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.