I'm not quite sure if I've actually read all of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp. Normally this fact would disqualify me from discussing the book, but in this case, as the U.S. Supreme court might say of certain kinds of pornography, it's intrinsic to the experience. The book consists of 56 numbered and named sketches, most of them less than a page long. I started reading at the beginning, but soon found that I was suffering from a kind of amnesia—that is, while I was reading each sketch, I found it quite absorbing—each word, each sentence seemed meaningful, indeed full of an intense energy or focus or concentration that carried me along, but when I reached the bottom of the page, or more typically, when I reached the substantial white space at the bottom of each page (the sketches are really short), I would realize I had no memory of what I had just read. After a few pages of this, I started skipping around. I would bounce from sketch to sketch randomly, and then, perhaps, read a few sketches in reverse numerical order. I recall that starting at 33. THE REDHEAD and then proceeding, in descending order, to 24. FOOTSTEPS ON THE STAIRS resulted in a more-or-less coherent narrative. I'm not sure whether the story was moving forward or backward in that reversed sequence—but it held my attention even as it disoriented—sort of like that dolly zoom in Hitchcock's Vertigo—a sense of movement, even as things seem to stand still. After several hours of reading this way, I know I've spent enough time reading to have read the whole book, but I can't be sure whether I've read all the sketches or not. It's entirely possible, for example, that I've read 7. THE NILE four times and 6. REASONABLE PEOPLE VS. UNREASONABLE PEOPLE not at all.
2. THE ELEMENTS
The scenario of the cop and the witness. A certain taste in porn. As if seen. As if remembered. The fevered glimpses. Through a peephole. There's a writer, working at a nothing job, a security guard a campground near Barcelona, writing this story. It's happening to him, this story, one way or another. The writer refuses to indulge in cheap narrative completions. There's a red-haired girl in the drug trade whose job, apparently, is to have sex with a narcotics cop. A body found in a park of some sort. Maybe it's the campground where the writer works, maybe the writer found the body in his official capacity as night guard, maybe he spent the next day re-imagining the discovery of the body as a lurid hard-boiled crime novel. Or as a hard-core porn flick. Watching the cops. Watching the body. The cop has sex with a witness. It feels like a specific genre of hard-core porn: cops having sex with witnesses at a murder scene. If the genre didn't exist, Bolaño would need to invent it, or the writer in Antwerp would need to invent it. There's some story about pigs and death in Antwerp. The cheap crime novels and hard-core porn flicks inform the real world, where real bodies and real cops and real drugs meet. Or real bodies and real cops and real drugs inform the experience of a hard-core pornography, which the insomniac writer watches. The writer tries to put it all in words, but he refuses to make it a conventional story. An English writer struggles to control his tenses. Bolaño tells Arnold Bennett to fuck off. Did I really read that? I can't find the passage again... Maybe you can find the line about Arnold Bennett only if you read the sketches in a certain order...
3. SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE BOOK CLUB
- Is Antwerp a failed experiment?
- If it's an experiment, what hypothesis is being tested?
- Does it succeed as immersive narrative? Is it a good beach read? (Hint: No.)
- Would success as immersive narrative constitute a failure of the experiment?
- Does it transgress, explore, discover, test boundaries, push things too far? Hint: Yes.)
- Is it diminished or expanded by its own self-referentiality?
- Did Bolaño violate an important rule by including himself in the narrative?
- Is the rule really important?
- Is Antwerp an attempt to grow a crime novel from the compost of a poetic imagination?
- What do the body, the cop's huge cock, the vibrator plugged into the wall for power, the fingered asshole, the watching eyes, the pigs in Antwerp and the author's refusal to compromise have in common?
- Who the heck chose this book for our club?