At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”
In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:
I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.
Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”
The vision in the desert remains mysterious, and yet it serves as a climax; what comes after is an epilogue. But it would be an error to regard this kind of arrested epiphany as a low-cost method of building a story-arc, because epiphanies occur in experience too, often without delivering a definite content. And speaking as if the content or meaning of an epiphany were something pre-existing in the world, waiting to be revealed, is no doubt misleading. Reading the epiphanies that James Joyce noted down between 1900 and 1903, I can’t help wondering: Why that scrap of dialogue? Why that object in particular? The force of the experience must have been determined largely by the peculiar state of receptivity Joyce happened to be in at the time.
Although the epiphany is a subjective phenomenon, it need not be limited to a single individual. In “Gómez Palacio” the vision of the green light is shared by the director and the narrator. And something similar happens at the end of “Sensini,” when Miranda, the daughter of the eponymous and now dead writer, comes to visit the narrator, and they stay up late talking:
“I filled her glass, then my own, and we stood there for a while looking at the moonlit city. Suddenly I realized that we were at peace, that for some mysterious reason the two of us had reached a state of peace, and that from now on, imperceptibly, things would begin to change. As if the world really was shifting.”
From a purely objective point of view, there is nothing in the situation to justify this feeling of peace. Sensini died without the public recognition he deserved and never found out what had happened to his son, who disappeared during the dictatorship in Argentina. If there is any consolation for the narrator and Miranda, it must come from the future, from the imperceptible changes that will take place “from now on.” But the narrator’s feeling is not an effect of knowledge about the future. All the narrator really knows is that he is at peace, and that feeling gives him hope and confidence. Many lived epiphanies, I think, are like this: not so much a reaction to something that has manifested itself in the world as a shift in emotional state that makes the individual sensitive to certain aspects of her surroundings and seems to promise a revelation.
The failure of the revelation to arrive need not invalidate the epiphany. According to Borges, the “imminence of a revelation that does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” This famous quotation comes from the end of “The Wall and the Books,” an essay in which Borges tries to discover the relation between two orders given by Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti: to build the Great Wall and to burn all the books previous to his reign. He fails in this attempt, and is left only with the conviction that “music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain places — all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something.”
If we accept Borges’s hypothesis, we are not obliged to conclude that aesthetics and revelations are unrelated. Sensitivity to imminence is perhaps a necessary condition for the big and small revelations that do occur, in so far as it sustains the effort of searching. According to a theory proposed by D. T. Campbell and recently defended by Dean Simonton, creativity functions by blind variation and selective retention. Since the variation is sequential, rather than simultaneous (as in biological evolution), prolonging the sequence increases the chances of coming up with a new combination that works. In order to go on generating variations, as Borges does in “The Wall and the Books,” perhaps we need to feel that the solution is about to be revealed. And beyond the domain of intellectual speculation, perhaps the only way to contribute to the imperceptible changing of things that Bolaño’s narrator evokes at the end of “Sensini” is to believe, ingenuously to some degree, in its imminent beginning.