A Few Great Things About Bolano's 2666 That Won't Make the Reviews
Robert Bolaño's 2666 is the book of the moment now, and part of this is mutually-reinforced hysteria, and part of this is that those who've read it recognize it as the author's Gravity's Rainbow or Underworld or Recognitions, a big, everything-encompassing novel that has somebody's life's work trapped inside. Reviewing the book can seem like a farce—trying to detail 900 pages, five sections, and hundreds of recognizably distinct themes and obsessions into a definitive statement about a book that's anything but definitive. "The truth is like a strung-out pimp" says one 2666 character; for the moment, we'll take that to mean that the essence of things is shifty and hard to pin down. So in the spirit of piling on, one reviewer's strays, or rather, what's merely fun about a book that's largely and devastatingly depressing as hell.
While the first thing everyone will forever be contractually obligated to mention in reference to 2666 is its impossibly grim fourth section, "The Part About the Crimes," there are a ton of jokes in the novel as well. Many of them are dirty jokes. Here's Bolaño describing the varying sexual styles of two staid European academics in the book's first section:
- In figurative terms: Pelletier was more intimately acquainted than Espinoza with Mnemosyne, mountain goddess and mother of the nine muses. In plain speech: Pelletier could screw for six hours (without coming) thanks to his bibliography [read: the Marquis de Sade], whereas Espinoza could go for the same amount of time (coming twice, sometimes three times, and finishing half dead) sheerly on the basis of strength and force of will.
Like punk rockers, Bolaño's obsessed with selling out
Writers betraying themselves and their craft is a constant theme—heroin to anyone who writes for a living. Here's Amalfitano, a expatriate professor living in Mexico, describing the eventual cooptation of Mexico intellectuals by power:
- Literature in Mexico is like a nursery school, a kindergarden, a playground, a kiddie club, if you follow me. The weather is good, it's sunny, you can go out and sit in the park and open a book by Valéry, possibly the writer most read by Mexican writers, and then you go over to a friend's house and talk. And yet your shadow isn't following you anymore. At some point your shadow has quietly slipped away. You pretend you don't notice, but you have, you're missing your fucking shadow, though there are plenty of ways to explain it, the angle of the sun, the degree of oblivion introduced by the sun beating down on hatless heads, the quantity of alcohol ingested, the movement of something like subterranean tanks of pain, the fear of more contingent things, a disease that begins to become apparent, wounded vanity, the desire just once in you life to be on time. But the point is, your shadow is lost and you, momentarily, forget it.
…And the way in which most writers are plagiarizing frauds
"Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces," writes Bolaño.
- Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man's wife can testify to that, she's seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she's seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance…the person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece.
Bolaño, in short, has among other things written one of the great writer's writer novels, one full of wry comments on craft, typical obsessions with authenticity, and so on. For that alone it's kind of amazing. Reviewers, of course, are obligated to say what it all means, but the sure to be underrated joy of 2666 is that it's 900 agonized pages about the difficulty of doing good creative work, just as Savage Detectives was among other thing a great primer on how to spend your teenage years in a manner as dissolute as possible. Which just coincidentally are things us writers desperately relate to…