BOOK REVIEW by Christopher Higgs
(All references are to the First Picador Edition, 2009, trans. Natasha Wimmer)
[Note: This massive book is separated into five parts—not chapters, because, as I understand it, Bolaño intended for them to be published individually as separate books. My plan is to unpack one part per month here at AIOTB, starting right now. You will notice that my presentation style is probably more free-form than a traditional review or critique, but will hopefully incorporate both of those elements.]
Part I: The Part About The Critics
Let me begin by establishing some context. First, I must admit I have until now avoided Bolaño’s work with ferocity because I am skeptical of trends—and Roberto Bolaño is the epitome of literary trendiness. Critic after critic hails him as the savior of literature. One looks left, one looks right, and all one sees is a wash of superlatives: brilliant, genius, spellbinder, etc.
“Oh my god, have you read The Savage Detectives? Oh my god it’s the greatest book ever written!”
“Oh my god, have you read 2666? Oh my god, it’s the greatest book ever written!”
In fact, to my knowledge no critic has ever said anything negative about Bolaño’s work in any venue, be it digital, print, or conversation. I’m only halfway kidding, but even so I find the perceived level of unanimity seriously uncomfortable. It puts me in the position of approaching his work ready – no, eager! – to be the boy who shouts “The emperor has no clothes!” Obviously, this isn’t the ideal vantage point from which to begin reading a book.
Couple that with my personal affinity for what Gary Lutz calls “a page hugger” versus “a page turner,” which I take to mean a novel that values sentences over stories, and all of a sudden the cards begin to stack up against me reacting positively to 2666. Yes, I am an aesthete. (It always feels good to get that out in the open asap so there’ll be no misunderstandings.) I read for the pleasure of words and word arrangement rather than the pleasure of a good yarn or believable characters. I read for beauty and spectacle rather than meanings and messages.
With that said, my initial response to 2666 was negative because it seems to work from the opposite assumption: it seems more concerned with telling a story about characters than celebrating language for the sake of language. By contrast, to offer an example of what I mean, I’ll use Joyce’s Ulysses—which seems appropriate given the comparisons that adorn the back cover of my edition—where the privileging of words, word play, and word arrangements trumps the conveyance of the story. You can think of it in terms of Jakobsonian dominance: in 2666, story is dominant, while in Ulysses, language is dominant. For my time and money, I always tend to enjoy a text that is language dominant rather than story dominant. (For the record, I fully understand the common argument against my position: a work of literature should strive for a balance of both aspects—a position arising from the tenants of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—but I humbly disagree with it.)
Thus, I found the first part of 2666 challenging. Not because of complexity—there is very little, until the final sixty-some pages—but because of the demand it made on my patience. With less than five noticeable exceptions, boredom was the predominate emotion I felt as I worked my way through the first hundred pages. Boredom and longing for something interesting to appear.
What you get in those opening hundred pages is the mundane tale of four academics whose field of focus is the work of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi. Three of the academics are men and the fourth is a woman with whom all three of the men copulate at one time or another. And that’s pretty much it for the first hundred pages: the boring lives and sexual tensions of four academics.
The exceptions to the banality are:
*This passage on page 9, which is a poetic anomaly – by which I mean that the majority of the first 100 pages fails to sustain this level of defamiliarized imagery:
“It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like a grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their comprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.”
*An engaging five-page sentence that begins at the top of page 18 and ends at the bottom of page 22, which rivals any of those beautiful long sentences in Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch in terms of twists and turns, breath, propulsion, and strangeness.
*This passage on page 40-41, which reminds me of the mathematical, categorical, OCD-like tendencies found in Samuel Beckett’s Watt:
“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word ‘fate’ used ten times and the word ‘friendship’ twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word ‘Paris’ was said seven times, ‘Madrid’, eight. The word ‘love’ was spoken twice, once by each man. The word ‘horror’ was spoken six times and the word ‘happiness’ once (by Espinoza). The word ‘solution’ was said twelve times. The word ‘solipsism’ once (Pelletier). The word ‘euphemism’ ten times. The word ‘category’, in the singular and plural, nine times. The word ‘structuralism’ once (Pelletier). The term ‘American literature’ three times. The word ‘dinner’ or ‘eating’ or ‘breakfast’ or ‘sandwich’ nineteen times. The word ‘eyes’ or ‘hands’ or ‘hair’ fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly.”
*Also, there’s an artist who chops off his own hand as a conceptual art performance, which I thought was an interesting and provocative idea.
Aside from those four instances, and maybe the insane scene where two of the critics beat the living shit out of a Pakistani taxi driver (pg. 74), the first hundred pages dragged its slow knuckles across my eyes.
But just as I was on the verge of giving up something very cool happened. Around page 100 three of the critics go to Mexico in search of Archimboldi, which turns everything around and suddenly the book began to sink its teeth into me. All of a sudden the sentences began to get stranger. All of a sudden mystery gets introduced. Where is Archimboldi? Who is Archimboldi, really? Who is Amalfitano? And what is with the overlap between dreams and reality?
Yes, dreams play a significant role throughout part one, but they seem to really begin to ramp up once the characters get to Mexico. In fact, I’d argue that dreams threaten to completely replace waking life by the end of this section. (see page 135: “After that moment, reality for Pelletier and Espinoza seemed to tear like paper scenery, and when it was stripped away it revealed what was behind it: a smoking landscape, as if someone, an angel, maybe, was tending hundreds of barbeque pits for a crowd of invisible beings.” – now that’s a freaking badass sentence!) Characters begin to lose their individuality, seem to become other than themselves, begin to make decisions that are (excuse the pun) uncharacteristic. I even started to wonder if two of the critics were actually just one person all along, a la Tyler Durden.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder what I would notice about dreams if I were to go back and reread part one?
My hands-down favorite bit in part one is the crazy story Amalfitano tells the three critics from page 120-123, which is maybe worth all the time and energy I put into reading those dull preceding pages. Won’t spoil it for you, but will share the reaction it engenders from the critics, which pretty much sums up why I loved it:
“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” said Norton.
“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.
So for me, the final sixty pages of 2666 save it from a huge ugly thumbs down. On one level, I find this terribly annoying: the fact that I had to trudge through 100 pages to get to something interesting. On the other hand, I recognize my role as an impatient reader: some folks might be willing to give a book 100 pages before giving up on it. Not me. In my most generous mood I give a book one page. If I am not hooked by the end of that page then I set the book aside. More often than not, I only give a book one paragraph. By that measure, I would have certainly given up on 2666, which would have been too bad because now that I’m about to enter Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano, it’s finally starting to get good.
Christopher Higgs curates the online arts journal Bright Stupid Confetti, and is a proud member of The Marvin K. Mooney Society. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in literature and critical theory at Florida State University, where his research involves theorizing a rhizomatic approach to understanding transnational/transhistorical avant-garde literature.