A Top Three, by Zak Smith

Posted by @ 1:58 pm on December 11th, 2009
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So yesterday I sent out an email asking a fairly large group of writer, editor and publishing friends to send me their top 3 books published this year. I told them to interpret “top” any way they chose to, and to feel no pressure to expound on their choices. One of the first responses was this exuberant, flame-throwing missive from Zak Smith, author of the eminently top 3-able We Did Porn (Tin House Books). I decided that Zak’s note was worth publishing in full, as is, but that it was really too long for the post of mini-lists I was compiling. So here, now, is Zak’s top 3, offered as a kind of advance payment on the full list of lists, which will hopefully be forthcoming next week.

[ZS writes:]

I am about to make great claims for The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, and overeducated punk rockers are supposed to be all over things like The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, so first, let me establish my credentials:

Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper

I wasn’t a fan. I’d read Dennis Cooper and thought “Mmmm…okay” and I’d read Dennis Cooper and thought “Meh.” But this collection of short stories is a revelation in hospital white and sweat-stained pink. Go to the store, read “Santa Claus Vs. Johnny Crawford” in its entirety (it’s only nine lines long), and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it. And, also, you are a terrible person with no imagination or sense of humor.

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov

Ok, so maybe Nabokov didn’t want these fragments of his last, unfinished novel published after he died, but he probably did want to come back from the grave as a ghost to frighten the talentless away from trying to write novels. One out of two isn’t bad.

Now…

Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
To hear people talk you’d think Roberto Bolano was the next Borges or Cortazar. If he is, his translators have a lot to answer for. Here’s some of that Bolano prose everyone’s raving about:


The name puzzled her. How was it possible, she asked her friend, that there could be a German writer with an Italian surname, but with a von preceding it, indicating some kind of nobility? Her German friend had no answer. It was probably a pseudonym, he said. And to make things even stranger, he added, masculine proper names ending in vowels were uncommon in Germany. Plenty of feminine proper names ended that way. But certainly not masculine proper names.

And that’s not just a temporary dip into stream-of-consciousness: you have to wade through pages and pages of logistics and mental parallel-parking before getting to the isolated sentences of genuine beauty.
But, let’s remember, people–even readers–are mostly stupid, and like things that demand little of them.  2666 is long, but it has little enough poetry in it that it’s easy for people who spend most of their time on Facebook to read.
Plus, Bolano’s dead, leftist, and South American.
Gene Simmons once said: “Music critics like Elvis Costello because music critics look like Elvis Costello.”
Gene might be an asshole, but he gave us ‘God of Thunder’ and ‘Snowblind’, whereas Elvis Costello gave us a bunch of bullshit and then went and hung around with Burt Bachrach, so heed him…

Book critics like Roberto Bolano because book critics look like Roberto Bolano (or his characters, or his voice, whichever): scholarly, neurotic, bibliophilic, unfairly overlooked, eager to somehow find a way to believe that literature is always only a step away from revolution and crime and violence and other more macho and less-bespectacled occupations.
Book critics do not look like Nick Cave, genius behind the following:

A mop of bed-hair crowns his sleep-seamed face, and his pyjamas are runkled and a Spiderman web-blaster is attached to his forearm.  He screws up his nose at the cloying odour and waves his hand in front of his face.

Then he sees, with a gasp and a rush of energised wind through his body, his father sprawled motionless on the sofa, grey as a kitchen glove and coated in a patina of cold grease. The metallic, outsize TV remote is still cradled banally in his dead hand like an anachronism.
It looks antique and obsolete and somehow responsible for Bunny’s condition, as if it had failed in its sole responsibility of keeping Bunny alive.

Obscure, dead, leftist South Americans are supposed to write great books, suddenly-mustached rock stars aren’t. So no-one’s noticed that Bolano seems to like books more than words and no-one’s looking for the raw, fluorescent-lit, Martin-Amis-like hollowed-out modernity underneath what looks, at first glance, like a famous hipster’s sex-drugs-death hobby-horse novel.

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