On The Part About the Critics (2666)

30Jan09

In which The Gay Recluse reads Roberto Bolaño in stages.

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In our experience, one test of a great novel is whether you find yourself altered as you ingest the text, so that your mental dialog seems to be narrated by the writer in question. This is one of the strengths of the form, to the extent that (at least for us) it can literally change the way you look at the world on the most fundamental of levels; suddenly you are not sitting in a meeting counting the seconds as some hated windbag drones on about nothing, but instead you are able to parse your thoughts, to recognize that untold currents cross through us at any particular instant, and that underneath your superficial disdain for this man (and let’s assume it’s a man), you detect a fear that you are really looking at yourself — or more accurately, a vision of our future — or that this man actually appeared to you in a dream the previous night, except the dream was about your past and the man was your father; then it might occur to you that the afternoon light of the winter sun slicing across the conference room represents an opportunity for something — perhaps forgiveness or redemption — so that an hour later (after the meeting has concluded) you look at the black sky with a mix of pain and longing and remorse, although none of this prevents you from turning off your computer and leaving the office as quickly as possible, for it has also occurred to you that only the city streets leave you truly anesthetized and so you rush out the revolving door of your office building and are swept away in the the river of pedestrians for many blocks before you realize that you are in fact heading in the wrong direction from where you need to be.

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So far — and we have finished the first of five “books” — 2666 is this kind of great novel. There is a plot, which to this point centers around four literary professors/critics (all based in Europe) in search of an obscure German novelist who has never really been seen and may or may not be in a city in Mexico where hundreds of girls have been murdered. While this is compelling enough to keep us turning the pages during a few too many dream sequences and one self-indulgent sentence that lasted perhaps four pages, Bolano’s true gift is to render (in beautiful, poetic prose that feels almost beyond the capacity of the English language and makes us wish we were writing in French or Spanish or even German) the ambiguity of modern life, i.e., the competing urges and emotions that inhabit the smallest gestures (say, a two-minute phone call to someone you speak to every day)  to the largest (e.g., brutally beating someone on the street and leaving them to die.)

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Actually, not all of Bolano’s prose is so lush; much of it — particularly as he describes the characters’ actions, often in short punchy sentences — conveys a sense of (modern) detachment that is mirrored by the charaters’ own detachment (at least in this section). Two of the professors (not coincidentally the two able-bodied men) are particularly arrogant, and Bolano spends a fair amount of time slyly skewering the (often unconsciously and hilariously) pretentious European intellectuals he has created for us. But none of this can disguise an obvious love of beauty Bolano brings to the text, and if anything, the detachment makes us all the more vulnerable to the florid romanticism with which he sweeps us away at the end of so many of his sections. When we finished this book, we were almost reluctant to begin the next, knowing that soon enough it would no longer be undiscovered, and our anticipation would never be so great.

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“And this statue came out of the sea and rose above the beach and it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.”

The 2666 Review Roundup:

The Part About Amalfitano
The Part About Fate
The Part About the Crimes
The Part About Archimboldi

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One Response to “On The Part About the Critics (2666)”

  1. Hello GR, strolling through by way of the plug in ManhattanTimes. I’m not sure if you always write this way or if Bolano has crept in this deeply. I also happen to be tackling this mammoth, on book four now. I think you’ll find the detachment decreasing as the cast moves away from Euro academics to New World scribes. If you don’t join Aalfitano in madness, enjoy the Part about Fate!


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