Thursday, March 26, 2009

2666 + (n+1) = 0

A couple of days ago I finished reading 2666 for the second time. The first time, about two years ago, I read it very quickly and it was like being run over by a car (for the record I have in fact been hit by a car, three times). Even if you see the car coming, you don't expect to be hit. There's the impact and its immediate, involuntary consequences, rolling over the hood or being thrown some distance. Then a very quiet moment. Then you stand up if you can, not really able to process the fact that you've just been hit by a car. Heartbeat racing, heavy breathing, and a fevered inventory of your various parts. Is anything different? Is anything broken? What the fuck just happened?

Later you play that moment over and over in your mind. The event gradually takes shape as an actual event. It slows down, becomes something that really happened. You start to see all the things you didn't see the first time. The color and make of the car. The moment it became clear that it wasn't going to stop. Maybe the driver's face. You experience your own emotions, feel the impact in detail. Reading Bolaño's novel for the second time was like this.

A day or two after I finished the book, this review by Giles Harvey at n+1 came to my attention, and in turn led me to this review by Sam Sacks and this one by William Deresiewicz. Those are three negative reviews. Obviously there's a part of me that applauds the willingness of all three critics, at a time when 2666 was the Hot Hot Book in the US, to swim against the current. That's not something very many people are willing to do. But, reading these reviews, I felt the same kind of disconnect that I felt when I read Jonathan Lethem's very positive review, for example; a disconnect born of the strange conversation we've been having, in this country, for a couple of years now.

Bolañopalooza, as I have come to call it, is an interesting phenomenon. Or rather, it was one, because I think it might be over, with the requisite backlash already underway. I was already talking about all the odd hype in my first review of one of his books, more than two years ago. This was shortly before The Savage Detectives came out here. Events since then have far exceeded what I thought was even theoretically possible. Roberto eventually reached Paris Hilton levels of hype. I remember, around Christmas, seeing stacks and stacks of 2666 all over town. St. Mark's had an extra guy working whose sole job was to sell that book.

This was a marketing phenomenon, and past a certain point it had less and less to do with the books, and more and more to do with the image that was being created, for the express purpose of selling books, of the dead rebel martyr LatinoBeatnik etc., etc. That image is in fact rooted in Roberto's real life, but when it made the jump to America it quickly lost all connection to reality. The facts of the man's biography, which are well known, were totally removed from their context, Latin America in the 60's and 70's, Spain in the 80's and 90's, and the result was a ridiculous caricature, not a portrait. Simply put, things got out of hand. Expectations were deliberately cranked incredibly high. Unsurprisingly, what followed was mountains of praise, awards, and a handful of dissenting voices, none of it particularly relevant.

As I have said before, repeatedly, a good working knowledge of Latin American history and literature is essential to understanding both Roberto and his work. Without it, you cannot contextualize anything, references get lost, shades of meaning evaporate. If you read Amulet without knowing anything about Tlatelolco or the occupation of the UNAM, that book is meaningless, or worse, it's just a bunch of picturesque gossip about poets. The Savage Detectives is a hell of a lot more interesting if you're familiar with the Infrarealists and other Latin American avant-gardes. The book is much funnier if you know who Manuel Maples Arce and Carlos Monsiváis are. Without that, the satire that is at the heart of the entire idea of roman à clef simply isn't there for you, and the book becomes, again, mostly poet gossip. Now, poet gossip is a fine and amusing thing, but it is not what Roberto was writing. Saying his books are about poets is like saying Apocalypse Now is about a soldier. It's really about the war.

Roberto's arrival in this country was a fabulous opportunity for literary critics to do their jobs, to really explain things to people who really wanted to know. They failed to do so, choosing instead to hold a platitude competition. Then a few people come along and take potshots at the book that inspired all the platitudes. Both sides are simply too lazy to learn what they don't know. Both are unwilling to simply admit that they're in no position to critique the books in the first place. 2666 is the point where all this comes to a head, because there's little to no romantic glamor in the book, no poets to gossip about.

99% of the praise heaped on 2666 can be discarded out of hand. The negative reviews deserve a closer look, both because they're so rare and because they all seem to have been the product of actual reflection on the nature of the book. In all three cases, the major complaint is that, at the core of the book, there's nothing there. Here is Sam Sacks, at the very beginning of his review:
Imagine you’ve traveled to an art museum to see its most famous work. This piece de resistance is immense—it fills a room—but it’s quite unlike other paintings you’ve gone great distances to see. There’s nothing of the detailed majesty of the Sistine Chapel or the jumbled vivacity of El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz; it’s not entrancingly lovely like Monet’s Water Lillies and it doesn’t salute you with a harsh shout of anger the way that Picasso’s Guernica does. What you find is a dark room. Not only are the walls painted black, but the ceiling is as well, and so is the floor save for some dim lighting fixtures set into the ground. For the first extremely disconcerting moments you can make out nothing at all but the wide swathes of black paint. Gradually your eyes adjust and you realize that there are figures on the wall and ceiling, silhouettes of people drawn in thin tracery. Hundreds of these figures cover the walls. They outline men and women of all different shapes and sizes, differently dressed and coiffed, but each one seems to face you with an identical expression. When you look even closer you realize that this is because their eyes, what Leonardo da Vinci called the “windows of the soul,” are all blank.
You spend a few more minutes in the dark room of dead-eyed figures—you’ve gone to a lot of effort to see this work, after all, and it’s widely acclaimed as a masterpiece—but you soon feel oppressed and unhappy. When you make your way to the next gallery you are literally blinking from the brightness.
This is the best I can do to describe Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published magnum opus 2666, a vast, visionary, physically crippling book that is even harder to recommend than it is to read.

That, in addition to being very good writing, is the best summation of the Unbearable Emptiness Theory. Let's compare that to the following, from a 2004 review by Bolaño's friend, the Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán:
This isn't what I wanted to write. The idea was something else, the plan was different. What I'd proposed was a ship's log of 2666, a reader's diary of Roberto Bolaño's posthumous meganovel. To annotate and compile—like footnotes or commentaries in the margins—impressions, ideas, echoes and even memories. A sort of autobiography of a reader whose life would last as long as the book lasted and, luckily, it was a long book. VERY long. But things didn't turn out like I thought and what I have to say here will take up much less time and space. Because truth be told: I received the bound proofs of 2666 and I started to read—I read “The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi...”—and I didn't stop to write down anything until page 291; until the end of the second part/novel of 2666. And what I wrote down then—in emphatic capital letters—was the following: NOTHING TO WRITE DOWN. NOTHING TO SAY. DIFFICULT TO WRITE ANYTHING ABOUT EVERYTHING. Having written this, I didn't write anything again until I finished the last page, which reads “A little later he left the park and the next morning he left for Mexico.”

These two reviews, Sacks' and Fresán's, couldn't be further removed from one another. In time, in approach, in culture and language, in the conclusion reached. Sacks does his level best to give his impressions of the book, calls it like he sees it, doesn't like it much. Fresán does the same, but loves it. What's interesting is that Sacks, Harvey, Deresiewicz and Fresán all cite pretty much the same things about the book to bolster their arguments. The prose style, the opacity, the long catalogs of the effects of violence, the way all the narratives bottom out abruptly, the very subtle connections linking parts and characters, the way it all leads up to nothing. Fresán thinks it all works, the other three don't. Not coincidentally, Fresán knows many of the things germane to the book that the others don't. He understands this very Latin American book from a Latin American perspective.

This means something very specific in this context. An interviewer once asked Bolaño, “Are you Chilean, Mexican, or Spanish?” and Roberto's immediate answer was, “I'm Latin American.” The idea of Latin America remains somewhat controversial in the region, as it has been for many years. The antagonism is between a right wing that promotes nationalism within the the various countries, and a left wing that is constantly trying to unite these same countries as a way of fending off the US influence which overwhelms them individually. Nationality is a huge preoccupation in Hispanic culture, it's probably question number two after, “What's your name?” with anyone you meet. To answer a question about your nationality as Roberto habitually did, by asserting that he was Latin American, is to take an explicit cultural and political position.

This position is apparent throughout Roberto's writing. It is often rather explicit, as in Distant Star, and it is there, lurking in the background, in 2666 as well. Behind the body count in Santa Teresa is the body count in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico. Death squads in Central America. People thrown into the ocean from airplanes. Santa Teresa is right on the US border, a fact central to the place and the book. All of which adds up to the implied question: do you see a pattern? And you do, of course, but then Roberto extends the pattern, brings the European critics, an American reporter, a German novelist and the individual reader into it, then it's over. Not a bang but a whimper. You're on your own. No answers.

Which is what Fresán likes and the others loathe, but regardless, the experience of reading the book was, for all four of them, nearly identical. They all felt like they just got hit by a car. And so does everybody else, apparently. I've talked to a lot of people and none of them would say they were enjoying it. Some of them looked like they hadn't slept much lately. You hear the word “monster” an awful lot.

I feel pretty much the same way. I think the book is brilliant. I think anyone complaining about Roberto's prose style is probably a snob and should definitely keep in mind that they're reading a translation. I think it's a lot less unfinished than people think. I think I'll read it again next year, and the year after that. It reminds me of how I felt the first time I saw the ocean, I had to just sit there and let the idea of “big” adjust for a while. It reminds me of how I felt after reading Pedro Paramo. Or after I saw Andrei Rublev for the first time. Or while looking at one of the black Rothkos. Or after a friend of mine was killed. What can you even say?

What can you tell us about your next book, 2666?
Bolaño: Nothing.

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