Over at Sooz Says Stuff there’s a great series all month looking at violence in literature, asking When is Too Much Too Much? As yet I haven’t seen a post about what, for me, is the seminal contemporary text when discussing violence. As it’s also one of my favourite 250 pages ever written, and the inspiration for my forthcoming novella Three. Six. Five. I decided I should fill the void. So I’m not going to write about the violence in my own novels, about when I was told to tone down a passage in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes in which a teenager peels back the skin from a guy’s fingers and ankles and cuts each of his tendons in turn before stamping on them a hundred times. And I did tone it down, and the passage was wrecked, so when I published the book I restored it.
This is the part where I write about The Part About The Crimes.
For anyone who still doesn’t know, The Part About The Crimes, the most sublime, transcendent, and critically divisive piece of prose of the 21st century, is one of the five would-be novels that go to make up Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Based around the real life murders in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez (Santa Teresa in the book), The Part About the Crimes provides the vanishing point into which the rest of the novel, and the world itself, dissolves.
Like a series of gingerbread crumbs, a single phrase leads the reader through this labyrinth at the edge of humanity as the author endlessly describes the murder victims, “strangled and anally and vaginally raped.”
Bolano famously said that the killings in The Part About the Crimes contained the answer to the secrets of the universe. That’s a pretty grandiose thing to say. And pretty disgusting, some would hold – indeed there are many for whom the endless, matter of fact description of the dehumanising and degrading of the mainly female victims is, quite simply, too much.
But Bolano was right. And it’s precisely the dehumanisation that makes it so. The key is in the repetition. Like Steve McQueen’s Turner Prize winning Deadpan, in which film of a house falling down around the artist in parody of Buster Keaton is endlessly looped, or the turning wheels of a car that seem to spin first forward then back, repetition is the ultimate mindfuck, first disgusting, then boring us, and ultimately taking us so far beyond what it is that is being repeated that all we see is the repetition itself. The sequence of repetition becomes emptied, like the kenosis of the crucified Christ suffering under the weight of every human sin. And that makes it a void that sucks in every paranoid question we bring to it – it is the vessel that we fill with any and every content. The killings are, in other words, the answer to the mysteries of the universe – because it is the answer, one by one, to every question we put to them.
You can see where I’m going with this. When would too much be too much? Just a little bit less violence would have been too much – we would have moved back from the emptying effect of repetition towards disgust.