Monday, November 10, 2008

The Part about What Doesn't Fit in a Review

{Photos by rocketlass.}

After all that dithering, I finally wrote a review of Roberto Bolaño's posthumous brick of a novel 2666. It's up at the Front Table blog of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore (the bookstore of choice for our incoming First Family!).

Since I finished my review, I've read a handful of other reviews, and what's been most striking is the way they collectively demonstrate the capaciousness of the novel: each emphasizes some different aspect, and hardly any of us draw on more than one or two of the same quotations in the course of describing and appraising the book. All of which makes me think a brief collection of odds and ends, half-formed thoughts that didn't make it into the review, may be warranted.

1 Adam Kirsch is right in his review for Slate:
It is a shame for a reviewer to have to reveal even the outlines of these stories: The best way to experience 2666 is without warning, as in a dream in which you find yourself on a road that could lead absolutely anywhere.
So if you're a Bolaño fan, I recommend bookmarking this and the other reviews to read when you're all done. And have rested.

2 More than in any others of his novels I've read, Bolaño in 2666 explicitly takes up and repudiates the idea of the detective novel--a form that I assume he must have loved. Throughout the novel, we get hints that Bolaño is eventually going to offer us answers to the many questions he raises, and, more important, a solution to the murders at the center of the book. Anyone who's read Bolaño before knows deep down that such a resolution is unlikely--incompleteness is his metier--but, especially when in the company of a couple of characters who fancy themselves detectives, we again and again find ourselves sucked into the delusion that the world can be put to rights if only we can find the answer.

Which, in a way, is similiar to Bolaño's greatest overall achievement as a writer, the sense he gives that his entire fictional universe, big and messy and incomplete, could just maybe be understood if only we could find the key, tilt our brains at the right angle, peer through the right scrim. We can't help but imagine that it's like what one of the critics from the novel's first section found in his hotel bathroom:
In Pelletier's bathroom the toilet bowl was missing a chunk. It wasn't visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted, the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier.
But as Bolano himself is always at pains to remind us, "Behind every answer lies a question." The reverse is never true, is it?

2 The novel's fourth section, "The Part about the Crimes," is unquestionably the dark heart of the book, its reason for being. I write about it at length in my review, arguing that it's a challenge to the reader, a demand that we not turn away from evil, madness, and suffering. In its depiction of brutality and horror, "The Part about the Crimes" is the direct opposite of something like the Saw franchise: films like that challenge us not to be squeamish--to tamp down our natural reactions and feelings enough to keep watching atrocities; 2666 asks us to fully feel, yet look anyway, because this is the way our species lives.

3 In his review of 2666 for the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Lethem notes,
Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules, against dream sequences, against mirrors as symbols, against barely disguised nods to his acquaintances, and so on.
To that you can add his repeated violation of the overplayed "show-don't-tell" dictum. Bolaño loves to deliver thumbnail sketches of characters, often assembled with a bit of whimsy, telling us essential and pointless information all in a jumble, but leaving us at the end with a good sense of the person he's invented. This passage, introducing one of the literary critics from the novel's first part, is a particularly good example:
Liz Norton, on the other hand, wasn't what one would ordinarily call a woman of great drive, which is to say that she didn't draw up long- or medium-term plans and throw herself wholeheartedly into their execution. She had none of the attributes of the ambitious. When she suffered, her pain was clearly visible, and when she was happy, the happiness she felt was contagious. She was incapable of setting herself a goal and striving steadily toward it. At least, no goal was appealing or desirable enough for her to pursue it unreservedly. Used in a personal sense, the phrase "achieve an end" seemed to her a small-minded snare. She preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness. If volition is bound to social imperatives, as William James believed, and it's therefore easier to go to war than it is to quit smoking, one could say that Liz Norton was a woman who found it easier to quit smoking than to go to war.
He also likes to relate the impressions characters make on one another, with this account of Amalfitano, the madman of the book's second part, offering a good example, giving at the same time a hint of the apocalyptic language that suffuses the book:
The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place, except that the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape, whereas Amalfitano could only be considered a castaway, a carelessly dressed man, a nonexistent professor at a nonexistent university, the unknown soldier in a doomed battle against barbarism, or, less melodramatically, as what he ultimately was , a melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field, on the back of a capricious and childish beast that would have swallowed Heidegger in a single gulp if Heidegger had had the bad luck to be born on the Mexican-North American border.

4 Individual lines jump out of the 900 pages of the book like true jewels, epigrams cryptic, gnomic, savage, and unforgettable--too long to Twitter, too short to leave drowning in the sea of the novel. Like this frozen moment from the time when Amalfitano's wife was slowly, repeatedly deciding to leave him:
Another time he found her sitting on a seafront bench at La Concha, at an hour when the only people out walking were two opposite types: those running out of time and those with time to burn.
Or this metaphor to explain metaphor, tinged as it is with crazy:
Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life-jacket. And remember, there are lifejackets that float and others that sink to the bottom like lead. Best not to forget it.
Or this seemingly personal statement on authorship:
Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. . . . The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.
2666 is a novel whose length, detail, and relentlessness force the reader into a sort of trance-like submission for stretches--but then without warning Bolaño jerks us back to full attention with a moment of flawless craft. He has created the inverse of a horror film, where the horror is constant enough to numb and the release comes in the occasional pulling back to the possible perfections of a moment, embodied in the craft of language. "A horror film," thinks one character, "where everything has come to a halt, and it comes to a halt because it knows it's lost."

5 And then there's this:
"We've gotten used to death," he heard the young man say.

"It's always been that way," said the white-haired man, "always."
Though it's been more than five years since Bolaño's death, those of us who have only recently begun to explore his world are barely beginning to realize what we've lost. The white-haired man may be right, but he's also dead wrong.


  1. I'm curious Levi if you'll be reading "The Romantic Dogs," now that it's coming out. Bolano's smaller pieces, his poems and short stories (and his essays, too), contain crystallizations of things that can be found in the larger body - not even moments or characters, really, as much as states of mind or feelings - elements that seem familiar to what has come before and which we recognize on their reappearance (the year 2666, for instance, is used at the ending of Amulet as a metaphor for reconciliation, maybe, or as a day of judgment)
    Bolano's fragmentary sentence construction reflects that, too: themes are repeated and expanded, and new things come in and change, and at the end, when you look at it altogether all those fragments begin to melt and take on the form of a cohesive whole... Last year The Believer published an excellent and very moving piece by Rodrigo Fresan that I think could serve as a sort of skeleton key or companion piece to his work; I recommend it if you haven't read it yet.

  2. ctorre,
    Actually, I recently wrote a review of The Romantic Dogs as well, for the Quarterly Conversation, which should appear in its next issue. And you're right: a lot of these images and--good phrase--states of mind--appear there, too. I'd completely forgotten that 2666 turns up at the end of Amulet as well, while apparently A Distant Star, which I've not yet read, picks up the detective theme, as, it seems, does the next book on New Directions's translation list, The Ice Rink. I wonder what connections Bolano's as yet untranslated works have to offer.

    Meanwhile, you've convinced me to buy that back issue of the Believer--thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Incidentally, there is a scene I should call your attention to: while in London, the three critics Pelletier, Espinoza and Norton watch a couple standing next to the Peter Pan statue in Kensington, and they see the man make a note to himself and say "Kensington Gardens," and then they all watch a snake slither away into the park. This man is Rodrigo Fresan (his book, "Kensington Gardens," was translated a few years ago by Natasha Wimmer, the translator of 2666).
    There are probably hundreds of these kinds of cameos strewn throughout the book.

  4. I can see Enrique Vila-Matas all throughout the later parts of Part V.