"An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
"You said it, buddy."
I will say this for Roberto Bolaño -- he has helped me accomplish what I once thought impossible. I have now found an author I enjoy less than Thomas Pynchon. I would rather read V. ten more times than 2666 even once more. (That's not much by way of praise, nor is it exactly fair. I rather liked V. [Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day? Not so much.] And if given a choice between the phone book and 2666 to take to a desert island, at this point I think I'd opt for the former.)
What a wearying, wearying book that was.
Many (most?) of the people who participated in this group read (and one could see the attrition in the precipitous drop in posts and comments) came to it on the heels of the Infinite Summer project. While I didn't participate in that group read other than to follow along and comment on occasion, I am very familiar with Infinite Jest. It has seemed that readers occasionally cropped up to compare 2666 (negatively) with Infinite Jest, despite the very different tone of the two books. Using IJ as a counter is as good a method as I can think of to discuss why I simply did not like 2666, and am so very glad to be done with it forever. (I agree with commenter Joan at Infinite Zombies that I will probably never pick it up again.)
First of all, and perhaps most damning for me, the characters in 2666 were exactly that. They were plainly, unmistakably characters in a literary novel, whose behaviors and motivations resembled those of actual human beings only in so far that the same verbs could be used to describe both. At no point did I pause in my reading and say "yes, real people really are like that. I understand why [character] did [action] for [reason]." They remained oddly stitled, unnatural and removed at all times and in all situations.
Contrast that with any of the characters in Infinite Jest. Both Wallace and Bolaño seem to have a passion for telling every single character's story, no matter how closely related to the action of the novel itself. The difference is that Wallace cared about his characters, to the point that they are as real as a fictional person can possibly be. Hell, even though he patently loathed them, Jonathan Franzen at least cared about the various protagonists in The Corrections. I've read short stories about ants with more relatable characters than anyone in 2666.
Further, I haven't the faintest foggiest clue why Bolaño wrote a word of this book. It seems an extended meditation on the phrase "shit happens." Given that the characters are neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic but merely there, and the action of the various Parts fit together in no discernable way, by the time we find ourselves confronted by grisly murder after grisly murder, what possible reason do we have to continue? Bolaño apparently expects us to invest in further reading for its own sake, despite no hope for any possible understanding of why he has chosen to exhume and thinly fictionalize these real-life murders.
Infinite Jest leaves many questions unanswered, and ends in a similarly abrupt manner. But it's obvious that Wallace had something to say that mattered. He honestly cared (probably [tragically] too much) what you, the reader, would experience and take away from his book. If Bolaño cared a whit for the reader's experience, he leaves no evidence that I can perceive. Perhaps I, a Mere Reader, should be grateful to have experienced the ineffable brilliance of the Great Author, but this Mere Reader is inexpressibly hostile to that particular attitude.
Finally, I simply reject the worldview that seems to pervade 2666. Infinite Jest is, in many ways, a heartbreakingly, achingly sad book. For all its humor and humanity, it is very, very sad. But Wallace admits the possibility that, hard as it may be, a person can still be happy. I can think of at least four characters that are either described as happy, or at least have a decent shot at redemption. (Some of them minor and surprising, but there nonetheless.) There was not one moment of genuine joy in the entire span of 2666, this arid, godforsaken book. (Please, tell me if I missed it.) Apparently Bolaño's world is either boring (and worthy of scorn) or horrible (and worthy of cold fascination). And that's an attitude I find loathsome.
So, call me pedestrian or small-minded. I really don't think that the faintest whisper of an actual narrative (dare I say "story"?) is too much to ask. I don't think that believable characters are an unreasonable expectation. And I certainly don't think any author can write a book without either that is also largely fixated on unmitigated brutality. The critics all seemed to love 2666. They can keep it.
Anyone desperate for a dose of loveliness (an oasis, if you will) after this blighted expanse of a book, written in the most beautiful way about people so real they could walk off the page, might I suggest the exquisite novels of Marilynne Robinson? Or maybe the phone book. Anything besides more of the same.
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