Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bowden's Book

Here's a snippet of a review of Charles Bowden's new book on Juárez, written by Michelle Goldberg:
Bowden sees Juárez as a harbinger of planetary chaos, a vision of a world undone by inequality and ravenous appetites. “Juárez is not behind the times,” he insists. “It is the sharp edge slashing into a time called the future.” Though the title suggests an economic analysis of the city’s breakdown, Bowden does not really try to explain anything. Instead his book is an apocalyptic fugue that is contemptuous of the demand for explanation. Bowden writes with the impressionistic urgency of a half-crazed would-be prophet, and while he has a very important story to tell, his style blunts its impact.

Bowden, like Guillermoprieto and other smart journalists who have covered Juárez, argues that the city’s violence cannot be explained by the wars of the drug cartels alone. It is also perpetrated by the police, and the army, and individuals ruined by the city’s poverty, nihilism, drugs, and corruption. Meanwhile, the maquiladoras, drawing migrants from the countryside but never offering a living wage, create a society that is deracinated and desperate. “What is happening in Juárez and increasingly throughout Mexico is the breakdown of a system,” he writes. “There are no jobs, the young face blank futures, the poor are crushed by sinking fortunes. The state has always violated human rights, and now, in the general mayhem, this fact becomes more and more obvious.”

But Bowden is not really interested in developing this thesis. In fact, he is often scornful of anyone who offers any thesis at all. Frustrated with pat, reductive explanations for the carnage, he directs his fury at those who would try, however imperfectly, to understand the dynamics behind it. One chapter imagines a performance in which Juárez’s ghosts tell the stories of their murders: “We will not allow anyone with answers to be present. Explanations will be killed on sight. Theories strangled by my own hands. No one can speak of cartels if he is not a member of a cartel or, at the very least, has not spoken on the record with a member of a cartel. No one will be allowed to speak of the army’s war with the cartels unless he has taken a combat role in that war. Academic commentators must show video of themselves at the killings or having beers with the killers before they will be allowed to say a single word.”

This passage, with all its extravagant world-weary machismo and misplaced literariness, shows how insufferable Bowden can be. He is a bit of an authorial bully. He wants the reader to feel guilty for wanting answers, for daring to form opinions without having seen all the terrible things that Bowden himself has seen.

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