The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books
  • This is Round 1, Match 1 of the GEORGE PLIMPTON REGIONAL
  • March 9, 2009

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

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John: 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 and 2666). 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!

Kevin: 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…” (Twice.)

“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 masterpiece—Brockman 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:
  1. All novels are, on some level, failures.
  2. The greater a novel’s ambition, the greater the opportunities for failure.
  3. Novels that are considered “masterpieces” are always ones of grand ambition.
  4. 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.”

Yeah, maybe.

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.

John: 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.

Reader Comments

On March 9, 2009 at 5:00 PM Matte said…

Is perhaps the English version of /2666/ simply a bad translation of the original? The metaphor comparing a silhouette to a foul air wafting into a sanitary pad ad -- this sounds to me like a foreign language idiom translated on too literal a basis. Who knows? Is it possible, even if not likely, that in comparing the sanitary pad commercial and the window, and their respective 'corruptions' (by foul odor and silhouette), that Bolano is making some kind of general philosophical comment on how human abstractions are inevitably 'corrupted' or 'altered' by objective reality? Less defensible are the sex marathons, because even if you grant the Latin-American phrases for "two hours," "three hours," etc. the same status as the Hebraic phrase "40 days" -- i.e., a specific length of time meant to signify only a general sense of "a long time" -- you're still just talking some guy just banging away for banging's sake.

All of which doesn't explain away /2666/'s rampant misogyny and theatrical writerly athleticism. But then again, maybe the Rooster award doesn't require those things be explained away. The Rooster is a bantam; its eponym (Paul Sedaris) is a funny, vulgar, entertaining strutting red cock of a literary character.

And so it seems to me ultimately pretty damning of /2666/'s Rooster potential that John writes "...[it] isn’t actually any fun to read on any level that I can detect.”

On March 9, 2009 at 5:02 PM matt said…

I'm pretty surprised at this 2666-is-misogynistic talk. Some characters are, but...

On March 9, 2009 at 5:23 PM Pete said…

I've always admired contrarians.

On March 9, 2009 at 8:24 PM Zach Soldenstern said…

I think I can kill a few birds with one stone here, though they may not stay dead for you. First: I'm 99.9% certain that the sex/hours thing (with the exception of the Hungarian "horse") is a joke - the kind that gets funnier each time it's told. In this case, the exformation (the little bit that gets left out, which is why it's funny), is that this is exactly how men (particularly adolescents or grown men stuck in adolescence) want to think about sex - just as teenagers always drank 14 beers last night, or stayed up until 5 a.m. studying. And so this is how the voice, first person or third person free indirect, records it - as wish fulfillment. The same joke crops up in The Savage Detectives a lot. "She came three times." I don't think we're meant to believe, necessarily, that she came even once. I don't think we're meant to believe that the men can get beyond their own needs long enough to even care. In 2666, though, the joke deepens into tragedy, because in the third, fourth, and fifth sections (which you read, right?) we see "misogyny" (a quality of the characters, and sometimes of Bolano, but usually not of both at the same time) get played out physically, rather than merely verbally.

Bolano calls an equal amount of tension to his impossible-to-picture similes, about the foul air and what not - there are literally hundreds of them in the book, often strung together with an "or," as if the narrator knows that he's coming nowhere close to capturing what he wants to. These are, in part, a joke, too - a joke about writing, and about life - albeit a more difficult to unpack joke.

If you can appreciate Bolano's near-constant sense of humor, as slippery as Kafka's, but much more dependent on being able to distinguish narrator from author, the book is indeed fun. A lot of fun. As well as being very, very intense.

If not, not. (You might see Sam Sacks' review at Open Letters monthly for an exemplary critique, albeit one that also missed the humor. But it's important to at least entertain the "it's me, it's not the book posture," because with a novel like this, mere contrarianism can be toxic. It licenses people inclined to write the book off to do so without giving themselves the chance to be proven wrong. Granted, having to read 900 pages just to be proven wrong may hold little appeal...

On March 10, 2009 at 8:52 AM John Warner said…

A thoughtful and compelling argument for 2666, I think. And yet, even as I can acknowledge the reasonable and sensible conclusions Zach Soldenstern makes, it doesn't move my response to the book a millimeter. If the book's meant to be humorous, it flew over my head (perhaps lost in translation). If there's tension or a compelling reason to keep reading, it wasn't lodging in my brain.

But it is fair to say that it's probably not the book, and it's probably not me, but is, instead, the both of us, a failure to meet, which explains the alchemy that has to exist for the reading experience to click. I probably went overboard in my quest to entertain, but maybe my comment gave some solace to others to stand up and say, "I don't get it."

On March 10, 2009 at 9:24 AM Keith Hollihan said…

I'm about half way through 2666 (1333). Much of the first two volumes feels like a series of out-takes from Savage Detectives, so yeah, I was starting to get weary of Bolano. But then he switches to the voice of the American journalist, and it's so stylistically distinctive and pitch perfect you can't help but wonder, Is writing an American novel this easy? Point is, I think there's more going on with Bolano than the easy shots imply, though I share some of the concerns, too. I don't think he's overhyped in the typical sense so much as Bolano seems bigger than the reviews can make room for and they don't quite know how to digest him.

On March 10, 2009 at 11:17 AM Marilyn Doerr said…

I am still working my way through "Savage Inequalities," so I can't yet make comment on the Bolano book itself, but I did finish reading Brockman's review wondering if he had indeed read it. He could have read the blurbs, the first sentence, and any of the reviews in other publications, and gotten by with what he ended up writing. If I were Faye Ng, I would be ticked.

On March 10, 2009 at 12:44 PM Kallen Law said…

Really, the fact that you guys barely, if even, mentioned Steer Toward Rock just makes you two look reactionary re: 2666's praise... which is warranted.

On March 13, 2009 at 7:10 PM Jon said…

I know this may be about as cliched as one can get... but this is as clear a case of 'not getting' a piece of literature as I've seen (re: 2666). The absurdly exaggerated male sexuality is not only pure Bolano (and occasionally hilarious, occasionally tragic), it's absolutely central to the themes explored in the novel. Hell, I'd say the book's ultimate success nearly hinges on it.

2666 is an absolute masterpiece.

On March 26, 2009 at 3:51 PM God of Books said…

Change your opinions, guys. Jon says it's a masterpiece. "Absolute," no less!