Roberto Bolaño: “William Burns”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Roberto Bolaño’s “William Burns” was originally published in the February 8, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

This week I’ve beat Colette to the punch! My copy of The New Yorker came on Monday (for two weeks in a row now) rather than the usual Tuesday. That and the fact that it is a short Bolaño story allowed me to find time to indulge in it sooner rather than later.

Well, I just reviewed Monsieur Pain, which, though strange, was fairly accessible (not to say clear). And then there’s this short little beast of a story . . .

There are many conspicuous elements in the setup of the story — but I am not sure where any of them take us.

First, as is the case in other pieces by Bolaño, there are some levels to the narration. Our unnamed narrator heard the story from Pancho Monge, a policeman in Santa Teresa, Sonora, who heard it from William Burns, the North American who will be the first-person narrator for 99% of the text.

There are some elements that seem to be set up for a specific purpose: there are two women, one old and one young; they have two dogs, one big and one small; they dwell in a house with two floors, though from the outside it looks like there are three; the house is full of windows.

These women have hired William Burns (who is also their shared lover) to protect them from some “killer.” They don’t give him more details than that. “When I asked what his motive was, they didn’t have an answer, or maybe they preferred to keep me in the dark.  So I tried to work it out for myself.” Eventually, some things comes out. First, they name him (though our narrator says, “Let’s say the guy was called Bedloe.”). Then they run a string of ambiguous motives: “They talked about high-school romances, money trouble, grudges. I couldn’t get my head around how both of them could have had relationships with the same guy in high school, given the age difference between them.”

William goes in to the town to find the man they are scared of. He runs a store, and he has a dog. The dog starts to follow William back home. The man, looking completely innocuous, tries to get William to help him get his dog back, but William keeps going, the dog eventually jumping into William’s pickup truck. When he returns to the strange home, the women and the strange dog seem to know each other.

Where is this going? I have read it a few times now, and I still have no idea. It becomes violent, as it sometimes does with Bolaño, and as is often the case it never completely resolves itself. I am almost never even sure if its supposed to, though usually I can find a reason why not.

I definitely need some help with this story. Shoot out your ideas.

Some of you will understandably be completely turned off from Bolaño with this story. What is he doing? But I’ve developed a trust in him — or at least, I’ve been haunted by his stories enough to know that they at least bear the substance of a ghost. To me, there is much to unravel here, which is part of the pleasure — but is there something underneath the ravelling?

19 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: “William Burns””

  1. Colette Jones says:

    I think I missed something really important and will need someone to explain it to me.

  2. Aha! I just posted my response to the story Colette, including the line that I’d beaten you to the punch — only to come in here to find your comment! Perhaps a tie?

    I need someone to explain it to me too, Colette. The only Bolaño story I feel I understood (for the most part) was By Night in Chile, and it is still my favorite. However, the others have been delightfully difficult. He is so good a setting up a story that you feel that a resolution is just around the corner — but it almost never comes. I do think, though, that there is much in here to discuss.

  3. Bolano, even in short story form, is hard enough for me to read that I’ll be waiting for the printed version to arrive before taking this one on. Back with thoughts (looks like there will be more questions than thoughts from me as well though) in a week or so.

  4. I don’t think I would have made it through this one online, Kevin. On the page, it’s broken in columns, which also facilitates looking back and rereading portions — something I found necessary here. Looking forward to the questions you add!

  5. Colette Jones says:

    What about the big books – do they ever resolve anything or is this just a mini version of what you get with 2666 or Savage Detectives, both of which I have not read but are taking valuable shelf space.

    I don’t mind the nonsensical or obscure if the book is reasonably sized, but for example, I gave up on Darkmans because people who loved it admitted that it didn’t get any more sensical throughout. Okay for a shortish book, but just too annoying in a long one.

  6. Colette Jones says:

    It kind of gives an unreliable narrator feel right at the beginning by saying “In Burns’s own words:”

    The narrator has heard the story third hand, verbally by all indications. By that time, these are not Burns’ own words at all!

  7. Colette: I quite liked Darkmans and had no trouble sticking with it. (And am looking forward to her new book — thanks for spotting that elsewhere.) I tried Savage Detectives three times and never got past page 100. I haven’t read any Bolano (except for short stories) since — he simply has no appeal for me at all and even when I read one of Trevor’s reviews I think “glad he likes it — I’d hate it”.

    Don’t know if that helps at all. And I will comment on this story once it arrives.

  8. Colette, the bigger books are all, to one degree or another, a bit ambiguous. 2666 was composed of five parts, all unresolved but with clues throughout — clues that might lead to nowhere. The novellas are a bit less ambiguous. My favorite is By Night in Chile, which I thought was fairly clear and very very tightly structured — it’s a great one.

    All of his books have moments where you think you should be getting something big but it just doesn’t quite come into focus. While I was frustrated by that in 2666 (and my opinion of that book may well change), it didn’t bother me at all in the smaller books. I think it shows a great deal of skill to put the reader in that position.

  9. Joe says:

    I just read this story. I love the dream-like, David Lynchian quality, but as others have said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

    For me, the key idea is that Burns was willing to accept the idea of someone being a “killer” with very little information or evidence. Then at the end of the story, we find out, matter-of-factly, that Burns was himself killed by “unidentified assailants.”

    As in 2666, Bolano seems to be interested in a particular kind of violence: that which is seemingly arbitrary and involuntary.

    Anyway, I just discovered this Web site today and look forward to browsing through it and reading your thoughts on other New Yorker stories.

    Cheers!

  10. Great that you found us, Joe! And particularly on this thread. The end of this story brought 2666 back to my mind too — particularly sudden out-of-control violence in Part I. I think there is definitely some fear underlying William Burns’ sudden kicking fit that caused him to kill the “killer.” What caused that fear, though? What makes such violence reflexive — and so matter-of-fact.

  11. Joe says:

    Upon a more mature re-reading (i.e., two hours after reading it the first time!), I see how “the killer” in this story is, of course, Burns himself. He brutally murders a complete stranger who never poses any serious threat to anyone.

    As to what is behind this fear and the reflexive reaction it provokes, I suppose I’m not any closer to an answer than I was after reading 2666… but the journey was interesting.

    With Bolano, I sometimes feel like I’m absorbing something profound on a subconscious level (at least I hope so, because it sure ain’t happening on a conscious level!)

  12. Colette Jones says:

    Is Burns worried that the women might prefer Bedloe to him and goes into a jealous rage?

  13. For me, the best thing about this story is that it will be the last Bolano that I will ever read. In my opinion, he has put over a tremendous scam on the reading world and I don’t intend to be part of it — the emperor is not wearing any clothes. The strength of this story is that you can discover that with relatively little effort or expenditure of time. Bolano weaves a complex scheme that doesn’t make sense — because it has no sense. That is pretty much consistent with the rest of his work. And trying to attach any meaning to that is all your work and not the author’s. Bolano has certainly impressed a lot of critics — I’m not one of them. I think he is a fraud of the first order.

  14. I’m not sure I would read it that way, Colette. I don’t think these people have normal motives, just irrational fear. And that tie into one reason I don’t agree with Kevin on Bolano: I think there is artistic value in presenting a situation in a way that makes us look for clues and patterns when really it is all arbitrary and pointless — or so it seems. I also think there is a point in that pointlessness given the politcical events from which Bolano is writing. There’s some intrique for me in trying to put an unsolvable puzzle together, though I realize that is not valuable tI’me for everyone, and I do agree that some have overstated Bolano’s case (even as I see myself swaying their way). There’s a great image in 2666 where there’s a book of geometry getting destroyed in the brutal desert. I think that perspective has helped me go along and enjoy Bolano more an more. Plus I beleive that By Night in Chile is one of the best structured novels I’ve read, showing that he is not all smoke and mirrors. And there are times I wonder whether I’m victim of a scam too — but that actually just makes me more intrigued at this point. I think his writing is self-conscious enough (he makes his readers feel compelled and disorientated just like his characters) that I can’t help but get a bit giddy t the prospect of the next one!

  15. Perhaps I was a tad excessive in my comment. Still, I think I’ll leave Bolano to others.

  16. I don’t think you were excessive, Kevin. I have a great admiration of your taste and discernment — and I sometimes wonder if I should feel the exact same way about Bolano! What a perverse admiration I have for this author! Strange to admire someone because they make you wonder if there’s any substance there at all (which is not, I assure you, the basis of my admiration for your literary views :) ). Still, my conversion story can be found in By Night in Chile; I think that got me through the curtain, though the room on the otherside is still dark. I’d be interested in your take on it, Kevin, but don’t call this a recommendation. When people say they don’t like Henry James, I have to wonder about their ability to read (I am making my way through more of his work now, and will have some reports in the future); when people say they don’t like Bolano, I have to say “I understand fully.”

  17. There’s a spot-on quote (for me, anyway) at the end of The New York Times‘ review of Monsieur Pain (reviewed by me here).

    It is Bolaño’s great gift to make us feel the dimensions of this darkness even when we cannot see exactly what it hides.

    I think that puts it nicely, though it certainly doesn’t make things any clearer.

  18. Laura says:

    http://laurasnewyorker.blogspot.com/2010/02/william-burns-by-roberto-bolano.html

    The above link goes to my blog post talking about the story if anyone is interested.

  19. Hi Laura. I read your review and tried to leave a comment but it wouldn’t process my OpenID credentials. So here’s what I said. Hopefully soon I’ll figure out how to get around whatever is blocking my comments:

    Glad to see another New Yorker forum! And it’s also nice to see the debut feature such an obscure and difficult piece of fiction. Some would disagree that it is “difficult” because “difficult” connotes some sort of worth — it could be worthless. I don’t see it that way anymore. I am also one whose relationship with Bolaño developed from rocky to very indulgent. I have no idea what this story is really saying, if it is really saying anything, but I loved the ride and stopped minding the “huh?” factor several stories ago. There never has been a doubt in my mind, however, that the man could write beautiful, vibrant prose. I think this piece is no exception in “huh?” or beautiful, vibrant prose.

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