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October Books

October 19, 2008

October Books

New works by Bolaño, Lerch and Ohle

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, Robert Kotyk, Shane Patrick Murphy

The Romantic Dogs
Roberto Bolaño
New Directions Press: 2008

Five years after his death, it’s hardly surprising that Roberto Bolaño’s name is becoming increasingly familiar in the English-speaking world. The lauded Chilean’s works reverberate with sex, exiled Latin Americans, literary obsessions, literary pretensions, violence, politics, and, well, more sex. While Bolaño is mainly known for his novels and short stories (The Savage Detectives being the best known), he wrote in prose only as a reluctant admission that, like many of his characters, poets earn one lousy living.

This collection of his poetry, the first to be translated into English, serves as an intriguing complement to Bolaño’s prose, but it probably won’t convert many readers who haven’t encountered Bolaño before. Although his romantic subject matter is well represented here, Bolaño’s novels are addictive largely because of the wild, ecstatic voices of his narrators. In his poetry, Bolaño takes on a more contemplative, detached tone that makes his poetry, if nothing else, less fun.

Most of the pieces in this collection are short vignettes that recall the loneliness and desperation of Bolaño’s formative years as an exile from Pinochet’s Chile. In front of this political backdrop, we find his preoccupation with love and literature. The short pieces give us some glances into Bolaño’s sense of black humour and satire: “Father, in the Kingdom of Heaven that is communism, is there a place for homosexuals?” (from “Ernesto Cardenal and I”). But it is the longer pieces that allow Bolaño to really be himself. One of the longest, “Visit to the Convalescent,” gives us a youthful narrator who has escaped from a fallen country to run wild in Mexico City while “the rest of the world’s cities are drowning in uniformity and silence.” Such sentiments show Bolaño at both his best and most irksome. These laconic verses make it nearly impossible to determine the depth of his irony and naivety. Bolaño’s writing is impossibly cool to the point that we are never sure whether the author is laughing at himself or his readers. In these short poems, Bolaño still manages to draw us in with his wanderer’s tales. Then once we are comfortable, he offers the occasional stab to the rest of the world who sat at home while he spent his life drifting from country to country, book to book, and love to love.

– Shane Patrick Murphy

Witness and Resist
Marilyn Lerch
Morgaine House: 2008

The very first poem in Marilyn Lerch's Witness and Resist makes clear what the poet feels a poem should accomplish: “to witness for beauty and resist despair.” This is a collection that confronts the state of the world with all the compassionate empathy and emotional activism essential to giving the individual a voice and sense of importance within that world. Lerch boldly takes on a wide range of personalities: Chilean tour guide Maria Luz, who has flashbacks to being raped and seeing her baby burned alive; dead soldier Joseph Terry Riordon, who "dutifully toured the First Sitting Duck Gulf War;" and widely looked-up-to intellectual role model Dick Clapp, who became a small town judge and "put a bullet in his brain." Lerch ups the ante by assuming the viewpoint of a dying man whose black skin is “shiny on knobs of bone:”

My life,
like the diamonds and zinc and oil
that lay under those black voids
on the old maps,
is being taken from me.

This powerful New Brunswick poet not only plays the empath, but unashamedly includes herself in a universe of vulnerability with a ten-page exploration of and letter to her father: "Your absence was our intimacy, so/ how could I not believe/ this profound indifference to life/ included me?" Although the narrators' unselfconscious tales do at times get lost in obscure references that over-shelter the greater implications of the work, any confusion is quickly surmountable. Fearless of dealing in darkness, it is no surprise that this wide-eyed work also catches sight of the light: "Yes,/ always the dark and/ new stars in the making,/ the bombs will fall, compassion/ always possible.”

— Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The Pisstown Chaos
David Ohle
Soft Skull Press: 2008

Whatever one might think of Cormac McCarthy’s father-son doomsday travelogue The Road, it is a novel that may present as doleful an elegy for the debasement of the American family as anything yet written this century. In a related (but different) vein, The Pisstown Chaos, the zany and strangely beautiful new novel by David Ohle, exhibits none of McCarthy’s penchant for scenes of sad kinship at the end of the world as we know it, even as it mines our cultural moment of extreme uncertainty in the service of a similarly apocalyptic mode. Ohle’s novel is a family dystopia in a more eccentric key: it whizzes between the radically divergent fates of its characters, the formerly wealthy Balls clan, with scatological merriment, from one depredation to the next, like some strange unproduced episode of Arrested Development collectively written by Anthony Burgess, George Saunders, and the Marquis de Sade.

In so doing, Ohle frequently opens up space for trenchant satire in the form of short news stories and community bulletins, collagistically laid out before each chapter. As one begins: “An imp herder working one of the Reverend’s meadows is fit to be tied. He found his most productive female dead in her pen yesterday. The belly was scissored open, the teats cut, the heart carried off. The herder wants to blame stinkers for the latest raid on his stock. The incident is doubly sorrowful, coming so soon after the same herder discovered the wings of his favorite banty imp nailed to the stump of an oak. Neighbors testify that he now spends his time stalking the reaches of the Reverend’s property, pistol drawn, so anxious to shoot a stinker that he has accidentally killed three of his best stud imps.” The bulk of the story pits ordinary citizens against the “stinkers,” a parasite-ridden lower caste of zombies, while the nation’s despot is a political bloviator and reverend seemingly modeled after right-wing American talk show host Bill O’Reilly. The result is a weird and precious addition to the growing literature of the gloomy. Bleakness has never looked so rich.

— Robert Kotyk

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