Writer as Protagoniston Sep 11 in Blog Post by johnhornor
Back in the mid-to-late nineties, I stopped reading Stephen King because I couldn’t get over the fact that his protagonists were always novelists. I don’t know why but that just seriously irked me for some reason. Salem’s Lot, okay. IT…all right. The Dark Half? Different Seasons? The Shining? Sheesh, man, why don’t you go research some other profession? Surely you’ve done something else during your life? (Turns out, King has – he’s been a teacher and a tutor, professions featured in Dead Zone, Salem’s Lot, Carrie, Apt Pupil, 11/22/63 etc.) I should cut him some slack, though. He became a blockbuster novelist at the age of 23. When I was 23, I was growing hair to my ass, waiting tables, and playing in a rock band. It’s all King has ever known. On the other hand, I’ve been a fryboy, a parts boy, a construction worker, a dishwasher, a waiter, a farmhand, a waiter again, a temporary office worker, an office grunt, and then my resume starts. I think, if I could, I would trade with Mr. King and I’ll forgive him his author protagonists.
This came across my electrically implanted social media cranial-shunt the other day while I was casually seizuring on the kitchen floor with information overload:
Picture from Hey, Author website. Fun stuff.
My time with Stephen King had poisoned me with a serious dislike of any novel or story featuring an author as a protagonist so that when I come across them in other novels, I would chunk the offending tome across the room. It’s okay if King does it, but nobody else!
Then, about a year ago, I began reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that I’d checked out from the library on a whim. Dense, yet fascinating, I managed to get through half of the novel before it was due back at the library. A massive book, almost as many pages as the title. The novel was rife with writers, literary critics, academics and for some reason this didn’t bother me. Possibly it was the foreign settings. Perhaps it was the lush literary undergrowth that left me puzzling how much of the prose was an exact translation from the Spanish and how much of it was a collaborative artistry of the translator. While I enjoyed much of it, I was intimidated by it much like I’d been with Gravity’s Rainbow. Reading these books often left me with a growing sense of my own stupidity and ignorance. My provincialism. And, I realized, I’m a plot junkie. Much like my average fellow Americans with a palate grown used to the taste of fast-food, I’d become reliant and easily bored without an immediate and obvious plot. As a reader I’d become lazy, not willing to invest the energy to ferret out the author’s intent without the anodyne of a storyline, the McGuffin spoonful to help the medicine go down. I used to not be that way. I used to be aggressive in my reading, daring and voracious.
But we all age and fall into patterns.
So, back at the library once more, I sought out Bolaño again – because there was something in 2666 that kept me thinking about his writing – a lingering sense of doom and malaise, a fatalism twisted bright with humor, an ineffable sense of movement toward something even though I didn’t know what that something was. Of course 2666 was checked out. I nabbed a collection of short stories called Last Evenings on Earth. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read the whole collection – it is much slighter than 2666.
There’s not a story that doesn’t feature a writer as protagonist. Most of them are thinly veiled autobiographical sketches, where a main character, B, plotlessly ambles about – a stand-in for Bolaño himself. Sometimes his name is Arturo Belano. There is no dialogue as we see in most modern English novels – which, after reading multiple Bolaño stories seem histrionic and desperate. All conversations are delivered like this:
At noon, as we were about to say good-bye, he held out several bills with a sullen expression on his face and said something about the trouble he’d caused me the previous day. It was a lot of money. I told him he didn’t owe me anything. I would have done the same for any friend. The Grub insisted I take the money. You can use it to buy some books, he said. I’ve got lots, I replied. Well you can stop stealing them for a while, he said. In the end I took the money.
From “The Grub,” page 71 Last Evenings on Earth. This conversational way of folding in dialogue, without the fanfare or rigorous need for demarcation – possibly a holdover from theater – gave the stories, for me, a more lyrical and undulating feel, so that the aimlessness of the narrative took on a sort of tonal experiment, like when musicians hang on a chord for many, many measures, exploring the aural space. (More cowbell.)
In the course of reading Last Evenings on Earth – possibly due to the fact that it was a thinly veiled autobiography – I found two things happening: first, I began questioning a lot of my previously held beliefs regarding what makes great writing, great fiction. Here was a guy, writing authors as protagonists, his stories full of stylistic choices I would have avoided unless I wanted to affect an antiquated style for some narrative purpose, and for the most part, plotless. If they had plots, they were episodic and not slavishly devoted to some narrative ideal. Possibly due to the autobiographical nature of the work.
The second thing that happened, as I read, was I became convinced that it was more than okay that Bolaño utilized writers as protagonists, it was essential. This came about by learning Bolaño’s history, learning about Chile. A quick synopsis – Bolaño was born in the 50s, lived through a period of reform and uncertainty through the 60s, and moved to Mexico City with his family. He returned to Chile to help “build a revolution” in 1973 after Salvador Allende was deposed in a coup d’etat by Augusto Pinochet, who dealt with resistance to his rule in the way most dictators do, a consolidation of power by eliminating enemies and ending with mass graves.Throughout Last Evenings on Earth, the Chilean diaspora is a constant, often turning plots. In one story, a writer goes back home to Chile to try to find the body of his son.
Bolaño himself was jailed on a return trip from Mexico and escaped only because of two of his former classmates were prison guards. “In the small hours I could hear them torturing others; I couldn’t sleep and there was nothing to read except a magaine in English that someone had left behind.” (“Dance Card”, Last Evenings on Earth, pg. 215) From there, he wandered about the globe, an exile from his home country. Paris, Spain, Mexico. These are the settings for the stories in Last Evenings on Earth.
But why was it okay that his protagonists were writers? For one, it was semi-autobiographical yet he could have made his characters be any profession. His father was a truck driver and boxer, Bolaño had lived all over the world and had the knowledge and experience to imagine a different sort of protagonist.
It is unfair to contrast Stephen King with Bolaño, of course. One is literary, the other mainstream. One American, the other born into revolution and revolt. On the other hand, both are wildly successful in their home countries (and elsewhere). Both tend to place writers in their fiction. Both skate on the thin ice of meta-fiction occasionally. However, after finishing Last Evenings on Earth I went upstairs to my kitchen and chatted with my wife about my pet-peeve and how this book defied it – while most of King’s work didn’t – in an attempt to work out my thought processes. In the end, I came to this: it’s fine that Bolaño writes author protagonists because for him, it’s not just resorting to writing “what he knows,” it is a form of rebellion. The act of writing is action, contrariness, obstinacy. A form of personal revolution that roots him to his home country that he’s been exiled from. Rebellion in the face of a dictator filling mass graves with people Bolaño knows. It has meanings on many levels – not just autobiographical. But for King, his author protagonists are due to a lack of experience, a direct result of his huge success at such an early age (for which I can forgive him, even though I wish he’d try a little harder on that front. Not to mention his writing himself into his novels.)
In the story, “Mauricio (‘The Eye’) Silva,” Bolaño writes the story of a Chilean refugee rescuing boys from a Indian brothel:
What happened next is all too familiar: the vilence that will not let us be. The lot of Latin Americans born in the fifties. Naturally, The Eye tried to negotiate, bribe, and threaten, without much hope of success. All I know for certain is that there was violence and soon he was out of there, leaving the streets of that district behind, as if in a dream, drenched with sweat. He vividly remembers the feeling of exaltation welling up inside him, stronger and stronger, a joy that felt dangerously like lucidity, but wasn’t (couldn’t have been). Also, the shadows they cast onto the peeling walls, he and the two boys he was leading by the hand….
The rest is more an itinerary than a story or plot.
In the end, I come to the conclusion that the more I know about writing and art, the less I know. You can do anything in your novel, or story. Anything you can pull off as long as there’s the skill and talent to execute it and a reason for it to be there.
That is all.