Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Books: Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

I started my reading list almost three years ago when a boy that I was hotly pursuing sent me a list of recommendations, including Borges' Ficciones. There were some other books that by now I've read (Bester's The Stars My Destination) and most that I haven't been able to find (St. Exupery's Wind Sand Stars and T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom), but though he doesn't talk to me anymore—and hasn't, for more than two years—my compulsion remains to complete his list. In fact, the boy told me that if I ever published a book, he would come to my signing, which compels me still toward writing.

Ficciones, a short story collection, is something of a literary hipster's bible (don't think for one moment that my boy was anything but a literary (and sometimes culinary) hipster), and it is appropriately cagey, occluded, and inscrutable. It is also appropriately pompous, assy, and annoying. It is, like the booted, bias-banged flotsam of Avenue A, occasionally breathtakingly beautiful (c.f. "The Garden of Forking Paths"), but for the most part ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Approach to Al-Mu'taism," "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," etc.) rather tedious. The difference between the two types of stories is simple: the good stories are stories, with characters and plots (plots that twist and collapse on themselves in a groovy post-Poe/proto-Pynchon kind of way), the bad stories aren't stories at all, but a kind of fictional criticism, usually literary, written in the impenetrable jargon of all literary criticism, but infinitely more infuriating, as they refer to non-existent literature, and are parading as stories (I like tofu, but if I order steak and the waitress brings be a piece of tofu, I will not be happy). A select few of the criticism-type stories border on being conceptually interesting ("Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" describes the brilliance of an ad nauseam rewrite of Don Quixote, praising the newer text in a side-by-side close reading of two paragraphs that are exactly the same), but they are still mostly tedious. Better is "The Form of the Sword," in which he demonstrates his knack for the surprise ending.

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