Saturday, May 19, 2018

Solitary

I enjoy writing up these reviews, or posts, or whatever I should call it when I write some stream-of-consciousness text about a book I just finished. I have a hard time with short stories, though. I enjoy reading these collections, but generally walk away just thinking "Those were good!" and/or "Each story was different from the other!", without much else to say that would motivate me to write something up. That's kind of how I feel about Men Without Women, the most recent tome from Haruki Murakami that I've read. But since I frequently claim him as one of my favorite authors, I feel like I should put something up here for completeness sake.


MINI SPOILERS

This is definitely one of the more accurate titles I've seen to a short story collection. The final story is called "Men Without Women," but every single story in here features a male protagonist who is losing, has lost, and/or is mourning a particular woman. As is so common in Murakami, the men are almost always passive, and it is the woman who initiates the act of loss, generally by dying or sleeping with another man. Apart from that, they're fairly varied. Some are more reflective, others more focused; some are narrated directly, others by distant characters recounting their own stories.

Reading them all back to back like this does make it kind of hard to ignore some of Murakami's ticks. A lot of those are pleasant eccentricities that I've come to love: his fondness for cats, for disappearances, for moons, for ears. But it also emphasizes his history of presenting women as inhuman characters. They're not bad: he loves and admires women, granting them talents and powers beyond the reach of his apathetic male heroes. But he introduces them and treats them like creatures, strange animals or divine messengers, who may understand the souls of mankind but are unknowable in return. There's an odd and, frankly, unsettling way his male characters think about women, more as a scientific problem to be solved or a source of inspiration than as another soul, a sentient human with whom to commune.

What's especially odd about this is that I feel like Murakami has gotten a lot better on this front lately. In particular, Aomame from 1Q84 is one of my all-time favorite Murakami characters and seemed to completely break the mold from his earlier work, as an awesome point-of-view character with a rich interior life, her own ambitions and shortcomings. The women here feel like a massive step back, to the point where I wondered if this was a belated release of earlier work of his. Judging from the copyright page, it isn't, and all these stories came out in the last several years.

So, anyways. That kind of kept me from being able to fully enjoy most of these stories, which probably says more about me than about the book; I doubt it would have bothered me much when I first started getting into Murakami over a decade ago. There is one story here that I absolutely loved, called Kino. It really does seem like a greatest hits of Murakami-isms, down to the jazz records and unexplained snakes and relentless door-knocking (which simultaneously evokes and inverts a similar scene in 1Q84). It has the same, uh, (frantically tries to think of a synonym for "regressive") simplistic relational perspective that bugged me in the other stories, but in general it is so good and pushes so many of my buttons that I can embrace it.

Conceptually, Samsa In Love is especially fun, thanks to its delicious conceit: a cockroach wakes from troubled dreams to discover that it has been transformed into Gregor Samsa. I quite enjoyed this one, which is tarnished slightly by, you guessed it, treating its lone female character as just a foil for its hapless male protagonist, but the concept is strong enough to keep it worthwhile for me.

END SPOILERS

I guess that reading this has reminded me of something that I knew before: Murakami's short stories are probably my least favorite forms of his writing. They can still be really good, but, with a few memorable exceptions like The Little Green Monster, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and The Rise And Fall Of Sharpie Cakes, they don't strike me nearly as strongly as his novels and longer-form nonfiction. Even by those standards, Men Without Women is probably towards the bottom of the list for me. Worth reading, but probably more for completionists than for curious newcomers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Das Capitalist

I'm in kind of a weird position these days. I'm fortunate enough to have accumulated a bit of a nest egg and have enjoyed learning how to nurture it: practicing frugality, sound investment strategies, simple financial planning. Over the years I have started to dip into some slightly more esoteric topics like tax efficient fund placement and portfolio management. At the same time, I'm increasingly skeptical of our financial system, investment, and, honestly, American capitalism in general.

With this odd confluence of interests, I've found John Bogle a refreshing voice. He has an impeccable background to speak on financial issues: he founded Vanguard, created the world's first index mutual fund, and today is a sort of emeritus godfather to the company overseeing more than five trillion dollars of investors' money. But, as I learned while reading Enough., he is deeply distressed at the state of the financial world, and has been more forceful than almost anyone in calling for its reform. And not just forceful: articulate and detailed, using his insider's knowledge to point out where the bodies are buried.

I'd been meaning to follow up on Enough., and was drawn to the fiery title of one of his earlier books, The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. I'd picked it up imagining that it might question the roots of capitalism. It doesn't. Bogle is a true believer in free markets and takes the rightness of capitalism for granted. He is a prophet in his own country, speaking to those who share the same fundamental beliefs.



In retrospect this totally makes sense: of course the founder of an investment company would be fervently devoted to capitalism. The title is really about freeing a virtuous soul from the carapace encrusting it, not about redeeming a damned soul.

The book also ended up being more technical than I expected. That was a good thing in some ways: it includes some really clear explanations of concepts that I hadn't fully grasped before, like how to calculate a stock's fundamental expected return (combine its current dividend yield with earnings growth). But, since the book was written more than a decade ago, much of the technical detail is now irrelevant.

The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism was published after the dot-com bust but before the global financial crisis, and for better and worse he proved to be very prescient in many of the alarms he sounded. Several of his specific policy suggestions were eventually addressed by the Obama administration or by shifts in the market. Earnings guidance from management is not as big a factor in 2018 as it was in 2005. Accounting standards seem to have improved, with stronger divisions between traditional accounting and consulting. More corporate boards are independent and it has become rarer for CEOs to also serve as chairmen. But many of the issues Bogle flags have gotten even worse in the past decade. High on this list is short-term trading: we now have high-frequency trading, which is causing unprecedented levels of churn and bizarre volatility.

He ranges over three related topics in the course of the book: corporate America, investment America, and mutual fund America. Each of these has lost its way, each has behaved inappropriately, each is bilking investors out of their money, and each needs to be corrected. (Perhaps surprisingly, he endorses government intervention to put things back on track: he would prefer self-regulation, but reluctantly observes that the industry has demonstrated it cannot police itself.)

The details of each domain are different. Corporate America has been taken captive by managers who behave like owners: instead of acting as stewards for their public investors, they run the companies for their own private benefit, granting themselves obscene compensation and resisting efforts at oversight, using accounting chicanery to defraud pension funds and claim unrealistic but lucrative profits. Investment America charges outrageous fees for abysmal performance, skimming enormous sums from their clients, promoting schemes that maximize their company's take rather than their customers' returns. And mutual fund America is a passive giant, holding a dominant portion of the country's companies but unwilling to use its power to advocate for its investors' interests.

Stepping back from the details, though, I think the core problem Bogle is pointing out is people caring about the company they work for, as opposed to just their own self-interest. Companies that are still run by their original founders or family members tend to behave rather well: they care about what they've created and have an emotional incentive to see it remain strong. In the vast majority of cases, though, a CEO is paid with other peoples' money and is continuing someone else's legacy. In those circumstances, it's understandable that managers will mostly want to enrich themselves, and that's the seed of the problem Bogle identifies in all three of these sections.

But! It isn't at all unique for managers to look after their own interests. Stockholders, after all, are also motivated to enrich themselves. I mean, if I own stock in Caterpillar, I don't really care all that much about what Caterpillar does, I mostly care whether Caterpillar makes me money. Bogle thinks that its acceptable for stockholders to demand profit through the shares they hold, but it isn't acceptable for managers to demand profit through the position they hold. Again, this is something he takes for granted and that's axiomatic for a capitalist, but it struck me many times while reading this.

If greed is the root problem, then apathy is what's preventing a solution. There are too many stockholders, too much intermediation, too little connection between the decisions made in the boardroom and the attention of the real owners. I thought this was very ironic, since Bogle almost single-handledly transitioned the American stock market into the super-diversified form it's in today. When he first started, an individual investor might have bought a number of shares in Coca-Cola, and actually cared about the firm: followed its movements, voted for directors, written letters to shareholder meetings. Now, an investor will own an infinitesimal slice in every company in America. That's largely a good thing for the investor, as it means perfect diversification and broad exposure to the whole market, but it destroys the opportunity for engaged ownership and corporate citizenship that Bogle seems to crave.

I thought Bogle's attack on the mutual fund industry was particularly interesting. He's admittedly biased, but he makes an incontrovertible case that publicly-held mutual funds perform far worse than privately-held ones. But... doesn't that seem like it would apply to other companies as well? Why are we buying stocks at all? Why are we investing in public companies if they do so poorly? He doesn't examine this question - again, it's a core principle that he takes for granted - but two possibilities occur to me.

The first relates to Bogle's belief in professions versus business, an idea he touches on here and deals with at greater length in Enough. In Bogle's view, a profession isn't primarily about making money, it's a prestigious and important element in civil society. He considers professions like law, architecture, and medicine to fit this category. (Think, also, of the old cachet of owning a newspaper: until a few decades ago, it was seen as a mark of prestige and civic engagement, not as an opportunity for creating wealth.) Business is great for making widgets: if you're creating products to sell, or providing a luxury service, then it's right and natural for you to seek high returns and charge what the market will bear. But a profession should remain primarily focused on their calling: they need to make enough money to support themselves and keep their office strong, but profit should not be the primary goal. With this way of thinking, then, publicly traded companies can be a good investment, but not every type of company should be publicly traded. Companies that primarily provide professional services should remain closely held, so they can keep their mission central and not be swayed by the market's demands for higher returns.

The other possibility is that public corporations are just bad investments. The best businesses will be closely held, run by the original founders for their own benefit, or as part of a tight legacy like a family, mutual enthusiasts (e.g. REI), etc. As soon as a business opens up to all investors, the original passion and mission will inevitably fade, second-generation managers will focus on their own interests, and profitability will slide. To adapt a phrase, publicly traded corporations are the worst form of investment, other than all of the other forms we've tried: it's the one form that allows us to easily buy a slice of a company, even if the fact we're allowed to buy into it means it won't be compelling.

Another way to look at it: you would have the most opportunity for upside by personally starting a business, or by directly investing into a private business. But those actions are extremely risky and require a great deal of time and attention from you. We're sacrificing some profit from those and accepting a lower return in exchange for lower risk and more stability. A Fortune 500 company is less likely to fail than your new cafe.

Again, though, all of the above assumes that the primary goal of a business is to maximize profit for the owner. Bogle's main thesis is that "owners capitalism" has been supplanted by "managers capitalism". In the former, a business is run for the benefit of its owners. This doesn't mean accounting shenanigans or short-sighted cost-cutting: it means building a strong, trusted, stable, enduring business that will continue for a century or more, steadily growing and generating profits for its stockholders. In "Managers capitalism", the business is run for the benefit of the CEO and other top officers: they are theoretically stewards who are employees of the stockholders, but instead view the company as their own property to milk, engaging in short-term maneuvers that will boost their personal compensation during their years at the company instead of making decisions that will strengthen it for years to come.

What's missing in the above tension between the owners and the managers? The workers! There are zero words in the book about the value generated by workers and whether they deserve a share, let alone how large that share should be. Bogle is concerned about how profit is distributed, but (in my opinion) it's ultimately the workers who create that value. The owners front the capital that provides opportunity, the managers organize the resources and ensure quality, but it's the workers who actually, uh, work and create economic value.

(The only time Bogle references workers is when discussing pension funds, which, to be fair, he's very passionate about. He seems to care deeply about the social compact pensions represent and is distressed by the likelihood that they will fail to provide their promised benefits. But he's primarily focused on pensions and funds and not as compensation: he mostly treats them as an investment made for a particular purpose instead of as a rightful share of profits earned by workers.)

At the end of the day, Bogle is a true believer in capitalism, but does not believe that capitalism is the answer to every problem. Oddly enough, the more important an enterprise is, the less likely that it should be run as a business. Crucial processions should be run for the sake of their mission and not to maximize profit. Capitalism by itself is not virtuous, just (in his view) a proven effective means of generating wealth and distributing that wealth to a group of people. Managers capitalism is still capitalism: managers are acting rationally to maximize their income. In Bogle's view, though, managers capitalism is a bad, dangerous, and inferior form of capitalism that does not produce broad societal benefits.

Finally! I wanted to jot down a few passages that I thought were especially interesting or well-said. (Transcribed by hand, please excuse typos.)

Page 43:
The truth is that most business measurements are inherently short-term in nature. Far more durable qualities drive a corporation's success over the long term. While they cannot be measured, such traits as character, integrity, enthusiasm, conviction, and passion are every bit as important to a firm's success as precise measurements. Human beings are the prime instruments for implementing a corporation's strategy. Other things being equal (of course, they never are), if those who serve the corporation are inspired, motivated, cooperative, diligent, ethical, and creative, the stockholders will be well served.
I thought this was very well-said. He develops this point further in Enough.: pay attention to the things that count, not the things that can be counted. Also, note that he accurately identifies employees as the primary source of business success. It seems like they should have a seat at the table.


 Page 44:
The companies that will lead the way in their industries over the long term will be those that have made their earnings growth not the objective of their corporate strategy, but the consequence of their corporate performance.
Another keen observation that I first encountered in Enough. Do not focus on improving a business' metrics: focus on improving the business, and the metrics will follow. Metrics should measure success, not drive it.


Page 163:
Looked at from yet another perspective, the investor put up 100 percent of the capital and assumed 100 percent of the risk, but collected only 57 percent of the profit. The mutual fund management and distribution system put up zero percent of the capital and assumed zero percent of the risk, but collected 43 percent of the return. If this example does not represent the paradigm of the triumph of managers' capitalism over owners' capitalism in mutual fund America, it is hard to imagine what would. Almost half of the fund owners' money was siphoned away by those who quite literally had everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Definitely good for investors to consider. I have to say, though, that I've never been too happy with the (nearly universal) statement that owners assume all the risk. It's only their capital that's at risk. When a company goes under, the owners will lose their capital, but the people who work for that company will be far more devastated: losing their jobs, healthcare, social bonds, professional edge. That isn't especially relevant to the specific case of mutual fund advisors he's discussing here, but it's a formulation that I think bears closer consideration than it receives.


Page 176:
  This devolution is hardly limited to the mutual fund field. It is reflected all across our society, as one profession after another has taken on the defining attributes of a business... I've seen this field move from being primarily a profession of investment management to becoming largely a business of product marketing. The same transition - albeit in a very different way - has taken place in the medical profession, where the human concerns of the caregivers and the human needs of the patient have been overwhelmed by the financial interests of commerce, our giant medical care complex of hospitals, insurance companies, drug manufacturers and marketers, and health maintenance organizations...
  Consider too how the profession of public accounting became dominated by the business of consulting. Think about the increasing dominance of "state" (publishing) over "church" (editorial) in journalism, as well as about the rise of commercialism in law and architecture that has eroded traditional standards of conduct. In all, professional relationships with clients have been increasingly recast as business relationships with customers. In a world where every use of services is seen as a customer, every provider of services becomes a seller. When a provider becomes a hammer, the customer becomes a nail.
  Please don't think me naive. I'm fully aware that every profession has elements of a business. Indeed, if revenues fail to exceed expenses, no organization - even the most noble of faith-based institutions - will long exist. But as so many of our nation's proudest professions - including trusteeship, medicine, accounting, journalism, law, and architecture - gradually shift their traditional balance away from that of trusted profession and toward that of commercial enterprise, the human beings who rely on those services are the losers.
  ... Roger Lowenstein... bemoaning the loss of "Calvinist rectitude" that had its roots in "the very Old World notions of integrity, ethics, and unyielding loyalty to the customer." "America's professions," he wrote," have become crassly commercial... with accounting firms sponsoring golf tournaments." ... And so it is as well in the trusteeship of other people's money.
Terrific explanation of the role of professional services in the landscape of America. I tend to be skeptical when people write about how bad things are today, that stuff was so much better in the good old days. But I do think there has been a sea change in America starting with the greed-driven 1980s, and that force is behind the shifts that distress Bogle here. It feels like we might be on the cusp of a reexamination of the social compact, which might seem like it flies in the face of Bogle's Republican instincts but could restore the more mission-oriented society he longs for.


Page 220:
When ethical values go out the window and service to those whom we are duty-bound to serve is superseded by service to self, the whole idea of the capitalism that has been a moving force in the creation of our society's abundance in soured... Rather than prizing financial profit among else, we must work to become a society... once again celebrating achievement over money, character over charisma, substance over form, virtue over prestige.
A nice summation of Bogle's worldview. Capitalism has helped generate our abundance, but isn't inherently virtuous, and must be closely monitored and guided to achieve good ends.


Page 221:
  Numbers are only numbers, quantities on a scoreboard that are only one measure - and, truth be told, hardly the best measure - of an enterprise.
  Put the greater interest of of others and the dignity of our own characters first, and our own self-interest second; put enterprise and animal spirits first, and managing for the bottom line second; put the joy of creating and the will to conquer first, and the mindless conformity of greed last. 

Another good recap of the proper role of measurements. Focus on what counts, not on what can be counted.


Page 232:
Today's reliance on tax-advantaged savings, however valuable to our well-to-do citizens who can afford it, does little but further raise the ever-widening gap between our wealthiest families and our families most in need. This growing division of wealth is not only a destructive force leading toward the creation of a "two nation" society - rich versus poor - but represents an unwelcome departure from the basic principles of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

This was a bit of a tangent from the main thrust of the book, but I found it very interesting. It's super-weird that someone as wealthy and connected as Bogle would sound like Bernie Sanders (way back in 2005!). The point he's getting at here is that our tax code is stacked to favor the already-wealthy. He doesn't proscribe any specific policy recommendations on this particular topic, but judging from his comments elsewhere in the book, it sounds like he favors a strong Social Security system that would provide a secure retirement to all of our citizens.


Anyways! I feel like this write-up has been more scattered than usual, which doesn't reflect the book itself. It's very well-organized and cogent, steadfastly building the thesis and showing how it applies to all of these aspects of our business and financial systems. I don't think I'd necessarily recommend this book; the most interesting aspects of it are more fully developed and better presented in Enough. But I don't regret reading it: despite some of the specific topical references now being outdated, the core problems Bogle identifies sadly still remain, and it's refreshing to see such a detailed condemnation paired with practical suggestions for fixes. To be fair, it sometimes feels like Bogle is writing to an audience of about a dozen people: unless you're the SEC chairman, a senator on the Finance Committee, or the President, you probably won't be in a position to implement the policy changes he wants. But I think all of us who participate in this economy can benefit from a clearer understanding of the systemic problems it faces and the forces that will need to be reconciled, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Welcome to the Jungle

It's my favorite time of year: California election time! Jungle primaries turn otherwise rote partisan elections into compelling matchups, and our ballot initiative process is an often-frustrating but always-entertaining flavor of direct democracy.

I legitimately love Californian democracy. This election is vote-by-mail-only, which is incredibly convenient: the state mails us ballots and in-depth pamphlets giving lots of information on the candidates and propositions, and we can research, vote, and return at our leisure. But, for folks who for some reason can't easily vote by mail, we're running early in-person voting centers at a variety of times and locations, making it easier for people to vote early regardless of their work or family situation.

Here are a few excerpts from the 60-page voter pamphlet I received:





It's ridiculous, but awesome, and gives a political nerd like me a ton of material to chew over. Upholding my longstanding disregard for the sacred secrecy of the ballot box, here is how I'm voting this year.

Governor: John Chiang with a bullet. He is by far my preferred candidate. Realistically, this will end up being Newsom and someone else, and I hope I get a good choice come November.

Lieutenant Governor: Gayle McLaughlin. Several good choices here, but I've been very impressed by McLaughlin's progressive platform. The office holds relatively little power, which I think is an even better reason to support a bold choice here.

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla.

Controller: Betty Yee.

Treasurer: Fiona Ma.

Attorney General: Xavier Bercerra. I've been impressed at all his actions in the few months he's held office. This will be a crucial position for at least the next two years.

Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara.

Board of Equalization: I'm voting Cathleen Galgiani, but Mahlia Cohen would also be a fantastic choice.

Senator: Kevin de León. I'm sure we'll see this matchup again in the fall, and I reserve the right to switch to Dianne Feinstein if she can convince me that her newfound principles are sincere, but she'll have to overcome years of bad action on surveillance, war, and censorship. That said, she's been a consistent champion of gun control legislation and some other positions I agree with, so I'd like to be convinced.

US Representative: Jackie Speier.

Assembly: Kevin Mullin.

Superior Court: Gerald Buchwald.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmond

County Superintendent: Nancy Magee

Assessor / Clerk / Recorder: Mark Church. He seems to be doing a good job at getting me my voter information pamphlet, at least!

Controller: Juan Raigoza.

Coroner: Robert Foucrault.

District Attorney: Vote deliberately withheld. This race will probably get much more interesting in the next cycle thanks to the ACLU's terrific Meet Your DA campaign. For now, I'm sufficiently unhappy with the incumbent to withhold my vote.

Sheriff: Carlos Bolanos.

Treasurer: Sandie Arnott.

Prop 68 (Water bonds): Yes.

Prop 69 (Spend gas tax on roads): Nice.

Prop 70 (Make it harder to spend cap-and-trade money): Hard NO.

Prop 71 (Make sure all votes are counted before ballot measures go into effect): Yes.

Prop 72 (Encourage rainwater upgrades on private homes): Yes. The fact that this needs to be voted on is an argument against doing this sort of policy via initiatives in the first place, as this is fixing an oversight from a previous initiative. Let the legislature legislate, dangit!

Measure 3: Enthusiastic YES.

Measure N: Yes.

I selected many of the local-race picks based on endorsements by people and organizations I trust. State propositions, local measures, and marquee races are driven by my personal political beliefs.

That's it for this cycle! I'm really curious if the increased activism around politics at the national level translates into greater involvement in local and regional issues. If so, that will be a pretty great silver lining to the dark times in which we're living.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Family Matters

Finding a new series is always a fun feeling. I picked up The Family Trade on a recommendation from Nicola Griffith, though I've previously read and enjoyed other books from Charles Stross before. The Family Trade fills a different genre and has a distinct voice. It took me a little while to get acclimated, but once I hit my stride, I enjoyed it a lot.


MINI SPOILERS

The book was written and is set in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse and the 9/11 attacks, as the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror are ramping up. The protagonist, Miriam, is an efficiently-sketched and likeable character. A thirty-something divorcee, she was trained as a medical doctor but currently works as a journalist for a business magazine covering high-tech companies, particularly biomedical firms.

But, it turns out, she is also the heir to an extended family of travelers who can move between parallel universes. As the world of corporate shenanigans and drug trafficking heats up, she is thrown into an even more startling world of medieval culture, with knights riding horses, wearing shining armor, and wielding broadswords and M-16s.

The overall vibe of the book veers towards fantasy, but it isn't, really. There's a single fantastic thing: a select group of people have inherited a genetic trait that allows them to move between two worlds. Otherwise, there's no magic, prophecy, monsters, or other traditional fantasy ephemera. It might be more accurate to describe it as alternate history: the physical world is still the same, and civilizations started out at roughly the same places (with a European wave settling in North America), but has diverged significantly: a different religion (worshiping the "Sky Father"), and general social stagnation keeping the populace impoverished in a rigid feudal system.

END SPOILERS

This is the first book in a series, and honestly kind of feels like it ends in the middle of a story. Apparently there's a new omnibus edition that collects the first two books together; I suspect that will be a more satisfying way to approach this story. As a stand-alone novel, The Family Trade is a fun read but can feel rather loose. Multiple interesting characters are introduced, receive a good amount of setup, and then disappear before doing much.

I've always enjoyed Stross's ideas, and that continues to be true here. I sometimes have trouble with his writing. I never really got into the second-person narration he deployed in the Halting State books. Here, his dialogue is... very snappy and fun, but super quippy. Nobody talks like this. It feels like almost every sentence someone speaks could be used as the quotable tagline from a movie trailer. It's entertaining, but took some getting used to.

I'm definitely intrigued by the balls that have been set in motion, and am looking forward to continuing this story, sooner rather than later. These books look like fairly quick reads, so I doubt I'll review each individual entry. Barring any unusual development, I'll likely post one big retrospective once I get to the end. I suspect there will be some more developments along the way, it'll be interesting to see where the story ends up.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Righting

I'm continuing to make my way through Roberto Bolaño's body of work. I'm starting to regret not plowing through all of them at once. Typically, I want to hold off and savor the authors who I enjoy most, but Bolaño's stories tend to have little linkages that bind them together. Not as directly as, say, David Mitchell's, but caesuras in one novel might be filled in another. As I was reading Nazi Literature in the Americas, I often had the feeling that I was reading a reference to a character who I had previously encountered, but had no idea whether it was from the vast cast of The Savage Detectives, the oppressed seekers in 2666, earlier in the same book, or if I was just imagining it. 


All of his books that I've read so far have a few things in common. They're partially or wholly set in a literary milieu, populated by poets and novelists and publishers and critics. They disdain traditional narratives, largely omitting dialogue and using different forms to present their story. Nazi Literature is sort of an extreme example of both of those elements. Per the title, the whole book is about (fictional) writers of far-right-wing literature. Structurally, it's organized as a sequence of capsule biographies. Each writer gets a birth and death date and city, then several pages summarizing their life's accomplishments: who they influenced or were influenced by, what works were rejected or published, critical consensus around their output. We never really see people interacting or get much of a sense of individual personalities. The end result feels much more like a mosaic, impressive but very static.

It's really well-written, though! While the subject matter can be horrifying, there's a strong sardonic streak running throughout. I particularly enjoyed a few segments that, while ostensibly describing a fictional piece of literature, seemed to be anticipating potential criticism of the book itself.

"It is full of appendices, maps, incomprehensible indices of proper names, and solicits an interaction in which no sensible reader would persist... There is no main character. The less chaotic stretches read like collections of stories haphazardly tacked together... The texts are not so much scrambled puzzles as fragments of scrambled puzzles. Although presented and sold as a novel, The Fourth Reich in Denver is in fact a reader's guide to the preceding titles."

Or, later:

"It is not unusual for Sibelius to spend twenty pages simply introducing a character, specifying his physical and moral traits, his tastes in food and sports, his ambitions and frustrations, after which the character vanishes, never to be mentioned again in the course of the novel; while others, who are barely given names, reappear over and over, in widely separated locations, engaged in dissimilar if not incompatible or mutually exclusive activities. The workings of the bureaucratic machinery are described implacably."
Stylistically, the novel reminded me of "The Part About the Crimes" from 2666. There's a sort of similar piling-on effect: each individual entry is dry and colorless, but they are relentless, stacking one on top of another into a more horrific edifice. It gets to be a little numbing, but the numbing is deliberate, drawing attention to how the terror is becoming the new normal.

Despite the title, only a few characters in this novel are technically Nazis, but pretty much everyone is somewhere on the far-right spectrum. Given the predominantly Latin-American setting, it's fitting that Falangism is particularly represented. Most of the writers are not affiliated with any particular movement, but hold antisemitic views, support authoritarianism, and/or hold other rightist views. In the whole book there are perhaps one or two very brief biographies that aren't obviously political. I'm curious if a deeper reading would reveal their connection, or if this is deliberate, depicting them as so minor that it isn't worth exploring their beliefs.

Most of the subjects are presented matter-of-factly, without any obvious editorializing. The characters themselves are... oddly ordinary, I guess. There are a few monsters, but the majority of them come across as vaguely pathetic, misguided, or confused. This is probably realistic, and also seems like it may be an effective way of handling them. It's a little satirical, denying them the glory and infamy they crave, instead showing their smallness and limited impact.

MEGA SPOILERS

The one major exception is the last full chapter, Ramírez Hoffman aka Emilio Stevens. This is one of the sections that felt like it may overlap with another Bolaño book; in particular, the characters of María and Magdalena Venegas seemed familiar. Anyways, this chapter is different from the rest: it's the most vivid, the most horrifying, and has an active, present first-person narrator (named Bolaño). This chapter finally starts to get at raising some crucial questions, although it doesn't begin to answer them: are violent people attracted to fascism, or does fascist ideology produce violence? Does art born out of wickedness have value?

Even though this section feels different from the preceding ones, I think it benefits from coming at the tail end. It's a bright, bold splash of color that brings home the real-world consequences of ideology. We've seen how widespread this umbrella of ideas is, and this final entry is kind of a case study of how deep it can go.

Speaking of the real world... as far as I can tell, the characters in this book are all fictional, or at the least fictionalized versions of real-world people. But it's also very grounded, with plentiful references to real-world political leaders and movements. One striking exception is Pinochet, who seems conspicuously absent from the entire book until making a very late appearance deep in an appendix. I'm a little curious why he doesn't have a larger presence, when people like Peron, Allende and Castro get name-checked more frequently. Bolaño was Chilean, so maybe it seemed too close to home. Maybe he wanted to keep the focus more on pan-American extremism instead of seeming like he was settling scores. Or maybe the absence is itself significant: one of Bolaño's skills is to build a kind of mounting dread by talking around and eliding a central subject, and perhaps Pinochet plays that role here.

I'm still unsure exactly what the book is supposed to be. Some sort of near-future reader's-guide to a completed movement in American history? The timelines in the novel go through at least 2027, and every character has a death date listed, so it's presumably written some time after that. That sort of chronological distance may help explain the chilly and dispassionate treatment of the subject, not unlike how we now write about, say, Galileo's trial. We recognize it as being outrageous and wrong, but it's also settled. We feel only scorn for the antagonists, not anger.

END SPOILERS

Obviously, a book with the title "Nazi Literature in the Americas" isn't going to be a cheerful book, but this ended up being a surprisingly good read. It's a very muted satire, dealing with bad ideas in a deliberate way, revealing them as mean and contemptible, while simultaneously poking fun at the literary system and the whole edifice that produces books such as this.

This is probably the most formally constrained book of Bolaño's that I've read yet. I was reminded often of Borges's work, especially Pierre Menard... Bolaño is definitely not a magical realist and his books have a very different feel to them than the surreal Borges, but I think both of them were great explorers of the untapped potential of non-narrative forms of writing. On a more prosaic level, this kind of reminded me of the short stories I used to write when I was a kid, which were just a sequence of "This person did that and then went there and met them." I was writing out of a paucity of ability and imagination, but Bolaño chooses this mode deliberately, claiming a distant point of perspective from which he can review and dismiss his subjects.