I accept that I'll probably get flamed for this, but enough is enough: this maddening, rapacious, and occasionally compelling book is making my life mI accept that I'll probably get flamed for this, but enough is enough: this maddening, rapacious, and occasionally compelling book is making my life miserable. Will I finish it? Will it matter? Let me say for the record that I counted myself as a likely enthusiast -- I fit the profile -- but after a long, protracted battle, can't bring myself to sing along with the choir to which Bolano is preaching. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if we're so enslaved as readers to the cult of the author that we no longer require his masterpiece to deliver on its claim to greatness, as an integral work of art that transfigures and transcends its moment without depending on the ego of its author to contain it. This happened with Sebald, too: the writer's death, in consummating that ego, paradoxically secures the instant immortality of the work, and we promote him to canonical status before the work itself can pass the endurance test -- not necessarily of time, but of fiction as an invented life form that can survive not only in the fair weather of an assured friendly reception, but the inclemency of readers' genuine surprise. And their work makes itself available to this kind of literary leapfroggery because of its overtly moribund self-reference: there is no "2666" as a singular novel without the idea of "Bolano" as an already-consecrated literary martyr, just as there may be no individual "Vertigo," "Austerlitz," "The Emigrants," et al., as novels, without the classical fantasy of "Sebald," as an idol of immediate eternity, to connect them all.
For me, the most significant failing of "2666" is that it is not convincing *as* a novel, as a unified world inhabited by a variety of imaginary real people whose lives are in our hands. For all their hyper-personalizing detail, the "characters" of this book do not exist for readers as such, because they serve the book more than vice versa; they appear, get used, and -- not unlike the Santa Teresa victims -- are discarded; their bodies pile up along the unrelenting highway of a narrative profoundly driven, it appears, by a refusal to finish. (Not to be a dime-store psychiatrist, but this reminds me of an intensely voluble teacher I once had who said, "Nobody ever died talking.") When characters reappear, their remergence carries no real novelistic weight, because they never haunted the spaces from which they were absent; without the direct consciousness of the author, they have no being. (When he isn't thinking about them, neither is the book.) I don't refer to them by name for a reason: I don't need to. Rather than sincerely individuated figures, they seem more like components of a consuming, universal ego that substitutes humane curiosity for self-interest -- the literary narcissism of a book that absorbs itself. (By this criteria, I can think of lots of postmodern/post-postmodern novels with dead authors who are still breathing.) It might even be said that the organizing principle of this literally infinite book is the death of the author, and while that might sound coherent enough, even noble, I'm not sure that automatic posterity is the most honorable or compelling motive for a novel, which at its best, endeavors first and foremost to make something live, whether it literally exists or not, or ever did.
What I think *is* noble, though, is the ecstatic response to Bolano's work. Personally, I find the reviews -- encomia to "2666" as the apotheosis of Bolano's genius -- a hell of a lot more interesting than the book itself, and I think I know why that might be. The enthusiasm that readers have for this novel honors something tremendously important: a persisting faith in the transformative potential of the novel as a tradition. Readers who love this book believe in the novel and what it can and should do, and my question is simply whether this particular book really does it, or if we're so desirous for a novel that remakes the form -- a show of proof that literary fiction isn't a terminal enterprise, but eternally regenerative and revelatory -- that we're willing to invest our faith in something that aspires to that aim, but doesn't necessarily achieve it. Bolano clearly shared this desire, too, but to my mind failed his readers by enlisting their belief primarily in the confabulation of this wish-fulfillment -- this imaginary great new book -- rather than in the invented world inside it. Instead of champions of "2666" as an autonomous contribution to literature, or the creation of a strange new world, we've become servants to Bolano's own auto-mythology. And that might be noble, but it's also disappointing....more