Monday, June 22, 2009

Robert Bolano: 2666

Chilean author Roberto Bolano's 2666, a novel published posthumously and the one that Bolano labored over the last years of his life in completing, is grandiose in every sense of the word.

It is, first and foremost, a massive work that runs the course of nearly 900 pages in English and more than 1100 in its original Spanish. The work, resisting simple categorization, defies standard conventions and may challenge many a reader's notion of literature. It would take a lengthy, detailed write-up to truly get into the heart of this acclaimed 'masterpiece,' but my hope is to convey at least the most salient aspects of my week-long experience reading this broad and overwhelming novel.

While the work in question is Bolano's 2666--that is, one novel--the work may be more aptly described as a collection of five stories (novels each in their own right!), loosely connected in Crash-like fashion, with its center (both thematic and physical) being the city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, a northern border city that many have assumed stands for real-life Ciudad Juarez. In particular, it's the killings and disappearances of hundreds of women--a real-life event that continues to this day in Mexico, no less--that Bolano wants to draw our attention to.

But it's not until the fourth part of the book's five divisions that Bolano tackles the subject head on. By that time, we've already read about a group of European professors on the trail of their life's work, a reclusive and mysterious German writer; a Chilean professor living in Santa Teresa (perhaps a stand-in for Bolano himself?); and an African-American journalist who travels to Mexico to cover a boxing match. It's not until the end--of each part and/or the entire novel--that the reader truly understands how all of these seemingly disparate stories connect beyond a common setting and/or character.

More than anything, 2666 struck me as a work of what some would call contrasts and others would call 'broad range.' A strikingly realistic passage is followed by one that is dreamlike, surreal, more like poetry than anything else--wording beyond comprehension. One moment the most elegant scene is presented, soon to be followed by one that's jarring and disturbing in both imagery and language. Bolano succeeds in conveying the atmosphere, tone, and location of each of the novel's five parts; his narration flows seamlessly from formal to informal, refined to grotesque, stuffy to earthy--all based on the character and place we're currently reading. If nothing else, the novel's fourth part, which details the women's murders in all the gritty, gruesome details one would expect from a journalist, is a timely and necessary wake up call for those who aren't aware of the occurrences in Mexico today. A call to action, almost, so things may take a different path.

And yet, for all its achievements in style, technique, and vision, 2666 is not without its flaws. To me, one of the "contrasts" or paradoxes that most defines this novel is how it goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. By the time you've reached the end--and that's assuming a stubborn patience, a determined will to finish--you've come across dozens of characters, countries, and plot points, but you strangely feel as if you never left in the first place. To put it another way: there's a sense of accomplishment in having read a nearly 900-page novel, but something's still missing. Something's unresolved. Reaching the end doesn't bring the glorious sense of satisfaction that it should.

And then there's the journey itself. Those who tackle 2666 should be well aware in advance--and be able to accept--that the novel won't present a single, coherent storyline from beginning to end. In fact, it's mentioned in the epilogue how, given the novel's "open structure," the five parts of 2666 can hypothetically be read in any order, not necessarily the one in which Bolano chose to present them. Readers accustomed to a traditional plot scheme may be frustrated in not knowing what the real ending of the novel, if there is one, is. Speaking of the ending, Bolano certainly takes his time in getting there. While there are certainly priceless passages that are to be savored and remembered, you get the feeling that some (or much, depending on the reader) of 2666's text is filler: unbearably long passages, some told in rambling, stream of consciousness prose, that have seemingly nothing to do with the story at hand. Worse yet, Bolano throws in so many allusions and references--geographic, cultural, historical, scientific, literary, mythological, political, medical, etc.--that you wonder whether he's just adding another drop in the bucket to his novel's "worldliness" or plain boasting his indisputably erudite background. The superfluous mentions from these varied fields of knowledge are enough to boggle all but the most scholarly of readers.

It's been said that 2666 is more about trying to enjoy the journey than looking forward to reaching the destination, and I would agree to this statement based on my reading of the novel. It is undeniably the most unique and bizarre literary experience I've ever come across, for better or for worse.

10 comments:

moonrat said...

wow, you made it all the way through...

i gotta admit, i don't think i'll try it. i made it through SAVAGE DETECTIVES, and though ultimately i'm glad i did, it wasn't easy and i'm not sure how much i enjoyed it. so much of what he has to say is SO good.... and SO much of it is just too much for me. hmm. maybe i'll change my mind eventually, but i need a little space.

JES said...

I've read much about this book which tantalizes the bejeezus out of me, but I still can't see committing to it. I mean, I don't need a conventional narrative nor even a consistent style/POV to keep me happy, and I don't mind being made to think. But that length, man, that length...

Have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? The way you describe 2666's oscillation between real and imaginary worlds makes me think of that film.

Thanks, this is a wonderful review.

bph said...

moonrat, I don't blame you for your (current)reluctance. I'm glad to have finished the novel, but like you I'm not sure if reading 2666 was a worthwhile trade-off in terms of time and energy.

JES, thanks for your comments! The length is indeed daunting and I'm honestly surprised I made it through. The first three parts, which take up about 350 pages altogether, actually go pretty quickly as Bolano has some pretty awesome stories to tell. It's the fourth part, ironically--the part that deals with the women's murders directly--that was the most challenging to read. It almost made me stop reading! You'd think it'd be the most interesting since he finally gets to what the novel is supposed to be about, but what you get is passage after passage about murdered women, how they were killed, etc. There are several side stories that run parallel to these passages in the fourth part, yes, but I'm not sure they do enough to provide a healthy counterbalance to the onslaught of murdered women reports.

I'm sure Bolano had his purposes in including so many of these passages when he was aware of how certain descriptions repeated over and over, and how readers would ultimately get many of the women's names and stories tangled up in a blur. My guess is that he's aiming for a desensitizing effect, as if to say these crimes are horrendous and unfathomable, but once you read the same story a hundred times (and I'm not exaggerating--there probably are that many murder reports included), you start to 'get used to' the violence and get into a state of passive/reluctant acceptance of the crimes. He's probably saying this is what's happened to Mexican society over the last decade in terms of its concern over this recurrent phenomenon, though I can't be sure since I don't keep up with Mexican news/society. But it's through one of the key side stories--coming at the end, of course--that I think Bolano is urging readers and the people of Mexico to renew their efforts, remain vigilant, and drum up the courage to fight this.

To answer your question about Pan's Labyrinth--no, I haven't seen that film but I have it sitting on a table and I'll have to get to it amidst my book-reading this summer. :)

moonrat said...

From what you say here, that sounds similar to the reason SAVAGE DETECTIVES fell apart a little for me--starting at about page 135 or so, the single narrative is abandoned in favor of short or shortish (single paragraph to 15-page) sections from totally random people, sometimes very tangiental, sometimes overlapping, occasionally redundant. He really makes the reader work to sustain interest. It's kind of a feat for the reader to be able to say they crashed all the way through.

angelle said...

i've heard so much about how awesome 2666 is but i don't think i'll attempt it either. i couldn't even get through savage detectives after 100+ pages, and i never abandon books. i think i'd be one of those readers who would become frustrated.

bph said...

moonrat, TANGENT is the best way to describe a lot of 2666. There are literally tangents springing from tangents, and while the characters in those tangents are having their fun talking about / dreaming about / reminiscing about God knows what, you as the reader ask yourself, "What am I reading this for?"

Froog said...

I don't see any virtue in the arbitrary splicing together of stories which are not even stylistically or thematically related to each other - which I would take to be the implication of any possible Pan's Labyrinth analogy. I watched that film just recently, and it was the WORST thing I've seen in years - one of the very worst films I've ever seen.

moonrat said...

Froog--haha. Well, I certainly wouldn't recommend you read SAVAGE DETECTIVES, in that case.

Jerry said...

I've been reading the book--and loving it. I have what's perhaps a strange, even silly, question though. I'm reading the book in English but living in Germany. How do you actually SAY the title? "Two Six Six Six"? "Twenty-six Sixty-six"? "Two thousand six hundred sixty six"?

Gerald said...

So, I've finished reading 2666, and I have to say it was one of the best books I've read in the last ten years, at least. The story absolutely never dragged, despite the length of the book. I never felt "How am I going to make it all the way through this thing?" In fact, the story is this: A copy of the book fell into my hands quite by chance, and I held onto it only becasue I had read the review in Harpers last year. I didn't have any plans at all to read it right away. But. One evening I picked it up and read the first page. From then on I was hooked. Each section really set its claws in me, and that made it difficult to make the change to the next subsequent part. Because the story in each new section is completely unique and is written in its own style. (The success with which the translator has made the different styles so clear is, in my opinion a tribute to the job she did--although I speak no Spanish.) By the fifth or sixth page of each new part, however, I was engrossed as in any before. I highly recommend this book. Now to check out some of Bolano's other books...