The Savage Detectives

savage detectThe Short Version: Part diary and part oral history, the book that brought Roberto Bolaño to widespread fame is a strange journey across the world following the lives of two poets and their run from – or is it towards? – something.  But what is that something?  It’s unclear.  Along the way, they have a lot of sex and meet a lot of people and steadfastly remain committed to “visceral realism” – whatever that is.

The Review: I read 2666 more than two years ago and, at the time, I was convinced that it was indeed a modern literary masterpiece.  My review and ratings confirm that… and when I think back on the book, in light of having just finished this one, I can agree with my past self.  That book was a towering colossus, something that tried for so much and challenged so many of my preconceptions about literature.  It took me weeks to read left me feeling physically and mentally exhausted.  The Savage Detectives – which is shorter by about 300 pages – made me feel much the same way, although I might attribute this to having read it in a sprint over basically 48 hours.  It’s grand in scope but not in the same way that 2666 was.  Where that book seemed to draw forward towards this inexorable vanishing point, The Savage Detectives seems to just coast along like a car headed down a stretch of lonely highway.

I started the novel on Sunday, easily a day later than I’d planned, and spent most of the day out in the blazing hot sun reading it.  I ended up tanned and dehydrated and a little dazed – after burning through nearly 200 pages, I called it a day.  I’d tweaked my mind and body enough that I thought the rest of the book could wait.  Unfortunately, as I discovered while traveling back to New York on Monday, the rest of the book is… well, not as fulfilling as the first section.

The first section is loosely a diary of a young man, Juan Garcia Madero, who falls in with the visceral realists in the late 70s in Mexico.  They’re the bad boys of poetry at the time, super exclusive and somewhat dangerous.  Garcia Madero grows up during this time: he loses his virginity, drinks more, learns how to be a man.  It’s all quite exciting in that Y Tu Mama Tambien kind of way.  I mean, the sex scenes alone are quite… well, they’re quite something.  Perhaps it was the sun and the heat and the other general circumstances, but I rarely actually find literary sex scenes even remotely enjoyable, let alone actually arousing.  These scenes were hot, no doubt about it.  But then, as often happens, there was too much of a good thing: I started to be bored by the constant sexual (mis)adventures.

As the book transitions into the second part, it becomes clear that we (?) are the titular detectives – or whoever is interviewing these individuals, I guess.  There’s one moment where it appears to be Belano (authorial stand-in, much?) who’s doing the interviewing… but the rest of the time, it appears to be someone else entirely.  I can’t tell if it’s meant to be Garcia Madero or someone else entirely.  I think someone, at some point, mentions wanting to write a book about the visceral realists – perhaps it’s that character.  Regardless, you can see retrospectively how this book informed 2666 from this middle section.  It’s all over the damn place.  Half the time, the stories only remotely connect to Belano or Lima – and when they do, they often only reveal a small tidbit of information.  Usually how Lima didn’t have to shave and Belano shagged yet another girl.  I rather forgot that time was passing, even though it clearly was, and I coudn’t quite picture these characters in their 40s and 50s by the end of the section.  They were perpetually late teens, early 20s – children.

The last hundred pages or so return us to the diary format and to the ‘plot’, ostensibly (which also reminds me of one of the plots in 2666).  The denouement is violent but not at all shocking.  I suppose it throws into sharper relief why these two boys went off around the world and why they aren’t together and all that… but it didn’t really feel all that propulsive to me.  The novel has this sort of smoothly rolling inertia to it and I just didn’t think it to be all that necessary to’ve broken up the initial story like that.

Actually, now that I really think about it, I have to say that I don’t know whether this book was necessary.  I know that’s rather blasphemous to many people – this book has quite a following – but I just found myself (much as I did in moments of 2666) wondering “why?”  There’s a lot to parse here about romance and relationships and art… but it’s all laid out in such a circuitous and ridiculous way that I didn’t reallycare.  I nevercaredabout these characters or their stories.  Even when the stories were interesting – like every time Lucious Skin showed up, interestingly – I was only engaged at a surface level.  Again, like riding in a car and watching the scenery roll by.  Every once and a while, something pops out and impresses you but mostly you just let it glide by and it all starts to glaze a bit and at the end of the trip you think “that was fine” but don’t really have a feeling either way.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Squarely, solidly, decidedly in the middle.  I didn’t dislike the book – there were some beautiful passages, some funny ones, some smart ones, some very sexy ones.  But the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts.  It didn’t feel revolutionary – it just felt ordinary.  It was too long, too abstract, and honestly a bit boring most of the time.  And while I usually don’t mind those things (and clearly didn’t with 2666), I just couldn’t get onboard here.

Ed. Note – I did find it interesting that Bolaño connects this book directly to 2666 in two ways.  One, in the Sonora Desert at the town of Santa Teresa (where all the women are slaughtered in 2666) and two by dropping in the name of Archimboldi, the mysterious author who (much like Cesarea Tinajero in this book) hangs over everything and drives so many of the characters.  It’s a bit Stephen King “whole universe tied to The Dark Tower” esque… but it also felt, in many ways, like a warm-up lap.


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