The heart of 2666 is its fourth and longest section, called simply “The Part About the Crimes.” It is, flat out, one of the best stretches of fiction I’ve ever read. I broke my pencil several times writing catatonically enthusiastic marginalia. Bolaño takes the crimes on directly, one by one, compiling a brutal, almost journalistic catalogue of the murdered women. Although he’s clearly outraged by the culture of misogyny, exploitation, and indifference that enables the killing, he refuses to load the fictional dice. He humanizes not only the women and their families but the corrupt police and even the murder suspects. It’s a perfect fusion of subject and method: The real-world horror anchors Bolaño’s dreamy aesthetic, producing an impossibly powerful hybrid of political anger and sophisticated art.
Bolaño’s novellas and short stories are often perfect exercises in pacing and tone. 2666 is, as the book itself admits, very clearly not that. Bolaño was working on the classic “loose baggy monster” plan of the novel, aiming not for a tidy, fussy, impeccable minor work but for a heroic, encyclopedic, reckless, god-awful brilliant mess. He wanted, as his Chilean professor puts it, not Bartleby the Scrivener but Moby-Dick—one of the world’s “great, imperfect, torrential works” in which the writer engages in “real combat … against that something, that something that terrifies us all.” That something was, at least partly for Bolaño, death. He was apparently not quite finished revising 2666 when he died, at 50, of liver failure—a real-life tragedy that strikes me, on a purely artistic level, as somehow appropriate. 2666 is Bolaño’s everything book: It aspires to say all he had to say about his career, his central obsessions, and his geographical touchstones (Chile, Mexico, Spain, Germany). His death, in the last moments of its creation, applies the final indeterminate Bolañesco touch: mystery, openness, imperfection—a simultaneous promise of everything and of nothing.