Roberto Bolano’s 2666

by Jess

Finishing Bolaño’s 2666 feels, I imagine, like it must feel to complete a very impressive, gargantuan five-course meal without knowing exactly what it is that you have eaten. I can tell you that I didn’t enjoy every moment of the experience, but you don’t have to love this novel to feel its weight and importance pressing into your brains. The critics have been much more eloquent than I at putting my response to this novel into words, so I turn largely to them for answers. As Adam Kirsch explains in his excellent Slate review:

According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.

By this standard, there is no doubt that Roberto Bolaño is a great writer. 2666, the enormous novel he had almost completed when he died at 50 in 2003, has the confident strangeness of a masterpiece: In almost every particular, it fails, or refuses, to conform to our expectations of what a novel should be.

2666 begins with the section called “The Part About the Critics,” which is laid out logically and linearly, and the reader easily falls into the familiar rhythm of novel-reading, though all along there are strange poetic interludes, passages that surely must mean something, symbols and metaphors that we readers have been trained to tuck away and turn back to later on for a message or moral. But then the section ends and “The Part About Amalfitano” begins, with different characters and a very different tone, making no reference to anything that happened in section one. And the scene-changing confusion continues through “The Part About Fate,” which I’d say was my least favorite; I found its central character to be sort of despicable, and it didn’t seem to add much to the whole or to carry as much weight as the other sections. And then the most engaging and horrific and strange section begins, “The Part About the Crimes,” where the center of gravity of the novel becomes clear: hundreds of women have been killed in a Mexican border town called Santa Teresa, the police unable or unwilling to identify or stop the killers, and — worst of all — it’s based on or inspired by real-life events in the town of Juarez, Mexico. Kirsch says of the many detailed and dispassionate accounts of the murders in this section,

The violence becomes simultaneously banal and unbearable in its sheer reiteration; at times, it requires a real effort to keep turning the pages. Yet in this way, Bolaño succeeds in restoring to physical violence something of its genuine evil, in a time when readers in the First World are used to experiencing it only as CSI-style entertainment.

The last section, “The Part about Archimboldi,” changes course again, abruptly putting us back into a conventional-seeming narrative and sort of, but not really, tying some things together in a strange and rather unsatisfying way.

Scott Esposito does a thorough job in his Quarterly Conversation review of explaining exactly what was so underwhelming about many parts of the novel, and he perfectly lays his finger on what I found disappointing about it. But I don’t want to linger too long on its weak notes, because that’s not the point. I think Lev Grossman’s Time review really nails 2666 the best. He says:

2666 is not a novel that any responsible critic could describe with words like brisk or taut. (Not like all those other brisk, taut 898-page novels.) That’s not Bolaño’s method. He’s addicted to unsolved mysteries and seemingly extraneous details that actually do turn out to be extraneous, and he loves trotting out characters — indelible thumbnail sketches — whom we will never encounter a second time. If three people spend the night at a hotel, you can count on Bolaño to stop the story cold for 10 pages while he describes each of their dreams. He’ll do it gorgeously, but still. This habit can be exhausting.

But the relentless gratuitousness of 2666has its own logic and its own power, which builds into something overwhelming that hits you all the harder because you don’t see it coming. This is a dangerous book, and you can get lost in it. How can art, Bolaño is asking, a medium of form and meaning, reflect a world that is blessed with neither? That is in fact a cesspool of chance and filth?
Amaia Gabanxto writes:
There are no defining moments in 2666. Mysteries are never resolved. Anecdotes are all there is. Freak or banal events happen simultaneously, inform each other and poignantly keep the wheel turning. There is no logical end to a Bolano book.
This surreal novel can’t be described; it has to be experienced in all its crazed glory. Suffice it to say it concerns what may be the most horrifying real-life mass-murder spree of all time: as many as 400 women killed in the vicinity of Juarez, Mexico. Given this as a backdrop, the late Bolaño paints a mural of a poverty-stricken society that appears to be eating itself alive. And who cares? Nobody, it seems.
It seems to me that Bolaño is asking some very hard questions, with evidence from our harsh reality to back them up. What does any of this matter, and why should anyone care? What is the point of any of it? Nothing makes any sense. Kirsch says (highlighting Natasha Wimmer’s sublime translation work),
Time and again, Bolaño hints, without ever quite saying, that what is happening in Santa Teresa is a symptom of a universal derangement in which hidden dimensions of reality are coming horribly to light. That is why so much of the activity of 2666 takes place not along the ordinary novelistic axes of plot and character but on the poetic, even mystical planes of symbol and metaphor.
That is one reason why the book is so hard to summarize—and why Natasha Wimmer’s lucid, versatile translation is so triumphant. 2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve.
I can’t say I’d necessarily recommend 2666, at least not to everyone. It’s terribly grim. In the end, what is left? I am, for one, and you are, and that’s at least two of us who can emerge from this darkness and step into the sun.