Roberto Bolaño: 2666

It would be hard to be at all engaged in the literary world and not hear about Roberto Bolaño — and 2666 (2004; tr. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2008). I remember hearing about 2666 probably a little over a year ago. Already published in Spanish, it was heralded the posthumously published masterpiece — we in the English-speaking world had only to wait to get our hands on something built up to sound as much a literary landmark as 1922’s publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses. Finally, last month 2666 arrived, and with it a host of gushing reviews and recently it’s garnered the top spot on many “Best of” book lists. Here are just a couple examples of the gush: “Vanishing: the exact opposite of what 2666 will do,” said Janet Maslin in the New York Times daily; “Now throw your hats in the air,” said Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review. Would it rather make me exclaim, “Now throw your hands in the air!” Well . . . yes and no.

2666-2

Rather than anchor myself down with the 900 page hardback edition, I opted for the 900 page, three-book paperback edition. This greatly facilitated the reading process. I was able to tote the book around during the day without much trouble. Also, I was able to read it while rocking my son to sleep at night (many late nights recently) and I couldn’t have done that with a hardback tome. And furthermore, I’m honestly not sure I would have finished it had I not had the feeling of completion every 300 pages. Though the prose is smooth, there are pages and pages and pages (most of the book, in fact) where there were no paragraph breaks. It was nice to see the fake end.

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Now on to the book review. I’m going to start off by being honest: this is not a book for everyone, which means that it might vanish off of the bookstore shelfs Ms. Maslin, even if it doesn’t disappear from academics’ shelves. I think that other long tomes that will never disappear — War and Peace, Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time, and even Ulysses — have a lingering appeal that entices even the least academic bibliophile to pick them up. I’m interested to see if 2666 can do the same.

Can you tell I’m avoiding my actual review? I don’t know how to put into words what this book did to me. In the same moment I was completely captivated and yet wanted to put the book down out of exhaustion. In the same moment I wanted to pick the book back up again to read some more of Bolaño’s insightful prose and yet wanted to leave it aside, perhaps forever. Let’s see if I can articulate this mess.

The book is divided up into five parts:

  • The Part about the Critics
  • The Part about Amalfitano
  • The Part about Fate
  • The Part about the Crimes
  • The Part about Archimboldi

It was pulled in from the start. Bolaño somehow makes exciting and interesting the adventure of four literary critics trying to track down their favorite subject, the elusive author Archimboldi. In the process, the four critics mingle in more than scholarship. Two of the men, Espinoza and Pelletier, begin a simultaneous affair with the one woman in the group, Liz Norton. The other, crippled critic Morini remains in the margins, working on a large project while remaining politely on the sideline of the affairs. All of this leads to some comedy, and here is an example for how compelling this book can be:

The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used twenty times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed.

Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton follow a clue about Archimboldi’s whereabouts to Santa Tereza, a city in northern Mexico where maquiladoras look out to the border with the United States. There, as the three critics realize their search will be fruitless, they experience the horror of the place. All become disoriented and lose focus not only of their search but of themselves. And they also learn that since 1993 in Santa Tereza, women, usually young, have been found murdered at such a rate that there are over 300 cases. Astoundingly, Santa Tereza is based on Juarez where this mass murder has actually been occurring, still is, and is perhaps even picking up speed.

The first part ends somewhat abruptly and the four critics never appear in this book again. But the reader remains unsettled while transitioning into the second part about Amalfitano, one of the residents of Santa Tereza who led the critics around in their search for Archimboldi. Amalfitano is also becoming slightly unstable. He acquires a book of geometry and hangs it up outside to watch the elements attack it (a great metaphor in the book that bolsters Bolaño’s case for incoherence). Meanwhile, his daughter grows up to her teenage years and we meet her again in the third part of the book. In this part a black New York journalist is sent to Santa Tereza to cover a boxing match. He also learns of the murders and asks if he can collect some material for a potential article about the disturbing (understatement) situation. He doesn’t get this permission, but he does encounter Amalfitano’s daughter. The fourth part, the one about the crimes, is the most disturbing. Here we finally get an almost case-by-case narrative about the crimes and some of the men and women attempting to figure them out. It is the type of thing one can’t turn away from. It reminded me of sentencing reports I used to read when working for a federal judge. But at the same time it was incredibly poetic. Bolaño shows immense control here. How can one keep the tap dripping this slowly and steadily for so long? But does it come together in the end? Not for me.

“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” said Norton.

“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.

It’s the same response I had. I felt power. I appreciated the writing. But for me it didn’t come together. That was apparently the point, and there are many clues about this throughout the book. But the constant buildup and tangents that turn into nothing left me frustrated in the end, and not at the state of the world but rather at the state of this novel or — as will surely happen — at the state of novels that mimic it.

31 thoughts on “Roberto Bolaño: 2666

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    I thank you for taking on this book, Trevor, and supplying such an insightful overview from a reader’s (as opposed to professional critic) point of view. You have caused the Kevin tree to tilt somewhat further in the direction of giving this one a pass.

    I do rather like that the review has automatically generated a link to “On Cutting Carbs and Finishing Marathons”. I will do some pondering on what reference led to the link: a) the marathon of reading the book (seems to me carbs would help) b) the food references in the quotes or c) the reference to rocking your son to sleep. I’m leaning towards c).

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Well, since I’m plodding through War and Peace at the moment (the nice new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I might leave this one for a while too.
    Lisa
    PS What’s with the snow flakes? Can’t see any of those here in sunny Melbourne *grin*.

  3. kimbofo says:

    Hmmm… interesting. I was quite excited when I first heard about this book (only a couple of months back), but now I’m not too sure. It sounds like bloody hard work.

  4. John Self says:

    Thanks for reviewing this, Trevor – I have the UK hardback edition (one volume) which is published next month. I was hoping to tackle it over the holidays, but they’re almost over and all I’ve managed in almost a week are a 250-page Tóibín and half a Geoff Dyer, so I think it unlikely I will get around to it now. I believe Stewart of Booklit is reading it so I will await his review also and then attempt to triangulate my own expectations from your comments and his!

    When a big epic novel like this is published with a lot of hype (I’m thinking too of Jonathan Littell’s 1,000-page The Kindly Ones, which is out in the next few months, translated from the French), I am always reminded of E.M. Forster’s comment that “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.”

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Kevin, the book was indeed a marathon, much like those nights rocking my son. However, interestingly, it also went very quick. The translation (I meant to put a word in my review about this) was incredible, flawless from my perspective.

    Lisa, I am just waiting for another boost of ambition to pull out my own Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. But I want some smaller books for a while :). The snow? Well, here in New Jersey what he had is almost gone. But we’ll get more. I’m usually only a fan of the during December, however, so I’ll be envying your sunny Melbourne shortly.

    Kimbofo, the work is of the endurance kind. When I say slogging in my review I actually can’t think of a moment in the book where I was bored (which actually says a lot about the quality of the book). But it is definitely a test of endurance. There are a lot of building climaxes that get thwarted, a lot of tangents that turn into nothing, a lot of pages with no break (including one four and a half page sentence early in the book). Also, it’s a lot of puzzle, making it both fun, challenging, and frustrating.

    I also anxiously await Stewart’s review of the book, John. I have a feeling this book, or at least how it made me feel, won’t be leaving me too soon so I hope some people in the blogging community take it on over the next few months. My review was based largely on how I felt at the moment. Had I reviewed it while thinking of other parts of the novel (with the length, there are many to choose from) it would have been much more positive. Had I reviewed each individual part – and perhaps I should have included this in the review – it would have been excited and very positive after Parts I and IV. It would have been so – so, but mostly positive after Part II. Part III was interesting but would not have been positive. Part V, well, it would have been much like this review: wishy washy, noncommital, and blathering!

  6. Stewart says:

    I also anxiously await Stewart’s review of the book

    Don’t get too anxious, as it won’t be for a while yet. Like you, I went for the three book set, and have only read The Part About The Critics, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Not picked it up for a week though, what with all the festivities…and a new Gilbert Adair book coming out. I’ll get to The Part About Amalfitano shortly as I don’t feel as if I’m in any hurry to push through the book, knowing as I did, that the five parts were independent of each other. In a way, I’m finding it easier to divide reading the separate parts with other books.

  7. I’m finding it easier to divide reading the separate parts with other books.

    I think had I done that I would have enjoyed it more and been less frustrated with the overall feel. In general I enjoyed the individual parts for what they were, but the weight of the book felt heavy to me.

    Good luck Stewart! I’ll wait patiently (and also anticipate your words on the new Adair).

  8. workingwords100 says:

    Oh, now I have to find this book.

    By the way, does Kevin from Canada have a blog? I like his comments.

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    Sorry workingwords100, I don’t have a blog — I’m too lazy to write my own reviews but do like to offer comments on a number of blogs. I do keep a profile of books that I have read on http://www.chapters-indigo.ca — I’m the second Kevin Peterson on the list if you check it out. Have a Happy New Year.

  10. In a way I’m glad Kevin doesn’t have a blog of his own. I’m sure his comments draw a lot of readers to this one!

    However, you’d be a good blogger, Kevin.

  11. KevinfromCanada says:

    I am quite happy to continue riding the wave of other people’s blogs — deflecting their comments towards books that I enjoy. Keep up the good work in 2009.

  12. Rob says:

    Thanks, Trevor. Do you think you’ll be trying any of his shorter work? Or was this a lifetime supply of Bolaño?

  13. This book really made me want to try his shorter work, which I assume will give me a more proper dossage for my taste. I enjoyed many individual elements of this book and even felt its power as a whole, but it really isn’t my kind of whole.

  14. Lee Monks says:

    Trevor, thanks for taking on this beast of a book, good work. I recently ‘took on’ the rather less foreboding ‘The Savage Detectives’ which I absolutely loved and I suspect you might feel the same way. Though I daresay you’ve had your fill of Bolano for the foreseeable!

  15. You know, Lee, when I finished 2666, while I was tired of that particular book, I still wanted to read more Bolaño. It will be a while before I get to another one but that is because of scheduling and a pile of other books. I think I’ll go to some of his smaller works though :).

  16. I’m still in the dark as to what this book is “about”, if anything, though I’m sure that’s not your fault. In its basic outline it reminds me of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a big fat overintellectualized mess I tried to read once. I’m wondering whether 2666 is really likely to be my kind of thing…

  17. Hmmm . . . what was this about? I can’t put it into words, though there definitely were thematic subjects, just no real human subject or clear plot. One could say it is about how ugly humans still are. We can rationalize and reason our way out of hundreds of messes, but eventually the world is abstract, random, and indifferent – and we are responsible for most of the ugliness, the true ugliness of human nature.

    And I got a lot of recommendations for Foucault’s Pendulum a while back. I bought it and really can’t wait to start it. It’s going to be a while still, but I’m anxious to see if I end up in the same place you, Jonathan.

  18. Stewart says:

    In its basic outline it reminds me of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a big fat overintellectualized mess I tried to read once.

    Hey, that’s one of my favourites. I can see where you’re coming from, but it was funny, erudite, and literary. Sure, there were a few dips here and there (the Brazil sections are hazy in my mind) but when Eco ups the ante in the latter half, its pace is, considering the detail involved, quite fast and the conclusion more than satisfactory.

  19. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure I should be glad that a potential sixth part of 2666 was found, because then it might just come together, or afraid that the sixth part would just add to the convolution.

    Here’s the article.

  20. Trevor says:

    2666 has just won the NBCC Award.

  21. The NBCC may like it — you and William from Just William’s Luck have convinced me I don’t have the stamina for 2666. The playful cynic in me remembers as a newspaper editor that we usually were good guys and paid more for a review of a book that we knew would take the reviewer three times as long as normal to read — could there by an ulterior (selfish?) motives in this decision from critics who get paid for reviews? Just a playful thought.

  22. Trevor says:

    I didn’t know (but it makes sense) that reviewers were paid more for bigger books. Is this standard practice?

    My own cynicism is that as this book has been built up to be the greatest masterpiece we’ve seen in a long time, certain to transform literature, that many critics don’t want to be out of step. Plus, if you spend a long time reading a masterpiece, one has to find ways to validate that time, even if it means bending over backwards to find meaning in nonmeaning (nonmeaning being a theme in this book, many critics have suggested).

    I agree that the writing at a sentence level is excellent, and many of the discrete, lengthier units that are wonderful (I enjoyed most of the parts until they were almost done), but as a whole the book doesn’t add up. I enjoy all of the attempts to say why that is (because life doesn’t add up; he’s putting into the form what is in the substance; the nonmeaningfulness, etc.). I think these interpretations are valid, but obvious and a bit too easily defended. I have a hard time thinking that all of those things are really in the book, especially when he obviously states his themes in blatant ways, such as the geometry book hanging up on the clothes line, getting destroyed by the elements. That’s clear as day, and it seems to encapsulate what many readers find in the book as a whole. I don’t see what the book as a whole has to offer beyond that, though in its parts it offers much.

    I (playfully) hope that this recently found sixth part is truly the sixth part. Hard to say it is a masterpiece when it is incomplete, especially when what the critics have said he was doing turned out to be nothing of the sort. I’m sure the book will stick around in the academy, especially if this sixth part is true. I don’t see it being read by most others. Then again, Finnegans Wake and Gravity’s Rainbow are both still on the bookshelves even in the most mainstream of bookstores; but at least those two books were complete, if convoluted.

    We should have an interesting choice in the Pulitzer, though. I don’t think Shadow Country will win (though, who knows?), and 2666 is not eligible. Netherland is a viable candidate, especially with its recent PEN/Faulkner. We’ll see next month. The big names of Robinson and espeically Roth and Morrison, however, haven’t seemed to pull through with the awards so far.

  23. I don’t think it is general practice but here’s a rough outline about how book-reviewing (at least at regional newspapers) works:

    1. The payment is at best an honorarium (the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, currently pays $250 a review, which works out to a dreadful hourly rate for a book like 2666). In my time at the Calgary Herald as managing editor (admittedly a couple of decades ago) that would have been $25 — the book cover price then would have been $20 — and the “book” that you get to keep is pretty much your payment.
    2. So money is obviously not the issue. When a book like 2666 came in, your choices as the assigning editor are:
    — people who really want the book, will review it whatever you pay them and will love it. Problem: the review might not be good advice for a lot of readers, since you know before you hand it out what you are going to get, even if the fee is cheap.
    — “friends” of the page who review a number of books and are willing to put in the extra time at the usual fee on a book that they might or might not otherwise read. Problem: the book editor only assigns books to his old favorites.
    — finding someone who will review the book dispassionately, from a reader point of view. Problem: since they are unlikely to be buying the book, getting it for “free” is not much of an incentive. Hence, the higher fee.
    — why not commission a hatchet job? A quick look indicates what the book is like so let’s give it to someone who would love to destroy it, at the normal price.

    The above is a short example of the book editor’s dilemma, at least at a regional newspaper (alas, most of these now no longer even get to hand out the books — there choice is now down to whether or not to publish some syndicated review, which has been assigned by much the same process, to someone who probably lives on the other side of the country).

    All of which explains why I give more credibility to your opinion (and William’s and other bloggers who I respect) of difficult works like this than I do to critics who are being paid. The awards certainly interest me and I do think the long and short lists have value — but for true booklovers, I think the blogging world has overtaken the commercial world in pointing readers at books that should be read.

  24. Trevor says:

    I think you’re right about the book bloggers, Kevin. I still love reading published book reviews, but not as much as a trusted blog.

    I find the complaints by professional reviewers (or writers) who say that book bloggers are a silly batch of unprofessional hacks who have decreased the value of book reviewing. I’m incredibly unprofessional, often reading a book quickly and writing a review quickly. Sometimes my thoughts are formed while writing the review. And most of the time if I do any research, it’s sloppy and unverified by anyone. Hopefully no professional is as careless. However, I find value in others like me. I think we form a good community, and when you find a blogger with similar tastes, it’s a good friendship that leads to many many good books. It’s all about that, really. And I love that book blogs don’t concern themselves solely with the recently published. I don’t know how many people have thanked me for pointing the way to Richard Yates this past year, but I also found out about him from a book blog. And Sherman Alexander, same thing, thanks to you. I don’t think the NY Times will be reviewing Winesburg, Ohio any time soon.

    And I don’t think professional reviewers (at least the best) should fear a drop in work. I love their reviews precisely because they tend to get into other things than I would. They often explore context and, for the most part, are very articulate, sometimes poetic. Which can also be found in the book blogging world.

  25. Trevor says:

    Just another thought about 2666. Here’s what the NBCC committee said about it:

    . . . a virtuoso accomplishment that ranks with Moby-Dick and Blood Meridian as one of the trenchant and kaleidoscopic examinations of evil in fiction.

    I agree that it is a great examination of evil and violence. It works in units, as I know I’ve said before. But as a whole it is like I put some parts of Moby-Dick with some parts of Blood Meridian, shuffled them in various orders, let parts fall out of the final product, and presented it as a whole. I’m just not convinced that this is a masterpiece when it is incomplete (even if the found sixth part is not real), and I have yet to read a review or article that shows me that I’m missing something in the text, though they suggest I am missing something. More, I get the idea that what I’m missing is a conception of what Bolaño intended had he been able to finish. In other words, I didn’t have the same reader-response or I expected the author to do a little more; therefore, I missed the genius of the book’s structure.

    On a related note, I’m very willing to accept that I am missing something. Also, I accept that Bolaño is a genius, and I look forward to reading his other works.

  26. Trevor says:

    I enjoyed this little mock tourney, pitting books against other books. First round, right here.

  27. Trevor says:

    2666 lost to City of Refuge in the semifinals.

    I think the judge felt the same way I did.

    (Strange that I’m having this conversation about 2666 with myself. Is anyone else reading it?)

  28. I am Trevor.

    Actually, I’d missed it, but just caught it now. Interesting stuff.

    Regarding professional reviewers, if they’re good enough they needn’t fear the competition from amateurs. That said, many professional reviewers in my experience are far from professional, rather many seem to be just people a particular paper often uses and I tend to find a good blogger is often much more informative – plus I am more likely to know their interests and can ask follow up questions. I note with interest that you read a Roth you didn’t like, given I know your taste for Roth, that carries more weight with me than most newspaper reviews would.

    On 2666, I’m suspicious that a book for which a sixth part has just been found was being hailed as a masterpiece when we may not have had the final work. Is it more of a masterpiece now we have more of it? Is the bit we did have now retrospectively less of a masterpiece? Excellent as it may be, it smells of hype and overexcitement, a literary bubble, and one other advantage of the blogosphere is it seems curiously less prone to reputational bubbles than the professional reviewing world.

  29. nathan says:

    I was kind of glad to see 2666 go down, more because of my personal preferences/biases agains that type of novel. I’m sure it’s all they say it is, and the fact that I don’t see it says more about me than the book. But the T of Books allows such predilections.

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