Fear of Fluids in Mexico, Sentimentalism in the Alps
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Daryl has the gold-star post of these first three weeks. (And I swear on a stack of Infinite Jests that I’m not saying that because I got linked and block-quoted; that’s just gravy.) That makes more sense of the Part About the Critics than anything else I’ve read or thought so far. It also makes me feel better about a slight post, since I know Daryl’s got us all covered.
Before I get to the part of this week’s reading that stuck in my brain, though, I want to make a quick mention of a delightful bit of horror: That toilet in Pelletier’s hotel room. I’m haunted by that toilet. Even before it became an oneiric avatar of body horror, it was menacing. Any toilet that somehow gives the impression that it was damaged by having a human head smashed into it by someone else is a scary piece of plumbing, and it’s one of my favorite extras in the whole book so far.
But to the point: I kind of loved the montage that closes the Part About the Critics. You know the part I mean—where, in a film version, you’d hear Norton’s voice-over (Emma Thompson would be a lovely choice, although Emily Blunt is probably more like it) reading the e-mail she sent to Pelletier and Norton, while the visual action shows how those two spend their days in Santa Teresa. It was beautifully structured, and nicely told. Yet there was one false note that I keep rehearing in my mind, and I can’t quite make sense of it. When Norton writes about Edwin Johns’s death, she thinks about “his hand, now doubtless on display in his retrospective, the hand that the sanatorium orderly couldn’t grasp to prevent his fall, although this was too obvious, a false representation, having nothing to do with what Johns had actually been” (151). And that just sounds ridiculous to me. How melodramatic: Johns slipping off his rock, the orderly leaping to his rescue, grabbing desperately for his hand—and closing his fingers on empty air where a hand used to be, inches from the truncated end of Johns’s arm. All it’s missing is for the orderly to actually grasp the hand and then watch in a confused instant while Johns continues to fall and the wrist end of the plastic prosthesis slips out of his coat sleeve. Picture the aghast orderly accidentally waving goodbye to Johns’s receding body with the stump of Johns’s own fake hand, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost comical.
In plain terms, I don’t trust the narration here. (And not in the “I fear this narrator may be unreliable!” kind of way. Every narrator’s unreliable.) The book has obviously not been maudlin up to this point; if anything, it’s been disconcertingly blasé. And although she’s been presented as intellectually quirky, Norton hasn’t been a sentimental kind of character either. I may be misreading, but I take the “false representation” from the quote to refer not to Norton’s imagined scene falsely representing the real scene—that is, not as a disclaimer of the reconstruction—but to Johns’s hand as artistic artifact representing the man himself. (That’s where “what Johns had actually been” comes into it, in my reading.) So I keep trying to figure out what this little line is for, and I’ve got nothin’. Maybe it’s just a wrong step by Bolaño. That’s not a very satisfying explanation, but I haven’t yet come up with an intentional reason for him to have included such a clanging insincerity with the rest of the book’s matter-of-fact whimsy. And it’s bugging me.
Also: Happy Olympics!