The work of the late Roberto Bolano, endlessly exhumed, can seem a bit of a labyrinth, sprouting fresh narrative paths--some followed obsessively and some abandoned almost at the outset--at every turn, but his story published in the New Yorker this month, called "Labyrinth," feels like a guide, if not to reading his fiction then at least to how he constructed it.
He begins with a photo (the one on the left above). Of course, this being Bolano, it's of a group of writers, a subject about which he felt as strongly (and ambivalently) as Fitzgerald did about the wealthy. It's a real photo, of real French writers, some of them--Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers, for instance, the couple at the center--even well known to a small American subculture (academic theorist circles, circa 1988), and from it Bolano spins a speculative tale that both minutely analyzes the photograph ("Kristeva's skin--perhaps it's a trick of the light--has a metallic, bronzelike quality, while Carla Devade's is silky and yielding") and playfully imagines the lives behind it ("Any moment now, J.-J. Goux might start to cry. The voice that warned him of the Devil's presence is still ringing, though faintly, in his ears.").* The mechanics of Bolano's style--the ease with which he unfurls story after story from the tiniest of details and shifts from the pettiness of literary aspiration to the horrors of politics and murder and from boredom to desire to melancholy beauty--are visible here as in a cutaway diagram. It's as if Bolano had received a workshop assignment to write a story in the style of Bolano.
In this mix of fact and fiction, meanwhile, he quickly establishes one figure in the photo as, for his purposes, purely fictional: the man second from the left, labeled "J.-J. Goux" in the caption: "About J.-J. Goux I know nothing. He's probably called Jean-Jacques, but in this story, for the sake of convenience, I'll continue to use his initials." He imagines him as a gloomy, lonely figure, eating sandwiches in front of the TV, waiting for Sollers to pick up the phone, and missing out on the sexual ronde of his set. I can't vouch for his gloominess, but I do know that in fact, J.-J. stands for Jean-Joseph. About halfway through my reading of "Labyrinth" I realized "J.-J. Goux" rang a bell with me, and that I had a book of his on my shelves: Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud.
This is the point at which I would love to dig up some quote or anecdote from Goux that makes a telling or evocative resonance with Bolano, but his book seems impenetrable to such connections. Impenetrable to me at least: what amazes me now is that not only did I read the book, but I underlined passages all the way to the end, wrote comments in the margins (which I never do!), and even still have note cards summarizing each chapter stuck in the book. (What all those notes actually tell me is not that I really understood the book, but that I was struggling to do so.) I read it I think while preparing for my grad school exams, back when I was fascinated by the possible connections between money and language, those two abstracting media of human exchange, and felt responsible for understanding the theoretical literature connecting them. (I'm still fascinated by that subject, but, thank god, I no longer feel responsible for the theory--or at least I'd be more likely to look to Lawrence Weschler or Lewis Hyde than French poststructuralists to help me think about it.) Some of my often skeptical marginal comments imply that I did actually follow Goux's arguments for a fleeting moment, but looking back through the book it's hard to imagine I did, even enough to dismiss it.
It would be easy to pull a quote out of context here to make a joke about its stereotypical impenetrability, but instead here's the one that I marked that actually makes the most sense to me now. Its point is not an earth-shattering one but at least according to the only Amazon review of the book (a 5-star review posted just a few weeks ago--Goux lives!--that actually summarizes the book pretty clearly) it's central to his argument that the end of the gold standard accompanied the beginnings of postmodernism (alert Ron Paul!):
The system of monetary circulation has shown an increasingly obvious tendency toward inconvertibility, toward a complex type of balancing that floats, no longer anchored by a fixed standard. Shortly after Saussure had declared that linguistic values--in contrast to economic values based on a standard--had no foundation in nature, shortly after Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian had abandoned the search for direct empirical reference in order to espouse pure painting, the economic system dispensed with the gold standard, with the evident result of generalized floating.
And Goux himself? According to the evidence of the web, he's now a professor emeritus at Rice, where I got the photo on the right above, on which of course I would have loved to have read Bolano's further speculations. But when Symbolic Economies was published in English in 1990 he was a professor at Brown, which opens up a forking path in the literary labyrinth not back to Bolano but to The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides's roman a clef of Brown's swoon for French semiotics in the early '80s, around the time that Goux most likely decamped from Paris for the eager embrace of the American university.
And here after all is the beautiful echo I'm always looking for and that the world, like Bolano, so often provides: just as I was typing the previous sentence a bearded young man, who might on another day be reading Julia Kristeva or The Savage Detectives, walked into my cafe carrying a pen, a notebook, and, yes, The Marriage Plot.
*I can't look at the photograph myself without thinking of Fleetwood Mac, mostly because the woman fourth from the right, "M.-Th. Reveille," makes me think of Christine McVie every time I see her. Obviously in that scenario Sollers and Kristeva, the central couple, are Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, although the parallels start to break down after that point. Is Pierre Guyotat, the Peter Boyle-looking fella third from the right whom Bolano unaccountably calls "the handsomest man in the group," Mick Fleetwood (tall and bald) or John McVie (because he seems to be with Reveille)? And can we fill out the rest of the crowd with '70s SoCal rockers? Let's say Marc Devade, on the right, is Phil Spector and "C. Devade," the lovely young woman to his left, is Rita Coolidge (Rita Coolidge!). Jacques Henric, on the left, is a toughie: Chris Hillman? And our Jean-Joseph Goux, a little nerdy and earnest? How about Graham Nash?