When I first came upon Bolaño’s work, it had the fingerprints of literary Scooby Doo villain Thomas Pynchon all over it. But a caper of this magnitude? A Chilean pseudonym with an elaborate leftist pedigree? All the chain smoking and cryptic interviews? I suspect that Pynchon ghostwrites about 25% of contemporary American fiction, but he can only do so much.
The opening movements of 2666 make clear that the debt lies elsewhere. Pynchon might figure in the novel, but as character sketch for the reclusive German writer Archimboldi (with some W.G. Sebald DNA) rather than any enduring stylistic influence. What appears a metatextual romp and literary noir deepens into a hard-fought commitment to the realistic novel. Each time it threatens to slide into the magical realism that might have been its guiding star, 2666 insists that the earthly rites and spectacles are grotesque and surreal enough. Its resistance to closure and strategic deletion of narrative markers, techniques that in another context would shore up its experimental credentials, actually heighten a sense of verisimilitude. Reading 2666 is like witnessing a predator live and hunt without some of its organs. Sometimes the void at the center of the world signifies malfunction and breakdown, and sometimes the evacuated space makes possible the salience of all the rest.
Originally slated for publication as five separate novels, the five parts of 2666 don’t all participate in the greater novel’s distinction. “The Part About The Critics” will certainly invite pomo aficionados to feats of literary detection but the novel’s lifeline lies not that way. In particular, “The Part About The Crimes,” is an absolute moral and spiritual morass, though in this way it is faithful to its source material in the Ciudad Juarez killings. By some margin the longest part of the book, “Crimes” can feel like a garbled transmission. The authority that might have brought shape to the horrific and clinical depiction of rape and murder has receded, making “Crimes” the least pleasurable 250 pages I’ve read in some time. Part of it is intentional, but much of it feels a failure of intent. There’s a difference between recording and testifying, and in “Crimes” that chasm yawns.
2666 stands out as the best book I’ve read since I’ve started this blog. A work concerned with posterity, it works us into the posterity it’s concerned with. And it teaches me that a piece of art can have the same ideological and conventional commitments as the rank and file of a familiar genre and still feel alien. 2666 is accounted for by our mechanics, yet it doesn’t breathe our air.