Category Archives: Guest Post

Guest Post: The lowdown on Pasadena, by Tom Gething

Undocumented workers, barrio punks with guns, high-tech strip clubs, grubby city politics, and a backpack full of dirty money—all play a part in the smart new crime novel, Pasadena Payback, by my friend and fellow indie author, M.L. Rudolph.  The action mostly takes place in Pasadena, best known for its Rose Bowl and festive parades, but it starts with a gripping scene on the Arizona border and inevitably leads back there for its life-or-death finale. Serious stuff, but it’s getting there that makes this a fun, fast-paced book.

Crispín, an undocumented landscaper, is at the center of the storm. Everyone is looking for him, or maybe it’s what he knows or what he’s carrying that they want. Poor Crispín has certain obligations he never asked for and family on both sides of the border. He’s just trying to keep a low profile like all those men who stand in front of the Home Depot looking for day jobs. But things go quickly awry.

Rudolph has lots of fun exposing the flaws of the people looking for Crispín, and for me it was this social satire that made the book so enjoyable. Everyone wants power—control really—over others. The ones with power are looking to keep it; the ones with money are looking to buy it; the ones without money are looking to steal it. Power, it turns out, is illusory and quickly vanishes because there’s always a price, or a payback, for getting it.

I enjoyed the West African setting of Rudolph’s first novel, Facing the Son, but this one is even better. It’s gritty, contemporary and right in our own backyard, with characters and issues that are all too real.

Pasadena Payback


GUEST POST – Invention v. Interpretation: Bioy and Borges, by Tom Gething

Jorge Luis Borges called it perfect, as did the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. The Invention of Morelby Argentine novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares is a fantastical novella, a carefully constructed conceit. Spare and tautly plotted, this work of “reasoned imagination,” as Borges described it, is the offspring of the speculative fiction of H.G. Wells, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and the theological detective stories of G.K. Chesterton. Not coincidentally, it also echoes the themes of Bioy’s mentor—that master of the rational, philosophical and speculative, J. L. Borges.

In a prologue to the 1940 first edition of The Invention of Morel, reprinted in the New York Review of Books’ English edition, Borges argues that the psychological novel exhausted itself in masquerades of realism that were “formless” and “tantamount to chaos,” whereas the plot-driven adventure story, though often called puerile by critics, is alive and well—witness the number of detective stories written and devoured today. Borges goes on to compare Bioy’s novel to the Turn of the Screw and The Trial.

I respectfully disagree. While The Invention of Morel is a finely cut jewel, it has all the warmth of a white diamond. If there is fire, it is locked deep inside its facets. I won’t spoil the book’s conceit. Suffice to say, it resolves with a fantastical premise that seems less fantastical today than when it was written. Bioy’s conceit reminds me of such theoretical postulates as the multiverse proposed by modern physicists—those quantum ideas that can’t be experienced or proven but the mind can deduce, just as it can consider a mathematical equation, syllogism or paradox. “Isn’t that interesting,” you conclude and then get on with your life. As much as I enjoy Borges for such intellectual exercises, he’s the last writer I’d choose to remind me of what humanity is about. The thrill of James’ ghost story or the terror of Kafka is not derived from the plot, as Borges maintains, but from the psychology underlying the plot, not from what happens when but from the interpretation of what may have happened.

According to Borges, “there are pages, there are chapters of Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and emptiness of each day.” Yes, but I’ll take those pages full of miserable, messy humanity any day over the meticulous, reasoned imaginations of Bioy or Borges, as intriguing as they are.

For more from Tom Gething.


GUEST POST – Bolaño’s expanding legacy, by Tom Gething

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

More by Tom Gething here.