Friday, May 08, 2009

Why Harper's is worse than The New Yorker

So I read this article (not available online to nonsubscribers, but really, it won't kill you (haha) to miss this one) in Harper's about a former Juarez hitman. How can that not be fascinating? you may well ask. And it's kind of interesting, sort of, in its own way, but it's really not a great article. Or even a particularly good one, really. The substantial problem is that the author, Charles Bowden, is not content to let the material stand on its own. No, he wants to be capital-L Literary, so we get guff like this:

I crossed the river about twenty years ago--I can't be sure about the exact date because I am still not sure what crossing means except that you never come back. I just know I crossed and now I stumble on some distant shore. It is like killing. I ask him, "Tell me about your first killing," and he says he can't remember, and I know that he is not telling the truth and I know that he is not lying. Sometimes you cannot reach it. You open that drawer, and your hand is paralyzed and you cannot reach it. It is right in front of you but still you cannot reach it, and so you say you don't remember.

In addition to making no sense (that business about rivers isn't any more sensical in context), and in addition to the lame attempt at psychologizing, there's that "and...and...and" construction, which is the sure sign of hack who wants to sound literary. Does the world really need multiple Cormacs McCarthy?

The other problem I have with this piece is that--and I know that Bowden is a well-known author with a reputation and a lot of books, BUT--I'm not totally convinced that the whole thing isn't made up. I'm not making accusations, but it just feels as though if you have a story like this, you're gonna want to let it stand on its own. Whereas if you are merely fabricating a story like this, you might overcompensate with extra artifice. Witness Scott Templeton in the last season of The Wire. Also, the details seem just a little too much. Like there's some sensationalizing going on. So our hitman is super-disciplined, because that's totally badass; and he's also constantly strung out on cocaine and whiskey and hardly ever sleeps, which is ALSO totally badass, but which doesn't mesh too well with the super-disciplined bit. It's as though Bowden wanted to stick in as many awesome details as possible, even if they weren't really compatible.

Okay okay, but in spite of this, I suppose it probably IS legitimate. It just doesn't read that way, which is kind of a big problem. Not that every New Yorker piece is brilliant, but I don't think you'd see anything in that magazine that was bad in this particular way. No doubt you could find counterexamples, but it sure isn't the standard, I will tell you that much.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

"Does the world really need multiple Cormacs McCarthy?"

Another hack who often uses that construction is James Frey. Your mention of McCarthy leads to the hilarious realization that Frey and McCarthy actually have a lot in common.


3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

did it ever occur to you that the man being interviewed might have actually SAID things that were contradictory and that the writer is faithfully reporting what he said, whether it fits some idea of a good work practice or not?

also, last time i checked, crossing the river is the way to get from the United States to the country on the other side of our border where the subject of the story did his work as a hitman. it is a statement of fact, not a literary anything.

5:13 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

...except that he says he did it twenty years ago, and the mini-author-bio specifies that he lives in Tucson. It's obviously meant in some figurative way that might be apparent if one was more familiar with the man's writing, but as it is it just comes off as murkily pretentious.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

except that the hitman works in Juarez, Mexico (according to the subtitle of the piece) and to get there from the USA, you pretty much have to cross the river at El Paso, Texas. also, the writer, charles bowden, has written at least 3 books about Juarez over the course of the past 20 or so years and thus, crossed the Rio Grande river long ago in order to visit the places he writes about. since, if you read his books and ever go anywhere, you would know that he is writing about where he is and what he sees; he does not make things up.

6:09 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...


Okay, dude. As I said, I don't *really* think he made it up. I just think he's a bad writer.

6:22 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Incidentally, that's a great point about James Frey that hadn't occurred to me. The and...and...and thing ("andelopes," BR Myers calls them) is okay, albeit a bit cliched at this point, at a climactic moment, but when you're sticking it all over the place I have to wonder: do you really not hear how silly you sound? Talk about a tin ear.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Oh, the more you think about it, the more similarities you find. Frey also loves hyper-masculine archetypes, slathered in pathos. The comparison could be made detailed enough for an article of truly incendiary literary significance!


10:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Alan Moore, of Watchmen fame, is also a repeat offender in this 'and' business. I wish people would get off his jock.

As to the river, Bowden is clearly employing symbolism towards some end, as he has obviously traveled to and from Mexico at least once, despite his claim, "you never come back." The same sentence invites us to speculate on what he's getting at, by stating, "I am still not sure what crossing means". Were Bowden just reporting a fact, he would have told us he (first?) crossed the Rio Grande twenty years ago, but can't remember exactly when, and left it at that.

But, no. In some way, his journey "is like killing." That is not reportage. It is not a statement of fact. It doesn't even have the air of truth.

Yes, I am aware these are both supposedly acts which cannot be undone (though Bowden clearly has no problem travelling home). That is a stupid and forced parallel, with none of the poetry its author hoped for.

3:27 PM  

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