I purchased this book upon recommendation from a friend and colleague who wanted someone to talk about it with and wanted an English teacher’s perspective on the work. I can’t say I was a great choice for a book club partner, given that it took me many, many months to finish the 900 page book. From March until Christmas, I’d only read about 300 pages; I finished the remainder of the book in the last three weeks. I wrapped up 2666 last night and the ending was not what I’d expected. In fact, the entire book wasn’t what I expected. I don’t mean in terms of what I expected from looking at the cover or reading the book blurb. I mean that the book didn’t fit the traditional bill of what a novel is. Perhaps in an effort to let the reader know this difference was intentional, Bolano, through his characters, alluded several times to what makes great literature and that literature doesn’t have to follow the typical formula to be a masterpiece. In fact, in Bolano’s opinion, any that do follow the traditional formula are just retellings of other, better literature. Bolano values originality, a trait that also defines 2666 and its writing style, qualities that made the book so highly-acclaimed.
Author Roberto Bolano
As an overview, 2666 is a collection of five novels, each that somehow centers on the US-Mexico border city of Santa Teresa. Each individual story has its own characters and plot, though there is some overlap across the collection of five stories. The first story follows a group of literary critics as they attempt to hunt down their most beloved author, a journey that takes them to Santa Teresa. In the second book, a professor moves to the city of Santa Teresa with his daughter, where he steadily unravels, ultimately walking the line between insanity and insight. His obsessiveness causes him to neglect his daughter, a young woman who gets swept up into the seedy underbelly of drugs, prostitution, crime, and violence in Santa Teresa, a plot line picked up later in book three. Book three also follows a social issues writer, sent to Santa Teresa to cover a sports story when the paper’s sports columnist dies. He, like the professor’s daughter, is swept up by the heady, intoxicating nightlife of Santa Teresa. While the first three books contain very narrow plot lines, the fourth book broadens in scope and tracks the many rapes and murders of women in Santa Teresa. The murders define an era for the city, a time of fear, unanswered questions, and desperation. The fifth book then comes full circle, telling the story of the same recluse author the literary critics were searching for in book one.
And in the end, there is little closure, little resolution. In book five, we read:
In one of his last notes he mentions the chaos of the universe and says that only in chaos are we conceivable. In another, he wonders what will be left when the universe dies and time and space die with it. Zero, nothing. But the idea makes him laugh. Behind every answer lies a question…Behind every indisputable answer lies an even more complex question. (736)
Does Bolano mean that only things that exist amidst chaos can be raw and real? That otherwise what seems to be is just a façade? Perhaps he’s suggesting that chaos strips us of our disguises and we’re left only with genuine, visceral reactions to what we experience. Bolano’s book is chaotic. Its plot lines, its shifts in character perspective, its language and sentence structure – all chaotic. The fact that it doesn’t have a typical resolution leaves the reader in chaos, trying to sort out things for herself. But if this chaos is intentional, and if Bolano believes truth comes from chaos, maybe he’s saying something about life’s curiosities and mysteries and how it’s human nature to question but not necessarily to know the answers.
Another of my favorite passages is this:
What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench. (896)
Often throughout the book, Bolano’s characters contemplate what makes great literature or a great man. Judging by this passage, it’s innovation, originality, and an attempt to confront those most curious, mysterious, and terrifying aspects of existence. Here again, he seems to be commenting on his own authorship, one of striving for greatness, though imperfect, and stirring up a stormy work that rains down in a torrential flood upon its readers, leaving them in awe of the language, swept up in but struggling through the murky, muddy plot.
Lastly, my favorite passage:
Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, that's what it all boils down to, but that's no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it's also sex and Dionysian mists and play.
I love this approach to the tenants of experience. Supply and demand is a rational, systematic approach to life and consumption. But Bolano stresses that with only those two legs to stand on, with only rationality to define life, the metaphoric stool would collapse. Not only would it collapse, but it would topple into the “garbage pit of history”: meaningless, misunderstood, covered in one brief paragraph in an outdated textbook. There’s no guts or glory in that kind of life, and if I learned anything from 2666, it’s that Bolano was all guts and glory. In addition to supply and demand, we need magic. We need fun and play and romance and adventure and risk and intrigue. Those who live only within the supply and demand chain are choosing “the perfect exercises of the great masters.” Supply and demand has the potential to be a perfect, efficient system. It’s rational. But there’s no magic there. Authors and artists who exercise the techniques of the great masters without blazing their own trail lack originality and innovation, and, by extension, guts and glory. Bolano, through 2666, brings his own magic to what can otherwise be a very systematic exercise: novel writing.
In conclusion, this is a book for lit lovers: people who like to sink their teeth into a work and unpack its literary elements and devices. 2666 is certainly unnerving in parts; at times it’s voyeuristic. It’s violent, erotic. Filled with mysticism. A whirlwind. And highly metaphoric. At times the language is excessive: it rambles on for lines and lines with little punctuation. It’s packed with figurative language. At other times it’s crisp, succinct, and void of emotion. It’s messy but simultaneously absorbing.