2666: Thoughts on a Long Novel

By the time I took back the copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 back to the public library, it was already late. With two renewals, I had managed to reach the last page of the book the date it was due, but being the kind of person I am, it wasn’t until a few days later that I actually returned it.

Heat is waving outside, and I wave back from air conditioned rooms. What can a short blog say about a long novel? They are antagonists, and while Mardi is a narrative I found like an abandoned ship, 2666 is a shrine around which the ground is already trampled.

“’I hate first editions and pyramids and I hate those bloodthirsty Aztecs,’ said Ingeborg. ‘But the light of the stars makes me dizzy. It makes me want to cry,’ said Ingeborg, her eyes damp with madness.”

That’s from Bolaño ‘s novel. He’s a Chilean writer, who died before 2666 was published. There are five parts, which according to the writer’s intention were to be released separately, and although the fifth loops in some ways back to the first, the connections are inexact, invoking the expectations of closure (the crime is solved, the character develops, the plot has a discernible arc) without, finally, fulfilling them.

Long novels make you complicit. You have spent so much time, shared so many hours, how could you say you didn’t like the book without implicating your own life, your own heartbeats spent with that writer’s words between them? The narrative becomes too subjective, confused with associations that were merely contingent to the act of reading. If you enjoy being alive, and enjoy translating abstract symbols into imagery, then it is hardly possible to dislike a text you’ve poured so much mental water through, although the sieve of memory may only net a few ambiguous artifacts, like Aztec reliquaries.

long novels

I didn’t really like 2666, but I enjoyed reading it. This can be explained by the fact that I enjoy reading almost anything, often appreciating boring and badly written texts more because of the challenge of transmuting them, mentally, into a more interesting substance. In one of my classes, I remember telling students who complained about my having them read boring books that by doing so I was preparing them for life, which, on the whole, would try to bore them and break them with unmitigated inanity and repetition. My goal, I explained to my horrified young charges, was to teach them to live like a camel, for long stretches of time, on drops of subjective fascination—how to spin homogenous input strings (time, hours, classes, years, debt, employment, waiting in line, in traffic, at a desk) into energetic cognitive coils. Your life will be boring, I warn them. The world will not entertain you. Learn how to dance on tarmac, in the wastelands of strip malls and paperwork. Find living people you care about. Talk to them.

Because my warning applied, of course, only to the non-living, human world. Nature, other people, will always bring a surplus to perception: inestimable, complex beauty. The only way to tolerate the screens, shields, and surfaces the post-industrial world uses to protect you from experiencing naturally occurring complexity is to crumple them, compost them, and plant chaotic seeds in the dust of how you read, or see, or write. Ecological humanism—the kind of writing and thinking that purely constructed systems disallow.

Also, I should point out that 2666 isn’t really a bad or boring novel: it is a masterpiece. I’ve read hundreds of masterpieces, though, and they don’t impress me anymore. Their incomparable, exquisite prose annoys me. It took me a week to write this review because I had to wait for the novel to recede in the distance, to look over or around its literary status, to wait and see what clumps I could tear off and take with me in my pockets. I have nothing to say to a masterpiece. The idea of “great art” is inimical to art itself, shooting formaldehyde into its veins, until the idea of greatness, accomplishment, blocks out everything else. To such dead and reprinted reverence, I have nothing to say, although I’ve walked for a long time now in the shadow of those tombs.

Unlike that of David Foster Wallace or Neal Stephenson, Bolaño’s style of maximalism isn’t exuberant, but journalistic, dead-pan, like a fence of bones. There are hundreds of pages devoted to exhaustive descriptions of murders in the Mexican desert, one after another—long, nihilistic stretches of undeviating script like a highway through an unchanging landscape the color of dried blood.

Print, pyramids, Aztecs, stars. The parts of 2666 don’t taper to a point. The unconnected lines of plot swerve again and again to the dark corners of conscious thought like the negative photograph of a moth. Having finished it, I can focus on another book I’ve been reading simultaneously, and will be, probably, the subject of my next review-type blog: 1491: New Revelations of the American Before Columbus.

Those bloodthirsty Aztecs. Those lovely, maize-making Incas. Long novels, and long, long, histories.

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