Roberto Bolaño Was Terrified by the Force of Andrés Neuman’s Prose — And We Should Be Too

Roberto Bolaño’s now-famous praise of the writer Andrés Neuman, who must have been no older than 23 when it was written, is remarkable not only for its epic pronouncements (“the literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman and a few of his blood brothers”), but also for its fearfulness. “When I come across these young writers it makes me want to cry,” Bolaño writes. “I don’t know what the future holds for them.”

Still, as much as Bolaño is channeling a paternal dread about what lurks just beyond the horizon of the impending century, he is more afraid of the young Neuman, whose first novel “enthralls” and “hypnotizes” him. “Nothing in this novel sounds contrived,” Bolaño writes. Neuman’s fiction, his “dream of great literature,” he concludes, is accomplished with “frightening ease.”

Bolaño, it turns out, was right to be afraid. The 21st century is as desperate and violent as he imagined, and Andrés Neuman has continued to mesmerize his readers seemingly without effort. Neuman’s grasp on the reader’s attention is so total, in fact, that she can only acknowledge she has been hypnotized once the session has ended.

Or maybe it’s better to think of Neuman’s fiction not as hypnosis, but as a perpetual allegory of “the talking cure” of psychoanalysis. Of his books translated into English, Traveler of the Century is a novel of ideas set in 19th century Europe, yes, but it is also a wellspring of conversation — of talking — about art and aesthetics, dreams and politics — concepts that threaten to overwhelm or enrich the self. And last year’s Talking to Ourselves, an impossibly slim novel that somehow lives up to its title, arranges the voices of a family a cappella, traces the gaps and overlaps that form between them with delicacy and care. Reading these books is like hearing consciousness ring through a chapel.

Neuman’s new collection of stories, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, is titled The Things We Don’t Do, and, if anything, it reveals an author refining his method, which is nothing less than allowing a multitude of voices to speak themselves into existence, to circumnavigate and circumscribe their relation to the world and other voices, then to speak themselves, perhaps, into nonexistence. In other words, each “character” in The Things We Don’t Do is what Neuman describes as a “self that narrates itself.”

The only difference, in this case, is that Neuman relies on the small, deliberate footsteps of short fiction to traverse much wider terrain. The stories presented here are brief, often only a page or two in length, but the range of human experience is alarming.

Thankfully, given the expanse of the territory, the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are arrayed into themed sections. (The book, then, can be read story-by-story or section-by-section, or, as I did, you’ll probably just read it straight through.)

In the title section, Neuman playfully unravels the buried insecurities, false modesties, and intense attachments that underlie romantic relationships. In “A Terribly Perfect Couple,” for instance, we find a modern couple absurdly paralyzed by their symmetrical ideals, beliefs, and behaviors. (Neuman is preoccupied with symmetry). In a story also titled “The Things We Don’t Do,” on the other hand, a lover — it could be your lover, or someone else’s — admires the imaginative potential of mutual failure:

I like the anticipatory tremor in our muscles from the exercises we list without doing, the gyms we never join, the healthy habits we conjure as if simply by desiring them, our bodies will glow from their radiance. I like the travel guides you browse with that absorption I so admire, and whose monuments, streets, and museums we will never set foot in…

In “Relatives and Strangers,” Neuman deals with family history and illness and death by courting and then nullifying a number of clichés. (Neuman is, as Bolaño said, plainly unafraid.) The result is unsentimental and often profound. “Death multiples our attention,” a character says as his mother is dying. “It wakes us twice.”

Later sections are devoted variously to moral self-assessment (“The Innocence Test”), our natural and human relation to language (“End and Beginning of Lexis”), and, a personal favorite, the final moments of life (“The Last Minute”), or the beginning moments of death — however you would prefer to describe it.

To write such wide-ranging fiction of selves — of voices that overhear themselves while talking, while becoming selves — requires an intuition, an ability to anticipate the inner conversations of others. One of these others is, of course, the reader. As a reader of The Things We Don’t Do, I was startled to find a number of the notes I had made in the book’s margins show up in its final section, “Dodecalogues from a Storyteller,” which provides a series of aphorisms about writing short fiction. “Neuman is preoccupied with symmetry,” I wrote above, but he was ahead of me: “While short-story writers perpetrate symmetries, their characters forgive them through their own imperfections.”

Neuman had overheard me overhearing him, and he had written it down. I said I was startled as I closed The Things We Don’t Do. Maybe now I am afraid.