Reading “2666″: The Part About the Critics

In the first in a series of articles about Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666, Kevin Nguyen tries to understand why he even bothers reading long books.

Long novels are daunting. My last attempt at reading epic-length literature outside of class was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which still sits on my bookshelf, dog-eared at page 384 since my sophomore year. So why do I have a copy of Roberto Bolano’s nearly thousand-page-long 2666 on my nightstand?

The decision didn’t feel like a noble undertaking. Instead, it was an impulse buy (propelled by Amazon’s dangerous 1-Click feature), more akin to the time I bumped Iron Man to the top of my Netflix queue over the classic Akira Kurosawa films I’d been meaning to watch for ages.

Reading 2666 seemed destined to join the ranks of other empty self-promises, like running regularly, eating healthy, and other New Years resolution fodder. But it did make me consider why I would even bother trying.

While exercise and eating well have obvious benefits, pleasure reading doesn’t. Sure, there’s the pure enjoyment of it, but in a world where we’re swamped with homework, more reading is the last thing anyone wants to do. Is it a mark of cultural enrichment or intelligence, or merely a way of convincing ourselves that we’re intelligent?

Honestly, we don’t prove anything by pleasure reading. Instead, I think the reason is entirely personal. There’s a certain feeling you get after finishing a great book that rarely comes from other mediums. As hackneyed as it sounds, great books make you wish the story never ended (which, I think, is the premise of The NeverEnding Story). I’ve heard people rave more enthusiastically about epic-length novels like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Stephen King’s The Stand, or even Harry Potter than I have any other book.

But I don’t think this feeling has as much to do with the book itself, but the way we come to expect profundity from novels, especially long ones. The commitment to a book is unlike any obligation to other art forms. With albums and films, you can sit back and take in the experience as intensely or passively as you choose.

Books, on the other hand, demand your full concentration for their entirety. Sure, some novels ask more of their readers than others, but you can’t leave the book on while you do homework. The reward is greater because you’re so invested.

But let’s talk about 2666, or at least as far as I’ve read.

Some background: 2666 was published posthumously. Bolano died of liver failure in 2003, after becoming an internationally celebrated Chilean author and poet, most famously for The Savage Detectives (which I haven’t read). 2666 is divided into five distinct parts, only one of which I’ve finished.

The first section section of the book, self-consciously titled “The Part About the Critics,” explores the lives of four literary academics and their single connection—an underrated, mysterious German novelist named Benno von Archimboldi (who, of course, does not exist in our world). The semi-omniscient, semi-smart ass narrator refers to the protagonists collectively as the Archimboldians, each one the top Archimboldi scholar from his or her home country—France, Spain, Italy, and England. Through conferences and symposiums, they become close friends, and their relationships escalate into a love triangle (or perhaps a love tetrahedron).

But the central idea of “The Part About the Critics” is the dynamic of human relationships and their connection to literature. Archimboldi is the crux of the critics’ friendships, rivalries, and love affairs. Maybe Bolano intentionally mirrored the characters connection to Archimboldi with the reader’s connection to the novel, or even to Bolano himself.

Already, 2666 is far from perfect–there are some silly psychoanalytic dream sequences and some clumsy dialogue, perhaps from poor translation–but few novels, especially long ones, are without their blemishes. What I’m looking for in 2666 has little to do with the story itself. In many ways, I decided I’d liked Bolano’s work before I’d read the first page. Maybe it was the effusive critical praise or merely the handsome three-piece book design.

Or maybe I just wanted to love this book.

See more from Reading “2666.”

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.