Notes on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: Part 1


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.

Brilliant!

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.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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15 Responses to Notes on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: Part 1

  1. oklaelliott says:

    While I disagree with some of your claims about the first book, I totally agree with you point about trendiness. I put off reading it for nearly a year. Also, I hate that RB’s trendiness has hurt Jorge Volpi. I truly believe the American readership is only willing to agree on one Latin American genius every 5 or 10 years. RB’s huge (and unquestioned until now) genius has caused people to overlook Volpi’s even greater genius — and it’s caused exactly the kind of anti-trendy backlash you mention at the open of this review.

    Okay…I’ll re-tether my Volpi high horse (which I always keep close by for just in case the opportunity arises)…

  2. Arley says:

    You know, it’s strange. What this writer is describing as a weakness of the book, I see as a strength. Bolano’s sentences are strong (good musicality, surprising tautness given the length of the book) without calling attention to themselves. When you’re juggling so many balls in the air (complicated plot with a ton of characters that spans many countries and deals with some heavy political themes) you have to practice simplicity somewhere. Without restraint (which is not the same thing as a lack of complexity) on a sentence level a) those powerful moments where Bolano does ramp up the prose would become lost and b) the whole thing would collapse in on itself under the weight of so much going on.

    • Hi Arley,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response!

      A few things that come to mind as I consider what you have to say…

      Politics are only interesting to me in terms of entertainment, the same way I enjoy watching the Lakers play. This is undoubtedly due to my extremely privileged positioning (being a straight white male in academia with a middle-to-upper-middle class background), which I fully admit to and own, because to pretend otherwise would be crudely disingenuous, but ultimately for better or worse this is the context from which I approach literature.

      I raise this point because I think it speaks to one of the aspects of 2666 that you, and many other readers, take to be central to the success of 2666: its politics.

      This is one (big) way in which I come at the book very differently: I don’t read for politics. The only time I even consider politics in a work of literature is when the level of didacticism overwhelms the poetics to where it can’t be avoided — at which point I inevitablly put the book down, never to return my eyes to its pages.

      For the most part, my judgment on a work of literature is based purely on aesthetics. I could, quite honestly, care less what a book is about. I am most interested in how the material is presented.

      Thus, I disagree with your argument that Bolaño should be commended for balancing his aesthetics with the “complicated plot with a ton of characters that spans many countries and deals with some heavy political themes.” My point is that the work suffers from the fact that he burdened himself with those contrivances, and he would have produced a more satisfying reading experience for me if he would have instead focused his attention on the aesthetics.

      Contra your position that “Bolano’s sentences are strong (good musicality, surprising tautness given the length of the book) without calling attention to themselves” — I like literature that calls attention to itself. I like spectacle for spectacle’s sake. And most importantly, I fear and dislike literature that tries to use the art form as a way to convey a message.

      Perhaps I should have addressed this more clearly in my notes above. The more I think about it, the more I think this really gets to the heart of at least one major aspect of my reluctance to drink the 2666 kool-aid just yet.

      Anyway, thank you again for your comment.

      • Laura says:

        Chris,

        I also think that Bolaño handles the issue of aesthetics vs politics in a remarkably refreshing way -for a literary tradition where the “dictator novel” is an established genre. I strongly recommend you read Bolaño’s novella “By Night in Chile” which is also about politics but beautifully constructed.(It has only two sentences and the last one will probably stay with you for ever.)

      • Arley says:

        Hi,

        Thanks also for your response. I understand that a lot of this comes down to taste and your beliefs on craft. One of the things I appreciate about “2666,” however, is how it somehow manages to use conceits that usually make me throw a book across a room (having a strong political message, writing from the POV of a jaded/angsty college professor trapped in an unrequited affair, anything with even a whiff of metafiction) in a way that wins me over because it feels entirely genuine and organic and complex. I am a rabid Michael Ondaatje fan and come from the Canadian literary tradition, which tends to favour aesthetics over narrative, so I am usually with you on reading for aesthetics. This isn’t a book I should like given my usual tastes, but it’s one of my favourites.

        I guess my stance is that pure aesthetics without modulation is poetry. To me, aesthetics in prose cannot work without modulation because it is dependent upon so many other elements in the narrative. That is, the needs of the story dictate the use of aesthetics. I know you haven’t read all of “2666,” but later on (especially in The Part About the Crimes), Bolano uses sparse sentences to generate a huge amount of affect. Knowing when (and why) to ramp up and dial down attention to sentence-level issues is the hallmark of a mature writer; (this is a discussion for another day, but perhaps this is why writers like Cormac McCarthy tend to stray from their language-driven-ness later in their careers?). I know that authorial intent is kind of a dirty word in academia, but I respect the aesthetic choices Bolano has made in this work and I think there’s a difference between “this isn’t my taste” and “this author’s execution is flawed.”

        I guess this is a long way of saying that asking Bolano to ramp up the aesthetics is like asking Townes van Zandt to be more like Dan Bejar.

  3. Isabella says:

    “Page-hugger”! I love that term.

    Personally, I think Bolano is very much suited to page-hugging, and in general (though maybe less so in Part 1 of 2666 than in his other books) he runs away with the language in his sentences more than he concerns himself with plot.

    Given your leanings, and the fact that Part 1 is the most traditionally narrative section of the whole book, I think you’re in for a treat. Hope you enjoy 2666 as much as I did!

    • Hi Isabella,

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      I am very excited to hear that Part One is the most traditionally narrative section — this means I’ve got the boring stuff behind me! 🙂

      I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Raul Clement says:

    Hi Chris,

    I didn’t read all the comments because they were very long and I am very lazy. I did, however, read your review and while it’s hard to debate your claims (since you establish your biases up front), I do have a few bones to pick with you. Not many bones, mind you, and nowhere near a whole skeleton. A pelvic region at most.

    First, let me extend you the writerly courtesy that you did in the review and get this out of the way: I am not an aesthete (though I do enjoy a good sentence), and in fact am much more impressed by good plotting and character development. These things have always seemed infinitely harder to execute than mere good language. This is a bias of mine and I will defend it, if not to the death, than at least to the drunken fist-pounding.

    But let’s back up… or maybe move forward. First I’d like to debate your claim that those four sentences/examples you cited were somehow atypical of the book. While I agree that Bolano’s writing is relatively straightforward for the mode he is working in (which I see as something like high-postmodernism), I believe I could find fifty or a hundred examples of Bolano sentences every bit as formally interesting as your examples. I will do so, if you wish. However, as I said earlier, I am lazy and would rather not. Suffice to say that the wandering, endlessly inventive nature of a Bolano sentence has caught the attention of many critics and, since you seem to distrust the critical consensus here, many Bolano devotee friends (some of whom you know, and all of whom are smart people). There is a certain type of mixed metaphor that Bolano employs that as a self-proclaimed aesthete I am surprised you don’t enjoy. It would go something like this: “She looked at him and her look was like a train station at night long after everyone has left and a few drunks mingle about on the platform and down the street a dog is sniffing in the trash with a abject sort of hunger, not quite daring to hope for anything, but not yet willing to starve either…”, etc., etc. You get the idea. The fact that I can do this off the top of my head must mean something.

    The other thing that I would question is whether the novel is truly as plot- and character-centric as you claim. If anything, it is a “Novel of Ideas” in the European manner. I doubt it would be satisfying to the staunch Realists of the world. There are large sections of the book where nothing “happens,” per se (a fact which you decry, despite your supposed lack of interest in story). Formally it is, if not “bizarre,” then at least experimental. And it breaks all kinds of fiction-workshop rules: it contains dream-sequences; it has characters who are academics; it depicts insanity; it talks about writing. If it works at all, it works on the level of “Idea”…and I mean that with a capital “I.”

    But that’s just the novel’s strength, and forgive me if I’m repeating an earlier comment: it is formally inventive, while containing well-rounded characters, a reasonably-gripping plot, and sentences that don’t beg for attention while still being inventive. It is all things, and unlike most works that attempt such an undertaking, it avoids being none.

    I do, however, agree with you that there has been an alarming uniformity of opinion on this book and I would hazard a guess as to why. Critical ballessness: a distinct lack of testicles on the reviewers’ part when confronted with possible PC backlash. Let’s be honest. This guy is Hispanic. He’s dead. That alone is enough to condemn him to an eternity of good reviews.

    Thank you for bucking the trend. Bolano deserves it and free thought does, too.

  5. oklaelliott says:

    Not that I’m really adding anything here, but I wanted to say that I have met no Mexicans who know who RB is and you can’t find any of his books in the bookstores here. Volpi, on the other hand is in every bookstore and I just had a conversation with two random girls at this pizza place here about his work (since I was reading one of his books while waiting for my food to arrive).

    • oklaelliott says:

      so my point is that RB has clearly been anointed as the god of latin american literature by the north of the border types, though he’s not nearly as highly regarded here.

      • I’m not too sure about this claim.

        Go to Spain and you’ll find a smattering of his books in every bookstore, rivaled only by one other Latin American Aira (and besides, doesn’t RB’s life challenge this notion of ‘Latin American’ writer? you know, the one everyone is using so pejoratively? After all, didn’t RB move to Spain and write most of his books from there? Didn’t he leave Mexico at a young age and Chile even younger? Isn’t this ‘exile literature?’).

        RB was famous in Spain first, I believe, and then made his way to Argentina (or at least that’s how I heard about him, from Argentinian friends, years and years ago), then slowly made it to the States. Now that he’s huge in the States, the Germans have decided he’s pretty OK.

        I think trends should be respectfully ignored. I didn’t know I was reading a trendy book, I was reading a recommendation from a Latin American and then I found it hard to believe, especially after Part IV, that the book was so trendy. If trends allow for books like 2666 to get some credit and for Lady Gaga to get weirder and weirder and still entertain (a la DFW), then I’m not too sure I see any problems with trends.

        Or maybe that just means I’m getting soft.

  6. Chelsie Vera says:

    Thank you very much for such awesome templates, I have been finding for a while and these themes are what I trully like to use for my new blog.

  7. Ben Pritchard says:

    Yes..that crazy story.by amalfitano and the hilarious end ..is the basis of the book.for me..thanks for sharing.i been trying to find it after a time!

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