Bolano and Imperfection

After breezing through the first hundred pages of 2666, I had the feeling that I’d finish the book in a week. I read By Night in Chile in a single sitting, Amulet in two, and Distant Star in perhaps three at most, so by extrapolating out, a week seemed perfectly reasonable.

2666 turned out to be a much slower read than I anticipated.

I think, probably, if it was like a 1,000-page version of By Night in Chile, I would have read the book in a week; but I’m not even sure what I just wrote makes sense. I’m not sure that By Night in Chile could ever be a 1,000-page work. By Night in Chile is so tightly wound that every word feels like it absolutely needs to be there. It is a book that, though complex, deals with very precise phenomena, and deals with them in a sharp, surgical manner.

I would argue that books the size of 2666 simply aren’t meant to do what books like By Night in Chile do. Books like 2666 take on the biggest themes their authors can imagine, and these themes are so large that it takes serious novelistic real estate to even establish them on paper. They end up being so complex and ambitious that even the best authors can get lost in them. This is all a way of arguing that perhaps there is no way to make a book like 2666 feel as clean as By Night in Chile.

I’m a big fan of imperfection in literature. Although I can admire the tautly constructed small novel for the endless arguability and interpretability offered by its enigmatic clarity–think of The Metamorphosis, for instance–I like the imperfect, large novels for the very reason that I can feel things getting lost and going awry within them. It’s these detached or misshapen pieces that often become the most compelling moments in the novel for me.

In his afterword to the first edition of 2666, Ignacio Echevarria, Bolano’s literary executor, appropriately quotes this passage from the novel:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to tak eon the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing; they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I can’t imagine that Bolano wasn’t writing this self consciously; 2666 was his last book, by far his most ambitious. It followed a number of those "perfect exercises" and The Savage Detectives, which seems like his attempt to break out of the short novels into something large and ambitious, a midway station between them and 2666.

2666 is also, as far as I know, the only one of Bolano’s novels that directly deals with Nazi fascism, a matter that is discussed indirectly everywhere in Bolano’s works. I imagine that in writing about this Bolano was engaging in the "real combat" mentioned in the quote.

In addition to the Nazis, 2666 is a book about voids–the void represented by death, by cosmic boredom, by literary insignificance, by senseless violence and death. 2666 engages in real combat with all of these, and now that I have finished the book I want to go back and consider how well Bolano has waged his battles, how well he has added to these concepts, how deeply he has probed them, and how well they function as complements, placed, as they are, side by side in the 5 "books" that comprise 2666. This, I think, will be the true measure of the success of the last book Bolano wrote.

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Thanks Scott, for so generously sharing your thoughts with us. Without having read any of it, I somehow suspect that you are quite on the mark. I hope you will expand these thoughts in a later piece.

Nice piece. This is next on my BIG BOOK list of 2008. Had you written this before the release of “Nazi Literature in the Americas,” or are you saying that that was an indirect treatment (albeit with an explicit title)?

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