Roberto Bolaño's 2666 has been described as "the most electrifying literary event of the year" (Lev Grossman, Time), as "a landmark in what's possibleRoberto Bolaño's 2666 has been described as "the most electrifying literary event of the year" (Lev Grossman, Time), as "a landmark in what's possible for the novel as a form" (Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review), as "a work of devastating power and complexity" (Adam Mansbach, The Boston Globe), as "the work of a literary genius" (Francine Prose, Harper's Magazine), and, repeatedly, as a masterpiece.
Adam Kirsch of Slate.com writes that "2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve."
Boyd Tonkin claims that "2666 offers everything that fiction can – and then gives even more."
And, combining Bolaño's biography and art, one critic writes, "His death, in the last moments of its creation, applies the final indeterminate Bolañesco touch: mystery, openness, imperfection—a simultaneous promise of everything and of nothing."
But none of that is what I found in this book. Instead of being the epitome of the art of the novel or its salvation, 2666 is, for me, an ambitious attempt at greatness that fails. It represents also the failure of literary critics to recognize the difference between great literature, mediocre literature in the shape of great literature, and pretentions to greatness that are bolstered by a romantic life and an early death.
Typically, a good novel will have an interesting plot, significant character development, or thematic or political significance. 2666, though, lacks all of these things. It has a merely perfunctory plot, a total lack of character development as characters remain flat and distant and come and go with no fanfare, and any central theme or political significance is deeply buried within the overwhelming level of detail. Even more, a good novel is one that does something: creates an emotional response in the reader, teaches something, illuminates an issue or makes a political statement. This novel does none of those things.
My primary problem, though, is that this a novel with no joy in it. The characters are all deadened and distant, lacking connection with others and satisfaction with their lives; the plot, such as it is, focuses on rape and murder, lost people, and war; and the style consistently holds the reader at arm's length from all of this. This joylessness seems to be intentional, but that doesn't make it any more pleasurable, interesting, or rewarding to read.
Giles Harvey writes of 2666, "Samuel Beckett, the original laureate of failure, needed only a few pages of dialogue or prose to suggest an infinity of excruciating boredom; Bolaño chooses to actually subject us to that boredom, for 900 pages."
There are books that function precisely because of this lack of joy, to make a point or to highlight, by contrast, something fundamental about humanity. Richard Wright's Native Son is such a novel. It takes us into the psyche of Bigger Thomas, a rage-filled and frustrated young black man in 1930s Chicago, as he rapes and murders two young women. This is a novel without much hope and without much light, mired as it is in Bigger's world, but this darkness is purposeful, designed to bring a problem to light and effect political change. Similarly, Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a beating of a book in the way it emphasizes desolation and loss. But, again, even if there is no hope for the characters in the plot, there is a sort of redemption in the relationship developed between father and son.
The darkness in Bolaño's 2666 is different, though. Part 1, "The Part About the Critics," tells the story of four European literary critics in search of an author, Benno von Archimboldi, and their (mostly) unfulfilling love affairs with one another; Part 2, "The Part About Amalfitano," is about one man in Santa Teresa (a town in Mexico that has been plagued by a series of rapes and murders of young woman and which was modeled on Juárez, in which a real-life series of rapes and murders took place during the 1990s) who gradually loses his grip on reality; Part 3, "The Part About Fate," follows an African American reporter called Oscar Fate who comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match and winds up being drawn into the mystery surrounding the disappearances there; Part 4, "The Part About the Crimes," does little more than clinically detail hundreds of crimes against women, many of them involving similar young women who have been "anally and vaginally raped" and then murdered, and follow the half-hearted attempts of the local police to solve said crimes; and Part 5, "The Part About Archimboldi," finally tells readers who the author from Part 1 really is, where he came from, what shaped him (mostly World War II, it seems), and what has become of him. The parts are only loosely related to one another and none of them contain any closure.
Giles Harvey, again, writes, "The book is a monstrosity, an immense negation of everything we expect literature to provide: form, insight, redemption, happiness. It seems to want to inflict itself upon us. I have suggested that the book is a failure. Yet to call 2666 a failure feels somehow tautological: Bolaño's imagination was underwritten by the idea that every human impulse is ultimately thwarted, cancelled, destroyed."
This drive toward failure is therefore distinct from the darkness found in Native Son and The Road. Its only purpose, after all, it seems, is to destroy all hope and to impart Bolaño's bleak worldview, a worldview which itself does nothing.
The most striking instance of this is in Part 4, about the crimes. Some reviewers have argued that the book makes a political statement about the treatment of and attitude toward women that allows this kind of rape and murder to continue unabated, some have called his writing about the epidemic of rape and murder compassionate, some have even claimed his coverage of the killings can be called feminist. Michael Berger writes, "The sheer audacity of the novel is that it reads at times as the ultimate indictment of Bolaño’s gender, his own dreams and desires, and especially the culture of machismo, gangsterism, and tyranny that passes for masculinity in many parts of the world." A review from the New York Magazine Book Review claims that Bolaño
humanizes not only the women and their families but the corrupt police and even the murder suspects. It’s a perfect fusion of subject and method: The real-world horror anchors Bolaño’s dreamy aesthetic, producing an impossibly powerful hybrid of political anger and sophisticated art.
Berger also describes the style of Part 4 by saying that the murders are described "in a neutral, matter-of-fact style that serves to humanize the victims."
The overwhelming and clinical detail surrounding the murders do little for me in the way of humanizing the victims, however. They all start to sound the same. The names may be different, but the details are all too similar. This seems the opposite of humanizing, actually. And this is an important point to dwell upon because all of the things these positive reviews claim-- that it is political literature, Bolaño's compassion, that it is feminist--depend for their effectiveness not on deadening the reader or highlighting the horrors of humanity but on drawing the reader in, creating an emotional connection, and even pushing the reader to change the way she or he thinks and even acts.
Bolaño's work, thorough as it is, does not do this. When everyone in the novel is distant and half-dead, even the good guys (such as they are), what does it matter if women are being raped and killed? When even the reader is deadened by the effort of reading the novel, what does it matter?
Furthermore, "The Part About the Crimes," in which Bolaño details several years' worth of rapes and murders in Santa Teresa, in which hundreds of women are brutalized, violated, mutilated, and killed and are only distinguished from one another in many cases by quickly-passed-over names and clinical descriptions of how they were found and what they were wearing when they were found, serves only to deaden. The women who are killed are no more than objects, evidence of a crime wave. Reading this section, one cannot help but wonder at the sheer volume of the crimes described. Bolaño is clearly trying to make a point by depicting each and every one of the crimes, trying to represent the breadth of this problem, but it loses all meaning eventually. Why depict hundreds of dead and violated women's bodies when the point could be made with a far smaller number? Why not allow the reader to extrapolate from an already horrifying number? One cannot help but wonder, as I've said, but not only at the number of women killed (which is what Bolaño attempts to highlight here); one cannot help but wonder if at some level there is a perverse pleasure on the part of the author or intended for the reader in seeing this violence against women enacted over and over and over again. At some point it crosses a line between instructive and twisted.
At least one critic takes note of this. John Lingan writes, "When we read this parade of atrocity, particularly in light of the other moments in 2666 when women are raped or otherwise forcibly used for sex, it’s hard not to imagine that Bolaño took some small level of skewed enjoyment from the project."
Bolaño's living women are equally problematic. As Victor Manley writes, "All of the women are either nymphomaniac, indecisive, fickle, insane, unnatural or a colourful selection of the above." For a so-called feminist novel, then, 2666 is sorely lacking in convincing female characters and in an understanding of women's actual lives. Bolaño does evince some concern with the situation that leads to women being raped and murdered, but I am not sure that that's enough.
As Jonathan Birch writes, "Emotionally, for all its absurd scope (why read ten different novels when you can read one by Roberto Bolaño?), 2666 is as cold and dead as its female characters."
This was a hard book to read and has been a hard book to write about. In this, it succeeds, I suppose, in being bleak and depressing and in putting forth a particular view of life and humanity. But a masterpiece? I think not. Critics like to defend the book by saying that great art challenges the reader, that great art may not be immediately recognized as beautiful; but these same critics profusely praise the book (seeming to undermine their own defenses of it) and refuse to note that there is a distinction between challenging the reader and telling him or her to fuck off, which is more like what 2666 does. As one reviewer writes in one of the few not-so-glowing reviews, "I didn't exactly hate 2666, but I often got the feeling that 2666 wasn't so fond of me."
Put more literarily, "In Bolaño’s hellish postmodern creation, the silent contract between reader and author is broken: there’s nothing to care about, nothing at stake, and no reason to keep reading."
Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone. (188)
Jose Saramago's Blindness describes what happens when, for no clear reason, ev
Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone. (188)
Jose Saramago's Blindness describes what happens when, for no clear reason, everyone goes blind. This blindness reaches all but one character in the novel and is apparently spread through contact. In response to the spreading blindness, the government quarantines those who have already gone blind as well as those who have been exposed to the blind. The novel follows one particular group that has been quarantined in an abandoned mental institution, where they have no one to help them (except one woman who lied about being blind to stay with her husband and who cannot let the others know that she can see for fear of being abused or made a slave) and only sporadic and insufficient deliveries of food. With no clear leadership, no way to fix things or clean their surroundings, and no supplies with which to take care of themselves and the institution, the place quickly becomes a disgusting mess that is run by whoever can control the food.
Blindness is bleak, depressing, and even, at times, horrific. It forces the reader to experience the world of the characters (all but one of whom have mysteriously gone blind) as they deal with their captivity and their blindness. It is a difficult book to read--partly because of its style, which reinforces in its long paragraphs and unclear delineation of dialogue the claustrophobia and confusion of the situation, and partly because of its content, which includes blood, shit, death (from starvation, illness, injury, and murder), and rape.
In the world of the novel, humanity is but a thin layer of decency and civility laid over untold depths of savagery. And this decency is, it seems, enforced solely by the knowledge that, in the normal world, you are always seen by others and held accountable. In a world where everyone is blind, however, no one can see you shit in the hallway, steal other people's food, or even kill. No one knows who you are. In this world of blindness to human identity, anything goes. As one character says, "Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are . . . People, too, no one will be there to see them" (114). If this is true, then what people really are is selfish, violent, and, ultimately, alone.
In the end, I kept reading this book, which was so hard and so painful, not just because of my own compulsion to finish a book I've begun, not just because it is masterfully written and crafted, but because I was holding out hope for hope. I was waiting for the book to provide some glimmer of hope in all of its horror. But this is the best it can provide in the way of hope:
The only miracle we can perform is to go on living, said the woman, to preserve the fragility of life from day to day, as if it were blind and did not know where to go, and perhaps it is like that, perhaps it really does not know, it placed itself in our hands, after giving us intelligence, and this is what we have made of it. (266)
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