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A Little Lumpen Novelita
By Roberto Bolaño
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
I've been a fan of Roberto Bolaño from the opening pages of 2666, but like many great authors, he had his flaws. For all his talents as a writer, he strikes me as a terrible editor, or self-editor, if you prefer. A consequence of his style is that that every Bolaño novel has ideas or characters or details that aren't fully explored; part of this is because Bolaño is about mystery and suggestion, the things that lurk around the corners, but part of this might be because the guy wrote a lot and published a lot. A Little Lumpen Novelita, written in 2001 but not translated until last year, falls in some ways on the wrong side of the careful balance Bolaño so frequently strikes between shadowy and incomplete; The Skating Rink also falls on the wrong side, while Monsieur Pain, Amulet, and The Third Reich sit on the fence between the two; I'd wager that everything else I've read by him succeeds exceptionally. Like everything else he wrote, it's a great story -- an impoverished woman descends into a life of bizarre crime when his brother brings home two strangers -- and the sense of dread and the ominous that permeates even the man's weaker works also shows up here. Plus there are some great individual set pieces, like the segment where protagonist Bianca uses a newspaper quiz to reveal and in some ways form her character. The prose, in that great Bolaño style, hits a nice mix of menace and lyricism, and there are a few poignant observations that I won't share because they hit harder in context.
So everything he usually does well, he does well here. Yet other than Bianca, none of these characters ever become more than sketches. All sorts of possibilities are opened up for them, especially her brother and his pursuit of masculine ideals, but aren't really given a lot of depth; the plot hurtles forward too quickly for anything to expand, for anyone outside of Bianca to establish themselves. Other Bolaño novels have given us terrific characters -- recurring alter ego Arturo Belano has imprinted himself in my mind with his swordfight in The Savage Detectives, and it's hard to resist the Col. Kurtz vibes Distant Star's skywriting serial killer Alberto Ruiz-Tagle throws off -- but none of those characters are here, and it's amazing how quickly thin characters can sink a promising premise. And even Bianca isn't a great character, just a serviceable one; she doesn't complicate the way I want her to. Maybe that's why A Little Lumpen Novelita feels like Bolaño going through the motions; the whole time I read it, I found myself struck with the feeling that he'd done better, and with it, I came to the conclusion that this probably wouldn't have been translated if Bolaño had lived a little longer. Of course, me being the kind of person I am, I'll probably read through every Bolaño manuscript New Directions digs up and puts out, but if you're not an obsessive fan like I am, there's really not a lot of need to read this. I can't at all call it bad, but it's definitely inessential; there's a lot you can keep in the shadows, but your main characters' personalities, motives and development just can't stay this dark.
Out of 10: 7.0