Home > Uncategorized > A Fudge Packer, a Player for the Other Team, and a Man Limp in the Wrist

A Fudge Packer, a Player for the Other Team, and a Man Limp in the Wrist

That Azucena Esquivel Plata is a real charmer, isn’t she? When she first appeared, in the backseat of her Mercedes with her jewelry and nighttime sunglasses (the champagne flute carved whole from an enormous diamond was implied, I feel), I thought she was going to be entertaining. She led off with the impression that she was going to be one of those fabulously ruthless women who gets whatever she wants no matter the cost—you know, Angela Petrelli—but she turned out to be…I don’t know, cranky, and deliberately rude. I mean, Sergio González and Kelly Rivera Parker are literally the only people she has anything good to say about (including the whole population of Mexico). And then I expected her be some kind of avenging feminist firebrand, with that speech about her rage as “the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims” (626). But all she did was hire a PI and an arts reporter. And she certainly has a way with words: Reality is an insatiable AIDS-riddle whore and the truth is a strung-out pimp in the middle of the storm.

Every time I thought I had a handle on her, she swerved. In that way, I guess she represents the whole book. (A couple other ways too, for me at least: She’s long-winded, often intentionally unpleasant, and disappointing.) But she did lead me to an understanding of something that’s been bothering Dan and me both for hundreds of pages. Her casual and breathtakingly comprehensive homophobia (“This is a macho country full of faggots,” 609) threw me for a loop, but I think it helped me finally come to some kind of conclusion about the book’s apparent attitude toward gays. (And just as Azucena Esquivel Plata talks at such length about her very close relationship with Kelly Rivera Parker—”I grew to like her more and more, until we became inseparable. These things tend to leave a lasting imprint,” 588—and never breathes a word about lesbianism, so too shall I pass over the subject.)

David has an elegant explanation for the phenomenon, and it may well be the best one. Mine is a contextual one instead, and it is: misogyny. The misogyny of the world the book describes is apparent in a number of ways, from the economic expendability of the women at the maquiladoras to the possible snuff film at Chucho Flores’s to Espinoza’s dictate that whores are there to be fucked, not psychoanalyzed to the structural misogyny that permits the femicidias to continue. Q.E.D.

Well, perhaps the homophobia is another, subtler expression. It’s reasonably arguable that most homophobia is based in misogyny. There is some small fraction that I think can genuinely spring from mere disgust (and not just disgust as a cover for unexamined misogyny), but that can’t be the majority, or else we’d expect to see a widespread movement to deny sewer workers their civil rights. The link between homophobia and misogyny comes in conceptions of masculinity. Homophobes of this kind are primarily upset by gay men because gay men 1) are penetrated sexually; and 2) demonstrate a more general fluidity of gender roles. In both cases, this means that they look like men but sometimes act like women, and that can’t be tolerated. Consider how often this kind of attitude coincides with feminization-as-insult (name-calling, “nancy-boy,” etc.). Sexism can’t be news to anybody here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that much of homophobia is ultimately also about misogyny insofar as it’s aimed at what the homophobes see as the womanliness in gay men and at vigilantly ensuring that manliness is never infected and weakened by femininity.

So that’s what I’ve got. It doesn’t make me any happier about the homophobia, obviously, and it doesn’t make it any easier to read, but it at least helps it make some sense.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 12, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Jeff. Bingo. Great post. One thing I’d add is that in an environment that combines hard core machismo and compulsory heterosexuality with intense homosocial male bonding—like for example the police force and the drug gangs–there must be tremendous anxiety about keeping any hint of homosexual desire at bay. One way to police those impulses, and/or to signal to yourself and others that you aren’t gay, is to internalize and verbalize your disgust with those who are. This doesn’t explain women’s homophobia (Azucena Esquivel Plata), but if, as the pomo gender theorists argued oh so many years ago, gender is, at bottom, a performance, then effeminate gays (or butch lesbians) can upset anyone who has an interest in compulsory heterosexuality by rewriting the prevailing script of gender norms.

    I’m trying to remember if there’s as much overt homophobia in the scenes inside the prison as there is in the scenes outside it. It seems to me there’s not, but perhaps I’m misremembering. Somehow, in prison, deprived of women, homosexuality becomes more tolerable, less disgusting, to guys who are otherwise straight, because it can be rationalized as a necessity and because the relationships are scripted according to prevailing gender norms (somebody plays the guy and somebody plays the girl). I keep thinking of the argument in George Chauncey’s Gay New York that, among the working class in 19th century NYC, a man could have sex with a man and still self identify as “normal” as long as he adopted the male gender (as long as he was the one getting blown, rather than the one doing the blowing). This regime has long since been supplanted by the homosexual-heterosexual binarism, but who’s to say remnants of it don’t persist.

    Along similar lines, the Plata-Rivera relationship sounded less like discreet lesbianism to me than like the intensely romantic, but otherwise homosocial relationships that were quite common among Victorian women (and men—hence the controversy over whether Abraham Lincoln was gay). But I’ve long wondered how many of those relationships didn’t morph, however temporarily, into gay relationships.

  2. April 12, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I agree with you whole-heartedly about the link between homophobia and misogyny. I’ve read similar theories before, and they’ve always made intuitive sense to me.

    However, for me the question isn’t so much what undergirds the homophobia but whether or not Bolaño himself is homophobic. As my somewhat… strident post today makes clear, at this point in the novel I’m voting for “yes.”

  3. Maria Bustillos
    April 12, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Wow, I couldn’t disagree more. I’ll try to find later where Bolaño wrote (in a letter-?-I came across quite early in my researches) of how he felt homosexuality to be a politically heroic position, something like this? Maybe someone else will recall. In no way can his position be likened to what you’d call “homophobia” as we would understand it in the U.S. He’s a Latin American idealist, a leftist of the old school, I would say based on what I’ve read so far.

    The phrase to which you refer above, in Spanish, is: Este país de machos, como usted bien sabe, siempre ha estado lleno de maricones. The word maricón is one we just haven’t got in English. It doesn’t mean simply “homosexual,” which word does translate directly. “Maricón” means in colloquial speech both “homosexual” and something along the lines of “weakling.” A little bit along the lines of our “nelly.” (Could you call a straight guy a “nelly”? I think you used to be able to call one, a “nervous nelly”??) It is connected with weakness of spirit, in short, and is used very commonly to describe that. The vibe is quite a bit friendlier than “faggot” I daresay. You could yell it out the window of a care a lot more readily than anybody would yell “faggot” in an access of road rage. What I am getting at is that this remark speaks to the apparent ideal of virility or “macho” that characterizes Mexico, when in reality these guys are inept, weak. Here is a phrase that a very angry, frustrated and powerful Latin American woman would use without a second thought. There’s no gender-studies element to it at all, in my reading.

    Of course that’s an argument we can have endlessly, like the kinds of arguments we have about what a teenager means when he says, “those pants are gay.” The sensitivity we have got to the word “faggot” I guess takes a lot of unpacking, but I think in reading this or any other novel it is a good idea to countenance the fact that these words have a lot of colloquial baggage, different kinds, many possible meanings and shades that will illustrate some particular character’s manner of expression; this reflects real life.

    The persecuted souls in this book come in every variety, that is for sure. I don’t think you can reduce what’s being said here to American or European concepts like “misogyny” and “homophobia.”

    I would call this author’s position detached, observant; in some sense, despairing; in another, blackly comic; yet again, fiercely committed to the truth of things, and to beauty itself.

    • April 20, 2010 at 6:55 pm

      Well, crap. Every time I write something negative about this novel, I think “Maria must think I’m a complete and utter tool.” I’m willing to admit that, here in front of everyone, because I’m really looking forward to reading “Dorkismo.” And I wish you and I did not have such obviously different opinions about this book.

      I’m sure that there are genuinely different cultural meanings attached to “maricon” (don’t know how to do the accent) and “faggot.” If your reading is that “faggot” has connotations too harsh for Bolaño’s intent, then that is a small but significant flaw in the translation.

      However, I am not particularly comforted by the conflation of homosexuality and weakness. I am sick to death of “gay” and “queer” being shorthand for something inferior or undesirable. It’s not benign when a teenager does it, and it’s not benign when an acclaimed author does it. His political statements do not win him a pass from me.

      I admit that I am viewing Bolaño’s writing through the prism of my own cultural experience. That is, of course, what all of us do when we read anything. Perhaps Bolaño would be horrified to be considered homophobic, and it’s genuinely tragic that he is not here to speak to his intent (assuming he would be inclined to do so, were he alive). But having seen the rights I had worked incredibly hard to win here in the state where I live be stripped from me by referendum less than a year ago, I don’t have a lot of space any longer for arguments that I should be expected to interpret homophobic rhetoric as something other than homophobic. We rightly would recoil if someone were to use words associated with blackness or Jewishness as shorthand for social inferiority, and I don’t understand why homosexuals are expected to take it in our stride.

      • bluestocking
        April 24, 2010 at 12:53 am

        Hi y’all omg, I only just saw this. So sorry for tardy response.

        I do not think you are a tool! for heaven’s sake.

        Nor am I implying that any work of art expects anything of you at all. Least of all this monstrous (and monstrously beautiful) thing.

        Bolaño’s own views don’t really appear in this book, I don’t think, at least not until the advent of Reiter. He’s spent all these hundreds of pages describing the activities of these really vicious rapists and whatnot? But we’re not (quite) meant to think that all straight men are rapists, right?

        Nor does he even begin to say a thing about actual gay men being this way or that. It’s totally abstract, in the passage you cite. The book just depicts the facts as they are on the ground, for certain people in the 1990s, not as we would like them to be.

        Maricón, this super old word. In what you write above, I’m thinking okay it’s like when an idea has been batted around so much and for so long, the long heavy burden of all its meanings kind of erases the first ones? So that today the leading magazine of young Jewish kids is called Heeb.

        Or like, when you tell someone, eff you! you don’t mean you literally want to have sex with them. The meaning has altered over time.

        Latin America is not the U.S. and its history and language have just sort of developed along completely different lines, largely owing to the enormous sway of the Catholic church–oh, and politics, all these things. So all’s I’m saying is that these reactions you’ve been having are off-key because it’s like you’re trying to translate “eff you!” in English to “I want to rape you!” in some other language when you know, it literally does not mean that, even if it does.

        Again, so sorry to have missed this until now. xo M.

    • April 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm

      Maybe the point of the line isn’t so much about sexual politics as it is about things not being what they seem. It’s a country of machos, but you know that it’s always been full of maricones. Of course you could do a gender-studies type analysis on the fact that machos and maricones are Bolaño’s dichotomy of choice, but I don’t think that’s really the point of the quote, per se. It’s more about guys like the boxer Merolino Fernández, who are all bluff and swagger, but no fight. The cops are similar, with all of their jadedness and misogyny (by far the most disturbing of 2666’s disturbing images is, for me, the cops joking around about 5-, 7-, and 8-way rape) and their utter inability to solve or prevent crimes. They act strong, but you know how weak they really are.

  4. bluestocking
    April 24, 2010 at 12:54 am

    Daniel, YES. Exactly. Except that the dichotomy is not Bolaño’s, it’s literally the dichotomy of Latin American (retarded!) male culture. No seriously! You guys simply can’t imagine.

  5. April 24, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Well, two weeks later I don’t know that I even expect anyone to see this comment, much less respond, but I want to say some things.

    Maria and Daniel, I take your point (without necessarily being convinced) that there are cultural currents at work here that Dan and I don’t really get, and that they mitigate some of what’s going on. But I also think y’all are kind of missing our point.

    Maria, I’m happy to take your word for Spanish-language stuff, because I have no expertise. But I notice you say that maricón includes both homosexuality and weakness. That’s part of what I’m saying: It is, at best, unintentionally homophobic (and, to my way of thinking, sexist) to combine the two concepts. It says there is something intrinsically weak about gay men. This is the attitude that gets young boys bullied in gym class, and it’s not okay just because it’s old. (In your example about Heeb, note that it’s the young Jews themselves who adopted the name. Totally different dynamic involved in reclaiming a slur.)

    And in truth, I’m offended by the idea of perceiving homosexuality as a politically heroic position. My being gay is not a political stance I have chosen to take; it’s who I am. It is true that in most places in the world, across most of human history, being gay has inherently meant being political. But that’s because we have historically been disregarded as equal human beings, and have been forced at almost every step of the way to fight fiercely for our dignity. I’m not trying to be a political hero when I march, and call my senators and congresswoman–I’m trying to make the government recognize me as a full citizen. There’s only anything political about being gay because gay people are turned into political objects instead of full citizens.

    And Daniel, I’m sure you’re right that the main point of Azucena Esquivel Plata’s line is to talk about ineffectiveness and weakness and uselessness. But those ideas don’t accidentally become summed up in a reference to a disfavored minority. This isn’t about a gender-studies analysis of the comment, it’s about the fact that there is no acceptable reason to say “They act strong, but you know how weak they really are” in the form “They are gay.” Even if the word you use for “gay” has additional overtones.

    • April 26, 2010 at 6:50 pm

      Jeff and Dan — You’ve clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about homophobia and what subconsciously motivates / rationalizes it, the different ways that it is expressed, the political implications of being its target and/or opponent. When you say things like:

      I am sick to death of “gay” and “queer” being shorthand for something inferior or undesirable.
      I don’t have a lot of space any longer for arguments that I should be expected to interpret homophobic rhetoric as something other than homophobic.
      [W]e have historically been disregarded as equal human beings, and have been forced at almost every step of the way to fight fiercely for our dignity.

      I totally agree with you, and I think you’re spot on as far as the social issues that I’m familiar with from my own culture (urban, educated white Americans, and our neighbors). At the same time, I’m not sure that this sort of response speaks to what’s going on in 2666. Bola&n;o doesn’t give us any indication of his personal feelings on homosexuality, but the sentence in question is the most plausible way that a character like Azucena Esquivel Plata would express herself, and I pretty much took it at that level. Of course she exhibits “casual and breathtakingly comprehensive homophobia” — it would be surprising if she didn’t.

      Now, since I’m not gay, clearly my emotional first reaction to these lines is going to be different. And so I’m trying to do a little thought experiment along the lines of, what if I were reading a book from another country or another century, and I found it thought-provoking and generally not lacking in artistic merit, and a character comes along and spouts off about “Jew bankers” or something. (Not to draw a false equivalence between being Jewish and being gay — just thinking of an example that would hit me closer to the mark.) I honestly don’t know how I’d react. I don’t generally have a problem with The Merchant of Venice, for what it’s worth. But the question that I’m trying to keep in mind is, is my reaction advancing my understanding of the book, or is it more about me? As far as I’m able to make such a distinction, I think it’s important to try to be clear about this.

      My point being, I think you’re right, but at this point I’m not sure that we’re talking about 2666 anymore.

  6. bluestocking
    April 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Here’s the deal, though. It’s not “additional” overtones, it’s “separate” ones developed over countless utterances, over decades or centuries, even. How would you feel about someone translating literally from English into Spanish, when Al Pacino is like in Scarface or something saying “Fuck you!” to some guy and it is translated as “I want to have intercourse with you!” This is the literal meaning of the phrase, its original meaning. Still, it is 100% not what is meant when Scarface says it. Not even the tiniest, most vestigial bit. The idiomatic usage has traveled past the original sense completely. Completely.

    With respect to Heeb I chose this example of “taking back the knife” deliberately. It’s one of many things you can do with an idiomatic slur. Words like this are a palimpsest that is constantly being altered and overwritten.

    I’m not saying you are right or wrong about the political consequences of using this kind of loaded speech. What I am saying is that you are liable to misapprehend what this author (well any author, really) is really trying to say, his natural intentions based on the candid observation of a fragmented and damaged culture, if you look always through this lens.

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  1. April 17, 2010 at 9:32 am

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