In the beginning of Roberto Bolaño's posthuomous masterpiece is a quote from Baudelaire, "An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom." That about sumsIn the beginning of Roberto Bolaño's posthuomous masterpiece is a quote from Baudelaire, "An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom." That about sums up the aesthetic approach of the tome, the first section of which begins with the seemingly irrelevant story of an international group of academics chasing as elusive German author to the small Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. Sure, the academics give conferences, fall in love, and learn just briefly of a series of crimes in which hundreds of women have been killed in Santa Teresa over the past decade, but ultimately nothing happens, the academics do not find their author, and the story continues without them.
But this desert of boredom is the genius of the work, for in each section we get closer and closer to what is happening in Santa Teresa, reaching through the boredom to an unmistakable and spine-chilling horror that seems to lurk just below the surface of the page. Even the section about the crimes, essentially 200 pages worth of crime reports on every single raped and murdered woman in Santa Teresa (the crimes based off the still unsolved murders of women in the real Ciudad Juárez) told with the "false neutrality of a police report." These page are brutal, graphic, and yet, still part of the desert of boredom surrounding the horror that has not yet been revealed. As such it is interesting to note that Bolaño has turned Baudelaire's quote into a kind of architectonic structure for the plot of his novel. Instead of moving forward in time, or with building events, we have a microscope that starts off on the boring international level and gradually circles closer and closer to the terrifying circumstances of one small town. ...more
I finally broke this tome off my too-read shelf and am so glad I did! I got about halfway through yesterday, and am looking forward to spending anotheI finally broke this tome off my too-read shelf and am so glad I did! I got about halfway through yesterday, and am looking forward to spending another late night immersed in the world of Arbre.
Rather than comment on the plot (which you can simply google), I want to say a few things about the mechanics and philosophy behind the world of Anathem that bothered me, with the hopes that the remainder of the book will prove my opinions wrong.
First off, while the plot becomes quite gripping, the first hundred pages are just a tick too slow. Part of this is that Stephenson has crafted a whole new world with thousands of years of history that affect the main storyline. While the length of the book gives him room to explore and explain this world, it is still remarkably like our own. Where it's not - no matter how unrelated to the plot - Stephenson (or more accurately his narrator) feels a need to go into very minute and irrelevant detail. The use of jargon (which some other reviewers find distasteful) can be quite enjoyable, but what annoyed me is that beyond these words the book equally feels a need to define every other slightly uncommon two-syllable English word, which made me feel that the book is primarily aimed at high-school students or other people who aren't heavy readers (and thus less likely to get the scope of the work's larger project re: history).
On this tip, I'm also bothered by the philosophy or cosmology espoused by the character's so far. For a work this steeped in Science and a skepticism toward what Nietzsche called "worlds-behind," the characters spend an inordinate amount of page space talking about, suggesting the possibility of, and actively longing for fantastic events such as aliens and multiple/parallel universes. Personally I enjoy this stuff, but it seems to clash with the world of the Maths in the story, and seems more a place for Stephenson to insert his own ideas and hypothesis than concoct an internally consistent reality.
This is particularly the case with the concept of multiple worlds - which I can't help but find a little out-moded. Maybe it's just me (and with the rate at which the character's change their theories this could all change in the next hundred pages), but it seems that there are much more intellectually satisfying and narratively exciting ways of broaching the worlds-behind theory than mere universe hopping. It's about as droll as writing a story performing the eternal recurrence (though if that's your thing, I'd highly recommend Mircea Eliade's The Forbidden Forest, which takes Nietzche's mythic cyclical time and layers it directly on top of historical events of World War II). Many people have claimed Anathem is revolutionary in its ideas, mind-expanding, &c. And maybe it would be, for me, if I'd read it fifteen years ago, or hadn't done my own deep research into the significance and implications of the philosophical roots of science and how it might have diverged if Aristotle had been a little less stodgy.
Ultimately though, Anathem is a rollicking good time. The characters are likeable and emotionally honest, the plot becomes quite dynamic, and the concept of detailing a world in which not only are ideas important but history itself must be kept intact is a vital project that if more contemporary writers followed (one of the only others off the top of my head is David Mithcell's Cloud Atlas) rather than complaining about how banal the suburbs are, might actually get people to look up from their speelys and jeejaws and other ephemeral technologies and think about the world we live in in a new way. I'm excited to see where this story goes, and it's been a long time since I've truly felt that way about a fictional world....more
Written in the 60s it reads like a sci-fi Pynchon or Joyce, about a mid-western city where some mysterious catastrophe took place and into which peoplWritten in the 60s it reads like a sci-fi Pynchon or Joyce, about a mid-western city where some mysterious catastrophe took place and into which people arrive, looking for freedom. Many reviews tout the book's labyrinthine incomprehensibility along with its almost shocking questioning of issues of race, gender, and sexuality, which are certainly more than enough reason for anyone to pick up this tome. What really impressed me however were the masterful use of psychogeography and the fantastic, which rarely get enough play in modern literature. The entire city in the book shifts to correspond with the characters' moods and emotions, especially with the nameless protagonist, who thinks he is going mad. This plays into the element of the fantastic, in the sense used by the critic Todorov- that a potentially un- or hyper-real situation is presented and then doubts are established in the character and readers' minds (madness, dreams, drugs, etc) as to whether the event was real or just a fault of perception. I haven't finished it yet, so I'm not sure whether he will reveal just what happened to the city (I hope he doesn't!), but combined with its stellar discussions on artistic meaning and viscerally rendered sex scenes, "Dhalgren" is one of the most enjoyable, epic, and important books I've ever read. (Ironically enough it was hated within the sci-fi community, especially by Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison... which I suppose says something about its attempt to rise out of the genre)....more
Most famous as a scholar and founder of comparative religions, the Romanian Eliade always considered himself more of a storyteller. While the vast eruMost famous as a scholar and founder of comparative religions, the Romanian Eliade always considered himself more of a storyteller. While the vast erudition of his academic work has a way of looping in on itself, his fiction does nothing but benefit from an intricate understanding of world mythological themes, put at the service of describing the psychological effects of time and the World Wars. He also writes some rather fantastic short stories based on his wide occult knowledge. A personal favorite....more