2666 : pages 51-102, and a perspective about literature

The second section of the novel has clarified things a bit for me. In my first post, I criticized the amorphous nature of Pelletier and Espinoza. It felt like a weakness at that point in my reading. However, by now it's clear that this can only be intentional on Bolaño's part. [I would like to take minute to rejoice in my ability to insert a tilde.] He frequently ascribes thoughts or motivations or actions to both, or sometimes one or the other without bothering to clarify which. Patently, we are meant to view the two as essentially interchangeable and indistinct.

This strikes me as of a piece with the overall disdain Bolaño seems to feel for the academic milieu in general, and for the critics in particular. In the last section, we had Mrs. Bubis's conversation about Grosz to give us a signal. It becomes more overt in this one. On page 62, we are told that the critics variously attend "an assembly of Germanists in Berlin, a twentieth-century German literature congress in Stuttgart, a symposium on German literature in Hamburg, and a conference on the future of German literature in Mainz." The different, high-blown terms Bolaño uses for what amount to iterations of the same concept is clearly meant to smack of the ludicrous. Pelletier and Espinoza are so mired in their academic way of thinking that they can't understand Pritchard's straightforward comparison of Norton to a well-known literary monster. And their professorial hauteur almost prevents them from learning what they most want to know about Archimboldi from Alatorre, a nobody otherwise worthless to them. I don't imagine we're meant to respect them much, and I wonder if perhaps this is Bolaño's way to telegraphing his opinion about literary criticism in general to us.

Speaking of Alatorre, it seems perhaps that the idea of coincidence is going to become a theme. Certainly, both the critics' connection to and their conversation with Edwin Johns would hint at this. The chance encounter with Alatorre and his telling them the story of El Cerdo seems highly coincidental, as is El Cerdo's connection to Archimboldi himself. It's something to keep an eye out for.

Finally, before I digress a bit, there is the idea of boredom and horror. The opening epigraph from Baudelaire presents the dichotomy right from the start, and it has already begun to percolate through. Surely, it seems to me, the critics are terribly boring specimens, enervated even in their romantic entanglements until the moment of horror when they savagely beat the taxi driver. The mummified hand of Edwin Johns in the middle of a spiral of self-portraits also resonated this way to me. I already wonder if The Part About the Crimes serves as a similar "oasis" in the larger work of 2666. (On that point, it's fascinating how enjoyable I've found the novel itself while finding the action and characters themselves so terribly blah.) It's the other thread I'm trying to follow, thus far at least.

For those of you who've stuck with me up until now, thanks! If you're not really interested in my "theory of reading," feel free to bail out now. This post is already plenty long. However, I feel like I may as well put my literary cards on the table, as it were, and let you know how I approach the experience of reading.

Because I want to stay on schedule and not risk accidentally alluding to something later in the novel before it's time, I'm only reading the allotted pages every week. In the gaps, I've been reading essays from Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith (a writer almost exactly my age whose intellect and writing skill so surpass mine that it makes my teeth hurt). As luck would have it, I just finished "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov" (the former of whom I know nothing, and the latter only Lolita). In a footnote, she writes of the distinction between "readerly" and "writerly" authors:
[A] way of thinking about the distinction might be: there is a style that believes writing should mimic the quick pace, the ease, and the fluidity of reading (or even of speech). And then there is a style that believes reading should mimic the obstruction and slow struggle of writing. Raymond Carver would be on that first axis. Nabokov is way out on the second. Joyce is even further.
Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end I find myself placing a cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer, that discrete struggle to reveal an individual's experience of the world through the unstable medium of language.
Just so. Which is part of why I think Joyce is for the birds.

Part of why I love David Foster Wallace so much is that, for all his gargantuan vocabulary and unanswered questions and byzantine plots, he wants you, the reader, to understand what he thinks is important. Yes, his writing is brilliant and erudite and laden with obscure references that unfold anew every time I reread Infinite Jest. (Also profoundly funny and profoundly sad.) But he cares about what the reader takes away. It means something.

Frankly, I simply do not believe that James Joyce ever gave a farthing about what the reader was able to take away from his writing. Smith's essay also quotes Nabokov decrying the "grotesquely obscure," which to my mind is Joyce to a T. (Also Pynchon, for that matter.) It seems to me that it either did not occur or did not matter to Joyce that at the end of his novel would come a person reading it, and that said reader might actually have an investment in knowing what was going on. In yet another of her essays, Smith says that Joyce's ideal reader was himself, and I believe it. Well, he's welcome to himself.

Which brings us to 2666, and the kind of reader I am going to be. I am not going to pore over the text and try to decipher every last inscrutable sentence. Those of you who are reading along and would like a more in-depth analytic approach should swing by the main Bolaño page and the wonderful Infinite Zombies blog. There you'll find tracking of characters and dreams and locations, and excellent commentary by very smart people. Here, if you choose to check in, you'll find a guy of reasonable intelligence trying to make his way through a complicated novel without having to pull an encyclopedia off the shelf after every two pages, or without sweating blood over the confusing bits (of which, actually, there have been hardly any thus far). For example, after reading the descriptions of Pelletier's and Morini's dreams about Norton twice each, I've decided that (until there is further illumination from the text) their interpretation is "inscrutable dreams that are otherwise without meaning."

Will 2666 reveal its mysteries for a reader like me? Here's hoping.


  1. I think your approach to reading is just great. I mostly just read pretty casually. Only for Infinite Summer do I have the resolve to go way out on a limb and do deep reading. I read 2666 last year and didn't get nearly as much out of it as I am this time, but I enjoyed it anyway. I have the same sensation you do of finding the story and characters of 2666 very blah so far (it gets interesting at the end, btw, so stick with it) but enjoying the book. You make a good point about DFW's care for his reader. That said, some of his stories (especially in Oblivion) are pretty opaque and almost antagonistic to the reader.

  2. I agree about Oblivion, though I still think DFW gives one enough to form a reasonable interpretation of each story. (And I loved "Good Old Neon," despite finding the collection in general lacking the spark of hope that makes Infinite Jest such a beautiful book.)

    I like books that make me think, but I resent authors who clearly think it's their job to be geniuses and my job to marvel at them. I think there is a calamitous drop in the quality of literature as art if the receiver (in this case, the reader) is given no means by which to understand or interpret the work.

    Maybe I'm just lazy, but I don't think I should be expected to work that hard.

  3. Life is short, and death lasts a loooong time, so why break your head to figure out what an author is trying to say if it takes 400 pages, $29.95, and isn't at least mildly entertaining? If the author has something valuable to say, let her say it plainly, and if she can't, then she probably doesn't have anything valuable to contribute.