Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I finished reading "2666" this morning. The wife went to the Capitol Building this morning to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood and because we are a one-car household now (we sold the Crown Victoria a couple of weeks ago) and she had to be in downtown Atlanta early, I got dropped off at Panera at 7AM this morning. Two solid hours of reading time. So I lasered in, strapped on some headphones, pressed play on my "Prestige" soundtrack playlist and got to scraping paper with corneas.

"2666" is the last novel written by a man named Roberto Bolano. When he finished it, he was not well-known in the English-speaking world, but after he died and his translations started percolating through the literary world, his fame grew and he's now considered one of the best writers of the last 50 years. If I feel a vague sadness Bolano's not alive to enjoy this justly earned attention or, more selfishly, to talk more about this and his other books, then I can't imagine what his loss must be like for the critics and fellow artists who recognize without question how important Bolano is. Reading "2666" gives one the sense that a writer of Dosteovsky's stature managed to come in and go out of this world without anyone being the wiser. At least that is the sense I have less than 24 hours out after finishing it.

I don't know what I want to say about it. Much of the action is set in a Mexican border town called Santa Theresa, a stand-in for La Cuidad de Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on earth. Juarez is primarily dangerous because of the warring drug cartels. The murder rate in the city is unimaginably high. But the sense of menace in Bolano's Juarez stand-in, Santa Theresa, is of a completely different nature, and the dread he infuses his fictional city with makes it unlike anything I've encountered in my limited reading. He makes it a legitimately scary place. Maybe to some small degree the Venice of McEwan's "In the Company of Strangers" is comparable, but that book is small and its effects limited, an hors d'Ĺ“uvre to "2666"'s 9-course meal.

Much of that menace comes from what's going on in Santa Theresa. Women are being murdered. More than a hundred at least and all by the same killer or killers. In one of the five books that comprise the novel, the murders are the focus. So much so that they almost become... not a character but a fixture -- a certainty of that world so woven into the background that the constancy of the killings becomes almost darkly soothing, and when the murders temporarily stop the reader is unsettled. Each crime scene is explicated with the cold finality of police reports. The sadistic, savage brutality done to their bodies before and after the women expired is listed with that cruel phrasing common to documents of that kind. And because Bolano details the crime scene of every single murder so exhaustively -- and I didn't count but there must have been a hundred -- you can almost feel the threat of violence, particularly violence against women, hanging in the air. And if your faith in the goodness of man feels significantly degraded after finishing this book, I think Bolano's intention's been achieved. But you don't begrudge him because he's done it so masterfully. And also because you can't argue the point.

I just wrote yesterday that I was getting myself into trouble by writing long entries, thinking they all have to be long, and make some kind of point, and here I go writing and writing and eating up all of this evening time, and so far none of it's coming to anything, but I need to see if I can say a little of what I want to say about this book.

The first of the five books is about a group of literary scholars who've all become expert in the critical studies of one author: a reclusive German named Benno von Archimboldi. The second book follows a journalist in Santa Theresa who's covering a boxing match in the city, the third a professor n the city who meets with the scholars (maybe switch the last two), the fourth the murders, and the fifth is a short biography of the author Archimboldi, the writer the four scholars never locate though they search their whole lives.

There are moments during the fourth book (or "Parts" as they're called) where the thought crosses the mind that the author almost no one's seen might be the one killing these women. This idle wondering loses some of its potency as the numbers of dead women increase and then increase some more and we come to see that no one man, particularly a tall old white man who speaks only German, could do all of this killing in Mexico and not be caught after the second body's discovered. But as the fifth part unwinds, the biography of Archimboldi, the thought sneaks back in at certain points before drifting out of feasibility again, and then he shocks you by producing a legitimate connection between the old German writer and the killings in Santa Theresa and you realize that he's pulled it all off somehow. It's been a highwire act for hundreds of pages and he's made it work without our even realizing.

But really the whole book is like this. He's got this thing going where he gets the reader established into narrative patterns -- whether its the murders or the patterns of behavior the literary scholars fall into -- and the patterns lull the reader into a kind of boredom that's not really boredom. And with the reader safely lulled, Bolano's able to subtly suggest and hint at things that may or may not be relevant to the plot so that some of the same absent, purposeless thought patterns that characterize our way of thinking in everyday life are almost forcibly replicated by Bolano and confined inside the world of the story. So that while reading the reader is thinking in the same way about the events of the story as one of the characters in the novel might be. (Or maybe this is just something all great literature does or can do. Not sure.) This lulling also allows the author to drop allusions and clues to events detailed more fully later in the novel so subtly that as the reader presses forward, the story resonates without it being fully clear why it's resonating. It's almost as though Bolano is throughout this novel implanting a feeling of deja vu designed to blossom with visceral force 200 pages later.

There's more to write but I've gone on and on as it is. A fascinating, brilliant book and one I think will get better with time and re-reading.


Anonymous said...

"but I've gone on and on as it is" UNDERSTATEMENT

Harwell said...

Stop being mean. Book sounds awesome. Think I might have to order it.

JudgeHolden said...

Can you believe anonymous is my wife? You see what I have to deal with?! :)

nathan said...

hahaha. Your wife belittled you in public. You just lost so much face!

Great review. I'll have to order it as well. Sounds awesome

Harwell said...

Yeah she pretty much pwned you, Crane.

Anonymous said...

I love you!!

Anonymous said...

Crane - you've done a good job selling it to me. I will check it out.