Book One: Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp

On insomnia, the body as murder mystery, and the surreal genre novel Bolaño wrote when only 27 and barely sleeping. The first in a series of personal essays about reading.

Whether I can’t sleep or won’t sleep doesn’t matter when I am not sleeping. Whether I’m young or old, whether I should drink water or coffee, whether I’ve paid my bills or filed my essay or whether the essay is any good, doesn’t matter. It gets difficult to remember what does. This is when I read fiction, because I never forget how it matters, and because the rhythm of it calms me like a train ride, until I get to sleep.

And then I read fiction for the ever reasons: to take me out of my self, and to make sense of life.

When you don’t sleep, life needs a lot more making-sense. One night I was tireder than usual and, leaving the bar before dinner time, started texting my friend: “I’m sorry I’m not myself.” Then I erased it and wrote: “I’m sorry I’m too myself.” Sleeplessness is like depression or causes it, deorganizing your priorities until self-knowledge is both the last thing and the only thing on the list. Sleep deprivation is prison torture in Russia. But books, books are prisoner rehabilitation in Brazil.

Because I can always fall asleep reading, I doubt I’m a real, treatable insomniac, and I can’t say I’m a prisoner. Maybe I don’t need more than a median five hours a night; some people don’t. Some have it much worse. When I’m with someone I love, I rest better, but someone I love doesn’t live where I live, which is Chinatown, New York, and that’s another thing. In Chinatown there is always a reason to forget bed, and in the morning there’s always a garbage truck that sounds like the revolution is coming.

Plus: sleep deprivation is like a psychoactive drug, except it’s free and the sketchy dealer with dark circles the size of spaceship landings is you. True science: if you stay up for 40 hours straight, you can go for a walk on Bowery and see whole meteor showers where boring people just see street lights. Also, the walking part is kind of tricky, and sometimes you say things that aren’t words. Try it with a friend.

But then, minus: if one night I don’t sleep, because I can’t or won’t or because the essay is overdue and/or because of actual drugs, I never make up for it. The next night I get an unprecedented seven hours and wake up like Camus: “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” But I smoke so many cigarettes with my coffee that it turns out I don’t have to choose.

One morning when the uppers wore off I went to McNally Jackson, on Prince, to buy I didn’t know what. I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp because the cover was therapeutic mint green, and kept it because it was small enough to slip into my handbag (with the “impaired moral judgment” that is another neat trick of not-sleep, I thought of stealing it, but I remembered that 1. I’m not a person who would steal from an independent bookstore, and 2. If I get arrested in America I can’t use prison as a metaphor anymore).

It was the hot middle of June. I was not having sex or getting my period. Breathing sucked. Over the year something had happened that I can’t now explain, and since then I had conceived of my body as a murder mystery: “a situation,” said Simone de Beauvoir; “a site of horror,” said Kristeva. In nightmares I tried to solve for missing, severed parts (spoiler: there was no solution).

Antwerp: a murder mystery in content and without form. It has 56 parts. Most are no more than two paragraphs. They add up to a great hole, like something ripped in consciousness, in time.

Bolaño wrote Antwerp when he was 27, living in Barcelona, and barely sleeping. That attracted me; that, and the fact that it was his first novel, while I had yet to start my own. He was a writer of short crime stories and wanted to become serious, but how to climb out of precarity? Scanning his introduction, I was seized with the dream that if I could stay awake ‘til 27, I too could write a book that no one would read until my death.

I read Antwerp in three nights and finished it half-napping on Fire Island, hardly knowing which parts Bolaño had imagined and which I’d made up.

I hadn’t felt that way since I read Nightwood two months earlier, in a dead-same phase of dissociative fatigue, and before that, I watched Another Earth last summer and hallucinated my own director’s cut. Later I talked to friends and it turned out that, in fact, Brit Marling did not morph into a grown-up version of those twins from The Shining.

Whatever though: I liked the movie I’d seen better than the movie that played.

The Antwerp that I read, I loved. Partly it was a Borgesian-surreal experience by which my way of understanding, tired and disorganized and delirious, mirrored his way of writing. Partly it was just great, an experimental genre novella like zilch I’d read since Nabokov’s The Eye. The whole thing felt like a refractive house of broken surfaces: I was in there, somewhere, but I wasn’t my body.

The protagonist, also named Roberto Bolaño, seemed to exist out of self; the story happened out of order. Holes became the plot, and the whole thing made sense not of life but dreams of life. “All I can come up with are stray sentences,” he says, “maybe because reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences.”

I read that again. I thought of T.S. Eliot from high school. Bolaño’s fragments seemed themselves ruinous: women with no mouths, cops with no morals, motorcyclists lost on the highways. Bodies that won’t be saved, windows that can’t be shut. Children tumbling into the void. Nothing lasts.

I underlined that as if to prove it wrong. I closed my eyes.

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