of Maine


Roberto Bolano, 2666
December 11, 2008, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Words | Tags: , ,

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Let’s work our way to summarizing comments here. And before I wear you out, if you’re looking for a great beginner’s guide to the awesomeness awaiting you in this book, read Jonathan Lethem’s review.

Left thinking about: the five sections, all somewhat distinctive stylistically, that just end; how we learn everything about the life and nothing about the work of the fictional author that motivates much of this tale; the characters all searching for clues – to the whereabouts of a lost writer, to the murderer(s) of hundreds of young women in northern Mexico, to their sexual and romantic needs and desires, to how to escape squalor and grief, to the importance of identity, to the symbolism of their dreams – which, in many cases, they find and lead to nothing.

Most of all, it’s Bolano’s craft more than his story that resonates. There’s something inherently contradictory about his style. His sentences won’t stop you in your tracks. You won’t find yourself highlighting virtuoso moments very often. He’s not one for adages, morals, or grand statements. His series (plural) of ideas don’t culminate in a-ha moments or philosophical revelations – when they do, they’re usually comically naive.

At the same time, Bolano’s syntax is so distinctive and (more importantly) intuitive that you’re unlikely to forget many of his sentences upon a rereading. If they’re, line by line, unmemorable, they’re a perpetual motion machine of details, asides, and insights. His rhythm is addicting; it’s difficult to stop reading 2666, because you want the high to be the same the moment you jump back in.

Try this two-sentence paragraph out, from “The Part About the Crimes”:

For many days Juan de Dios Martinez thought about the four heart attacks Herminia Noriega had suffered before she died. Sometimes he thought about it while he was eating or while he was urinating in the men’s room at a coffee shop or one of the inspector’s regular lunch spots, or before he went to sleep, just at the moment he turned off the light, or maybe seconds before he turned off the light, and when that happened he simply couldn’t turn off the light and then he got out of bed and went over to the window and looked out at the street, an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street, and then he went into the kitchen and put water on to boil and made himself coffee, and sometimes, as he drank the hot coffee with no sugar, shitty coffee, he turned on the TV and watched late-night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, and then Juan de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when finally he removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.

Okay, let’s assume you thought that was awesome. (You were right.) But what happened here? Nothing that didn’t happen in that first, short sentence.

What does that second sentence do to enhance the first one? Emotionally, for Juan de Dios Martinez, almost nothing. His inability to cry is affecting, but all we’re told aside from that is in what settings he’s thinking about Herminia Noriega. Bolano makes no assumptions about Juan’s psyche.

What else do we learn? Indelible tics of Juan’s behavior, things about his daily routine. Bits about Santa Teresa, the fictional city much of the book is set in. Just this broad series of adjectives – “an ordinary, ugly, silent, dimly lit street” – is extremely evocative, and the description of television personalities, “in Spanish or English or Spanglish” speaking “unintelligible greetings,” brings up the murky mélange of life on the border. The not much of this sentence still seems widely encompassing.

It’s one of hundreds of such sequences in 2666. They add up to nothing like a resolution, but they encapsulate generations, cultures, nightmares, and the author’s boundless energy and ambition.