I had this odd moment last night when I realized I don’t write about books here very often (selected sex scenes of Michael Chabon excepted), even though when it comes to popular culture, they are my first love, probably the medium I would choose if I had to take one with me into eternity. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that I had this feeling as I finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which cut me to the quick as no book has in quite some time.
For those of you not familiar with it, 2666 is Bolano’s last novel. It consists of five interlinked parts, which Bolano intended to be released as separate novels (though some are more like novellas), a year apart, to provide a financial legacy for his family after his death. It concerns, among other things, academic literary criticism, how to raise a daughter, how to cover a boxing match, the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, the relationships between brothers and sisters, the operations of publishing houses, and life in post-War Germany. Sprawling is a generous term for the novel, and I’ll admit to feeling frustrated with it after I began reading it in Cambodia. I actually recommended to a number of people that they read the first section, skip the second and third, and read the fourth and fifth sections. I still maintain that the novel, as a whole, probably works better that way. But damn, did I not expect how the book would come together in the final pages of the final section, and how powerfully it would affect me.
I’d warn you, if you decide to take on 2666, that it will not provide you with a satisfying conclusion. The murders of 400 women in a fictionalized border town in Mexico are not resolved. The professors whose story encompasses the first section never meet the object of their literary study. It’s not clear if said object ever wins the Nobel Prize. All of these things irked me while I was reading the book. And now that I’m done, they don’t matter in the slightest. Bolano’s writing on the murdered women in Juarez is a powerful act of witness, an insistence on assigning humanity to women who have been reduced to pieces of meat, their murders unsolved, and seemingly not worth solving. His bildungsroman in the final section is astonishing. And the book provides a powerful testament to the impact of a truly great book:
The novel was The Blind Woman, and she liked it, but not so much that it made her go running out to buy everything else that Benno von Archimboldi had ever written….Five months later, back in England again, Liz Norton received a gift in the mail from her German friend. As one might guess, it was another novel by Archimboldi. She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Itlaian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would ahv emade no difference if they had slid up.
It’s audacious as all hell to write a novel, in part about an novelist, that includes a passage like that. Accusations of invitations of comparison are inevitable. And 2666 isn’t going to make me run out to become a literature professor with a deeply complicated love life. But the novel’s disparate strands come together in a way that’s moving, surprising, and ultimately deeply gratifying. And that left me with tears in my eyes from the sting.