Kevin, I know that our commentaries are meant to be dialogs back and forth between the two of us, but for today’s contest, I feel compelled to address 2666
directly.An Open Letter to the Novel 2666 by Robert Bolaño
In my commentary
on your first-round contest with Steer Toward Rock
I said some not particularly kind things about you. I doubted your status as masterpiece. I called you tedious. I implied (OK, more than implied) that your warm critical reception is at least partially, if not primarily a function of groupthink.
But I must admit that the strength of tide of your support has me doubting those conclusions. A staggering 93 percent of our peanut gallery agreed with your victory (though to be fair, so did I). Since our first meeting you have won the National Book Critics Circle award. In the comments on that commentary I was told I look, reactionary. And now, Maud Newton, a reader whose taste I find virtually unimpeachable, also finds you compelling and puts you through to the next round.
So, I tried you again. But in the end, I’m afraid that I just can quit you. Your champions tell me that the litany of sex acts in Book One and the interchangeability of the male characters is part of the point, Bolaño is illustrating the shallowness of the male psyche when it comes to sex and human relationships. It is funny. It is ironic.
Or Book Four where we are given a litany of horrific details about how women have been raped and murdered. Eventually, the horror gives way to numbness as the body count rises beyond counting. This is the point, your backers say. Bolaño is demonstrating how we become immune to violence as we are exposed to more and more of it.
Fair enough, possibly. I’m almost ready to admit that it’s not you, it’s me. I’m the problem. I’m failing to see your genius because of the reactionary scrim over my eyes.
But then, I read first round judge Brockman’s semi-confessional
that he didn’t really get you either.
And I also start to wonder if some of your supporters aren’t guilty of the imitative fallacy where we can explain away the tedium and numbing quality of the experience by saying the tedium is the point. The book is sprawling and unfocussed and refuses to resolve because life is sprawling and unfocused and refuses to resolve. You are offering us nothing less than the sum total of the human experience in all its numbing tediousness.
Under this model, even if we decide that the whole thing is an ultra-meta in-joke designed to see how far critics will stretch themselves in order to rationalize a masterpiece, you’ve got us covered because you can always say, well, that was the point. You have become a vessel into which we can pour just about anything, which I suppose is something.
In the end, what I’m forced to recognize is that it’s not you, and it’s not me, it’s us. You and I just aren’t compatible. I suppose I can appreciate you as an object of fascination, but I’m not entirely convinced there’s anything sincere about you and so while I hope we part friends, I think it’s important that we part once and for all. I know we’re going to have to spend more time together in the next round and quite possibly the Zombie round and finals as well, but I think I’ll probably spend most of my time commenting about whatever book(s) you’re matched against, or something entirely unrelated, which is what I’ve done in previous years when I hadn’t bothered to read any of the books in the tournament.
Just so you know, I’ll be taking you to the library sale where I hope you’ll be able to find a good home.
There are few people out there who talk about books with more class and intelligence than Maud. And frankly it’s not hard to see how 2666
got past A Partisan’s Daughter
(or Steer Toward Rock
). If you put 2666
on a table next to either of those books and left the room, the Bolaño would probably eat them all by itself.
After Bolaño’s first-round win several champions of the book stated that you and I hadn’t really justified why we don’t think 2666
is very good. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to mix it up in the comments, but as long as we’re going to have this novel to kick around for a little while, let me pick up where I left off.
Did you ever hear a six-year-old try to describe a TV show he’s just watched, and his confused re-telling of what happened takes longer than watching the actual show? Reading 2666
is like listening to someone tell you about a story he’s heard and doesn’t remember very well. You always feel once or twice removed from the action. A lot of the description is vague or passive. The narrator frequently forgets something important that happened in a previous scene and so he just inserts it five pages later. It’s almost as if Bolaño meant to go back and move these sentences to their proper place but either forgot or ran out of time.
And it’s boring. Especially the first 250 pages or so. It gets a little better after that, almost like the first two books were a test of the reader’s dedication. Despite Bolaño’s alleged instructions that each of the five sections should be released as separate novels over five years, the third part, which is about an American journalist who travels to Mexico to see a boxing match, is the only book of the five that could actually survive in some form on its own. Book Four tries to take certain elements of crime novels and fashion them into something, but what he fashions them into isn’t nearly as interesting as an actual crime novel. I counted 106 murdered women in this section (I might have missed some), all with names and backstories, their ultimate fates described in gruesome detail. Incredibly there is a complete absence of tension to accompany any of it. As you point out Bolaño’s defenders will say that numbness is supposed to be the point. The question you have to ask yourself is whether the experience of being numbed by this book is worth the price of being bored by it.
Perhaps the heart of my disagreement with people who love 2666
is simply a semantic one over the definition of a novel (they will almost certainly tell me this too is the point). There are scenes here and there that resemble plot, and figures we’ll call characters, but none of them actually add up to a story. After 900 pages the revelation at the end is barely worth the calories required to shrug. The novel doesn’t have a narrative arc so much as a narrative starburst, with fuzzy ideas and events unraveling in all different directions, occasionally referring to each other in superficial ways but never ending and never much resolving. The effect is more like somebody blew up a novel and glued it back together as best he could even if he couldn’t find all the pieces.
And maybe that’s exactly what Bolaño did. There is news of a missing sixth book to 2666 recently discovered among the author’s papers
. This could be a joke (and the people who have given awards to 2666
, a group that may soon include us, are probably hoping it is), but the fact that they might have published only 5/6 of this novel and nobody’s even noticed until now is actually kind of unsurprising. Adding another 200 pages probably wouldn’t change it in any material way, other than lengthwise. Heck, if you had taken an entire section of the existing book away
any of the first three sections reallyI doubt anyone would have missed them either.
As you mention, with maybe two exceptions, the male characters are hardly differentiated from one another. Each sounds pretty much like all the others, and they are all mostly unpleasant. The men they don’t respect are always faggots or cocksuckers. The women in 2666
exist in order to be worshipped or to be fucked or to be tortured and murdered. If a woman isn’t an object of worship, she’s a whore. Actual whores, who are far more populous in the world of this novel than they are in the real lives of literary critics and magazine journalists (or at least I think so), are also whores.
It’s all pretty tedious even though Bolaño can be occasionally interesting or even profound. For instance, there is a thousand-word rant, appropriately enough about literary ambition, starting around page 785Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed
that’s so good (and directly relevant to the work in a self-referential way) it manages to jolt you out of your reading stupor. I’m guessing that one out of a hundred people who pick up 2666
will ever get to page 785. There is other good stuff, much of it in the final book, but finding it is like feeling around for pieces of hay in a needlestack.
In the afterward, the editor says that Bolaño left behind a note explaining that the narrator is someone named Arturo Belano. Belano is a fictional writer who doesn’t appear anywhere in 2666
, but he is a character in other Roberto Bolaño stories where I’m told he acts as the author’s alter ego. So if I interpret that correctly, Bolaño is telling us that 2666
is supposed to be a novel written not by Bolaño but by Belano, which would make all the people in this book not fictional characters, but fictional
fictional characters. Maybe that’s why I didn’t care about any of them.
Bolaño fans no doubt find all of that exciting. I would rather read 900-page novels that haven’t been blowed up so good.
On to Zombie news. A Partisan’s Daughter
has now been eliminated and so we check to see where it fared in Zombie voting and we find that it didn’t do all that well. It tied for 13th, in fact. So our Zombie leaders remain the same. Through today’s match the top four (in alphabetical order) are:
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
- Steer Toward Rock
- Unaccustomed Earth