On Bolaño’s 2666
I’m reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and it scares me shitless every day. I can’t read it at night. A week ago I had a vicious flu (thanks to a co-worker) that may yet turn out to be bronchitis, and spent two nights in a near-hallucinatory dreamlike state: at one point, I dreamed my own death, but for the most part, I simply heard voices: one or two at first, but then a rumbling cacophony, words and pieces of words, voices that had no business being in my head, that I’d never heard before.
This is something like what Florita Almada experiences in the fourth section of 2666: The Part about the Crimes. In that particular section, Bolaño reports, in what I can only think to call a numbing style or tone, the deaths of hundreds of women who’ve died in the fictitious town of Santa Teresa on the U.S.-Mexico border (Santa Teresa agreed by all to be just a thinly veiled pseudonym for Juarez, although Juarez itself is referenced in the novel). It is a masterwork of persistence: you’d think Bolaño would stop after four or five deaths, perhaps ten or twelve, but he simply keeps going, balancing it with other storylines that he picks up long enough to absorb the reader before dropping them again for the killings.
My only bone to pick here, would be Bolaño’s total indifference to the fates of the victim’s families, to the personal aftermath of the killings. Because of it, part four loses a bit of its power, and the deaths become a blur (which, most likely, was Bolaño’s intention). It’s overwhelming. It’s harrowing, but it’s not even the most terrifying section. That award would go to the third: the Part about Fate. Not fate as in destiny, but Oscar Fate, a New York reporter who goes down to Mexico to cover a boxing match but gets sucked up into the story of the killings. The last ten pages of it had me stunned.
The truth is, the book is not about horror. It’s about dread. A dread that begins on the first page and continues to build, until you just feel the need, sometimes, to close the book. To go read something else. To watch a basketball game or a sitcom or the results of the Florida Republican primary.
I’ve been working my way through certain long pieces of fiction lately: Adam Levin’s The Instructions, David Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and they’ve each offered a unique set of challenges, difficulties, sometimes intentional and sometimes not, that make the books hard to read. Bolaño’s novel contains none of these. It’s written in a plodding style (which may just be the translation, but I’ve heard Bolaño is pretty unconcerned about style even in Spanish), and doesn’t really have any exciting set pieces that I can recall. But it’s perhaps the most difficult long book I’ve read simply because, as one character says, the murders “contain the secret of the world,” and you feel, as the reader—like the characters, who, in each and every section, are inevitably drawn to Santa Teresa from places as far as Italy, France, New York, Chile—that this is not a put-on, not some gimmick mystery to get you to keep reading. Because that dread is there, in your gut, telling you Bolaño’s got it all figured out, and truth doesn’t, in fact, end up setting us free or saving us; it mars us; it fragments us; it turns us powerless and leaves us breathless.