Hell, and Archimboldi’s only wish was to never inhabit either.
In the same year that 2666 was published, though wholly ignorant of Bolaño and indeed of literature at that time, I first discerned the power of slowness. I was a freshman in college and utterly preoccupied with women and vanity. In particular, I had just begun to grow my hair long as an act of only symbolic rebellion and, more importantly, an act that I believed would attract the type of woman I lusted after: the creative girl, the liminal girl, who would never believe in crew cuts and Polos, symbolizing as they did the trappings of conformist attitudes and, more fatally, un-creativeness.
I was very fast at that time. I barely slept, I read 1,000 words per minute, I ran everywhere like a man possessed or crazed, which I was. In the gym I lifted everything as fast as I could, to maximize my time, but it was also there that I finally saw the slowest man I had ever seen.
It was his hair I first noticed. I did not sexualize it, exactly, and yet it was impossibly gorgeous: down to his shoulders and luxuriously curly, flawless. He was probably a senior and therefore bigger than me and much more muscular. But what I noticed more than anything was that when he lifted weights, he did it at one-tenth the speed of everyone else.
When he walked into the gym, he walked to the benches so slowly that I wondered at first if he were lost. He loaded plates one at a time, deliberately but unconsciously, and then sat or lay down and began to lift, impossibly slow. I couldn’t stop watching him because that slowness conveyed such a tremendous strength. He didn’t need to move fast, because he had complete control over everything he touched.
I began to see the energetic students speaking quickly, with feigned facility, in class as frauds, imposters. The business students or minor politicians on TV, running in circles around their bosses who ambled slowly through hallways were sycophants, idolators. Truly powerful men had no need for haste. Strength derived from slowness.
A year earlier, on the 15th of July, 2003, Roberto Bolaño died of liver disease, possibly related to abuse of heroin in his young adulthood, although interviews with his wife have lately cast doubt on the truth of this latter rumor. The massive (nearly 1,100 pages in the Spanish edition) 2666 was published posthumously.
The word posthumous, Bolaño apocryphally joked to Larry Rohter of The New York Times, “sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, one who is undefeated.”
Yet in spite of such apparent levity, 2666 was the central preoccupation of Bolaño in his years of declining health. As readers of his work, we are obligated to perceive this preoccupation not as a fascination with fame or notoriety, but for two quite separate reasons, the first being the practical concern with providing for his family (he once called his wife and two children his “only Motherland”), and the second being the artistic drive for completion, both of these things being inextricable from the ailing man’s certainty of his own mortality. Of fame itself, the enigmatic author central to the plot of 2666, pseudonymously called Benno von Archimboldi says,
[Fame] was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition. Also, fame was reductive. Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished. Fame’s message was unadorned. Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.
And we cannot help but hear in these words the voice of Bolaño himself, as indeed we see the flesh and bone and sexual ambivalence and inapprehension of nationalism of Bolaño in some variously small or large way in each of his characters.
But if it seems clear that neither Archimboldi nor Bolaño desperately sought fame in the twilight of his life, we do not therefore conclude that Bolaño was not desperate to finish, to be complete, for the reasons already mentioned. And indeed whenever I read Bolaño (not just 2666, but also The Savage Detectives), I hear in every single sentence, in the trajectory of every paragraph and page, an unmistakable franticness.
It is, in short, impossible to read Bolaño slowly.
Rather, Bolaño must be devoured, must be raced through; his reading must be frenzied, insatiable, the riding of a wave that we know must crest and then, suddenly, be finished, and yet we nonetheless paddle harder, contort our bodies in anticipation of that inevitable climax whose occurrence will put this all to an end at last and yet it never comes and so are we caught endlessly in this moment of anticipation through which we rush, furiously.
Updike, a great admirer of Russia’s Vladimir Nabokov, once remarked that “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written: ecstatically,” which synopsis always struck me as wholly and magnificently wrong, as if Updike were a man who craved not to understand why he loved Nabokov so much as to impose upon that love an arbitrary significance that gave a sort of empathetic justification to his own reasons for writing. Nabokov’s prose is rarely, if ever, ecstatic. Nabokov’s prose is clever; it’s aristocratic; in some ways, it’s perfect. But if one detects ecstasy there, it is involute: ecstasy, perhaps, only with the self-awareness that it is even possible to craft language, so effortful, with such precision. Delight with the character’s (and, by extension, the author’s) ability to bridge the divide between semantics and lyricism, or rather, to make semantics and lyricism the same thing:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
In short, Nabokov can only be read one way: slowly.
But through all this I do not intend to praise one or the other (of Bolaño and Nabokov) nor to even create some sort of tension between the two, whether between their art or between their persons.
In fact, Nabokov and Bolaño have a great deal in common, particularly in their fascination with nationalism and national identity. Nabokov, we remember, was born into Russian nobility before the revolution of 1917, some time after which he emigrated to Berlin, and eventually to the United States where he was naturalized; most of his books preceding Lolita are in some way Kafkaesque and explore the arbitrariness and identity effacement central to the modern state apparatus.
Though Bolaño lived his whole life in various independent countries of the former Spanish empire (Chile, Mexico, Spain), his characters spend pluralities of their time living, working, or vacationing in most of the Western world, to include The United States, Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, Germany, London, Israel, Egypt, and so on. Indeed the fifth, largest, and arguably most important part of the 2666 quintet features the aforementioned protagonist Archimboldi who is a German (if a profoundly ambivalent one, after serving as a foot-soldier in the Third Reich), and takes place almost entirely in Germany. Bolaño’s voice as a German protagonist is easily as convincing as Nabokov’s rendering of Humbert Humbert as an English one, a comparison that is unique and complimentary considering that as a child Nabokov could read and write in English before he could do so in Russian.
This affinity between the two authors eventually returns to the question of their slowness or fastness and renders that distinction paradoxical.
Nabokov comes from a time of aristocracy, of leisure, in which the construct of class analyzed by Marx in the period just preceding Nabokov’s birth, despite all the reasonableness of his critique of its economic function nevertheless created a group of people who had the luxury of living life very slowly. With time and money, one can indulge any fascination to its logical limit or excess; and indeed, even when we think of a historical figure such as Peter the Great (the last Tsar significant for his accomplishments rather than his overseeing a period of revolutionary upheaval), traditionally associated with almost limitless industry and energy, we do not think of a frenetic energy, but a calm, measured one. A teenager spending casual years with his hobbies of hunting and shipbuilding and war gaming, which indulgences would later inform the rationality of his rule as well as his naval supremacy. I think also of the martial artist or Samurai of the Eastern world, who would spend years mastering some small, seemingly peripheral act, such as the tea ceremony, and how that mastery would regulate and center his role as warrior.
It is the dense reader indeed who does not discern this leisure, this slow mastery and fixed rationality in Nabokov’s craftsmanship of language. Indeed all his prose’s power derives from this slowness and deliberateness. Read Nabokov slowly, and you will feel your tongue dancing along with the words: a slow-motion, lingual ballet.
On the other hand, if we wish to associate Bolaño with an act of the tongue, we have to discard all the varieties of phonetic beauty and find ourselves left with, at best, fellatio, furious and messy, a sex act central to the misogynistic relationships both in Savage Detectives and 2666, an act of domination and machismo that harbingers the rapes of the barely-fictional Santa Teresa while also emblematizing the prose style of Bolaño itself, which dominates and leaves us metaphorically gasping. Here there is no slowness:
[comical Arturo Belano blow job scene from The Savage Detectives which I can’t cite right now since my brother stole my book]
Indeed, for Bolaño, all sex acts are exaggerated: fictitious, sexualized outlets of the activity of outsized egos. General Etrescu, one-time military superior of Archimboldi and lover of the Baroness von Zumpe who will eventually become the owner of the publishing house that sponsors Archimboldi’s writing, is said to have a phallus nearly a foot long, “the stamina of a horse,” and carries out the act of coitus with bizarre, other-worldly abandon:
… and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the [B]aroness [von Zumpe] on his cock, erect [yet] again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and . . . the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting aside Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia.
Sex acts are not numerous in 2666, and oftentimes they are in the background, such as when Archimboldi’s sister Lotte becomes pregnant within a relationship that is rendered as sterile and conspicuously sexless; nevertheless, their few instances are critical to the novel’s reading. Sex in Nabokov – principally pedophilia in Lolita – is hinted at, suggested; though critics insist on calling it an “erotic novel,” explicit sex scenes are absent, actual acts of rape only hinted at, indeed their forms prefigured and then figured by intentionally not speaking of that which they consist.
Sex in Bolaño, on the other hand, is an energetic, hysterical prelude to climax whose occurrence is physical in the characters but utterly absent for the reader. Like being swept along in Bolaño’s prose, we are riding an impossible wave that never crests, partially because the sex acts themselves are impossible, and partially because the tonality and pace of Bolaño’s description of sex does not differ, in construction, from, say, his description of the inhabitants of a madhouse, or the endless, painful catalogue of the bodies of dead girls in Santa Teresa, their wounds, their sexual violation, the results of their autopsies, and the fruitless results of the subsequent police investigations.
Indeed, all is a kind of madness. And it only goes away when one stops reading.
And here we arrive at the paradox. For Bolaño, too, derives his power from a slowness. But we perceive that slowness through its absence, as in Lolita we perceived violation through its unmentionableness.
Returning to the real world after being immersed in Bolaño, one returns from a world where words and members and indeed all historical significance are so large, so much faster than what should be so, into a place of slowness.
And in doing so do we see that the real world possesses a power we never knew existed, an inexhaustible power, inexhaustible like the forces of procreation and the father whose seed yields a child. This child who now runs through the grass and makes guns out of sticks and crawls, infantry-like, through the dirt and mud and the father gazes upon him and says, “alas! the energy of a child!” and yet it is the father in his slowness who has the power.
And indeed the child sleeps and in his sleep he dreams of a fantastic eye, large and grotesque and horrifying, an eye which is all-seeing and wishes to consume him and which at first terrifies him utterly until he realizes that he was birthed from this eye, that its vitreous humour is equally womb and therein lies his genesis and there is nothing to fear. Yet, fearless, he awakes screaming for his mother, a mother who comes rushing into his room in the dead of night to comfort him and he knows that it is only she who can save him, and at the same time, just as strongly that she can never save him, for to do so she would need to possess of fatherhood, of its slowness and absence, and this is the one faculty of which she is eternally bereft. (less)
In my younger days, I sensed that this was a rudely under-appreciated book that, merely acclaimed, deserved inclusion within the canon of the Gods the...moreIn my younger days, I sensed that this was a rudely under-appreciated book that, merely acclaimed, deserved inclusion within the canon of the Gods themselves (Hemingway, Melville, Joyce, McCarthy). More recently, I have realized that not the book qua narrative, but its singular intimacy with my person colored the profoundness of my love-affair with this novel. As a result, my review must be peculiarly subjective for someone so accustomed to the pretense of objectivity.
Whether its effect on my life resulted from the epoch in which I read it (adolescence) or a nascent affinity I can not know. Either way, the very themes over which Bowles obsesses are the same which motivate the several pathologies of myself as man and human being.
It's true that The Sheltering Sky is primarily a love story, yet one in which the desert itself -- its hajji, its pathogens, its sterile expanse -- serves as antagonist as much as the tension of refractory lovers. Bowles' position is thus one of the experientialist: that meaning derives from the experience, and without experience the life stands bereft of meaning.
But there is much more to be said. For though Port and Kit's love is brought into this world as a burden, the promise is that the very foreignness of the land is what will bring it to resolution. This is not the myth of the expatriate (that the foreign place will cure all domestic malaise) but a more general principle: that the longer one can not find that which one seeks within the familiar, the more likely it lies in some place strange and horrible.
And indeed they do find resolution, but not the one they knew themselves to be searching for. Instead, a resolution which leaves the reader as much as Bowles' protagonists haunted by the heaviness of love and chaos of the exotic.
Perhaps what drew me most into this world and its ethos is Bowles' style itself, which matches with unnerving certainty the psychology of his characters to their external circumstance. In this way, a breathtaking comprehensiveness is stitched by prose at once robust and feminine, Möbius in its intention, Attic in its certainty.
This correspondence between psychology and circumstance provides a veritable well of affect, both for the characters and the reader. As a consequence, The Sheltering Sky has not only inspired the sole piece of complete writing I ever authored, but assisted in authoring the much more sincere trajectory of my own experience.
I was thinking about runners this morning. The way they look. The way they move.
I don’t mean the champions of distance running. Despite the impossibi...moreI was thinking about runners this morning. The way they look. The way they move.
I don’t mean the champions of distance running. Despite the impossibility of their feats (26 miles at a 4:50 pace, 50 miles a day for 90 days, etc.), the competitors themselves srike me as very real, fundamentally human. Lank simians new-cast in nudity on the savannah, running a gazelle to exhaustion.
But then I think about one of these Olympic track stars. A guy like Usain Bolt. His whole life dedicated to the staggeringly impractical ability to run a mere hundred meters faster than any human being has ever crossed by foot that span.
I mean, have you ever really looked at this guy? He belongs in a DC Comic even more than a Greek pantheon. His last name is Bolt, for God’s sake! This is not the little ape on the prairie any more. This is a physique engendered not of hunting and travail and the fear of starvation, but of something more otherworldy: an emanation from the forge of human potentiality.
And I think of what it must mean to him, that race. Nine seconds, you know? Nine point six-nine seconds. His whole life, a growing crescendo to this one measure in which he will either be validated or he will fail. Nine seconds. It’s a mental burden, to be sure. But the pressure of the moment cannot possibly exceed the trials of the body thereto.
This latter I know – in some tentative way – because I have become something of an athlete myself, in no small part thanks to this book. By “athlete” I do not mean that I am particularly gifted, nor even particularly good, but that improving and competing in a particular sport has become a chief purpose in my life. There is work, and there is training. There is little else that matters.
What Joe Friel offers is the structure that makes this possible.
Because training at or near your peak physiological efficiency cannot be done haphazardly. It requires discipline, it requires obsession, and it requires a whole lot of time.
The more one learns about the theory of peak performance – the further, in other words, that one ventures into the mind of Joe Friel – the more aspects of previously quotidian existence which are subsumed into the training structure.
There is periodicity, to start with. What was once a random affair of going to the gym when you could cements its way into the calendar at preordained intervals. Then there is the principle that workouts should vary in duration and intensity (attributes themselves subject to a separate rubric of periodicity) in a certain specific way. This implies those same workouts must be planned far in advance, and carefully.
Then, of course, enters nutrition, and training suddenly becomes not just how one exercises but how one eats. Every meal is scripted by calorie and macronutrient, then micronutrient and glycemic index. Then come the laws of recovery, which govern sleep, posture, bathing, outside recreation. There are fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers, regulation of glycogen stores, injury prevention, neurological training, sports psychology, cadence regulation, heart rate and power output monitoring; the list, presumably, is infinite.
Soon one’s entire day has pledged fealty to some distant and cruel master, from literally the first seconds that one struggles from slumber and must grab a watch to take a resting heart rate (a good predictor of adaptation to training stresses), to the final collapse into bed as sweet slumber overtakes an exhausted body once more. In between, you must do exactly what Joe Friel tells you.
In short, I cannot conscionably recommend this book to those with a penchant for obsessive compulsions and alpha-male extravagances, unless you are willing to give up your previous ideas of living.
For soon you’ll start looking at a guy like Usain Bolt – and you’ll be realizing that despite everything you do, nothing is enough. Every time you cut a workout 15 minutes short (to get to your desk on time), or run an interval with your heat pumping at one beat per minute too slow (because you got 11 minutes too little sleep the night before), you are falling short of what he is. You’ll realize that even with every free minute allotted to training, the gap between you and a guy like Bolt is far vaster than the gap between you and the average couch potato.
And you just go on struggling, and the starting gun is fired, and there goes Usain out the blocks like some sort of devil or madman, flailing and writhing and then nine seconds is gone. And the impossible is made real in that moment and from where you sit, all those thousands of hours behind those few seconds suddenly attain a significance so clear to you that you could weep. A clarity that is forever denied you, even as your fingers trace the soothing grid lines of your schedule, or Friel’s lactate threshold curves: their numerological tangibility belying the human torment which draws them.
And you just keep on, not daring to hope anymore for that clarity of significance. It doesn’t mean anything any more, nor will it. At some point it just turned into living. You do it because it’s what you do. (less)
The approach to particle dynamics at this level marks the first exposure for a physics student to a completely self-contained physical theory. And in...moreThe approach to particle dynamics at this level marks the first exposure for a physics student to a completely self-contained physical theory. And in this particular book, the presentation is as much an aesthetic accomplishment as didactic. With modern notation in stunning typeset, Thornton and Marion guide the student from the most rudimentary linear dynamics of single particles in inertial frames to chaotic oscillations to Hamiltonian dynamics and the study of rigid bodies based upon Eulerian angles.
The microcosm of Hamiltonian and Lagrangian dynamics is especially brilliant, the more so viewed through the lens of the previous chapters' comprehensive theoretical exposition of dynamics from the Newtonian precepts. If there is any weakness it may be the foray into the calculus of variations, which was so eager to demonstrate applications it failed to even explain the formal concept of a functional. But this is so slight a flaw as to hardly bear mentioning. If you are a physics student, buy this book. It's beautiful.(less)