Waggish

Cesar Aira’s Bad Writing

I don’t usually write about bad books because there’s little point to it, even if they’re popular. (This is why you don’t see me complaining about such important contemporary writers like M_______ or F_______ or L________.) But sometimes I read a book where the badness is illustrative or at least interesting, and Aira’s Ghosts is one of them. Aira writes short books with endorsements from Roberto Bolano. Here is a bit from one of his dips into philosophical musing in Ghosts:

She dreamed of the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction. It was a calm vision, devoid of troubling portents or inventions, almost a verification of the facts. But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.

The architectural reflections go on, but this is enough. On first glance it may read well, but the longer you look at it, the more incoherent it seems. I do not think this is the fault of translator Chris Andrews, whose translations of Bolano had no such issues. How is a vision a “verification of the facts”? If the superficial contrast between dreams and reality is not the important difference, what is it in the general case, not just for this building? Why does the architecture “mirror” the built and the unbuilt? Why is the mirroring reciprocal? How does one bridge two reflections?

Such elisions would not be capital offenses if they didn’t point to such a sloppiness on Aira’s part, as though he were writing more quickly than I read. (He publishes 2-4 books a year, so perhaps he does.) Skewing concepts toward surrealism can be effective, but with Aira, that impression is merely an unpleasant side effect of a quick, lazy attempt at profundity. The ensuing reflections on “the unbuilt” also fail to cohere for the same reasons: Aira hasn’t spent enough time thinking things through.

Because rigor and precision are not traits that are greatly valued in fiction (not now and probably not ever–even now it is rare to see Musil elevated above Mann and Broch as the sharpest thinker of the three by far), there’s little context in which to criticize Aira’s faults. His flashy collisions of ideas give the book credibility as fine literature, but in the race to write, publish, read, review, and ultimately forget about books, no one seems to have stood back and said that the ideas are inchoate, secondhand, and lacking.

For contrast, I was just reading some stories by Mario Benedetti. They don’t shoot for highbrow philosophy, but the writing is sharp, and the ideas are, as a philosopher said, clear and distinct.

11 Comments

  1. ctorre
    27 October 2009

    Perhaps you ought to read more of Aira’s books – they are genuinely strange, and their strangeness is of a kind we don’t see in print very often in this day and age. “Ghosts” is almost a parody of a philosophy of architectural writing – but it is not quite a parody – there is too much genuinely felt to be exactly that; “How I Became A Nun” is a mess – a memoir with no consistent identity holding it together – and it too is capable of being emotionally jarring. I think you should read “An Episode In the Life Of A Landscape Painter” and then see how you feel.

  2. jbf
    27 October 2009

    Aira’s story has always been that he writes a page a day and doesn’t revise; he’s on record (you’ll like this) criticizing Juan Rulfo for coasting on the success of a single book all his life. That lazy Rulfo! While he doesn’t affiliate himself with Roberto Arlt (as Piglia does), Aira certainly shares with Arlt a pride in outproducing every other writer around, quality control be damned. Perhaps there is something in Buenos Aires that would explain all this.

    I’m glad to hear that the Benedetti stories are good, however. Which collection?

  3. Mr. Waggish
    27 October 2009

    ctorres: Landscape Painter is the only other Aira I read, and I was not annoyed by it as I was by Ghosts, but I neither was I particularly impressed.

    jbf: 100 pages of Rulfo are worth more than 10,000 of Aira, if they’re all like Ghosts and Landscape Painter. The Benedetti collection is Blood Pact—are there any others in English?

  4. will
    28 October 2009

    This post pretty much echoes my impressions of “Ghosts.” It also happens to a lesser extent in “How I Became a Nun” (though I still prefer “Ghosts” for other reasons). I, too, was not particularly impressed by “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.” “The Hare” is my favourite (I’ve only read the ones which have been translated into English) – it’s thankfully lacking in such pseudo-profound musings, although the plot is rather contrived.

  5. Des Esseintes
    2 November 2009

    Mulisch, Ford, Lethem?
    Marukami, Foer, Llosa?
    Perhaps L-M combinations Lorrie Moore or Late Marquez?
    I wonder: are these letters especially embattled or is the alphabet uniformly rife with overpraised fiction? (I’ll acknowledge that Marukami isn’t 100% fair; 65% fair, yes.)

    Regarding Aira, Castellanos Moya is the far better Bolano-approved Latin American currently on New Directions’ roster.

  6. Mr. Waggish
    2 November 2009

    One of your guesses is right, and it’s not Murakami. Though Mulisch is pretty awful (nearly as bad as Nadas).

    I read Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, and whoever described it at Bolano crossed with Bernhard got it pretty much on the nose. Definitely better than Aira and pretty funny in spots, but it didn’t stick with me.

  7. Des Esseintes
    3 November 2009

    Franzen! That’s your offender right there. Ford is less objectionable; Foer is less respected.

    Liebling used to say of himself that he wrote faster than anyone who wrote better, and vice versa. I’ve never completed a longer book that was worse than The Discovery of Heaven, and vice versa.

    Senselessness was lo-impact for me as well, though I think occasionally of the ending. Is it a startling success or a cheat? I go back and forth.

  8. Mr. Waggish
    5 November 2009

    You win the white carnation.

    Nadas’s “A Book of Memories” read worse than Discovery to me while being equally as long, but I never got close to finishing either.

    Senselessness amused me in spots, especially the business with the soldier and his girlfriend, but I thought that the heavy material wasn’t worked through enough, not even close. The ending I suppose didn’t feel like a cheat because I knew the book was short and so had to end soon!

  9. anon
    12 November 2009

    I thought Nadas’ “A Book of Memories” was one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read. The depth of insight, the precision of description, the formal inventiveness, the structural innovation, the stylistic brilliance…it really was on the level of Proust and Musil. I guess I probably won’t convince you, but I just wanted to register my appreciation for a work of great genius.

    • David Auerbach
      15 April 2013

      I try not to judge authors by their fans, but you are reassuring me that I haven’t misjudged him.

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