Rarely have I seen a book receive such lavish acclaim. 2666 showed up on nearly every year-end top ten list. New York Magazine called it “brilliant,” the Los Angeles Times said “marvelous,” and Slate said that 2666 had the “confident strangeness of a masterpiece.”
Critics also seem to agree that the novel is messy. Scott Esposito’s write-up in The Quarterly Conversation was the most negative review I could find, but I think he rightly identifies the novel’s most convoluted features:
2666 is huge, and the form sometimes feels like a clumsy one for the author. Some novelists, Pynchon for example, so revel in abundance that the spillage of words feels like an absolute necessity. For them, the huge novel is their one true form. [Roberto] Bolaño, whose books rarely grew to more than 200 pages, whose books, when they did grow larger than that, tended to do so by piecing together smaller, self-contained sections, seems at times unable in 2666 to distinguish the necessary from the ornamental, or worse, the banal.
In some ways, I refuse to believe that 2666 is perfect, especially considering that Bolaño only finished four and a half of the book’s five parts before he died. As brilliant as he was, all great works of fiction, especially one of this magnitude, demand months and months of editing and rewriting.
I would never call 2666 “banal,” but I think Esposito is right to call it “ornamental.” Bolaño’s epic is full of fascinating details that often meander and resolve to nothing.
This is particularly the case in the book’s third section, “The Part About Fate.” It follows Oscar Fate, an American journalist sent to Mexico to report on a boxing match for a black interest magazine. The central plot of Fate’s story—recognizing the unreported murders of Santa Teresa and the bizarre love story—are strong, but there are plenty of digressions that come across as unfocused and unnecessary.
Take, for example, the fictitious pre-fame background on Mexican filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who, in the world of 2666, was always drunk and high, lived in a bordello, and worked for a pimp. There’s even a brief mention of Woody Allen’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan. What any of these stories or the Hollywood motif in the section mean is ambiguous, if they even mean anything at all.
There’s also a messiness to the 2666‘s structure. The second section, “The Part About Amalfitano,” is about a philosophy professor who’s slowly going insane. In this part, Bolaño elected not to use a single paragraph break. There are still section breaks, but for the most part, you’re forced to squint through large chunks of text. Even the dialogue is set inline. The fourth section is also styled like this.
The second chapter of 2666 is by far the shortest, coming in at only 68 pages long, but in many ways, feels like the longest. In the same that February is insufferable despite its 28-day span, “The Part About Amalfitano” was an undertaking to finish.
Clearly, this divergence in structure and style from the first section is a deliberate choice the late Bolaño made. He must’ve understood the implications of designing something so hard to read. In that same way, an author as accomplished as Bolaño must have recognized the danger of all the loose ends and deviations as well.
I think it comes down to how much you trust an author. While I might not understand what everything signifies, 2666 is self-assured, even at its most peculiar.
Literary conventions believe that style, narrative, and even moral are necessary elements to fiction, but Bolaño challenges our conceptions of what exactly a novel is. 2666 is, perhaps, intentionally baroque, and I think there’s something brilliant in its imperfections. Even while I identify elements that I would consider flaws, they are just as likely to be things that I’m not used to or just make me uncomfortable. The only thing that seems to tie the book’s five distinct sections together is a continued doom-laden subtext, and who would expect the apocalypse to be anything but messy?
My favorite review of the novel comes from Sarah Kerr of The New York Review of Books. Quoting from the book, she says 2666 is “a world of ‘endless shipwreck’… met with the most radiant effort… [is] as good a way as any to describe Bolaño and his overwhelming book.”
See more from Reading “2666.”