2666: not really about this week's allotted reading

It's become clear to me that I am never going to be a fan of Roberto Bolaño. I've been pondering my response to 2666 a lot this week, and I've been trying to come up with a more generous interpretation. (More on that later.) Unfortunately, I think the best I can hope for is "appreciate," which while a lot better than "hate" is nowhere near the raptures I saw expressed by the critical masses. My opinion was cinched by the Bolaño short story "Prefiguration of Lalo Cura" in the recent New Yorker. I didn't like it.

Most of this is likely just a matter of taste. What I read as manifest nonsense other people seem to see as poetic. I find his writing florid, self-impressed and deliberately inscrutable. I am no more impressed by his fascination with whores and the demimonde than I was by Henry Miller's when I read Tropic of Cancer. And I think I've said enough about his adolescent attitudes toward homosexuality.

At this point, I'm going to pause and warn people that the next paragraph contains spoilers about Infinite Jest. I'll try to be vague, but if you haven't read it then skip the paragraph.

One of the biggest unresolved questions in IJ is whether or not the story about why Joelle wears the veil is true. There are hints in either direction, but one is free to decide which are more reliable and which are untrue. When David Foster Wallace died, I made an interpretive decision. I decided not to believe Molly Notkin. If I had to live in a world without my favorite author, at least I could decide on a happier fate for one of my favorite characters.

End spoiler.

I mention this because there is a lot of room for speculation in 2666. In particular, it's not at all clear what Bolaño is doing with the Crimes. The novel seems to revolve around them, and to move inexorably toward them in the first three Parts. But what the Crimes themselves are meant to say about the characters, the world of the novel and by extension the world at large is open to interpretation.

Are we meant to judge the characters by their relationship to and awareness of the Crimes? Are the Crimes the truest thing in the novel? Do we see the characters and actions of the novel only in their lurid light? Are the Crimes in some way a commentary on everything else that happens in the book? Or is Bolaño simply trying to write about various lives that intertwine with the Crimes (or glide right by them) but are not necessarily defined by them? Is the novel meant to be descriptive of its world without judgement, or are the other characters somehow implicated by the Crimes? By extension, are we?

My reaction to this book depends a lot on the answer the reader chooses. If the Crimes represent the truest thing in the world of 2666, then I simply have nothing good to say about the book at all. It's a worldview I reject. (I'll save any further ranting for my last post.) If Bolaño is creating a nuanced, dream-like world as completely as possible, then it's a task I can admire, even if I have serious gripes with the execution.

Anyone feel like weighing in? How do YOU view the Crimes as they relate to the novel as a whole? Are the other character indicted? Are you?


  1. Dan:

    First, apologies for the lengthy comment. If you find this obnoxiously long, just delete it and I'll put it up on my own blog.

    Next, these are good questions. I'm going to take a stab at some of them below, but first I want to say that my feeling is that none of them can be definitively answered because the novel is too open-ended, too deliberately opaque and, I think, something that sort of fell together as much as something that was ingeniously constructed. I haven't read IJ, but I suspect that the haphazardness of 2666 is part of what drives fans of IJ crazy about it. My sense is that IJ, vast and sprawling as it is, reads like a series of closely integrated components with a master meaning at its center (correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm ignoring spoilers). While I don't think 2666 is as haphazardly composed as, say, Naked Lunch (sorry I keep reaching for this as a point of comparison, but I'm too lazy to find another), I think there's as much chance as deliberation in its structure. Also, while I do feel like the book has an "argument", or a series of them (see all my previous posts), I also feel like, because of the role of "chance" in its construction, there are arguments and meanings that can be extracted from it that were not necessarily consciously and deliberately and lovingly (or malevolently) placed there by Bolaño. But they are there nonetheless, and that, for me, is one of the things that make it such a blast to read. It's also one of the things that make it so anxiety-making for the critic/interpreter--you are never quite sure if you are finding or inventing your take on the book. For me, ultimately, it doesn't really matter. People complain about the lack of meaning in the book, but it's generating loads of meaning in the commentary around it, and sometimes I think that obscure or opaque works of art are more fertile meaning generators than those that carefully embed specific meanings at the center.

    "Are the crimes the truest thing in the novel?"

    I wouldn't say that the crimes are the "truest thing" in the novel, and I guess I reject the idea that the crimes are the hidden "reality" that everything else masks and everyone else ignores (though Bolaño does make much of "semblances" in the book). The things that cause people to ignore the crimes, or make them unable to prevent them, are as "real" and “true” as the crimes themselves, and hopelessly intertwined with them. As I've written elsewhere, one of the things I think Bolaño evokes brilliantly in TPATC is the way the environment of Santa Teresa--a lawless narco state saturated with machismo/misanthropy/misogyny/homophobia (though granted the latter element is problematic)--leads people to compromise their best impulses, and to, however passively and unwillingly, make their peace with atrocity. He may overstate the case (I hope!), but everything I read about Juarez, and increasingly other parts of Mexico under the rule of the cartels suggests that people there feel a sense of absolute futility about the situation, and 2666 is a pretty good literary riff on this. While the crimes are not the "truest" thing in the novel, they are definitely its moral center. It’s perhaps telling that the part of the book that takes place in Mexico under the cartels is much grimmer and much more violent than the part that takes place in Nazi Germany. This is not a white-washing of the Holocaust (since that crime’s horrors are also narrated, though not as extensively), but a bid to heighten the significance of what's been happening in Mexico for over a decade. This has been going on for years, but the fact that the violence there is breaking news for most Americans in the wake of the assassination of two American consular workers demonstrates how necessary this is.

    Also: I happen to like Henry Miller. Not as much as I did in my twenties, but I still like him.

  2. I posted a long comment, Dan, that disappeared into the Interether. Here goes again...
    I don't believe the Crimes are the truest thing in the novel.
    "Or is Bolaño simply trying to write about various lives that intertwine with the Crimes (or glide right by them) but are not necessarily defined by them?" I think this is closest to my interpretation of his attempt, this sense of the characters dancing through and around and near real and terrible things, but not necessarily defined by them, engaged in them, or, honestly, affected by them.
    "Are the other characters somehow implicated by the Crimes? By extension, are we?" I think this is the attempt. I feel the novel succeeds as a tableau of characters and events that don't necessary link, and that it fails as a project wherein characters and readers are implicated in a global pandemic of ignorance and hatred and inhumanity.
    Side note and *spoiler response*:
    I still don't know, but I'm pretty sure I believe Molly. In anyone else's book, the ambiguity would point to Joelle's (how do we do this vaguely?) lack of change; so I'm leaning that Wallace went the other way. Even though it's so obvious and almost trite and tidy to have PGOAT be not.

  3. @David -- First of all, I am delighted to have your coments, and couldn't possibly be less concerned with their length. Please feel welcome to post at whatever length you wish. And your very thoughtful posts at your own blog belie any silliness about your being lazy.

    We simply have different opinions about works that are relentlessly obscure, I suspect. (Also about Henry Miller.) I have little patience for authors who feel no obligation to the interests of the reader, and thus create sprawling works with nary a thought for the person plodding through the endless, inscrutable verbiage. (Don't even get me started on Pynchon.) But that's just me.

    I also feel like there is some obligation on Bolaño's part to the real victims of the crimes in Juarez. They don't exist merely as a literary device, on which to hang his novel. They really lived, really suffered, and really died. I think there is too little "why" given for their inclusion and central location in this novel.

    @naptime -- I agree with this:
    I feel the novel succeeds as a tableau of characters and events that don't necessary link, and that it fails as a project wherein characters and readers are implicated in a global pandemic of ignorance and hatred and inhumanity.

    I've moved past hating the book by focusing on its success in this way. I can't understand why it was considered such a triumph, but I can at least recognize its successes.

    And thoughts on PGOAT merit a lengthier conversation than a comments section affords. My choice was, as I said, a conscious one. I agree that there are some pretty strong indicatons in your interpretive direction, but I prefer to focus on mine.

  4. I agree with Dan's delight at David's comments. I enjoy reading observations formulated and composed at the level I wish I were still thinking.

    And Dan, I like that deliberate choice about Joelle and that it was made in part as a reaction to DFW's suicide. I think your choice is much stronger and more logical and just as valid as my wavering "maybe."