Last September, while taking a break from simpering panels about how to use Twitter to become a famous writer at the Slice Literary Conference, I bought a copy of Los Detectives Salvajes, by Roberto Bolaño. It was on display in the Spanish section in Court Street Books, and I was feeling not only intellectual but inspired to support local bookstores. I leafed through it on the subway back home, ready to be not just a Writer but a Reader of Literature.
Of course, we all have books we have to read before we read the books we want to read, so I put Los Detectives Salvajes between Remembrance of Things Past and Infinite Jest, thus beginning a section of the shelf I fondly dubbed: “Books I Will Have The Time and Patience to Read When I’m In Jail For Murder” and started reading Bright Lights, Big City for the twelfth time.
Reading for pleasure in grad school is difficult! People submit seventy pages of prose to screenplay workshops. Professors assign a book a week. You’re trying to write the Great American Novel but you can’t carve out a second between work and class to even read one. But one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more, and so in January I picked up Los Detectives Salvaje: Go big or go home.
It’s not a book I devoured in a few days. Rather, reading it was a laborious and often frustrating endeavor. There are dozens of speakers, a non-traditional narrative structure, and a hell of a lot of words that I didn’t know. I started and finished six other books in between starting and finishing Los Detectives Salvajes, and each time had to go back a few pages and remind myself what was happening. Time is fluid, minor characters from one chapter become the voice of authority in another, and the two individuals who are the main focus of the book never speak in the first person.
Yet at some point, I fell in love. With literature, as with people, it’s easy to confuse lust and love. We lust after books that are beautifully written yet easy to grasp: The Great Gatsby and A Visit from the Goon Squad come to mind. We say we love them because we understand how they affect us, and we comprehend what’s happening. The books we love are not always flawless, or easy. They can be impenetrable at the beginning; they might be the books that you start and abandon five times before actually reading them. They’re daunting, or different. But at a certain point, the difficulty disappears and the book becomes a part of you, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine yourself as an individual who had never read that book. I’d only felt like this once before, and that’s with One Hundred Years of Solitude.
So I waded through the pages whenever I could – on the A train at midnight between back to back doubles, in the morning before running. I found myself physically walking up Broadway but mentally on the Calle Bucareli, in a restaurant with big cups of coffee on plastic tables, surrounded by messy UNAM dropouts and piles of French poetry books. I started to dread coming to the end of the book. I wanted to be in Israel, Angola, in a dust-caked Impala in Sonora. I wanted to take chapters and have someone hide them and make me find them in order to continue.
I finished this afternoon. I don’t know if this reflects my bad taste in men, or good taste in books, but finishing The Savage Detectives has felt like more of a breakup than any breakup I’ve had. I’m devastated that I’ll never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. I walked home from class and had nothing to look forward to. While I’m consoled by the knowledge that it will always be on my shelf if I want to reread parts, there’s a certain sense of abandonment one feels upon reaching the end of a powerful book.
It’s over, one thinks. And the sentences are still there, in the same order, but it’s never exactly the same.