'Bartleby & Co.' is a moderately amusing fiction - it calls itself a novel, but is barely that - in the postmodernist mode made familiar by the successors of Calvino and Borges, among others. The narrator is a writer who is badly blocked, and who has become fascinated by accounts of other writers who have for one reason or another failed to produce - but who have turned this failure, which ought to be fatal, into a sort of perverse triumph. He thinks of these writers as 'Bartlebys', after the character in Melville's short story who politely but firmly refuses to engage with the world on any terms but his own. Tracking them down one by one, he writes 'footnotes' about each: these numbered 'footnotes' for an unwritten book accumulate to form a substitute for the book itself and, in passing, give the reader an oblique view of the narrator's life, which resembles that of a minor character out of Pessoa.
Vila-Matas is an engaging writer, and 'Bartleby & Co.' offers many small pleasures. The central problem for me is that the book doesn't convince as a piece of fiction. If it had been presented as what it is - an interesting but unsystematic essay on the literature of refusal - it might have seemed more coherent, if also more didactic than creative. But Vila-Matas seems unable to decide what kind of book he is writing. His narrator, ironically, is paper-thin, and fails to engage because Vila-Matas can't seem to summon the energy to create a credibly rounded character; consequently the implication that Marcelo, too, has been betrayed by his literary obsessions carries little emotional weight for the reader. The fictional and non-fictional elements don't so much amplify as interfere with one another. In a pointless display of ingenuity, thumbnail biographies of invented authors are made to sit alongside those of real writers, but to no obvious purpose. The book makes an interesting contrast in this respect with Roberto Bolaño's 'Nazi Literature in the Americas', which is structured around similar but wholly invented literary biographies and for me works far better as fiction.
'Bartleby & Co.' is readable, and short enough not to overstay its welcome. Nonetheless, it's hard to give it more than a qualified recommendation. Vila-Matas seems to have no very novel ideas about the implications of this type of writing, and the book ends with a shrug. The reader interested in conceits of this kind, and the deliberate blurring of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction would do better to look elsewhere. One of the incidental weaknesses of the book is that it necessarily invokes the names, and in doing so invites comparison with the works of earlier and more powerful writers.