It’s hard to believe we’re in our fifth year of the Tournament of Books. Just think, five years ago Fantasia Barino was looking at a career and the United States had an economy. Now, along with the rest of American commerce, the book business seems to be teetering on the brink of disaster, but the quest for the Rooster remains as one of the year’s highlights. In honor of our five-year anniversary, we should tell the folks that, in contrast to previous tournaments, where we’ve entered our color commentary in states of ignorance, having read at best a fraction of the books in the tournament, this year Kevin and I embarked on an ambitious program to try to read all
of the competitors. At the time of this commentary I’ve read to completion 14 out of 16, and significant portions of two others (Shadow Country
). As of today, Kevin has read 13 out of 15 and much of one other (Shadow Country
). He didn’t quite make it to Netherland
before the buzzer.
This year, we’re bringing the heat, bitches!
Man, there was a lot of basketball stuff going on in Brockman’s judgment there. I know we kind of invited that with our March Madness-like brackets and our play-by-play commentary, but there might be such a thing as carrying an already thin metaphor too far. I’m just saying, you know, for future reference.
John, we cut our teeth as satirists and frankly there’s much to make fun of in Roberto Bolaño’s final novel, 2666
. For starters there is his comical obsession with the duration of sex acts. Virtually every time two or more people have sex Bolaño is compelled, like a fetishist Rain Man, to mark the minutes and seconds.
They screwed for an hour
They screwed for two hours
They screwed for three hours
They made love for three hours
They made love until five in the morning
They fucked until the sun came up
They made love for hours
They made love all night
Related to this, almost all the men in 2666
possess the stamina of Kryptonian decathletes in an oxygen tent, usually lasting far past the point when the women beneath them, satisfied but worn out, beg them to stop or, quite often, simply pass out from exhaustion:
(She) came three times
He fucked her until she was no more than a tremor in his arms
They screwed for an hour until (she) fell asleep.
They made love for three hours after which Norton
said that she was exhausted and went to sleep.
The sessions rarely lasted more than three hours, a fact that occasionally saddened Pelletier, who would have gladly screwed until daybreak.
Ingeborg liked to do it in bed, where she cried and writhed and came six or seven times
He had the stamina of a horse, too, because after swallowing some vodka he returned to the bed where the Baronness Von Zumpe was drowsing and after he had rearranged her he began to fuck her again
Good for Bolaño. We write what we know.
There was a point in the reading, probably when Bolaño described the appearance of a silhouette observed through an apartment window as being as if a breath of foul air wafted into a commercial for sanitary pads, that I set the novel on my lap, convinced I had discovered evidence the entire book was a deathbed joke.
A lot of people think this book is a masterpieceBrockman might be among them, I’m not entirely sure. And it actually might be. Because I have a theory that, in honor of 2666
’s second section, The Part About Amalfitano
(largely concerned with a geometry book hanging from a clothesline, itself a reference to a meaningful little joke by Duchamp), takes the form of a crude proof, and it goes like this:
- All novels are, on some level, failures.
- The greater a novel’s ambition, the greater the opportunities for failure.
- Novels that are considered masterpieces are always ones of grand ambition.
PROVED: All literary masterpieces must also be pretty terrible.
Critics love it when writers reach beyond their abilities, as they should. And in this book we have a talented and inventive writer swimming out of even his considerable depth, which gets a lot of people excited. 2666
is admirable in many ways for the attempt. It’s also sexist, homophobic, boring, repetitive, misogynistic, tedious, repetitive, infuriating, monotonous, repetitive, maddening. It also repeats itself. I’m going to get mail telling me misogynistic tedium is the point (2666
smashes the previous record for the number of times the phrase vaginally and anally raped is used in one volume), I know, so save it.
In his review
in the New York Times
, Jonathan Lethem (whose own work I always admire and frequently enjoy) said:
2666 is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world.
Lethem also says of the unexplained title, I think with a little tongue in his cheek, Perhaps 2666 is the year human memory will need to attain in order to bear the knowledge in 2666
In the first part of 2666
, one of the characters, Liz Norton, goes to a museum show by an artist whose own masterpiece was a series of giant self-portraits arranged around the artist’s own severed and mummified painting hand. I hadn’t known (the artist) was dead, Liz says. I thought he was still living in Switzerland, in a comfortable asylum, laughing at himself and most of all at us.
More like it, I think.
It’s possible that 2666
is a work of art, and it might even be an important one about the persistence of violence and death, cruelty and corruption. What I’m pretty sure it isn’t is a good novel.
But in the first round of the tournament we often have what you might call a gravitas gap, and in this case 2666
is certainly on the heavy side of that divide.
I share your frustration with 2666.
Admittedly, I’ve only read the first book, but I found it every bit as tedious as you seemed to. I’m willing to give a novel some leeway to warm up, but 160 pages seems more than enough.
Steer Toward Rock
glanced off me entirely. A week after completing it, I’d forgotten I’d even read it. This is no fault of the author’s. I’m confident that it’s not the book, it’s me.
Given the intellectual and critical megatonage behind 2666
telling me that the book is a masterpiece, I’m tempted to say it’s me and not the book, but you’ve given me the courage to stand-up and say, My name is John and I don’t think 2666
is a masterpiece, or if it is, it’s the kind of masterpiece that isn’t actually any fun to read on any level that I can detect.
If I can accept your challenge and stretch Judge Brockman’s basketball metaphor even further, Bolaño strikes me as being the Harlem Globetrotters of literature. There’s a lot of show-offy stuff going on that’s impressive in the moment that, for me, doesn’t add up to much. (The six-page long single sentence in Book 1 is perhaps the equivalent of a Curly Neal dribbling exhibition.) I may admire how Bolaño fakes us out by swapping the bucket full of water with one full of confetti, or for his ability to sneak up on the guy shooting a free throw and pull his shorts down, but in the end, I don’t give a shit about any of it and even though it’s moving to the next round, I can’t imagine diving back in for more.
The critics are the Washington Generals of my metaphor, in that they didn’t really have a chance against this book. Its size, its scope, the mythologizing of the author, the fact that it’s published on the heels of the almost equally praised The Savage Detectives
, the additional fact that it came pre-stamped as a masterpiece from the Latin American critical community all pretty much ensured a warm reception. Is someone really going to walk up to the great Meadowlark Lemon and swat his weak shit into the third row? Where’s the fun in that? It seems like each year there’s a craving for some big book that the heavy thinkers of our culture can rally around, the actual book being almost beside the point. This year, that book is 2666.