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writing Archives - Page 2 of 4 - CHRISTIAN KIEFER


I tell you now: there are no epiphanies.

Category: writing (page 2 of 4)

2012 SPC Spring Writers Conference

I’m happy to be giving a talk and a reading at this year’s Sacramento Poetry Center Writers Conference.  Information can be found on the SPC website.  In brief, the event is being held on Saturday April 14 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM at the SPC, 1719 25th Street, Sacramento, CA.  A steal at $30 non-members / $20 for members.  With Michelle Bitting, Tim Kahl, Kate Gale, Steve Gehrke, and Christina Hutchins.  I’ll be talking about setting in literature around 10:30.  Planning on bringing in some work by Stephen Shore, Frank Golkhe, Richard Adams, Faulkner, Flaubert, Barthes, and Philip Levine and having a general discussion on the relationship between self and environment, and extending that into how that manifests itself in literature.  This is something of a preview of a more formal version I’ll be giving at American River College’s SummerWords at the end of May / beginning of June.

Tweet tweet

I’ve been remiss in much posting.  Truth is, I’m doing more tweeting than anything else these days.  If you’d care to follow, it’s @xiankiefer.  There’s a facebook page too.  If I were smarter about these things I’d have direct clickable links here but I’m not all that.

In more better news, The Infinite Tides, will appear on the 4th of July (officially) from Bloomsbury in the US and in mid-September from Bloomsbury UK.  This is good news.  If you poke around the Internet you’ll find both covers, which are beautiful.  I hope to feed the first chapter or so on this here website in the future but as of yet, you’ll have to wait.   It’ll be worth it, I promise.

Hard at work on the next book, which is something I’ve been working on for nearly a decade in one form or another.  The images won’t leave me alone and so it needs to be properly finished.  I have 9 drafts and am working on number 10.  The Infinite Tides took me 41 drafts to get right. I guess that’s how I’m wired.


I’m quite pleased to announce that I’ve accepted an offer from Bloomsbury, who will publish my novel The Infinite Tides in spring of 2012.  This is a big deal for me.  A really big deal.  Thank you to my super agent, Eleanor Jackson, for her awesome stewardship of the manuscript.

The Infinite Tides

It is official.  My novel, The Infinite Tides, is out making the rounds of publishers. Super agent Eleanor Jackson has the reins now and I am trying to have the patience of a zen master.  A dear mentor / famous writer friend wrote a nice blurb about how good the book is, which helps matters a great deal (and is quite the ego boost for yours truly).

Incidentally, if you’ve been paying any attention to the novel writing/editing as it has unfolded here, you might not recognize the new title.  The working title had been Gravity but I’d never been that fond of that as a title.  The clincher was reading that George Clooney and Sandra Bullock have a movie in development called Gravity (about astronauts too).  And so, yes, The Infinite Tides, a title I like a great deal more anyway.  I would have called it The Remains of the Day but Ishiguro took that one.  Ishiguro has all the good titles.

In other news, perhaps related to the above, I’ve been pondering making a new record and have been demoing a few pieces in that direction.  These are somewhere between the slow funk of War, the weird swamp grease of Dr. John’s Gris-Gris, and some kind of minimal folk experiment.  It has a groove to it but is all slow and, I hope, spooky.  Having said that the current song I’ve been working on uses Icelandic poetic eddas as its source material.  Sometimes I wonder what’s going on inside my own mind.  How can one not write a song that starts with the line, “Give rede now, Frigg, as to fare me listeth”?  That’s as good an opening as I’ve ever heard.  (From “The Lay of Vafthruthnir,” the Hollander translation of The Poetic Edda, in case you’re wondering.)

Meanwhile, something I played on a while back is out in the world and it’s worth seeking.  Jefferson Pitcher’s fine minimal ambient acoustic project, Now the Deer, is out on tapedrift and is excellent.  If you much enjoy Eno’s Music for Airports or the Mori/Frith/Hideki project Death Ambient I’d wager you’ll enjoy this one too.  Click on to Tape Drift to order a copy.  Each CD is packaged with a unique photo taken by Pitcher in N. Africa.  Bad ass.

Poetry in Davis

In case you find yourself in Davis, California this week, my buddy Michael Spurgeon and I are reading from our recent writings at Bistro 33 on Thursday night.  Click the link for the info:

Eleanor Is Swellanor

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve signed with Eleanor Jackson of the Markson Thoma Literary Agency.  Eleanor will be handling my new novel, Gravity, and whatever else comes out of the pen in the future.  Pretty goddamned awesome if I do say so myself.  Go team!

Agent Progress

It looks like I may have an agent willing to work with me on my book. He’s an editing-heavy agent too, which may be a blessing as my book is big and very likely ponderous. Maybe he can help me shape it into a better piece of art. Who knows. I know I can’t take it any further than I have without some serious expert input and he’s a serious expert: including editing books that have won the Pulitzer and books which have been made into Oscar-winning movies. That’s some cred.

Wish me luck!


Agent Deathmarch

Looking for an agent for the new book, which is like throwing your child off a cliff and hoping someone will catch it.  I ended with 24 drafts total–11,000 draft manuscript pages altogether.  That’s alot of manuscript drafts.  Final draft is a few pages under 500, which means it’s thick.  Not William Vollmann thick but thick nonetheless.

Working on a novella now about Napoleonic-era cartographers.  It’s weirder than the novel and fun when I have time to work on it.

Also thinking of revisiting my dissertation with a mind toward turning it (at last) into a proper book manuscript.  It’s probably time I did so, although knowing me it will end up too weird for any publisher.

For those who ask me from time to time when I’m playing next, I have no great desire to do so and don’t see that changing in the immediate future.  No one actually comes to the shows so it feels fruitless to spend the time and effort to present something to the public only to have 4 or 5 people show up.  It likely wouldn’t matter to me much if I really loved playing live but alas I don’t and never have.  I’d rather just play in my studio at home so that’s what I’ll do when it’s time to work on the music again.

Why Yu will keep you from drowning

Yu the Great

I’ve been working on a poem about Yu the Great, founder of the Xia Dynasty.  The above image is Ma Lin’s portrayal.  Yu was famous for, among other feats, controlling the floods.  I’m interested in him as a cartography.  He wasn’t actually a cartographer, incidentally, but his flood control (via creating new channels and aqueducts rather than dams) fueled a very interesting map wherein the landscape is divided up, grid-wise, into one li blocks.

This is part of a potentially longer project of interlocking and interrelated poems on cartography and cartographers.  The Yu poem is, I think, just a starting point.  Excuse the hesitation here, as this is a new project and I’ve not yet worked it all out.  Just letting it flow some.  Part of this may have started with a song, “Cartographers,” that I did for Ptolemaic Terrascope (not out yet).  Who knows how the mind works?  Not me.

In any case, I’m spending time seeped in (simultaneously) Leonardo da Vinci, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and Chinese mythology, hydrology, and cartography.  The connections make sense to me in ways that I can’t even think of now that I’m looking at them all in a list.  Egads.

Some informal thoughts on 2666

Roberto Bolaño had come to the notice of the English-speaking “world literature” canon just a few scant years before the publication of 2666 in English translation.  Some have noted that the novel was lauded as a masterpiece (by English language periodicals) long before the translation had appeared, but if this is the case I am unaware of where such lauding actually occurred.  Nonetheless, it is absolutely true that the English language press stumbled over themselves in praise of it.  The New York Review of Books called it a “tour de force,” others an “undisputed masterpiece.”  It is despite this flood of praise that I must, with all due respect to the critical community, dispute the position this novel has been afforded in the literary canon.

It is first necessary to acknowledge why Bolaño’s novel might have been accepted as a “masterpiece” even before it appeared.  The author was already in the grave when the book appeared in print in its original Spanish and the timing could not have been more perfect for his “masterpiece” to appear.  He had already entered the canon on the strength of his other novels—sideways, perhaps, but still definitely in it—and here was 1000 pages of experimental novel, written while death loomed over him, no less.  How could we not love it?  It was like the tragedy of all great Spanish literature wrapped into one monumental book.

“Monumental” is the right word here too, for the novel itself is beastly in length, and size certainly does matter when we consider the greatness, the masterpieceness, the tour de forceness of literary works.  If an author is established, is it not the “big book” that is finally granted “masterpiece” status (at least at first).  Is that not why we champion The Magic Mountain, for example?  Or The Gulag Archipelago?  Great books, to  be sure, but the absolute best writing by Mann, or Solzhenitsyn, or whoever?  Perhaps so, but in critical discourse it at times feels that it is the length of the novel–its page count of physical weight–that tilts us into the category of “masterpiece.”

The reviews of the novel are problematic because of this very acceptance.  “One of the cornerstones that define an entire literature,” writes Ródenas for a Barcelona paper.  If by cornerstone, this critical means that it is heavy enough to act as a physical cornerstone for an archway, then perhaps he is correct.  The problem here is that so little of the reviews grapple with the most important question about 2666, namely what, if anything, is the novel about?  What is important about this novel and why should anyone care?

The bare bones are these: The novel is divided into five barely-related sections, each with its own narrative and, largely, its own set of characters.  Occasionally one or two characters will traipse into another section but they are self-contained pieces and lack any real sense of continuity.  The most problematic section is the fourth, “The Part About the Killings,” a practically endless catalog of the bodies of murdered women found in Santa Teresa, a barely-fictionalized Juarez.

“The Part About the Killings” is indicative of much of the novel.  Here, Bolaño focuses on short declarations of fact throughout the novel (with the exception of the final section) and this is nowhere more apparent in “The Part About the Killings.”  In describing the murdered women, one might expect Bolaño to humanize them, to offer something of their lives, their histories, their voices, but then there is none of this in the novel: not here and, until the final section of the novel, not anywhere.  What he does is tell us again and again that the women were “vaginally and anally raped,” a phrase that becomes mantra-like in this section, but ultimately he takes the banality of the crimes and makes them even more banal by forcing his readers to read, over and over again, that phrase until it loses all meaning.  Interspersed with these police reports are walk-ons with various detectives, experts, police officers, and accused perpetrators, none of them offer a sense of depth or seem particularly interested in solving the crimes.  I suppose that the end result is to make us feel like the crimes continue because no one cares, but Bolaño does nothing to change that.  The dead women, in the end, are as anonymous to us as they were before we picked up the book in the beginning.

The anonymous quality of the dead women extends to many characters and moments in the book, some of which are well-written and memorable.  Take, for example, the lengthy sermon by a blind chef and former Black Panther member in the third section. The sermon is funny to be sure, but it adds nothing whatsoever to the novel as a whole, unless it is to add to the ultimate sense of meaninglessness.  There are many such moments: biographies of various characters that occupy many pages of the novel but ultimately do not add up to much of anything.  I kept wondering if Bolaño had, in his haste to finish a “big book” had simply thrown in everything he had left over.

The final section, “The Part About Archimboldi,” is the most readable section of the novel, but it is also the least meaningful and the least connected to Northern Mexico, where all the other sections have a significant (if sometimes tenuous) stake.  There is a sense of fairy tale here and it is compelling material even if it does not ultimately go anywhere.  Archimboldi is a fictional novelist invented by Bolaño and his life story is interesting enough and, after the seeming endlessness (and plotlessness) of “The Part About the Killings,” it’s a breath of fresh air.  What we are supposed to understand from Archimboldi’s story, though, remains a mystery, particularly as it has no real bearing on anything in the rest of the novel.  When it is revealed that Klaus Haas, the suspected murderer, is Archimboldi’s nephew, our own reaction can be “so what,” because the connection seems to offer little understanding for us or for anyone.

In terms of possible recurrent themes, there is a sense of “bookishness” throughout—many characters are journalists, novelists, or literary critics, and in the second section one character is essentially driven mad by books, but what are we to make of that?  Books will drive you crazy?  I’m reminded here to Darren Aronovsky’s films, especially Pi, a film that is visually interesting but seems to have no intellectual core (math will drive you crazy?).  Bolaño’s “books” are much the same here?  They are a recurrent figure but hardly a symbol or even an image.  Like everything else in the novel, they just are.  This is an intellectual novel, then, without intelligence.

And there is one short paragraph towards the end of the novel that offers a kind of sum total of the novel as a whole.  In describing one of fictional novelist Archimboldi’s works, Bolaño writes:

The style was strange.  The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely. (887)

This is a fair and accurate (if metaphorical) description of 2666, for this novel, too, leads nowhere, the sections canceling each other out in such a way that we are left with nothing at all, not even a sense of plan, intelligence, or emotional inquiry.  Bolaño’s work, then, lacks the intellectual center that Calvino, Borges, and Cortazar all had (not to mention Garcia Marquez).  In the end it feels like he’s trying something but doesn’t really seem to know what or why.  There’s a sense that he felt he really needed to write something both big and weird and so he did.

I’m reminded too of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog film where Klaus Kinski drags a riverboat up and over a mountain in the jungle with an eye toward making a resort in some distant jungle lake.  It’s a fine image but there’s no concrete point to it so besides the “wow” of watching them do this thing there’s little to ponder.  Kinski’s character is mad at the beginning of the film and more mad at the end so what does it mean?  Human ambition with made a pretty crazy person even more crazy?  Got it.  Thanks.  Andrei Tarkovsky does this same kind of thing successfully in his first full-length film, Andrei Rublev, with the casting of the church bell.  That entire project is about the fragility and redemption of the human soul itself, the act of faith (in oneself, in God, in the work of one’s own hands and desires).  I wish Bolaño’s work had this but I can find no evidence of it–in the end result, what is the book actually about?  I don’t mean to suggest that all great novels need to have some kind of pedantic point, but I do think that they need to hold a spark of meaning and while many great books fail at this they do all (I think) have this in common.

Archimboldi’s story at the end is breathtakingly beautiful at times but it’s so fantastic a story (the village filled with chasms, the foot long cock in Dracula’s castle, Bubis’s wife being the Countess, etc.) that it’s clearly meant as a kind of fiction within the fiction.  In other words, Bolaño doesn’t seem to want us to “believe” this story in the way he wants us to believe, say, Section 4.  I makes it a very fun read–like reading a grown-up version of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates or something like that–but apart from being “fun” it too lacks any kind of core.  It’s a shame that it was left with Fürst Pückler too–that’s just an embarrassing way to have to end your 1000 page epic–with Neopolitan ice cream.  God’s just fucking with you then.  If only he had died with the sister asking him if he’d take care of her son, his nephew.  That’s not a satisfying ending either, but it’s a hell of a lot better than Fürst Pückler.

This leads to what may be the fundamental question of the text: How is 2666 even a novel?  In fact, it is not a novel anymore than a collection of short stories is a novel.  2666 is five novellas, some more successful than others, and while it’s true that some of the characters appear throughout, that hardly makes it cohere into a novel, not even in terms of a “experiment” or “innovation,” for neither term applies here. Being compared to Borges or Calvino might be justification for some of his twists and turns but ultimately Bolaño has made no choices here, including everything rather than carefully crafting a cohesive piece of art.  My advice is to skip to the final section about Archimboldi and to read that.  It has a sense of coherence and magic utterly lacking from the rest of the novel, even if it is ultimately as intellectually hollow as the rest of the novel at least it strives to entertain.  The rest of the novel attempts little and strives for less.

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