Monday, June 8, 2015

Justin Chen on Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, long-distance family connections, and a syncopation of Circadian rhythms

What Comes Next

We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain.
Nothing good ever comes of love. What comes of love is always something better.

                                -Roberto Bolaño

His Mother’s Side 

On the plane he opened The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. He liked novels without a clear plot—stories that can’t be summarized only experienced.

People were slouching in their seats—a particularly dense form of slumping found on overnight flights. He liked that he could tell which passengers were traveling together by the angles of their bodies to each other; there was a familial gravity drawing clumps of people inward. His father was watching a movie without headphones. That was the way he preferred—to be a deaf observer of flashing images.

It was gray and raining. His mother and younger sister were still in bed. From the hotel window he studied a stonewall with small fountains at regularly spaced intervals. Rain drained out of a line of small holes in the wall—streams of arching water looking like the rib cage of a small animal. Whenever the wind blew, the streams swayed, never in unison, but one after the other like someone riffling through the pages of a book.

Twenty something hours on the plane (Boston to New York to Tokyo to Taipei)
One hour on high-speed rail down the coast of Taiwan
75 minutes in a car to his maternal grandfather’s fish farm

Inventory of his mother’s side of the family as performed by his father: 
A college graduate
A high school drop out (HSD)
A, technically, middle school drop out (MSD)

Reading as if the book was splitting his mind like a prism dissecting layers of light so that there were two of him moving through the story. A lighter layer that skimmed over the text, feeling the texture of the words, the tone and shape of the sentence. Then a denser, visceral consciousness sinking into the plot and emotion of the story.

Vegetation (trees, fronds, weeds, bushes) crept in on the city like notes scribbled in the margin of a book. Most houses had metal corrugated roofs, tiled walls and bare concrete floors. The innards were exposed—piping, propane gas canisters, air ducts. There were dogs—feral dogs, wild-looking dogs with long tongues chained to fences, dogs in fancy jackets with pleated padding urinating on the sidewalk.

What he learned on the one-hour high-speed rail: 
It was his parent’s 30th anniversary
They were married on December 25th because that’s when his father had winter break and could fly home from school in America
His father would say that his mother was stupid and she would say well you’re the one who married me 

The Savage Detectives follows the agitated, combustible, lives of poets (the Visceral Realists). To them, poetry, politics and life are inseparable. They interrupt lectures of rival poets, steal from bookstores and plot to kidnap Poet Laureate Octavio Paz. Exiled from their homes in Mexico City, they pass through Paris, Tel Aviv, Vienna and Barcelona. The three main characters are Juan Garcia Madero, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano but there are more than forty characters giving kaleidoscopic experiences of abandoning friendships to disappear in the desert, flickering in and out of love affairs, writing personal truths that the world forgets.

His family never stayed in the same house for more than one night. He thought of the desultory lives of the novel’s characters—their fatalistic and melancholy machismo as they are drawn further and further out into time away from the lives they expected.

The highway median held grass and sparse shrubs. The car sped along an empty road bordering a flat, gray ocean. If he looked straight out the passenger window at the bushes passing by, they became vague and opaque like little puffs of amber smoke splayed out in the wind.

His father adjusted the air condition of every car they got into. His mother closed every door behind her complaining of mosquitoes that kept her up during the night and were invisible to everyone but her. Watch out for the mosquito she said and he imagined one large mosquito with a hat or some other distinguishing feature following her from town to town.

His family spoke Taiwanese which he knew 1/100th as well as Chinese which he knew 1/1000th as well as he knew English.

This is your maternal grandfather’s fishpond. They worked all day and night and sent your mother to college which was pretty rare. Then your mother and myself worked hard to send you to college. If you fail out of grad school you could come back and work here.

Questions he is asked by relatives: 
Do you speak/understand Chinese/Taiwanese?
How old are you?
Do you have a girlfriend?
Do you remember me?

In the countryside he drank tea with the last fish farmer on his grandfather’s land—a sixty-year old with jet-black hair who made tea on top of a piece of driftwood. A marvel in directional fluidics. Water boiling. Water poured into teapots. Teapots emptied into other teapots—an elaborate transfer like that of a street magician switching a ball between cups. Water sloshing and spilling, running down the channels and contours of the driftwood to collect in a single reservoir.

The teacups had the dorsal silhouette of two fish painted at the bottom so that when you swirled the cup you expected them to sway.

They spoke with the circular logic/rhythm of spoken word poets: 
Here’s my daughter
She’s your daughter
Yes, my daughter
She looks like you
She’s a vegetarian
She’s a vegetarian?
She only eats vegetables
So she’s a vegetarian
She doesn’t eat meat
Why didn’t you tell us?
We were in a rush and forgot
So she can’t eat meat right?
Yeah, she only eats vegetables

He discussed with his sister about being able to understand Taiwanese but not speak it. It’s like old English or Shakespeare. People can get the gist but no one uses it.

What he learned at dinner with his sister, father, mother, his uncle’s widow, her daughter (his cousin), his cousin’s husband, their 1.5 year old daughter: He was a slow baby. He learned to walk late. His father brought him to the doctor because he wasn’t talking.

He’s still slow. Slow to make friends but also slow to make enemies. Slow to learn and slow to forget.

When he was young, his mother took him to the library, He remembers walking out with a stack of twenty books. He read as if he didn’t know what hit him, as if he were falling down a well. He would stay up until 1am with the neck of his desk lamp bent over his pillow--the sound of his mother’s footsteps enough for him to switch off the light and fling himself under the covers. Then her hand cupping the heat of the bulb. Her voice a mix of exasperation and resignation.

In the villages they ate pig’s head soup. They said Americans like to bake but we cook everything in oil. After he was full and ate more and insisted he was full they went out on motorcycles and came back with bananas and pomegranates. They opened photo albums with his parents. You’re old they told his parents. We’re old his parents said. Kids grow up and you grow up too. 

In the photos he saw people at the beach scowling on motorcycles. People in wedding dresses or posing in their newly opened bakery. The MSD was seven and standing begrudgingly next to a bride. Amber hued polaroids where people are hugging each other on top of an open wagon and squinting into the wind. A bride and groom crossing a parking lot with a broken basketball hoop and stacks of rotting wood. People looking young and beautiful, looking oblivious like they couldn’t help but last that way forever.

He told himself that he knew his family would die. He felt prepared but instead he learned that people close to him could have a quiet and sinewy unhappiness. It never occurred to him that they would struggle against nostalgia and that everything they loved and mourned would be inextricably intertwined.

Their happiness was not his happiness. His happiness was insecure and carnivorous—always seeking more of itself. More and more. Happiness as a way to validate his existence.

He stayed with his aunt, a widow, in a narrow four-story apartment on top of her pharmacy. She gave his family her bedroom and slept on a cot. In the morning, tottering down the staircase, he almost missed her sparse form beneath the sheets. The room, gray with morning light, was filled with boxes and stacks of thick books. A window was cracked open and he heard the world shifting around them—the sputtering of exhaust ghosting through city streets, the auditory comets of birds flitting through the air.

Two framed photographs on top of his aunt’s piano: one of her husband, one of her father. He stared at them as if studying himself in the mirror.

He wondered about adult happiness. The happiness you feel after your spouse has died, your children have had their own children and the land of your childhood is replaced by another. He thought this happiness would be fuller than his—weary and self assured. Happiness with some weight behind it.

His Father’s Side 

They visit a hole in the wall with napkin dispensers along the back, steam tumbling through two flapping kitchen doors, a bathroom marked by a grizzly bear poster. They discover a Casino/Al-Capone themed breakfast buffet in the hotel lobby. He has rice with pickled seaweed, sushi, braised mushroom in oyster sauce, grapefruit, silky yogurt in German packaging, two bowls of cereal, noodle stir-fry, croissants, a chocolate sauce and peanut butter sandwich. They have nine-course meals where the food, intricate and bright, reminds him of tropical insects. They crowd into a restaurant along a wedding reception where a slideshow flashes images of the bride and groom. “See this!” His father holds up a gray sphere on his fork. “It’s a fish ball,” he exclaims. “Like a meatball but with fish.”

Eating as a language. You stuff your face and nod. Then the person across from you does the same.

At times they eat for two hours, get back on the tour bus and begin discussing dinner plans.

He enters a daze where he feels his stomach—tight and resistant. Then a trance-like- inertia—the type that carries him from late night into early morning, floating at the interface between consciousness and sleep. As if he were too tired to sleep or too full to stop eating. He sinks into fullness until he feels the resistance of his stomach relax. Then he eats until he feels his stomach again—as if they are all pink, glistening stomachs sitting and conversing around the table. Stomachs just wearing faces and hands. Then again the sinking against satiety and relaxation into another hidden chamber of hunger. Again and again—tightness to relaxation—a hypnotic oscillation that carries him into the night where the light is hazy and all faces familiar.

He isn’t religious. He thinks that when you die you are gone forever. A lonely thought but he can’t help it. Sometimes he imagines the history of peoples: the citizens of Pompeii preserved in ash, Revolutionary war soldiers marching down a dusty road, immigrants singing to crying babies in their native language. He imagines ghosts walking down the street—the air thick with them, jammed full like the rings of a tree trunk. Ghosts on top of ghosts on top of ghosts, all going about their lives and oblivious to one another. This thought calms him down a bit.

His grandmother is almost ninety. Her hair is white and stubbly. She wears an auburn wig and on top of that a red or green hat—the kind that French artists wear. She likes to giggle—a maternal tyrant orchestrating family photographs (Pose with a surprised face. Now with your mouth wide open. This time extend two fingers in a peace sign….) She has trouble with stairs. Going down, she walks backwards, looking over her shoulder, the lead foot groping the air. Going up she says don’t wait for me and begins her deliberate helical climb up the stairwell like a vine curling around a post.

Whenever he’s surrounded by bookshelves he feels like he’s walking through the heart of a forest. The stillness, the sense of compressed time. Each book its own world in a set of parallel worlds. The dense layers of words—visions and dreams from disparate times stacked on top of one another. This is what home should feel like.

Translator Natasha Wimmer writes that Bolaño idolizes the detective as someone who has seen more terrible sights than anyone else and never turns away:

He is a witness, a watcher, someone who gets to the marrow, the literal bloody core. In a poem from the collection Tres, he writes: 'I dreamed I was an old, sick detective, and I had been looking for lost people for a long time. Sometimes I happened to look at myself in the mirror and I recognized Roberto Bolaño.'

Halfway up the mountain his uncle stops the car and buys a bouquet of flowers from a roadside stand. The flowers have purple petals and long, strong stems the length of his forearm. His uncle divides the flowers into two groups and leans them against the front seat. He handles them like machetes.

It’s a clear day at the peak. Small shrines, gray rock engraved with bright yellow and blue, are terraced into the mountainside. The trees and shrubs, pruned to crisp edges, have the weightlessness of well-groomed objects. The lightness of the trees merges with the weight of the mountain. The land is somber and meticulous.

The temple is a library of urns—floor to ceiling shelves holding cremations. He imagines the thousands of cores of ash suspended around him like water droplets in a storm. They leave half of the flowers by his cousin’s urn. Everyone is restrained and this relieves him. His cousin, a year younger than himself, had been riding a motorcycle and collided with a garbage truck. This was four years ago. He studies the urn and the name—almost his name expect for the last character. The urn, the center of all the mourning and chaos that he has been tangential to—the steady center of his family’s black hole. His jaw begins to pulse. It feels like someone has punched him in the side of the face. He clenches and unclenches his mouth and the feeling lingers.

He often mixes up time and place. The past feels like a distant country, still accessible through effort and cunning.

His father walks along the streets of his old university. The night, hazy with streetlamps, is framed by the dark silhouette of palm trees. What’s your favorite college memory? He asks his father. My favorite memory? His father laughs as if the question is absurd. Do you see that bump in the road? I biked over it with no hands. I had a calculator in my shirt pocket and it didn’t fall out. All the girls didn’t think I could do it. 

He had always treated his cousin as an alter ego—another version of himself that existed in a parallel universe. Except that they would meet every few years to share stories. He had tried not to think about his cousin’s death. He feels that he should feel worse then he does. Then he feels thankful for not feeling worse than he does.

His extended family spends a night in a bed and breakfast in the countryside—a narrow, multistory building that’s simple and refined: expensive wood, tranquil pastel colors, rectangular hot tubs cut into each bathroom floor overlooking a balcony and rock garden. I can’t believe your father is paying for everyone his mother whispers.

The next day, whenever they sit down to a meal, he stands up next to his mother and mock announces Eat up. It’s all on me. I’m paying for everything. 

In the morning he runs for an hour uphill into the mountains. It’s one of his most redeeming qualities—the need for constant motion and the bleary tranquility of fatigue. His hair, wet with sweat and moisture of low hanging clouds, swishes against the side of his face. Up in the mountain everything is a lush waxy green and vibrantly alive like the skin of a tree frog. Upon returning to the hotel he soaks in the hot tub, his shoulders and neck resting on the wood’s edge. It’s still early and the sky over the balcony is a delicate membrane of blue and lavender. There’s a long bridge on the horizon. He knows it’s grimy and mechanically coarse but from this distance it’s delicate, almost non-existent and cuts the sky like the line dividing a column of oil and water.

Tiring of the view, he wipes his hand on a towel and opens The Savage Detectives. While reading, his sense of the world dulls around him until all he feels is a breeze through the window that flattens to nothing on the molten surface tension of the water.

The rules of pig:
Late at night, sit in a circle with your aunt and cousins and sister
Deal each person four cards
Take a card from the remaining pile. Either pass the card to the next person or keep it and pass another from your hand to the next person. You will always have four cards
Each person accepts a new card and passes another to continue the flow
The goal is to get four of a kind
When you have four, stick out your tongue
When you see someone stick out her tongue, stick out your tongue
The last person to stick out his/her tongue is a 1st level pig. If you are already a 1st level pig then you are a 2nd level pig and so on
You can only talk to people who are on the same level as you. If you accidentally talk to a lower pig then you descend a level.

He’s amazed by how girly and playful his aunt (a company executive) can be. She has short pixie hair, sits cross legged on the bed and pushes her body up against her daughter and the other girls around her. It’s not fair she says Justin never talks so he’ll never be a pig. He doesn’t fall for the trap. But she catches him later when asking who’s supposed to be dealing and he answers. 1st level pig she announces.

On the return flight to New York the cabin lights are low. People rise up sluggishly out of their seats as if detaching themselves from an accident. Their figures, dark and soft, walk up and down the aisles in an aimless lethargy. The strips of light lining the floor are a seam of light under a heavy door. His family sits together in a row. They are sleeping with their heads rolled back and mouth wide open—his mother, an auditory Picasso, rearranging normal snoring sounds into something beyond his understanding.

It doesn’t feel like they are in the air. It feels like they are in the belly of a ship with the water jostling around. He hasn’t moved his legs in 8 hours. He can’t wait until they are on the ground but he has a premonition that he’ll remember this moment for the rest of his life. That when his parents are gone, he’ll reach back for this bracket of time: The four of them together huddled around a cone of warm, stale air traveling 600 miles per hour. All the almost infinite permutations of history and configurations of molecules converging on this moment. Months later, waiting for a subway train, he’ll pull up this memory and wonder what the big deal was.

Whenever he finishes a book, he wants to go back to the first page. He doesn’t care about already knowing what will happen. All he wants is to bend time and, with the flip of a page, find himself unscathed at the beginning once more. Not the memory of the beginning but the true beginning.

He is lying horizontal in his apartment in Boston. The watch face glows green in his dark room as he resets the time. He feels a sensation, like the liftoff of a plane, of peeling up and away. It’s 11am in Taiwan. His grandmother could be sitting in the sofa that massages her back and feet. Or maybe she is flipping through clothes and deciding between the green and red hat. Your mom wants everything to be neat she had told him while pushing rolls of dresses across her bed but it’s fun to be a little messy. His uncle could be getting lunch ready for the two of them. Over the next few days he overlays a pale version of his family’s daily life in Taiwan over his own—a syncopation of Circadian rhythms. Over time, the weight and warmth of their lives sublimates and he is pulled back into this life. Then they leave his mind all together.

Justin Chen is a graduate student at MIT using frog embryos to study face formation. In his previous life as an undergraduate at Oberlin College he studied creative writing. He has published one essay, describing long distance running, in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.

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