2666: A Novel

2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004) (translated from the spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2008). 898 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The first thing I’ll say is… it took me a very long time to get through this book. Usually I read one or two books a week, depending on the length. A 900 pager like this one, usually a solid week, unless I have a lot of free time, which I never have these days. If it’s a very dense nonfiction or biography work, maybe two weeks. But it took me three months of on-and-off attention to get through 2666.

Normally, if I don’t get into a book, I’ll just put it aside and move on. Even if it’s an author I really enjoy. A good example is Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is one of my all-time favorite authors. I thought I’d love Quicksilver, an historical novel revolving around the Royal Society of London in Isaac Newton’s time. Especially since it had a structural tie to Cryptonomicon, an excellent earlier work by Stephenson.

Yet… I just couldn’t get into it. I got to about page 500, and I just lost interest. Haven’t picked it up since, and doubt I ever will.

2666 was not like that. I’d read it for a day, put it aside for several weeks, and then get curious again and pick it back up. Slogging through the interminable Part Four, I almost gave up… but the prose was so strong, and I kept getting hints that it would all add up to something… so I kept going.

And now I have finally finished it. Looking back, I realize now that I read the first three parts of the book in about two weeks. Then Part Four took me two and half months. And the final Part Five I read over just the past week.

My main reason for reading 2666 is that it received awards out the ying yang (that’s a technical, literary term, I’m told). It topped the National Book Critics Circle in 2008. Time Magazine gave it Best Book of 2008. It’s been lauded by readers all over the world. And, just to add some icing to the cake, it was the final book by author Roberto Bolaño before his death. He apparently handed over the manuscript to his publisher while he lay dying in the hospital.

According to the introduction, Bolaño had intended the five parts of 2666 to be published as five separate novels, each a year apart. But after his death, his heirs decided to publish all five parts as one massive work, which they believed was more fitting to the manuscript.

So, I bought 2666 and dove in. The first thing I’ll say is that I sure wish there was a Kindle version of this! 900 pages in hardcover is very heavy. Weighs almost four pounds. Not an easy book to read in bed, that’s for sure. Just picking it up, I immediately understood why the author had intended it as five separate books.

Ok, all well and good. But what’s the story about? Well… it’s kind of hard to say. If judged by the amount of words and pages dedicated to plot, then it’s the story of a series of murders in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (a thinly-veiled fictional version of Ciudad Juárez, near the Arizona border). Hundreds of young women are brutally raped and murdered there, in a decade-long series of unsolved crimes. Every part of the book briefly touches upon this storyline, and three of the book’s five parts are set almost completely in Santa Teresa.

We follow a local University professor, as he moves in his own world, nearly oblivious to what is going on around him – included the danger than his teenage daughter puts herself in on a nightly basis (Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano). Why does the distracted instructor hang an out-of-print geometry book outside to sway on a clothesline, refusing to take it down for months?

We follow an African-American reporter, send to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, as he gets drawn into the circle of that city’s underworld, and to people who may (or may not) share responsibility for many of the murders (Part Three: The Part About Fate).

And, for nearly three hundred pages, we follow the discovery of every single body over nearly ten years. In an episodic, non-narrative form, one after the other, date by date. Some of the victims are identified. Many aren’t. Several people are arrested for some of the murders, including an odd German man who’s a naturalized American citizen – but living in exile in Mexico (Part Four: The Part About The Crimes).

But if judged by what is at the heart of the book, what (at least to me) the real story is, then it’s about a German novelist named Benno von Archimbaldi. In the opening pages, we meet four European academic literary critics, all of whom specialize in studying and critiquing the works of Archimbaldi, and each of them from a different country (Part One: The Part About The Critics).

And in the climatic last section, the book concludes with the life story of Archimbaldi, and we loop around to where we began (Part Five: The Part About Archimbaldi). The story of Archimbaldi and the people who study him is what got me hooked, and what kept me reading through the rest of the book.

It was Part Four that nearly lost me. This is the most difficult part of the book, mainly because there is no plot thread for this entire section. It really is just a narrated crime docket. A body is found, its condition is described, and various connections are followed up. We meet the many different police officers and detectives trying to solve the crimes. We meet many of the criminals. We follow one of the possible murderers into prison, and bear witness to an incredibly brutal torture-murder session as justice is served by prisoners on their own behind bars.

The only thing that kept me going was that I could see the table of contents promised that we’d finally get back to Archimbaldi after this horrific tour of Santa Teresa was over. I wish I could say that at the book’s end, it all ties together – but not really. Yes, it’s not surprising to find out there is a connection between Archimbaldi and the angry young German man who’s the prime suspect in the murders – but I’m going to warn you right now that this is not the kind of book that ties things up.

By the end of the book, you do not know who’s responsible for the murders. You don’t know if the mysterious German man with the connection to Archimbaldi had anything to do with the murders or not. You will not get a conclusion to Archimbaldi’s story. Nor will you ever see or hear from any of the critics again after Part One. Nor will you find out what happens to Fate or Amalfitano or any of the other characters. Part Five loops back to Part One, and I suppose you could just go right back to Part One and keep on reading the book forever if you wanted to. You still won’t get any answers.

As a novel, 2666 is pretty unsatisfying. It’s not a true novel, ignoring most storytelling conventions. Characters weave in and out, speaking and thinking in long, unbroken pseudo-paragraphs that go on for pages and pages. A lead character may stop in to rent a typewriter… and for the next ten pages, we jump into the point of the view of the storeowner, and hear his life story. He never appears again, and has no bearing on any part of the story. And we don’t even get to the end of the scene that brought us there in the first place!

There are a great number of dreams in 2666. Everyone is always waking up and recounting a dream that is vivid and surrealistic… and yet not a single one, to my mind anyway, had anything to do with what was going on either in that character’s life or anyone else’s in the book. Another running theme is insanity – particularly any variety of insanity that involves making some sort of sacrifice for the sake of art.

So. Why read 2666 at all? Because what this book adds up to, when all is said and done, is a testament to the craft of writing. It’s the prose that kept me turning the page. Despite the fact that this book is translated from the author’s original Spanish, the words are beautifully crafted, even (and maybe even especially) when used to describe brutal or violent deaths.

I would not have awarded it such high honors as those listed up at the beginning of this review. To my mind, the novel as an art form and as entertainment has certain expectations, certain loose rules, and 2666 is simply too unstructured and rambling to fit even those loose rules. It’s a collection of hundreds of incredibly well-written scenes, but just putting a bunch of scenes between two covers does not make something a novel. To me, that is the true art and craft of the novel: combining fantastic prose with well-conceived characters who act within a compelling story.

In the end, I can’t overtly recommend 2666. It’s a dense work. I suppose if you really truly enjoyed Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, this will be right up your alley. For me, it was an interesting glimpse into another writer’s mind, and I’m glad I made the trip – even if it was a trip which I have no desire to repeat. Your mileage, however, may vary.

And by the way – I don’t have the slightest idea what the title means.

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