I have a genius problem. As someone who likes to think of himself as well-read, I feel compelled to check out writers who are hailed as geniuses. Time after time, however, I am disappointed, perplexed, befuddled, and downright enraged by the novels turned out by these geniuses. This puts me in a quandary. Either I admit I didn’t like the work of a genius, in which case I risk looking unsophisticated, or I come right out and call the emperor naked and hope history will see that he wasn’t wearing clothes.
One of the recurring problems with geniuses as I have found them is that they find the conventional novel format so restrictive and boring, whereas I find it useful and engaging. This is why James Joyce’s novels wound up straying closer and closer to being indecipherable to anyone besides the author, or why Thomas Pynchon’s novels sometimes seem to be intentionally provoking the reader with their obscure minutiae. In the case of Roberto Bolano, at leas as far as The Savage Detectives is concerned, the author is so interested in exploring the mundane and commonplace that he neglects to provide the reader with any reason to continue reading or to care about what happens to any of his characters.
The Savage Detectives is about, as much as it can be said to be about anything, two poets living in Mexico City who start a short-lived and little-noticed poetry movement called visceral realism before getting mixed up in some violence and travelling the world for twenty years.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first of these showcases the kind of talent that I would call indicative of genius. Through the diary of a young apprentice poet we meet Bolano’s protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, and their circle of unusual acquaintances. The poets become involved with an eccentric family headed by a mentally-unbalanced architect with two beautiful and intelligent daughters. This section is full of brilliant observations, well-drawn characters, and sentences that hum with the verve of original talent.
Then, about 150 pages in, the novel just stops dead in its tracks. Bolano takes the reader through the poets two decades of wandering through the use of an oral history format of people they knew and met along the way. Bolano wants you to marvel at his ability to use dozens and dozens of narrators to tell the story, especially as he has each narrator tell the story in ways that are self-serving, discursive, and occasionally nonsensical. It is admittedly quite the feat, but the technical accomplishment is meaningless to the poor reader, who is just desperate for something to actually happen. Bolano presents walls of texts, paragraphs lasting as long as five pages are not uncommon. Often nothing relevant happens at all in these marathon monologues.
I have to admit this book tried my patience and wore me down. I can only very loosely claim to have finished it, because for the last 200 pages I was desperately skimming, looking for anything to offer some excitement comparable to that first section. Alas, even when we return to the diary format, and even when there is actual rising action, Bolano has rendered the reader incapable of enjoying it.