I read the bulk of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in late December, the last time the stomach flu rampaged through my house. It’s a very good book to read in the middle of the night when you’re not sure whether or not you’re going to throw up. The landscapes in the book — like the bathroom at 3am — are very brightly lit and clear, but also unsettlingly shifty.
(The last time I had food poisoning was in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve 1994, and I was reading Pale Fire; also entirely appropriate to the occasion, and in much the same way.)
The reason I bought 2666 wasn’t because I knew I was getting stomach flu, but because of my occasional worry that I’m too old to experience a new novel as a masterpiece. Rather: most of the time think I’m too old to experience a new novel as a masterpiece, and occasionally I consider this cause for worry. And when that happens I buy and read the acknowledged masterpiece of the moment, to see if I can get those bumpers to light up one more time.
No lights this time. But I was glad to have read this big, nauseous book. Some comments below the fold — don’t proceed if (like me) you try to avoid prior knowledge of books you plan to read.
- The presence of a character named “Oscar Fate” provides the opportunity for lots of quiet gags like “Fate changed the channel,” and “‘Come on in, Fate,’ he said.” As far as I can tell, the character is named “Fate” in the original Spanish, not “Destino,” so one wonders if these gags were meant to read even more subtly and multilingually.
- It is not beautifully written, at least not in English. The sentence are rendered in a way that constantly reminds you of their Spanish origin — a lot of “He was not tall, but neither could you say he was short” — and this makes it hard to get much of a sense of Bolaño’s prose style. But 2666 is the kind of book which doesn’t draw its force from the fine-tuning of its sentences (which is to say, it’s the kind of of book whose operation I don’t understand very well.) It’s cumulative — especially, of course, the long fourth section, a catalog of brutal crimes committed on hundreds of women in the Mexican border city where the novel takes place.
- Given what my own book is about, I couldn’t help but be pleased that the spine of the story involves a mysterious German writer with a non-German name, who has a mostly obscure career in the middle of the century and then disappears, despite the efforts of an ever-growing community of distressed and bickering scholars to locate him.
- The comparisons to Infinite Jest, except as regards page count, are wrong. They are big books of very different kinds. Infinite Jest is intellectual, playful, and is big because it has lots of stuff crammed into it. 2666 is not at all intellectual — in fact it despises the intellectuals contained in it, albeit in an affectionate way — and it is big because it is trying to portray a single giant thing. That is: Infinite Jest is fat and 2666 is tall.
- On the other hand, the comparisons to David Lynch — especially Mulholland Drive — are right. The movie, like the book, shifts from place to place and style to style, always attempting to evade a terrible thing that’s about to enter the scene. In 2666 the terrible thing is the footsteps of a giant, coming down the hall towards you. If I understand correctly, you’re supposed to imagine being a child in bed, dreaming, and moving from dream to dream — each dream broken up by the sound of the giant’s footsteps in the hall, and replaced by the next dream, which starts with the anxious-making echo of those footsteps. The father? The older brother? Someone else?