I wish that 2666
made it through to the finals.
There, I said it.
Don’t get me wrong, the appeal of the book still largely mystifies me, but I think it is, hands down, the 2009 ToB MVP. No book has generated more controversy, more discussion, more passion, and I think it would’ve been great to justyou knowhave it out once and for all in a final battle royale with each of our distinguished judges weighing in on the choice.
It’s kind of like how I thought I’d be glad that Billy Packer was done as the lead color man for the NCAA tournament. Packer infuriated me, with this pro-ACC bias and his refusal to ever criticize a coach, and his, you know, racism. But in watching this year’s other March Madness, I’ve got to say, maybe I miss the old coot a little. I think he’s a know-nothing, self-important shithead, but isn’t that interesting?
Nah, Packer’s an asshole, good riddance, long live Clark Kellogg.
The Rookie of the Year Award goes to our commenters. The audience comments are, by far, the most interesting new feature of the tournament, perhaps ever, and I know they’ve pushed me to reconsider my own thoughts dozens of times.
While the tournament always demonstrates the incredible diversity among books, I think 2666
has done the most to demonstrate the range of differences among readers. Unless you’re in a reading group, most of us do our reading in isolation and I think it becomes easy to think that our individual opinion about a book is the definitive one and if someone differs, they’re either: A. Wrong, or B. Defective.
As is demonstrated in my first round comments on Netherland
, I’m as prone to this attitude as anyone.
I’m pretty sure I detect this attitude in some of the pro-2666
pushback against our criticisms as well, like in this comment from the semis
2666 is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It changed how I think of words and stories. It’s bigness and bagginess is a boon, not a flaw, thought (sic) the small-minded often miss that, as well as miss the ways the five parts connect.
Small-minded, ouch! Hey, I voted for Obama too! I like salad with lettuce other than iceberg. I’ve even watched movies with subtitles!
My hat size is 7 3/4.
I don’t want to speak for all of 2666
’s boosters, but it seems to me that there’s a strain running through the praise that suggests that one of the reasons people may respond to the book is that they enjoy figuring it out, that it is a sort of puzzle that Bolaño is inviting us to put together as best we can. That it defies order therefore becomes a virtue.
As another commenter said
in that same semi-final round:
What I love about 2666 is that I can’t get my hands around it. What I think distinguishes me from those who aren’t in love with it, is that I think it is worth continuing to grapple with. If it is a garrulous drunk at a bar, it is a drunk who knows something, if you can figure out what it is.
It seems to me that this person’s reading experience is rooted in the question of what does it mean? or what is this book trying to say?
There’s still another comment
in the previous round where one of our readers relates a friend’s thoughts on our commentary on 2666
where she said, For my part I was bored by that ‘criticism’a lot of yapping about the tediousness of 2666, and no critical ‘meat’ to speak of. Utterly uninteresting. According to our commentator she went on to say of 2666
, This is a tour de force, this merciless hammering in cold outrage at the beastliness the world hardly acknowledges
Bolaño doesn’t look the other way. He rubs our faces in it. In my book he’d be great for doing that if he’d done nothing else
This merciless hammering is indeed what Bolaño has done. It is his meaning. I don’t think that I have any objections to that kind of thematic underpinning. In fact, I think it’s a fairly accurate representation of the most common themes of one of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, but I couldn’t appreciate it in Bolaño because I was too busy being bored.
Put another way, I couldn’t hear the wisdom from the drunk at the bar because I couldn’t stop noticing how he was throwing up on his own shoes, and then my shoes. Now, perhaps it’s an open question as to whether this is a me problem or a book problem, or not a problem at all, but it seems like it’s the crux of the matter.
However, I think this commenter’s friend is a little unfair in saying that there’s no critical meat to our comments. In fact, your comment is full of critical meat, it’s just that the criticism deals with elements of the writerly craft, rather than the book’s content. This is an approach where the questions driving the experience are more like what has he done? and how has he done that? rather than what does it mean?
It’s not surprising you’d have this sort of reading bias, you’re a novelist, and you tend to read as a novelist does. I’m pretty much the same way, probably because I’ve spent too much time teaching creative writing, though I don’t have a critically and popularly acclaimed novel in my past to back me up. That Bolaño offers up a message from the darkest depths of humanity doesn’t matter to me because the book wasn’t crafted in a way that allows me to access it. I think maybe this helps explain how you and I ended up with a lot of similar takes throughout the tourney as well. It seems that as readers, we’re wired pretty similarly.
It’s also not surprising that, at a craft level, 2666
is pretty much a mess given that the author died before he could finish it and it may even be missing 1/6th of itself. In hindsight, this book probably didn’t have a chance with me. The books that I was personally most absorbed byUnaccustomed Earth, The Dart League King, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Northern Clemency
all made me forget that I was reading a book. I also recognize now that during the reading experience, I didn’t give a shit about what any of these books might mean, I was just along for the ride.
It didn’t bother me that there’s a certain similarity to the characters and conflicts in the stories in Unaccustomed Earth
, or that, in the words of another commentator, The Dart League King
might be a dude book for dudes, or that Frankie Landau-Banks is 15 and the book is a genre that almost 39-year-old married men aren’t supposed to read. Those authors put me there, inside their stories. In contrast, 2666
never let me forget I was reading a book, and an important one no less.
I’m just that kind of reader and I think you are too. I think we may be in the minority on that, though, as many of our favorite titles were eliminated early and the peanut gallery has been pro-2666
Oh my God. I just realized that I
might be Billy Packer. Am I Billy Packer? Please don’t let me be Billy Packer.
I agree completely about the commenters, who transformed this year’s tourney into a lively and illuminating conversation, and also about 2666
, which I was kind of hoping would make it to the finals, as well. I think it would have been interesting to hear 17 opinions of it all at once, and especially 17 comparisons to another book that is in many ways its oppositerealist, accessible, quite easy to get your hands around. If the opaqueness of 2666
is one of its strengths, I think the transparency of City of Refuge
is probably one of its weaknesses. I liked City of Refuge
a great deal (and Piazza defeated Bolaño once), but I don’t know which way that final would have gone.
As for today’s match, I think Bolaño is trying to probe a little deeper, but nobody can teach Morrison anything about writing a novel, and A Mercy
is so effective in part because she wasn’t tempted to bloat it to masterpiece length (or maybe I should say she had the luxury of honing it into the book she wanted it to be).
What Bolaño does well, he does very, very well. What he does poorly he does very, very poorly. As you say, when two people disagree about 2666
, the dispute becomes not about Bolaño as much as the things the reader values. The readers who love it hardly notice the lack of cohesion, the plots that go nowhere, the absence of tension, the misogyny and homophobia, the sexual wish-fulfillment, the poor characterization. They focus instead on the occasional (but certainly real) transcendence of the prose, the raw and unsentimental window on humanity, the truly profound monologues on the nature of art, and (I guess) the experience of being numbed by endlessly repetitive descriptions of violence done to women, and the sensation of having their face rubbed in the beastliness of the world.
The people who don’t like it, vice-versa.
is probably a novel that’s more about the experience of reading it, and this particular experience might defy description by either its supporters or its detractors. As a result you shouldn’t take anybody’s word for it, least of all mine. The only way to get a handle on this book is to open it up and start reading.
So, we have our finals, a #1 seed in A Mercy
going up against #3 seeded underdog City of Refuge
. This is pretty much our pattern every year, one Goliath and one David, and in all but the first year when David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
took the title from The Plot Against America
in a pretty close contest, the Goliath has come out on top.
This is one of the rare occasions during the tourney when you and I don’t know what’s already happened in at least some of the future rounds as we write our commentaries, so we can make actual, untainted, predictions. If I had a vote in the finals, it would be for A Mercy
as my esteem for it continues to grow with distance even as my good opinion of City of Refuge
becomes ever fainter.
However, despite this personal preference, and even in the face of the fact that anyone who has judged A Mercy
has praised it to the rafters, I’m going to go out on a limb and this time, predict a victory for David (City of Refuge
) over Goliath (A Mercy
I really don’t know how to handicap the finals. Few writers can match Morrison on skills. As you and others point out, much of the appeal of City of Refuge
comes from the fact that it’s based on real events. Katrina was something all of us remember vividly. But almost all of us watched it unfold on television and there is something enormously satisfying and moving about a novel’s ability to transport the reader into the lives of people who actually lived through the horror of it. Not even an excellent documentary on the subject can do that in the same way that fiction can. If this novel had been about a natural disaster that didn’t actually happen, would we be talking about it on the eve of the ToB finals? Maybe not. But I still think the emotion in the novel is earned, even if much of it originates in the memory of the reader. Piazza made some smart choices in telling this story and I think the result is extremely effective.
We haven’t disagreed much in this year’s tourney, but I’m going to take the other side of your bet. If I were a judge, I would probably vote for City of Refuge
, but I’m going to predict the panel gives the Rooster to Morrison. This might be a reversal of something I said earlier, but I think the experience of reading these particular books back-to-back will favor A Mercy
And if that happens Morrison will be a worthy champ.