Prose Poem

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Since his death in 2003, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño has become one of the more colorful gods in the pantheon of international literary myth. (Who can forget the time he impregnated a dragon using nothing but the power of his neglected avant-gardism?) My favorite episode of his biographical legend is the part where, at the age of nearly 40, having spent his wild-haired youth as an experimental poet obscurely chasing revolutions (political and aesthetic) all over Latin America, he finally decided it was time to hang up his spurs (or whatever revolutionaries had worn in the seventies) and try, with the air of a man resigning himself to becoming a vacuum salesman, to earn a stable living by writing fiction. This is funny because Bolaño’s fiction—dreamy novellas in which air-force pilots skywrite opaque poetry and priests tutor despots in Marxism—is perhaps the least commercially viable body of literature ever written for the alleged purpose of making money. His novelistic skill-set seems designed to repel consumers. He has an apparently life-threatening allergy to cuteness, fictional convention, and reader-enabling shortcuts. He seems personally offended by the artifice of narrative closure; although he’s addicted to detective plots, he employs them almost purely as philosophical exercises, often abandoning them halfway through. He loves (like Borges) to invent elaborate bibliographies for fictional authors, which occasionally creates the sensation that you’re reading a card catalogue instead of a novel. He follows his restless talent down every available rabbit hole of improvisation, no matter how dark and unpromising. Single sentences stretch on for pages, obsessively sifting the most minor gradations. Surreal metaphors bloom without warning: “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 grass and earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings.” This all adds up, indisputably, to great literature—at his best, Bolaño strikes a new kind of balance between aim (quests, escapes, investigations) and aimlessness (dreams, description, metaphorical riffing), in which the aimlessness is so energetic and oddly urgent it steps up as a whole new species of purpose. But in what world would it ever possibly sell?

Well, apparently in this one. The newest entry in Bolaño’s legendary oeuvre is the enormous, posthumous, ambiguously complete, inscrutably titled novel 2666—which arrives omni-buzzed and hyperdesigned, poised to be the most fashionable literary blockbuster of the holiday season.

Having just spent the equivalent of a full workweek crawling through the book, however, I’m having trouble envisioning it as the hot Christmas item some people might expect. Its 893 pages are indisputably brilliant, but they are not, by any definition, brisk—they’re tall, crowded, brutal, dense. In fact, one possible explanation of the mysterious title is that it would take any normal author 2,666 pages to convey what Bolaño manages to convey (or half-convey, or almost possibly begin to suggest he might convey) in just under 900. Reading 2666 demands a degree of sustained artistic communion that strikes me as deeply old-fashioned, practically Victorian. There are underwhelming patches, tonal dead spots, and even stretches that border on self-parody. The opening chapter is, at times, prohibitively dry. (It took me a second reading, immediately after finishing the book, to pick up much of its resonance.) Even when Bolaño is absolutely on fire, hypnotizing you with his dirty magic (which is often), the pages don’t fly by—if anything, they drag you right down into the dense fudgy core of time, where moments congeal into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into eons.

Plot summary, I’m afraid, is futile. Bolaño has a lyric poet’s feel for narrative logic, and 2666 is a modular epic—a novel built out of five linked novellas, each of which is itself a collage of endless stand-alone parts: riffs, nightmares, set pieces, monologues, dead ends, stories within stories, descriptive flourishes. It begins with four literary critics—three Europeans and an Englishwoman, embroiled in a fierce international love quadrangle—who’ve built academic careers based entirely on their obsession with a vanished German novelist, the absurdly named Benno von Archimboldi. On a tip, the scholars go searching for Archimboldi in Santa Teresa, a dystopic Mexican boomtown (“equal parts lost cemetery and garbage dump”) near the U.S. border, where, they soon discover, hundreds of women have recently been kidnapped, raped, and murdered. These mysterious killings, based on a real-life crime wave that broke out in Ciudad Juárez in the nineties, become the center of 2666, around which Bolaño mobilizes his small army of cosmopolitan protagonists: a Chilean professor who’s terrified that his teenage daughter will be the next victim; a black American journalist assigned, on a fluke, to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa; and the elusive Archimboldi himself, drawn toward the murders at the end of his life by a surprising family connection.

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.

See Also
The best passages, the five-page sentence, and more on 2666 from Vulture.

By Roberto Bolaño.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.

Prose Poem