The world’s in a bad way, my man,
And bound to be worse before it mends;
Better lie up in the mountains here
Four or five centuries
While the stars go over the lonely ocean.
– Robinson Jeffers
Equivocate, rationalize, relativize. Then, when the moment arrives, go with your gut.
Section four of the five-part book, 2666, by the late Roberto Bolaño, focuses on a series of murders in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa. Up until that point, the book (I dare say the first great novel of the 21st century) has spent many hundreds of pages dancing around the topic – alluding to it, flirting with it, and teasing out a likely number of victims: 200.
Once a hundred or so pages into this section, unpretentiously called “The Part About The Crimes,” a strange and disturbing realization tiptoes into the readers’ mind: that Bolaño, who lived (and died) proudly in the blur between excess and genius, is going to describe every single corpse, and every single victim.
I ate fruit salad in a Bolivian marketplace because that’s what the local kids were eating and I didn’t want to be a gringo. I am a gringo, of course, and always will be, but the hopeless quest to be otherwise is ordinarily a rewarding one, and delusions such as this are comforting on foreign soil. No longer being of the age at which pretending and imagination are wholly acceptable pastimes, I find myself increasingly forced into the adult-approved Realm Of Delusion to rationalize the less-than-ideal present. And since, being only 21, my powers of rationalization are still in their infancy and as of yet unhardened by anything like divorce or a disappointing child, my delusions are likewise virginal and in this moment no more ambitious than to dream of being a weathered traveler who has a sweat-stained shirt and lined face that make people say, “My god, where has he been? I don’t know but he’s been somewhere.”
The fruit salad, thankfully, was far more ambitious than my amateur delusions – some 20 types of fruit, eight inches tall, built brazenly in the face of physics and architectural convention around a cone of some sort of sweet, creamy egg white nonsense. A recipe standing as true testament to the unchecked gluttony of human ambition when left alone in a room with no television.
Most of the fruit was mysterious to me because I grew up in Colorado where fruit lacks ambition, and this made me very happy because if it was unfamiliar to me, most likely it was mysterious to the other gringos, and as of this moment, with the fruit in my mouth, it was more familiar to me than them, taking me was one step closer to that weathered ideal.
Later that night, in the middle of the “Crimes” section of 2666, the frightful implications of the fruit salad’s opulence dawned on me. Someone, at some point, decided that fruit, as sweet and nutritious as it is, quite simply wasn’t good enough. So they mixed up all sorts of different fruit and ate them all at once, and decided that wasn’t good enough either. They added cream and honey and after taking a bite or two figured that not only was this junk not good enough, the whole flavor thing was uninspiring and dull without a correspondingly excessive appearance. So they built a windy, abstract statue out of the fruit salad, at which point I seem to have bumbled along to witness the mad project, but no signs point to things slowing down any time soon. I don’t know what will happen next to the fruit salad because that is evolution and my own personal evolution is occurring at a pace that is incompatible. What is certain is that the fruit salad will be uncontrollably improved upon until the sun melts us or we drown in the rising sea – whichever comes first.
Roberto Bolaño, also, is fruit salad. He writes better, of course, but the ambition is the same. He did not have to describe, in great detail, 200 murder victims. He chose to. There are valuable words in the English language that serve to spare a writer that sort of obligation. “Most” and “usually” come quickly to mind: As in, “most” of the victims are impoverished women who are “usually” strangled to death. Friendly adverbs, one might call these things, which, when used properly, stylishly apply reasonable description to a large number of things.
It’s a proven method, after all. Lord knows we see it in the news all the time. Hell, we depend upon it in the news: a six-inch layer of insulation from the bodies rotting at the bottom of stories about violence in Chicago and Pakistani landslides. An unfortunate but not surprising symptom of living with seven billion neighbors.
The motherfucker with the pineapple wasn’t satisfied with the pineapple. And Bolaño, writing under a deadline imposed by his own failing liver, had no interest in adverbial efficiency.
Ambition is a marvelous and terrible thing. I don’t know if it is, inherently, a different thing than dissatisfaction with what is. Possibly. But not by much. Ambition, in the human race, has many forms, and they are all so madly unrestrained. The great things we have done, as humans, have been the result of it. Great art. Great sex. Great fruit salad, depending on the attitudes of those who judge us. As a species, I suppose, it’s what sets us proverbially apart. Whales and chimpanzees don’t seem to have much of it, or if they do it’s more logically focused on the elements of survival. But human ambition defines us because it is so irrational and uncoordinated. So fundamentally fucked up.
We have the ability to live within our means – personally and globally. To not fight wars. Yet that, as a species, is not our ambition. It is ambitions of individuals. It is also the ambition of individuals to collect every record in the world and write books using only one sentence. The creative accomplishments that result from so many wild, personal motivations are truly beautiful. But whatever this implies about us, as humans, can’t be good. Perhaps we are far too intelligent for the herd mentality. Or perhaps, far too dumb.
It will kill us, of course. The need for light and cars and big houses made of wood. The inability to be satisfied with a pineapple.
There are those who seek to avoid the obligations of ambition, something far more people aim for than succeed at. This may be the greatest ambition at all. It may be the worst. I don’t know. I couldn’t even say, with confidence, what this might look like. To live in a co-op on Maui? To shoot up in a New Orleans motel with a Harley parked out-front? Tremendous ambition and the lack-there-of are easily mistaken, particularly by those in pursuit of one of them.
Robinson Jeffers was a 20th century American poet with sweat stains and lines in his face who built a house (and his own image) by hand. He spent the latter half of his career confusing ambition and escapism, and by the eve of WWII he published Be Angry at the Sun, a book so disoriented in the morass between the two that it equivocated Hitler and Roosevelt and lost his last greying threads of respect.
The 1941 book is a cynical one. The writing is morbid and takes its life not from praise or love or humor, but from a deep and resounding sadness. It is, more than anything, a product of its time – that strange moment in the 20th century in which the United States watched, for the second time, as Europe sat down and cannibalized itself. For Jeffers, if there is one simple thing to blame, it is ideology, and he denounces it throughout the book. But very quickly it becomes hard to understand the writer as anything other than an ideologue himself. His militant dedication to peace is something deeply admirable, but his indifference to the particulars of war and unwillingness to consider some amount of moral relativism make it difficult to view him differently. It was this idealism, this unwillingness to differentiate between America and the Third Reich, which would lead to his regrettable fall from grace.
Yet as it turns out, being a cynic does not by default make one a pessimist, and beneath his sorrow Jeffers hid a reluctant sense of optimism. For all his disillusionment he can’t help but believe in some liberal idea of freedom. (This is an ailment that seems common to many of our most prized cynics. Check out Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 to discover Hunter S. Thompson was seriously afflicted.)
The wish to “lie up in the mountains here / Four or five centuries / While the stars go over the lonely ocean,” is just as much bravery as it is cowardice, as much idealism as it is escapism. In disillusionment lies tremendous ambition – whether or not we might consider it misguided. Or arbitrary. Or lacking a spine.
Despite being so celebrated, Bolaño’s ambitions were not necessarily any less arbitrary than anyone else’s. Throughout his life his books never sold particularly well, and he died worrying about how to chop up his last, great, unfinished novel into five, so as to maximize the returns for his family. Literature, for all its prestige, is but one wacky realm of ambition out of many – albeit with a hell of a history. Objective reason dictates, then, that the value of Bolaño’s work is no more or less valuable that that of others who wanted to do peculiar things and then did them. But…it can’t be that simple. Can it? I hope not. I hate to picture the bespeckled Chilean writer in the beige conference center of some middle-American city, mingling awkwardly with a Pac-Man record breaker and the inventor of light-up-sneakers, a banner over their heads reading, “Annual Gathering of High Achievers In Their Field.”
Where is this going? What does it all mean? There’s sweat on my keyboard now, and I know less with each keystroke. Christ. At least he didn’t hurt anyone, Bolaño. I feel confident about that. Maybe that’s the best thing to hope for? The most important element of ambition? Do good? If you can’t, don’t do bad? Enjoy a pineapple for what it is, and if you can’t, don’t gun down 3,000 striking Columbians when you imperialize their nation for bananas to go with it? Was that the message of 100 Years of Solitude, or did Gabo’s death throw me for a thematic loop?
These sprawling South Americans have me all mixed up, damn ‘em. Give me a 50 page New Yorker article about a Russian woman in Brooklyn with Nabakov’s killer recipe for horse soup. That sort of micro-focused-excess I can handle. This Latin-macro-perspective is dangerous in the heat. I need distraction. I need some air conditioning and an Internet connection with the guts to load videos of gibbons. Is that ambition? There are answers to be found on this continent, but my clock moves too predictably. I’m a gringo.
Maybe I’ll just stay here. Where morning feels like midnight, and midnight feels like early afternoon. The one place in the world, in the strange epoch I’m stuck in, in which time seems tidal…slowing down and speeding up at the whimsy of the moon. Perhaps that’s the place for answers…or forgetting the questions, which seem increasingly one in the same. The fertility of an American Dream on foreign soil is a proven thing, after all. Be open and say yes and let the clock do the heavy lifting. Is that enough ambition for now?
(Vamos a ver.)
We advance and we don’t. Pray for the moments when you know which is which.