Friday, March 06, 2009

Among the Dead

A few years ago, I greeted Roberto Bolaño's posthumous breakthrough, The Savage Detectives, with little more than disdain. I thought the book was a big, windy fraud, an annoying game, a trip to nowhere, and one of those books where you expect something to happen and nothing ever quite does. I playfully suggested that it might even be a hoax. I could not, despite one attempt after the next, get what it was that people loved about the book, or why they were going to such incredible wordy lengths to sing its praises. The reviews I've read all left me somewhat dumbfounded. I closed the review noting that at the time of his death Bolaño was writing "2666, a thousand-some page multi-narrative novel scheduled for publication next year." The idea of reading it struck me as the literary equivalent of waterboarding.

Of course, that book has since arrived, and I've read it with a good deal more interest and excitement than I anticipated. It reminded me of reading a really good Pynchon novel, in a way, in that it hits you with so much: stories upon stories, told in a variety of voices and styles, more so than you can possibly digest in a single reading. It reminded me, too, of stories by Borges or novels by Nabokov -- especially The Real Life of Sebastian Knight -- which involve missing or mysterious or possibly imaginary authors. I also thought of Antonioni's great film L'Avventura, which begins with the mystery of a missing girl and becomes something else entirely. 2666 likewise is an oddly structured novel that toys with standard notions of what structure means. As the pages pile up, you find yourself asking the usual pomo questions: Does all this connect? Is there a pattern? Is there a bigger meaning ultimately? Bolaño takes great delight in never giving us a very fixed answer. Not having the answer, not being able to see the big picture, however, didn't particularly bother me, because the book only got more involving as it went along, so much so that structure and meaning began to seem secondary. The book is like some ever-increasing whirlpool and I found myself just riding along with it.

The strange thing about having read Bolaño's two most famous books, hating one and liking the other, is this: I'm not real sure they are all that different. Both involve searches that take place all over the world, both employ a vast panoply of voices, both are somewhat elliptic. Still, I have to say, that my memories of reading The Savage Detectives are not good; I think I liked the first section and the rest just seemed like cacophony. 2666 is more like great improvisational jazz.

In the newspaper review below, I bemoan the fact that I don't have the space to discuss the book at length. That's actually just a convenient excuse; I'm not sure I really want to. I have the space here, obviously; I'm just not real sure how to use it. No one wants to hear the plot of a book as plotty as this one, and no one wants to hear an interpretation without some idea of the plot. The review below is a wobbly compromise between the two, in which I say as much of the plot as I had space for, delivered as much meaning as my overwhelmed brain was capable, and hopefully communicated as clearly as possible that I loved it.

Some loves are just impossible to express.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.00

There are times I wonder if it isn't some kind of a moral crime to try to explain a unique, multi-leveled novel in 700 words or less. If it is, this review should put me on death row.

The book is 2666, the final work of the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, and I have to say upfront that this extended tale of mass murder, identity, fate, and madness is a wide-ranging virtuoso performance told in rich and dynamic prose. It's a joy to read, hard to describe, and impossible to explain. It's not one novel, but five loosely-connected ones whose relationship often seems tenuous at best. You never know what's going to happen, or how the series of events that come rushing at you like a tidal wave are going to connect, or if they will.

It begins with four young academics from different countries, three young men and a young woman, who are drawn together by their joint search for an reclusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldi. In time, the men all have varying relationships with the woman, and the search becomes secondary. The group finally winds up in Santa Teresa, a Mexican border town where hundreds of young women have been found dead. Just as they seem on the verge of finding the missing writer, the first novel ends; we move on to the next, trusting that this Archimboldi story will be taken up anew.

Instead we get another novel about an aging professor who slowly goes mad after his wife leaves him for a poet, then another about the underground adventures of a New York boxing writer named Oscar Fate, and finally a fourth that plunges us at considerable length into the story of Santa Teresa's "murder epidemic." As body after body turns up -- all described in a kind of numbing police report style that becomes deliberately repetitious -- the book becomes quite a page-turner, particularly after the cops arrest a suspect, but the killings continue regardless.

Just when you think Bolaño is on a one-man mission to frustrate the reader's desire for resolution, he delivers a fantastic final novel about the real Archimboldi that begins in the past, takes us into the present, pulls some key elements together, and still leaves a lot to the imagination.

Like a number of great novels, 2666 often seems bent on redefining what narrative means. Incident piles on incident, seemingly minor characters slip in stealthily and take command, and just as suddenly disappear. Insofar as the book is conventionally "about" anything -- and it's hard to tie it down to a single meaning -- it seems to be about disappearing, about the way we imagine people we can't see or know, whether it's a famous writer who cannot be found, a brother who leaves home and never returns, or any of the young women in Santa Teresa's many shallow graves. Life is shaped not only by what happens, but also by the empty spaces people leave behind.

Considering the fact that Santa Teresa is based on the real Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, where a similarly endless series of killings of young women have remained unsolved to this day, Bolaño may also be suggesting that life doesn't always grant our wish for easy closure.

Bolaño seems to offer a bit of self-criticism in the novel's final pages, when we get a description of a novel by Archimboldi: "The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one another didn't lead anywhere; all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely."

By the way, you may be wondering why it's titled 2666. An editorial note at the end takes a stab at explaining it, but it only complicates matters. The title, like the book, is an enigma.

4 comments: said...

Well done. I just finished 2666 myself, and feel like I simply can't say anything about it. If someone asked me what it was about, I'd have said "violence" (you offer several better answers); if they asked me whether I enjoyed reading it, I'd have to say I didn't exactly enjoy it -- but I felt compelled to finish it, to find any answers I could.

I hope we see an annotated edition some day.

RW said...

You and me both. And what about that whole Robert Rodriguez thing? Did he really make a porno/snuff film? My guess is that's some sort of urban myth, but Bolano seems to present it as true. said...

Ha, I'd almost forgotten about that. By that time in the book there had been so much killing that one prostitute/actress more or less didn't seem to matter -- which I thought was probably the point. The whole society was culpable, from bottom to top.

Cock It And Pull it said...

Wikipedia ruefully proclaims from the rooftops (sort of like an aria) that Tim Barrus has not published anything since scandalizing -- blah, blah, blah.


Wanna bet.

Tim Barrus, Amsterdam