Now that I’ve knocked off a good inch of 2666, I feel like it’s time to say a little about my reactions to it.
At this point, I can’t say I’m very much reminded of The Savage Detectives (other than in terms of some very general themes that seem to be present in every book Bolano wrote); that book was about youth and what happens to youth as it grows old and forgotten. It focused on people above society–by that I mean it was about rendering a certain kind of emotional response to a life gone awry. The book was more concerned with this than making you understand a certain condition, the way Sebald makes modernity palpable. As a result the people in The Savage Detectives almost always felt fresh and read, and the main characters of Ulises, Belano, and Madero remain vivid in my mind.
2666 is, perhaps, precisely the opposite. It is a sprawling book seemingly most concerned with instilling something of the melancholy and isolation of late-late (or maybe post-late) capitalism, and to that end I feel as though the people are being given short shrift in favor of the set on which they perform.
The book it most brings to mind right now is Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Both of these books feel like a sort of requiem towering over and gazing back at their respective subjects. They are both slow reads in which you feel like you’re being taken down more than a few blind alleys, until, tens or hundreds of pages later, you finally see the purpose in where you were taken. Both of these books are immense, sprawling affairs, books full of many
discrete parts that I can somewhat see coming together if I continue
the lines they trace in my mind.
For example. Here are a few of the items I’ve encountered so far in 2666: a book (probably imaginary) arguing that one of Chile’s founding fathers was part Native American; a philosophical-geometrical tract that a character discovers packed in his moving-box, and then takes out and hangs on a clothesline like a Duchamp ready-made; the text of a sermon of a black preacher who publishes cookbooks to make ends meet; a film whom the possessor claims was the first movie that director Richard Rodriguez ever made. On and on.
The thing about these pieces is that at this point they are by and large more memorable than the characters themselves, which, although they are far from poorly rendered, do not match up to characters from other Bolano books that I have read. Furthermore, these pieces are imbued with a sort of DeLilloesque instability–first they feel like they are about one thing, then another, then perhaps back again. To my mind they remain mysterious and enigmatic, resisting attempts to say exactly what they are about. They also feel startlingly contemporary, as in the case of a radical Muslim sect that marches in New York City under a banner bearing the face of Osama bin Laden.
Some of the writing even sounds, in a way, a little like DeLillo. Here are some quotes that have impressed themselves in my mind:
. . . though not just any nest but a postnuclear nest, a nest with no room for any certainties but cold, despair, and apathy.
. . . the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.
The University of Santa Teresa was like a cemetery that suddenly began to think, in vain.
I suppose Bolano and DeLillo have more than superficial similarities, as they both are innovators when it comes to writing about the political in their books. 2666 is no less political than any other Bolano book I’ve read, but, like them, in this one the political is both omnipresent and non-obtrusive. To see exactly what I mean, look how the political ghosts through this paragraph before finally, momentarily, flaring up into outright palpability:
It goes without saying that most of the attendees of these curious discussions gravitated toward the hall where contemporary English literature was being discussed, next door to the German literature hall and separated from it by a wall that was clearly not made of stone, as walls used to be, but of fragile bricks covered with a thin layer of plaster, so that the shouts, howls, and especially the applause sparked by English literature could be heard in the German literature room as if the two talks or dialogues were one, or as if the Germans were being mocked, when not drowned out, by the English, not to mention by the massive audience attending the English (or Anglo-Indian) discussion, notable larger than the sparse and earnest audience attending the German discussion. Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it’s common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mas conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they’re put into words.
And then we get to the book’s two biggest items, two shadowy images that seem to stand like poles at either end of this book. The first is the author Archimboldi. When the book starts he is an obscure German author–he is nothing. Then a translation, a fortuitous review, some interest from scholars, and suddenly there are Archimboldi symposiums as far as the eye can see, titans of the Archimboldi industry fighting for power of interpretation, willing disciples on each side, and, of course, the perennial Nobel watch.
The Archimboldi part is fleshed out in the novel’s first section, about a hundred pages, and to my mind it’s the most consistent, interesting part of the novel I’d read so far. I don’t know if this relates to the fact that 2666 was never really completed, but the first section feels by far the most polished; there are enormous, page-spanning sentences here that unfurl segment by segment, perfectly paced rocking from comma to comma with their own peculiar logic. And there are many of them in a row. The effect is dazzling,a nd I have yet to see something that compares after the first section.
This part of the book ends with the Archimboldi scholars being brought to Santa Teresa in northern Mexico in a vain, you might say pointless, attempt to finally meet up with the reclusive author, and thus we are brought to the book’s opposite pole, the bit-by-bit murder of hundreds of Mexican women in Santa Teresa. These are ghastly, unsolved murders that have been going on for years, and the residents of Santa Teresa seem to react to them with an odd mixture of outright fear and disinterest. And Santa Teresa seems a little ghastly itself: it’s a huge, ever-growing city made up part of desert, part of sweat-shop style factories. Bolano spends much time evoking Santa Teresa, and I think he does it because in this book Santa Teresa represents something very substantial–I can’t say quite what, but something along the lines of a beleaguered retreat, a final resting place, our collective future.
Still aching for more Bolano? Here are some links to past Bolano coverage:
* Our interview with TSD and 2666 translator Natasha Wimmer
* Our interview with Bolano translator Chris Andrews
* Find out where 2666 fits in to the rest of Bolano’s collective works with Javier Moreno’s awesome Bolano triangle, part of his Quarterly Conversation essay in which he offers a theory of how Bolano’s books fit together.
* Read my own Bolano essay from the same issue of The Quarterly Conversation. In it I take a close look at By Night in Chile and consider how the theme of parents and children works in Bolano’s books.
* Read our coverage of The Savage Detectives as part of Reading the World 2007