What I’m Learning From Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink

A friend gave me a copy of The Skating Rink for my birthday a couple of weeks ago.  I’d told her that I’ve been trying to get into mystery novels lately, and she’s been devouring Bolaño but didn’t want to plunge me into his difficult masterpiece 2666.

It’s a relatively slim book, with an attractive, mysterious cover, and hey – a murder mystery.  So I was looking forward to it, and, after polishing off a couple of other things, picked it up in great anticipation.

It was hard.

The language wasn’t hard.  It’s narrated by three men, oral-history style, so the diction is simple and conversational.  Even structurally, it’s pretty accessible; each chapter is one long paragraph, which was in some cases disorienting, but the chapters are short, no more than a few pages. And there’s no question but that it’s brilliant.  The story is sinewy and double-crosses itself so that you have to read more and more slowly, backtracking and pausing and questioning.

It’s set in a fictional Spanish town outside Barcelona.  I’ve never been to Spain – it’s next on my list – and maybe some more intimate cultural knowledge would have helped me.  The three narrators were indistinguishable to me until well into the first 3rd of the book; maybe if I had some personal associations with the names “Gaspar,” “Remo” and “Enric,” they would have solidified for me sooner.

(I love names.  As a child I kept lists of names; I would comb through magazine mastheads and the credits of movies to find names that were new to me and write them down.  Every so often I’d alphabetize the lists – by hand, of course, on notepaper – so that I could spend more time looking at them and sounding the names out in my head.  For most of my life, I’ve had an uncanny ability to remember people’s names, although that has declined in recent years.)

What’s more, none of the characters – the narrators, the beautiful figure skater at the centre of the story, the old opera singer, her young companion…– were the sort of people one would really want to spend any time with.  I know this is a facile criticism; in fact, it’s not a criticism at all.  “Creating likable characters” is an overrated skill; creating unlikable but interesting characters is a far greater feat.  And these characters are all supremely interesting.

It’s a very good book, and I found it difficult to read.  And this was an important experience, because it reminded me of what my students go through all the time.

My friend chose this book for me, and I could have chosen not to read it.  I decided to read it through to the end because:

  • Bolaño is an important writer, and, as a reader, writer and teacher of literature, I should know something about his work,
  • I could recognize that the book is brilliantly written, even if I wasn’t compulsively swept along by it,
  • My friend loves Bolaño, and she’s smarter than me in many ways, so I know she’s on to something.

So I was able to engage in and appreciate this tough reading experience because I can recognize that it will bring me something.  And the truth is, when I say “tough,” what I mean is “I didn’t feel obsessed with the urge to devour this book to the exclusion of everything else I have to do.”

My students, however, are in a different position.  First of all, they don’t get to choose whether they finish the books I assign.  (Well, they do – their latest writing assignments suggest of many of them decided not to finish, or in some cases even to start, Franny and Zooey – but the impact for them is much greater than it is for me when I abandon a book.)

Also, my students have not received years of training in the reading of literature.  In fact, many of them don’t even have years of experience in reading simple books – a good number of them have probably never read a book, certainly not a work of fiction, unless it was assigned in school.  Therefore, I expect their responses to my “motivations” would go something like this:

  • “You say this guy’s an ‘important writer.’  Why should I care?  What do ‘important writers’ have to do with my life?  A bunch of people somewhere decided that this guy is important.  I don’t think he’s important.”
  • “You say this book is ‘brilliantly written.’  What makes it brilliant?  Who says it’s not just some guy amusing himself without caring what his reader wants?  If someone else calls this ‘brilliant writing,’ why should that matter to me if I don’t understand what the guy’s saying or why he’s saying it?”
  • “I guess maybe my English teacher is smarter than me.  Or maybe not.  She seems to think she is.   But why does that mean that I should read the things she thinks I should read?  That guy sitting up front in the third row is probably smarter than me, too, but I guarantee you that the stuff he likes is as boring as the stuff my English teacher likes.  If my English teacher likes this book, then I probably won’t, because my English teacher is NOTHING LIKE ME.”

We’re each the centre of our own universe, including our own reading universe.  My friends recommend books to me – sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t finish them, sometimes I never pick them up.  I tell my students to read things because I think they should, and because I think they might even enjoy them.  They don’t get to decide what to do with that information; they either follow my recommendations or they risk failing their English course.

Granted, school is not a book club (although I sometimes wish I could make my classes more like book clubs, and I’m taking steps to see if that can happen.)  But if I can at least empathize with my students’ struggle to read books they don’t really like, maybe I can find ways to help them get something out of them.

I’m glad I read The Skating Rink through to the end.  It will stay in my mind far longer than some of my more comfortable reads.  I’d like my students to be glad about their difficult reading experiences too.  I don’t know if it’s too late, if they’re too old, to learn this skill if they don’t already have it: the skill of taking satisfaction in meeting an unappetizing challenge.  But maybe teaching them this skill is one of the most essential parts of my job.

If anyone has any pointers on how to teach it, I’m all ears.

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