He’s standing at the lookout point, looking away. It’s winter, off-season. The Panthers are young, none of us even twenty-five. We’re all armed, but we’ve left our weapons in the car, and you can see the deep dissatisfaction on our faces. The sea roars. Then I go up to Marius and I say let’s get out of here now. And at that moment Marius turns and he looks at me. He’s smiling. He’s beyond it all. And he waves his hand toward the sea, because he’s incapable of expressing what he feels in words. And then I’m afraid, even though it’s my brother there beside me, and I think: the danger is the sea.
Where did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get a way? How do I take control? And the questions kept coming: Was getting away what he really wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind?
With the above quote, another auspicious beginning. And a new character. Here we find Quincy Williams. As we settle into the part, Quincy, a thirty-year-old American (or African American, as he sometimes refers to himself, wondering if sometimes he is nothing at all), learns that his mother has died. He’s unmoored at her loss, numb. When asked what kind of funeral his mother should have, Quincy says his mother “belonged to the Christian Church of Fallen Angels. Or no, maybe it had another name. He couldn’t remember. You’re right, said Mr. Lawrence, it does have a different name, it’s the Christian Church of Angels Redeemed.” Which is Quincy?
The story takes a rather sudden turn when Quincy finds himself back on the job at Black Dawn, a magazine that covers subjects determined of interest to the black community. At his job, everyone knows him as Oscar Fate, which is how I think of him. It’s here that Fate’s journey begins, and we can see him as some kind of fated being, driven to a point of confrontation. “Fate” comes up often in 2666 (and Bolaño’s other work) as an abstract force. Personally, I’m still wrestling with just what Bolaño means by it. Is it the driving force, determining our lives, all sense of control just an illusion? It seems lack of control is incidental to something else, neither good nor bad, just there.
One of Fate’s first tasks after his mother has died is to travel to Detroit to complete a story on Barry Seaman, a kind of stand-in for the actual founder of the Black Panthers. There, he hears Seaman’s strange — at times fascinating — sermon. Some have suggested that this is similar to Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, and the allusions to water, to the sea (and to the seaman) certainly bolster this claim. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is likewise unmoored, contemplating suicide even, when he steps into Father Mapple’s church.
In Father Mapple’s sermon, he talks about Jonah who was swallowed by that big fish:
Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters — four yarns — is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.
Is Oscar Fate a Jonah? Is his fate to go into the belly of the beast, the slime of the sea about him, to find deliverance? I think it works. On his way to Mexico to cover a boxing match, Oscar Fate becomes a kind of prophet of the gloom, unbeknownst to him. He sees this: “The horse was black and after a moment it moved and vanished into the dark.” His journey begins in symbols — here, likely, the third horseman, Famine — and those symbols become real. After the critics and Amalfitano shrunk into their own skulls, here we have a character who dives in and who grows, who doesn’t descend into abstraction but rather ascends into the world of the concrete. This isn’t to suggest the world of the concrete is subjectively better: here the murders of Santa Teresa cease to be mystic happenings on the fringe and proceed to cluster around center stage which they’ll occupy in the next part.
And this part ends with a prisoner coming down the hall singing a German folksong, and we are taken back to Archimboldi.
I didn’t see most of this stuff the first time I read through 2666. To me then, this was a rather weak section (it still is not my favorite), a pulpy, almost crass section. But within this structure — which I think is appropriate (and Lee does a great job of explaining why below) — is a rather heavy load. I love it. I hate it also because I see that a second read is still going to be absolutely insufficient.
USEFULNESS. But the sun has its uses, as any fool knows, said Seaman. From up close it’s hell, but from far away you’d have to be a vampire not to see how useful it is, how beautiful.
Be a man and bear your cross.
Part 3: The Part About Fate is where 2666 fell into place for me during my first read. I already knew — there was no way of avoiding it, the media coverage of the book often spent an inordinate time on the fact — that Part 4 was utterly horrific and deeply upsetting and concerned a long, relentless catalogue of murders, the details of which were painstakingly and unflinchingly set down. With that in mind, and with the first two parts fresh in my memory, I saw, I thought, what Bolano was doing.
I think Part 3 — my favorite part I admit, and the part which is, from what I can gather, often cited as the book’s weak section — is Bolaño’s mashing up what works in hard-boiled American fiction, cinematic as well as literary. There’s more of an elegiac, romantically bruised essence to it than the other parts. There’s a terror and upfront grandiosity to it all the more potent for it being endlessly elusive and never segueing out its perfectly drawn druggy jazz feel. It’s a kind of narcotized half-dream; when reading it on both occasions it lulled me into a sense of hypnotic discord. It deals with a man called Oscar Fate, except he isn’t; he’s called Quincy Williams, but this name, which he is referred to by, is assumed at the moment his waking dream begins. He sleeps on his mother’s dead couch and when he awakes, he’s shed a skin and his journey as Oscar Fate has begun. The dividing line is that clear and that abrupt. He’s deranged and off-kiltered, slightly, by grief, in a way that’s redolent of Amalfitano, perhaps, but Fate is a man of action — and I think this is where Bolaño has chosen to wield benevolent influence on this bloody, fetid landscape. He’s given it a certain kind of hero familiar from the novels of Chester Himes, David Goodis, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, etc. Maybe a hint of James Baldwin. It’s reminiscent of Philip K. Dick at times: strangeness is treated with equanimity. It’s the mid-section and it’s a pause of sorts, during which Bolaño plays with his concept of a certain kind of fiction by throwing a few shots of tequila down its neck and cutting loose a little. It slides into a kind of prose poetry on occasion, with an eye on more conventional literary thrills than any other 2666 section, and it’s a small, nauseated, bitter triumph before a seismic tragedy. It’s Bolaño saying: this victory of sorts, up against what’s ahead, what does it mean to you? And the answer for me was resounding: plenty.
Fate is playing a role: he isn’t “Oscar Fate” for a start, and he takes his behavioral cues from outside himself, not inside as with Amalfitano. He is a black man; a man grieving; he’s an ad-hoc boxing journalist who spies an opportunity, and we’re not really, in the end, sure what that is. He adheres to something external, an idea of himself, and follows it. Is he lucky? Is he strengthened by his circumstances? Is he more acclimatized to the nature of men than Amalfitano?
It’s the most vivid section, from my point of view, as it’s cinematic in a slightly unhinged, portentous way, and throws a few curve-balls into the 2 a.m. mists of its queasy midst — it just doesn’t play it straight. When you think it’s about to, it shifts off . . . and yet, whatever happens, you’ve got that perfectly deployed sense of one-paced, inescapable nightmare. Here, I think, Bolaño shows his absolute mastery of voices: dazzling, funny, odd dialogue exchanges that evoke after-hours cop shows, bizarre lurches that he gets working and which become part of a weird nocturnal logic, a peculiar, frantic stupor, as though nothing is ever going to fall into step, anything is possible, and the spell is cast, the subject, you, anesthetized and ready for the operation and ordeal of Part 4, an ordeal worth undergoing but best after this primer.
After two sections during which the subjective has been the vantage point — deeply idealistic critics trying desperately to apprehend the world by dragging it towards themselves and failing; Amalfitano burying himself in his head and in the world of ideas, which become scrambled and useless — Bolaño readies us for Part 4 and, I think, makes his grand statement in The Part About Fate by first of all peeling back those subjective layers. This is a much more objective world. Death is no great tragic irruption here — it’s humdrum. Fate’s mother is dead — it prompts strange thoughts and behavior, though not à la Almafitano — and instead of vanishing into himself he instead deals with it by heading out into the maelstrom. And by doing so falls into the potentially doomed orbit of Rosa Amalfitano.
And: I think this is the key to Bolaño’s philosophy here and elsewhere. He says, using Fate as an exemplar or emissary of the underworld, that in order to survive we must face “it” and take the blows, as objectively as possible; this, Bolaño says, is the only way to truly live and experience the euphoric consolations of existence. It’s a tricky one: but majesty and magic and death and carnage and terror must all be entertained likewise by the human mind for it not to unravel.
I believe that Part 4 is nothing less than a gruelling extrapolation of this concept. He renders death and murder an almost mythically strange idea in our minds, the concatenation of details that become an absurd, surreal repetition whose objective is to desensitize us from the unspeakability of such abundant murder by observing a kind of mantra of exposing ourselves to the absolute worst in order to be as alive as we can be. As such, I think Part 3 is his induction to this kind of psychological environment. Bolaño knows, I think, that in order for Part 4, the lengthiest, most provocative part, to work, this part needs to lay some groundwork. That groundwork, for me, is him saying: Wake up — there is magic. It can go as wrong as it can right at all times, and you know nothing. Accept nothing and throw away nothing. It’s all one and the same. It’s as good as it is bad, and the good, in such a world, is not a miracle — it’s part of a unified inescapable transient implicity. The world will not change. You can’t create your own in your head. What you can do is: live, with all of it, awake, knowing the hell in order to know the heaven. It’s a call to arms, if you will, that demands susceptible involvement.
So the surreality we feel when Fate is in the midst of a perilous rescue mission is the surreality of unadorned variability. He strips everything back and leaves Fate exposed to the live moment. And Fate is the most alive fictional creation in 2666. He’s not having a great deal of fun, granted, but there’s consolation in Bolaño having drawn such a character. He’s the necessary hope in the void.
- What or who are the ghosts Fate talks about in the opening moments of Part 3?
- What do we make of the story Fate overhears on his way to Detroit, where a man nearly drowns but is rescued by workers coming to rescue those in a downed plane? They’re disappointed he was not on the plane, though their acts did save him.
- What’s the significance, if any, of Barry Seaman’s late and unlikely popularity as a chef?
- What is the the significance of Seaman’s sermon on Danger, Money, Food, Stars, Usefulness?
- Is machismo a significant issue in this part?
- What is Rosa doing, with the obvious risks involved, in such company?
- How does this quote fit into the larger themes of 2666: “Does this mean that in some places I’m American and in some places I’m African American, and in other places, by logical extension, I’m nobody?”