American Writing Abroad

The first impression of United States fiction seen from abroad—especially if you compare it with the space occupied by writers of other nationalities in bookstores and publishers’ catalogs—is that it’s everything. The eternal classics (the enormous road that begins with Hawthorne and arrives at John Updike), the quality best-sellers and the generation made up of names like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem, Heidi Julavits, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Mark Costello . . . they’re all on Spanish shelves. The same goes for Paul Auster (a best-seller in Spain and France and Buenos Aires) or James Ellroy (one of Roberto Bolaño’s favorite writers, after Philip K. Dick) or Pynchon, Denis Johnson, DeLillo, Paula Fox, Jim Shepard, Didion, Ford, Baxter, or Wolff. This doesn’t prevent a more expert reader from detecting incomprehensible absences, like those of Ann Beattie or Stephen Dixon or Ben Marcus, or, until very recently, John Cheever—who had disappeared completely and now is enjoying a revival of influence in the Spanish-speaking world.

It’s clear that in the US today the very lively and substantial ghosts of John Cheever and Donald Barthelme can live together without any problem—sometimes even inside the same writer. If the avant-garde impulse toward constant forward progress has been lost, it is because one can now write moving in all directions at once. Digression is like a creed. When I think of a further evolution of books as objects, or of the novel as a genre, I always remember what Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorites) wrote about the books of the alien inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore:

They were little things . . . Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out—in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. . . . “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

One other thing is clear: North American literature continues to be a great world power and possesses an energy and an influence that other incarnations of the American Dream no longer exhibit. I’m referring, for example, to a lot of “Made in the USA” cinema, or to the integrity of certain presidents.


Viewing Latin American literature from the US side, I’m not really sure that García Márquez—a writer whom I admire unreservedly—is the most influential writer for Latin Americans. It’s clear that, like Borges, he is among the best known and most respected. But perhaps García Márquez has been more influential among foreign editors, critics, and readers. The result is a reflex, or almost zombie-like compulsion, to demand Latin American novels that contain many large families and flying people and jungles and volcanos. Roberto Bolaño, on the other hand, serves as the perfect missing link between the Boom writers and those of my generation. Bolaño is an author who without renouncing classic South American literary themes—torture, exile, lyrical wandering, dictators, and writers as heroes—rearranges and reinvents them, presenting them in a way that’s new and freakish and mutant. In this way Bolaño would come to be like the older brother we get to know and love.

Manuel Puig is, it seems to me, the other great presence. He is the other most vivid of our ghosts, standing to the side of the Boom and, I think, especially novel and useful for Latin American young people (and nearly ex-young people, like me). Puig—whom the Japanese like to define as “the Argentine Haruki Murakami”—is like a practical instruction manual that clearly explains to us how to write a grand political novel without sacrificing the “pop” factor (The Kiss of the Spider Woman or the Warholiana of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages); how to be David Lynch well before David Lynch (The Buenos Aires Affair); how to revisit the novel of initiation (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth); or how to play with genres and nobly take pleasure in their miscegenation (Heartbreak Tango and Pubis Angelical). More than anything, Puig is important in a literature like that of Latin America today, which still rejects the popular as a suspicious element, almost like an extraterrestrial virus—even as we struggle to understand writing in an epoch saturated with visual support, even as writing offers an idea of reality that doesn’t have to contend with the unreal. To sum it up, a dead Puig is much more lively than most.

With the little that is translated into English, I fear that there’s a lot for US readers to learn. Fortunately, writers like Enrique Vila-Matas or Alan Pauls or Alberto Fuguet or Edmundo Paz-Soldán have been translated recently or are in the process of being translated. Which doesn’t prevent us from lamenting the absence in English of authors and books like the Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez (author of Los Informantes, a political novel à la Philip Roth) or El Huésped, by the Mexican Guadalupe Sánchez Nettel (a contemporary urban novel that in some way connects with the dead characters of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), or the Mexican Juan Villoro’s El Testigo, or the stories and novels of the Spanish Javier Calvo. And I don’t even want to think of the scant diffusion of classics like Adolfo Bioy Casares or Felisberto Hernández. To be honest, it’s disconcerting.

I think everyone must choose his own models. There’s no reason to submit to Stalinist tendencies. The truth is that it doesn’t make sense for García Márquez imitators to keep cropping up, in just the same way that it would be a bit sad if we were to detect an increase in writers emulating Roberto Bolaño. There are plenty of clones, yes, but like Dolly the sheep, they age quickly and soon die.

In the Hispano-American world, literary supplements are ever more focused on publishing greater numbers of reviews in as little space as possible. The reviews begin sounding like slogans and synopses. There aren’t many publications that publish long essays on literary matters, and the ones that exist (La Tempestad and Letras Libres in Mexico, El Malpensante in Colombia, Gutierrez in Chile, Sibila and Revista de Libros and Lateral in Spain) are limited in circulation and readership. It’s true that recently there’s been an ample boom in a crossbred literature combining fictional and essayistic forms. I’m thinking here of W. G. Sebald, the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, and the Spaniards Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Cercas. Maybe that’s an outlet for impulses that have otherwise been thwarted by the popular reviews and the academy, which is preoccupied with dead authors or with promulgating its own canon.

There’s something finally terrible about naming names—praise by inclusion and censure by omission. The last things I read were Russell Banks’s The Darling, an advance copy of Philip Roth’s Everyman, David Foster Wallace’s new book of essays, and right now I’m reading the manuscripts of new unpublished novels by Javier Calvo and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. And in between reading one thing and the next, I’m writing another novel of my own. I’m always more and more convinced that writing is nothing more than a slightly modified form of reading. Or maybe we write because otherwise the reading would never stop.

—Translated by Joshua Brau and J. D. Daniels

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