Is Visceral Realism a modern literary movement? Robert Bolano’s hugely successful work The Savage Detectives, translated into English in 2007, describes the visceral realists of Mexico City in the 1970’s, but where is their literary work to define their movement?
Literary movements are best seen in hindsight. Critics can identify several novels of an era sharing similar characteristics and, voilá, a literary movement has been identified, viz: The Romantic poets of the 1800’s with Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, the Lost Generation of the 1920’s with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Virginia Wolff, or the American Realists with Drieser, James T. Farrell, and Sinclair Lewis. Modern movements are more difficult to identify, although we have seen some in recent memory, such as Chroniclers of Suburbia with Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, or the Beat/Counterculture writers of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg. Is Visceral Realism a new literary movement?
In 2007, Robert Bolano’s fiction masterwork The Savage Detectives was published in an English translation and became an overnight sensation. It was well-reviewed in the major literary reviews and was on the New York Times List of Best Books of 2007. His book was ostensibly about Visceral Realism with this designation of a literary movement appearing many times throughout the novel. It appeared that the movement’s disciples flourished in Mexico City in the 1970’s where they were brash, dangerous, disruptive, rebellious, drunk, stoned, and over-sexed; then they disappeared without leaving a substantial legacy of stunning literary period pieces, other than Bolano’s work of course, which actually came later, even in Bolano’s native Spanish.
The movements avatars did not differ all that much from others who were swept up in literary movements of the past. Those fortunate enough to have the finances to join in the debauchery lived through a legendary period, almost like being present at Woodstock, but unless one produces substantial work during the period, one is not listed in the pantheon of the literary movement’s achievers. The interesting thing about Visceral Realism is that Bolano seems to be the sole author, living or dead, who either was or is a Visceral Realist, without there appearing to actually be a literary movement the can be defined as Visceral Realism.
Of course there is so much authorship produced nowadays that it would not be difficult to assemble several books with Visceral Realist themes and claim that it was a “movement”. That would be disingenuous though because a movement should have more than just several books that are icons of the movement, but there should also be personalities, an articulable philosophy of writing or living that was debated and articulated either explicitly or implicitly in the movement’s writers. When we can only identify one visceral realist, the claim to the existence of a movement is indeed tenuous.
Bolano’s book does have a force, an independent energy, to it, that could almost carry the weight initiating a movement, but there were none who picked up the sword to carry the movement forward. Accordingly, Bolano stands alone as a writer without a movement, although he could fit easily into the “realist” genre. The qualifier “visceral” does not add much; it appears to imply in Bolano’s work a call to action rather than just writing things as they really are. The movement — if there was or is one — appears to favor action rather than writing, or if there is writing, it is to chronicle a level of libertinism that probably goes beyond mere realism. The roots are in realism, but to an extreme, and so Bolano added a descriptor.
One could argue that society has changed so much that “visceral” does not add much today to the term “realism.” Realism is visceral today because everything that is bizarre and outrageous is now mainstream. In that regard, Bolano’s characters — though romantic and picaresque — are also dated. In short, Bolano just comes from a long and established line of realists, and in that he is just a practitioner of an old art. He did however capture in his writing a subgroup of intellectuals who not just smoked, drank, had sex, and argued, but also took action in the literary world by breaking up poetry readings, intentionally vagabonding, and living lives of romantic freedom with all of its creature discomforts and danger. These were the visceral realists, but they never seemed to have sat long enough to have composed a sufficient body of work to constitute a literary movement.