Sunday, December 07, 2008


I’m tired. I’m tired because I stayed up late finishing 2666. At long last (less than a month, really) the book is read and I can write a review. This review. Then again, considering the gobs of reviews this book is getting, why bother?

I will try and offer some thoughts on the book anyway, and I will dispense with the usual biographical information found in almost every review I’ve read (born in Chile, moved to Mexico in his teens, returned to Chile, imprisoned after the fall of Allende, released by luck, thanks to guards who were school friends, returned to Mexico, started the infrarealists, wandered, ended up in Europe, possibly did heroin, definitely got a liver disease, wrote for a decade knowing he was going to die, switched to novels to make money for his kids, realizing that poetry doesn’t sell, despite his proclamations that the novel is the least perfect form of writing, lower than the letter, lower than the essay, lower, certainly, than poetry, a vulgarity, a giant mistake, a beautiful, at times, mistake, and he died before getting a liver transplant). Instead I’ll comment briefly on a few things that have been haunting me since I got a good way into the book, and try and piece together the thoughts that have been in my head since I tried to sleep last night, around midnight, shaking with cold and puzzling over this novel.

Let’s start with (and wander away from and then get back to) some of things people are saying about 2666 and my reactions to their reactions. After all, we (the reviewers and I) are in the same community, if you accept the idea of reading communities. Are we, though, in the same interpretive community? Well, Adam Kirsch shares space in my community, at least on this point:

“According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.”

Which I guess that makes Kirsch and me in the same reading community as Proust.

Bolaño’s idea of the novel’s inherent weakness is compelling on a certain level, but if we accept that this idea was one that the legendary practical joker truly believed, and let’s for a moment, than one can understand how liberating a realization that was for Bolaño. Let’s say the novel, any novel, is a deeply flawed construction. Let’s say, The Sound and the Fury, my favorite American novel. It can be said that there are many flaws in this novel. Those who do not love it the way I do tell me that they find some of the sections cumbersome, un-navigable, damn near impossible. The Benjy and Quentin sections are notoriously difficult, written in a stream-of-consciousness style that can be off-putting (though I think Faulkner was the master of this style, better even than Joyce and Woolf). The writing disobeys convention, shifting in time and jumping from moment to moment often without a semblance of logic. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know… it’s not what you’d find in a Jane Austin novel. I, of course, defend Faulkner and, had I known that Proust comment, I could have employed it in my defense. And the same can be said of Bolaño, sort of.

There is a difference between Bolaño's "ugly" writing and Faulkner's. Unlike Faulkner, or Proust for that matter, his prose is often refreshingly readable, quick and smooth. Like Faulkner, and Proust, he is—at least in 2666—not shy when it comes to throwing in sentences that go on for pages. Early on in the book, Bolaño constructs a sentence that goes on for nearly five pages and spans continents. The quote (in the case of this review, the paraphrase) that immediately struck me is one Faulkner made while trying to explain his ambitiously long sentences in Absalom, Absalom!, which had something to do with trying to fit the entire world on the head of a pin. Bolaño seems eager to do the same, not only in the long sentences but also in the book as a whole. The five books that comprise 2666 cover a lot of territory and something like eighty years. They revolve around the fictional city of Santa Teresa in the north of Mexico. This city becomes a magnet, drawing in self-important literary critics from Paris, Madrid, and London, a philosophy teacher from Barcelona (originally from Chile), a reporter from Harlem, tourists from the Southwestern states of the U.S., and, of course, the reclusive writer who is the focus of the critics in book one and the hero of the last book. His story is something of an epic, a tour-de-force, though that phrase seems reserved for the fourth section of the book “The Part About the Crimes” which details five years of mostly unsolved murders of women in Santa Teresa (based on the very real unsolved murders of Ciudad Juárez).

While book four is indeed a staggering, often difficult story of the city and its mysterious murders, the aspect that seems lacking in almost every review I’ve come across is how that section contains more narratives than an Altman film, at least twenty, all circling around each other, painting a picture of the border town with the brutal backdrop. What impressed me most was the manner in which the narratives floated around and atop each other, sometimes overlapping, but distinct. Readers of last year’s unlikely hit, Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, will recognize this technique. With that novel, Bolaño inserted into a romanticized story of young artistic ruminations and exploits a dossier in the form of narratives and anecdotes chronicling 20-odd years in the lives of the book's two primary characters. The 400 or so pages Bolaño devoted to this piecemeal account showed (probably better in Spanish) how comfortable Bolaño felt in the skin of many, many characters, all with different voices. (And yes, apparently the Spanish version is more impressive, as Bolaño wrote the separate chapters in different dialects, incorporating regional slang and distinct colloquialisms that might best be understood by a well traveled native Spanish speaker, keenly aware of the manifestations of which the language is capable.) While “The Part About the Crimes” does a good job of achieving this same goal, the last book “The Part About Archimboldi” tops it.

While this last section is about the reclusive writer, Benno von Archimboldi, it devotes as much, if not more, of its content to the tales of those whom Archimboldi, directly or indirectly, encounters in his storied life. Here we see Bolaño’s love of digressions and the non sequitur, as characters appear and disappear, and then, sometimes, reappear, telling their tales and affecting the hero, altering his course and the course of the novel, until the final moment of the book, which the reader could have guessed, evidence of exactly how 2666's separate pieces share motifs and a few coincidences; they all deal, to some extent, with Santa Teresa, the city in which the primary characters all find themselves in the end, suggesting that Santa Teresa itself is the one and only primary character, the one consistent in this dizzying, sprawling novel. What else could be the answer? The first part of 2666, “The Part About the Critics” doesn’t so much make the reader care about the four characters as it creates an ongoing sense of curiosity as to what will happen to them next. Leaving them in the place where Bolaño leaves them may upset some readers, but as the book progresses one sees that this is an essential quality of 2666, a book with mysteries and no answers (often the best kinds of mysteries). The people who populate 2666 are linked as everyone and everything is linked, at least in Bolaño novel. And everything is linked to the mass killings of women. One character says that these slayings contain the secret of the world. What could this mean? Speculations have already begun to abound, and if there is any justice they will increase as the book is studied and dissected by future generations, but rather than venture a guess at this point (I still have to digest the thing properly) I’ll simply leave that idea out there for you to consider.

So, like other reviewers, I’ve spent some time focusing on 2666’s first, fourth, and fifth parts. I think some attention is due to the second and third parts of the book, which in many ways are my favorites. Part two, “The Part About Amalfitano” is the shortest but in many ways the most upsetting. Natasha Wimmer, 2666’s translator, a talented woman, called Amalfitano her favorite character in the book, and it is easy to understand why. He strikes the reader as a sweet old man, perhaps too sweet, and his tragedy is a combination of too many factors: a vagabond wife chasing an insane poet of questionable sexuality, being a single father, a philosophy professor who takes a job in Santa Teresa almost as if the wind blew him there. And he’s most likely going mad. He’s most definitely concerned that his daughter might be in danger, a danger for which he credits himself. All of the suffering in his life is endured stoically in a way that reminded me of Bresson’s Balthazar, his quiet pain a reflection of what surrounds him, his endurance beautiful. For all the seriousness in his story, there’s a sadness to Amalfitano that often times is very funny, though not in the sense of high comedy, more in the sense of absurdity. There’s little else to do but laugh as he emulates Duchamp, hanging a book by a clothes line (one of the most compelling of 2666’s symbols). The somber tone that his story brings to the novel is amplified by the third section, “The Part About Fate.” Dismissed by some critics as the weakest, or the most “pop” and the least literary, it struck me as the most ominous. The book often conjures a misplaced feeling of dread, like a David Lynch film (I’m not the first to draw this comparison). This dread is never more evident than in “The Part About Fate.”

Oscar Fate, a pen name, one of two in the novel (Bolaño loved coincidences and mirroring elements), is a Harlem journalist who falls into an assignment covering a boxing match in Santa Teresa. He is clearly ill-suited for this task, but he accepts it, which brings him to the book’s center of action. The stories of the murdered women are by now becoming more prevalent in the novel— which is warming itself up for the fourth section, a head-first descent into the horror that so much of the book merely suggests—and Fate quickly realizes that this is the real story that needs coverage. His editor is not interested, dismissing it as none of their periodical’s concern. It is more than likely that this is Bolaño’s comment on the lack of alarm evident in the rest of the world regarding the murders in Ciudad Juárez. What can the 1st world do to help the 3rd, right? (Perhaps this book, getting so much attention here in the States, might go some distance toward alerting American readers about the situation in another part of the world right below their own country. The power of fiction, the power hope, though one wonders what exactly that would do. We may be the police of the world, but clearly there is little hope that we'll be intervening in a situation that holds little promise of our own gain.) Fate cannot shake off what’s going on, and though he talks about leaving before his deadline is up, he stays, drawn into a night of wandering from clubs, bars, a taqueria, and a local’s house where the mood shifts from hospitable to threatening, spurning the major movement of the book. At the beginning of the section, Fate broods over his recently deceased mother. He seems aimless, indifferent, a sad bastard magazine writer who never says much and seems unconcerned about everything he sees. And then he meets Amalfitano’s daughter. He senses the danger surrounding her and he takes action. The pace of his story suddenly quickens.

While there are some that (rightly) see this as Bolaño conjuring the pulp detective stories he so enjoyed, they also (wrongly) dismiss it as ill-fitting in the spectrum of the entire novel. If anyone considers “The Part About Fate” to be mismatched in regard to the rest of 2666, then they are clearly not reading the same book I have. Nothing is off the table for Bolaño. The novel contains within it World War II stories, academic satire, love triangles/quadrangles, mad poets, mad painters, madmen, madwomen, an ex-black Panther turned public speaker and Bar-B-Que recipe author, black militants marching under Osama bin Laden’s picture, god cops, bad cops, good and bad narcos, prostitutes, factory workers, a seer, a scapegoat, and so on, all held back, (barely) like raging water struggling against the muscle of a dam. Certainly there is room for a quasi-detective in the form of a misplaced journalist. When Fate and Amalfitano meet in a strange moment, the separate sections connect and the entire book seems to converge as a whole. There’s fear (Fate’s), the source of which is implied more than addressed overtly, and there’s a sense of tragedy (Amalfitano’s) that is, again, ambiguously expressed though nonetheless disquieting. Nothing in 2666 is understood completely, but the world of this novel seems more real as a result. There are no clear answers, only connections, shifting waters, the imperceptible but all too real danger. Bolaño steeps his work in a kind of dread that comes to us in our most vulnerable moments, when we feel an intangible horror and are sure it is real. Then we return to bed (as I did when I finished the book), turn out the lights and hear the night sounds we normally try to ignore. And then, despite our weariness, we can’t sleep. And we don’t even know why.

That’s the best way I can describe how I felt finishing the book. I’m going to stop writing about it now. I think it’s as futile to go on as the investigations in “The Part About the Crimes” that lead nowhere and are shelved with a growing amount of disinterest by the overtaxed police. I’m going to stew on this book for some time, I am sure, and thoughts may occur to me, thoughts that might inspire more rambling posts. I will say one more thing, which may sound ridiculous to any number of people, but I feel this is the book I was meant to be alive to read. This is not to say it has replaced The Master and Margarita or The Obscene Bird of Night or The Sound and the Fury as my favorite novel (those three all tie for that rank, by the way), but it is maybe the literary event of my lifetime. Newsweek said that 2666 is (and again I’m paraphrasing) easy to admire but difficult to love. I know what they mean by this, but I couldn’t disagree more. A better way of summing it up would be to say that it is impossible not to admire and difficult not to love, even if it that love is hard to endure. It’s not the kind of love that you’ll see depicted in a foppy British comedy with Hugh Grant in the lead. It’s the kind of love that burns and tears at you. It’s the kind of love that you never forget.