Saturday, September 06, 2008

"People who return in dreams from the dark regions where they've drifted," or, The two novels that have defined my summer

{Warning: I suppose there might be spoilers in this post. I'll admit to not being a good judge of these things--I do reveal some details of the end of the second novel under discussion, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you probably should skip today's post.}

My reading summer has been defined by two novels, Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (1998) and Gary Indiana's Do Everything in the Dark (2003), both of which have been impossible to dislodge from my thoughts or my conversations with friends. They're quite different on the surface, but they quickly reveal themselves as spiritual kin, serving as acts of commemoration, honor, and preservation for lost or disappearing communities, friends, and ways of being.

Though the world of the bohemian poets described by The Savage Detectives (about which I've written quite a bit already) is long-lost and almost entirely forgotten, the elegaic qualities of the book's oral histories are never overwhelming, always carefully balanced by the vibrancy and inventiveness of Bolano's prose. Because Bolano aims to all but bring that world back to life, to recreate what it felt like, moment to moment, to be so alive and so free in that time and place, The Savage Detectives never seems to be anything but a young man's book, starting its full-throated song on the first page and barely pausing for breath for 500 pages thereafter. This world, like Bolano himself, is gone, but for the hours you're engrossed in it, it's impossible to believe anything could be more alive.

Do Everything in the Dark, on the other hand, reads like the book of an older--if not flat-out old--man, the work of a writer who sees the days shortening before him and, possibly surprised that he's made it this far, is beginning to look around to see who and what he's outlasted. Gary Indiana's earlier novel Gone Tomorrow (1993) hinged on the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, which, occurring in the space of a chapter break, put paid to the hedonism and games of the 1970s and replaced them with creeping dread and an inescapable awareness of mortality. By the time of Do Everything in the Dark, the red tide of AIDS has mostly subsided, and this book concerns those left standing on the shore, surviving and no longer shell-shocked, but still capable, on the wrong day and at the wrong time, of seeing Greenwich Village as a cenotaph.

But it's not just AIDS they've survived. Drugs, alcohol, success, failure, even time itself--all have laid low their share, and even those still standing have suffered their ravages. In William Boyd's Any Human Heart, a writer notes in his journal, "Living this hard in New York takes its toll"; what Indiana shows us is what's left of those who've paid it. The narrator gives the sense of being very like Gary Indiana himself: a writer who, though never quite making it even to the mid-list, has managed to carve out a life for himself in New York that, if not prosperous, is at least sustainable, even in the go-go days of the turn of the twenty-first century. "It's my destiny to collect any evidence that everyone's life hasn't been a hallucination, even if it feels like one," he tells us, and in brief chapters he performs that duty, recounting the lives of a group of friends, nearly all artists or writers, in the course of the summer of 2001, hopping from character to character and mind to mind, but never losing the sense that behind all of this, guiding our perceptions, is his own thoughtful perspective.

And so we meet women and men, straight and gay, successes and failures, users and used. There's Denise, who "no longer took drugs, except ones prescribed for her by an admittedly liberal-minded physician" and who eventually has to decide whether to cope with or run from the schizophrenia of her heroin-addicted partner; Anna, who is "between enough things that I can't get my bearings. I'm not here, I'm not there," and solves the problem with mind-boggling amounts of drugs and sex; Jesse, who feels that "the world has become too twined, to insalubrious with suffering, to float through it, as if one had the right to be anywhere," and who therefore puts himself in ever-greater danger by picking up rough trade; Miles, who "had satanic good looks" and had been "hardwired to expect betrayal from those close to him"; and many more. We watch these people circle one another, help or betray one another, give and take from one another. There are furtive fucks in doorways; ghastly, cruel dinner parties; exhibitions of wildly expensive and utterly false art. We see the detritus of both success and failure, talent and hackery, and are reminded that the links between those pairs are often close to arbitrary.

Throughout, the narrator serves as a solid, reliable node for all these circling misfits. He's not in a relationship (and we get the sense that it's been a while since he was), and while he's ruthlessly clear-eyed about people's failings, including his own, he's also deeply sympathetic. He's the one people call for late-night advice or don't bother to call for months, the one whose couch they crash on, the one whose support they take for granted ("As far as Miles was concerned, I owed him everything and anything, and always would."), the one who performs even such simple tasks as serving as the older guest that the father of a younger friend can relate to at a dinner party. He can be wry, even mordant, about the people he knows, as in this description:
Millie Ferguson got ambushed by mirrors, stuck to them like a pinned butterfly, and who wouldn't if they looked like her? People wanted either to be Millie or fuck her, or both.
He can also be piercingly epigrammatic:
He sounded like one of the Beat era's antique raconteurs, frozen in the dead past, who greeted every new person he met with the same stale bouquet of self-glorifying memories.

The few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings every week.

To answer that you would need to define what a good person is, and whether purity of heart requires having only one reason for doing anything.

Boredom can be viewed as a kind of fossil fuel, poured into inertia and ignited with fabulous results, but I am skeptical of this view, which reeks of unempirical optimism.
But ultimately, despite all he's seen, his primary characteristic is simply caring, earnestly and powerfully wanting to believe that our failings need not trap us in our solitary hells. "I could never summon the right words, the right help. I could never save anybody," he says, but he keeps trying nonetheless, even as he also tries to maintain a brutally realistic view of life:
This is how it was, or how I was, that summer: I wanted to accept the world in its true condition, as it hurtled to its stony end. To meet it on its own filthy terms. Even force some pleasure out of it, though I couldn't.
His care and concern for his friends, even as they infuriate and damage him and one another, is electric and unforgettable.

The novel ends with a funeral in lower Manhattan, a memorial for a character whom we've realized was doomed from the start, but whose eventual end still comes as a surprise. The service is strained by being both a public event for the arts world and a private event for his friends, and the vampires of culture batten onto it and try to make it their own. But when their cruelties are ultimately overwhelmed by real, human grief, the effect is astonishingly powerful--so much so that when we realize that the funeral is happening on September 10, 2001, the date, unbelievably, doesn't feel like a cheap shot. Rather, the lessons we've learned about love and loss from this novel are so strong that they force us to acknowledge and think anew about the horrors that will descend the next day and throughout the ensuing years--the way that no loss, no matter its cause, can never really be made good.

For those are ultimately the twinned points of Do Everything in the Dark: love and loss. As well as any work of art I've encountered, it makes clear how love can transcend, even thrive in the face of, the most grotesque faults; how it can be richer, deeper, stronger than the forces, external or internal, that are always tearing away at it. It's Forster's age-old "only connect": our love may not be able to save anyone--hell, death guarantees that it can't--but it's all we have to offer, so try we must. The narrator counsels a friend, "This is the only life we have, and it's short. Very short." Of such brevity is the fierce urgency of Gary Indiana and Roberto Bolano made; of such love and loss they make their indelible memorials.

1 comment:

  1. My god, what a beautiful review of Do Everything In The Dark. You left a comment on Gary's blog and that brought me here, and I read this. If only his work got this kind of thoughtful attention from mainstream critics.