BOOKS: Jim Gauer’s “encyclopedic” Novel Explosives.


For my first book of 2017, it proved to be 713 crazed pages in 27 days, and for me this qualifies as exceptionally fast reading.

I richly enjoyed Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, selected by my friend Jon, and described by reviewer Jeff Bursey as an “encyclopedic novel.”

This strikes me as entirely apt. There is an obvious though imperfect linkage to the brilliant 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I read two years ago, and also references the havoc wreaked by drug cartels in places like Ciudad Juarez (and America’s culpability).

Among the names dropped by the book’s reviewers in an effort to establish affinities are writers David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Richard Powers, as well as filmmaker Quentin Tarantino — and again, it’s hard to argue with these linkages. Oddly, what’s missing is sex, apart from a single interlude roughly halfway through.

For the most part, Gauer’s novel deals with money and power.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life. The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Bursey points to the specialized language and jargon used by each of the main characters, whether about weaponry, finance, surgical instruments or the inner world of blowflies: “The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down,” Bursey writes, “but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.”

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieu the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” 

“Wash over” is an appropriate way of describing it. Page-length lists of military hardware aren’t my thing, but if the reader allows these interludes to function as the backing rhythm track, it works.

Novel Explosives is wild, funny, serious, entertaining and not without a thought-provoking message. I recommend it without hesitation — and many thanks to Jon for the favor.

Next up on the 2017 reading list, finally, is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’m wondering if there’ll be any specialized language and jargon therein.

I’ll be back in a few weeks to let you know.