In mid-February, I started 2666 with the idea that I’d attempt to finish it before London. Then, on the advice of one Christina Lepri, I opted to instead use this one book as my travel novel – instead of lugging multiple books with me and thereby taking up more space than necessary. It is now mid-March. I’ve just finished. As faithful readers (are there any faithful readers…?) might know, I’m not one to take a month to read a book. Yet this book demanded it. It was a wrestling match, an event. This book is the first book in a long time that I could not dispatch with aplomb and even now, I find myself wondering if 1700 words is really enough – or if trying to review this will just make me look like an idiot.
I started this entry before finishing the novel entirely. I think because I need to just get my thoughts down about each section, because it is such a massive text – I want to get my ideas down in case I forget any of them. Maybe try to make things make sense at the end of the day. Jeff Vandermeer, on his blog, talked about how this book (as an entity) seems to approaching a vanishing point in the distance but it never actually gets there. That’s a really great way to summarize the feeling that this book evokes in you. (turns out, btw, that’s also a quote from the note from the editors at the end of the novel).
So, Part 1: The Part About The Critics. This is the easiest section of the book to get into, which is why its first, I guess. Four characters, four critics. Well, the fourth critic plays a pretty peripheral role until the end – in a sense. There’s a London critic (the girl, Liz Norton) and a French critic and a Spanish critic and then Morini (Italian). The four critics come to know each other and be friends by their mutual work on a rather obscure German(?) novelist named Archimboldi. He’s like a German Pynchon – reclusive, somewhat unknown, brilliant but also rarely understood. The Part (I really wish the novel had been published serially as Bolaño had requested in his will) introduces these characters and Archimboldi and then deals mostly with a love triangle between Pelletier (the Frenchman), the Spaniard, and Norton. They both love her, she deals with them… they go back and forth between affair and non-affair. In the end, they all end up in northern Mexico, where Archimboldi was rumored to have moved. The main character from Part Two is introduced briefly and the fact is alluded to that there are hundreds of women dying in unsolved murders in Santa Teresa. But then it ends – Norton and Morini end up getting together and the other two men return to their homes. And that’s it. The tone is so matter-of-fact, so calm, so narrative… that you end up a little stunned that its over. It just kind of ‘pfft’ – cuts out.
I like that tone, though – the detached narration that, in my head, sounds like the narrator of a Wes Anderson movie… only its one twisted fucking Wes Anderson movie. Though who knows, he might do really well with this text. Anyway.
Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano deals with the Spanish professor who the critics had as their guide in Santa Teresa. The Part seems to take place before Part One, but its unclear… still, there’s no mention of the critics that I could notice and so I assume before (things happen that seem to have already happened in Part One, like the hanging of the geometry text on a string outside). This part is more an examination of a man’s life and how he’s slightly going crazy in his current circumstances. He gets wrapped up in some weirdness with the Dean’s son and he hallucinates a fair amount – at the end, he’s talking to a strange Boris Yeltsin delusion. This part is definitely seemingly about a man unhinged – but he gets involved in trying to find out about the murders in Santa Teresa. He believes a man is stalking his daughter, going to take her and rape her and kill her like so many other girls. This comes into play in the second half of Part Three.
Part Three – The Part About Fate – begins in New York. With a black reporter who I honestly didn’t know was black until it was said nearly a quarter of the way into the section. Bolaño is tricky and non-descript like that at times. He ends up in Mexico to cover a boxing match and the competitors. There’s a fair amount of discussion of the people he gets involved with – the boxers’ coteries and such. Fate, too, gets caught up in the mystery surrounding the dead women – there’s a lot more about this here – and its frustrating to stay on the periphery of this mystery. You feel the frustration of Fate because its your frustration too. At the end, Fate ends up leaving with Rosa Amalfitano, the main character of Part Two’s daughter, because Amalfitano asks him to essentially smuggle her across the US Border and get her on a plane back to her Spanish home (I believe Barcelona). He doesn’t get much closer to the mystery than any of us previously… but he does start to get into things and so that leads into Part Four: The Part About the Crimes.
I happen to have purchased the three-paperback-slipcase version of the book and where Parts One-Three were the first book, Part Four is the second. It was also the part I struggled with the most. Bolaño recounts nearly every murder in Santa Teresa and how the bodies were found… and it is horrifying. By the end of Part Four, you can’t help but feel numb. There’s some police work that happens, some arrests are made, the lives of some characters here and there are affected by the sheer overwhelming number of deaths… but there is a sense of the mundane that Bolaño delivers and that’s what makes this part so tough to get through. At first, its terrible to hear about the gruesome mutilations, etc… but then you just want the damn story to move on. The detachment becomes a hinderance instead of a quirk. I found it becoming a chore to read the novel by this point and it was only after eyeing the shelf of books on my desk quite hungrily that I decided “okay, time to power up and move through this shit.”
Part Five – The Part About Archimboldi – is something of a reward (though not quite). Actually, I think everything I loved and hated about this novel comes together in Part Five. The story is that of the reclusive writer our friends the critics were searching for, from his birth until he went to Santa Teresa. I think, by the way, Part One might be the “last” chronological part of the puzzle. Though who knows. Anyway – Part Five. The story is an interesting one: a young German boy who fought in World War II ends up becoming an Important Writer. His life is a fascinating one, though at times it seems a bit contrived. There are also these digressions that just made me furious with Bolaño – two or three pages devoted to some anecdote or something that has no purpose but to “give color” to the story. Every time that happened, I found myself skimming and just desperately seeking the end of the book. Which comes, of course, with a terrific payoff.
Turns out Archimboldi is the uncle of Klaus Haas, the guy they’ve arrested for the murders. Archimboldi, of course, is the reason the critics go to Santa Teresa, where Amalfitano is the one who guides them around – the same Amalfitano who’d asked Fate to take his daughter to the States so she could get back to Spain. Suddenly, everything connects… albeit loosely.
So, then, what to say? I understand (now) why this book didn’t win the Rooster last year. It isn’t a single book. The publishers/Bolaño’s estate made a huge mistake in going against his willed instructions. This book should have been published in a serial format and given room to breathe. It is too much for anyone to take on at once. Sure, it is full of brilliant scenes and hilarious moments – and sad ones too – and it is probably one of the most important works of literature I’ve ever read. There will be classes taught about this novel like there are classes taught about Ulysses. I will be able to say, at cocktail parties with my literary friends, “oh sure, I read that when I was in college – not for college, it was too soon after it came out for that.” And then I’ll kill myself for being such an idiotic sounding prick, but that’s neither here nor there. This book deserved to be taken in doses. In each part, separated perhaps not by a year… but by a few months. The serialized novel has unjustly disappeared from our culture and this would have been a terrific way to try to bring it back.
To read one part of this novel… and then to digest it, think about it, let it fade a little… before reading another… and doing the same thing until the novel seemed to sprawl over years of your life without you thinking about it or really actively acknowledging it – but not as a series might, for it is a self-contained singular narrative. That would have been the ultimate triumph of this novel. Instead, a reader is likely to end up frustrated and rushing to finish it because it is so much all at once.
In the interest of posterity and easy reading, I’m starting a rating system (like the West End Whingers! only not with wine). SO:
Rating: 5 out of 5. Yes, despite its obvious flaws and the format and how frustrated I felt with it at times. It is a masterpiece and one that everyone should approach – warily, but it should be approached nonetheless. Sue me for feeling a little spiffy for being a part of a “Major Literary Event” but I can say I read this. Can you?