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.
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.
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.