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So after I finished college I moved to the college town of Tucson, Arizona and went to Nogales, Mex and drove around the Sonoran desert. Border towns are weird places where you can buy Wal-mart sized servings of prescription pills, where unattractive strippers shoot Ping-Pong balls out of their yahoos, and where Mexican girls regularly disappear. Drugs circle your world whether you like it or not. In Tucson one night I drove home to find a police helicopter beaming light into the yard across my street (I got out of my car and ran to apartment door); one of my co-workers and friends had an intervention with a buddy whose heroin problem was getting out of control (that friend returned the favor by cracking Michael’s skull with a skateboard, causing enough brain damage that Michael had to relearn arithmetic), and I’ve watched meth melt humans down into two-legged rhinoceroses, who drag their hooves down 4th Avenue either looking for their next fix, spare change, or ice cream.
The terror in reading 2666 is that it reminds me of living in the Sonoran Desert, which has its downsides, but also has a totally surreal and beautiful place. You’re right about the Lynch thing. What made Blue Velvet such an earth shattering movie is how it puts American innocence and experience right next to each other. For me that’s living in Tucson—a sketchy hobo, drug culture surrounding the University of Arizona (which is kind of like UCLA East because of all the Cali kids who go to school there); these worlds collide in a strange but fascinating way. Living there changes how I see being an American—not just as in USA but as in all the Americas, the New World.
The main story line in the second book is Amalfitano’s story of living in Santa Teresa. He lives with his teenage daughter Rosa and there are a number of flashbacks that tell his Lola’s, his wife, story. First off it’s worth mentioning that the European Archimboldi scholars from book spend a significant amount of time with Amalfitano in the first book, but are missing from the second book. Therefore there is the passing of a torch that moves the story forward. The reader doesn’t come back to the characters that Bolano spent so much time describing. Part of me wishes he did, how about you? That’s one thing that I liked about Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest—the circling back, through, and around of the narrative. Another thing that Wallace did successfully in IJ was to explore and build themes and ideas based around things like family, addiction, and entertainment.
One thing that Bolaño does repeat is that on page 165, there is a poet in an asylum which is similar to Edwin John the English painter who cuts off his hand (and of course we will see more limbs and bodies in the future). But it seems that Bolaño is setting up the idea that artists belong in asylums. One page 177 Amalfitano begins to talk about how madness is contagious. But we the reader are still in the world of the academics—we are studying madness and death from a safe distance.
A significant subplot follows Amalfitano’s wife Lola who leaves him and returns to Barcelona to live with a gay philosopher. Homosexuality becomes a recurring theme. At one point Amalfitano hears a voice that might be his father’s calling him gay (207 & 210). This seems to stem from an experience Amalfitano had as a child. His father used to call Chileans “faggots”, remember that Bolaño is Chilean, and then ten-year-old Amalfitano talks about Italians being “faggots,” which bothers his father because the family is Italian. All of this talk around homosexuality is tied to boxing, which foreshadows the next chapter.
On pages 192-194 Bolaño has his scholar draw some maps of philosophers in relation to each other—it’s slightly nonsensical but they break up the flow of the text and add a little flare. At this point Amalfitano is hanging a geometry book on a clothes line in his backyard, exposing it to the elements, “to see if it learns something about real life” (195). The real life that haunts Amalfitano is the “cursed city” of Santa Teresa (196), which seems to be something like Ciudad Juarez. Here the reader starts to encounter teenage girls’ bodies showing up in vacant lots. In this section there is also the introduction of boxing, which takes center stage in the next part. All of these books are woven together in a way that feels unified and intentional—although there are times where I wondered where the book was going.
Each book consists of small sections that act like atoms that build large molecules of chapters. Personally, when I write I usually use breaks to indicate significant changes in setting or point of view. But often Bolano just uses them like distance markers on the side of the road (which goes back to him writing about how dangerous it is to drive in the desert. I had friends roll of the side of the highway driving outside of Nogales. The car rolled over a number of times down the side of a relatively small canyon. Thank god they were rescued but all were badly injured. The next day a company was hired to pull the car out, but there was nothing left. Bandits or something stripped the car of anything of worth. True story.). All those little markers help me to feel like I am accomplishing something and let me stop when I need to –compare that to IJ where I just felt overwhelmed by large chapters and all those footnotes.
There is silent debate going on in Literature which is how to write a successful big book. Thing about Pynchon has done Against the Day (2006) and Mason & Dixon (1997), Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Adam Levin’s The Instructions (2010), Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1995) and 1Q84 (2009), and a half-dozen books by William T. Vollmann breaking 700 pages. The question that motivated me to read these big books (not that I have read all previously mentioned) are “How do authors structure big books in order to keep the reader interested?”, “How does the author use a variety of literary techniques to keep the reader from getting bored with subject matter, characters, or voice?”, and “Why are certain ‘Big Books’ significantly more successful (either financially/aesthetically) than others?” For the past two years Bolaño has been one of the most significant international writers in the world. But my question is why? Does this book stand up to the hype? I haven’t finished it, so I don’t have an answer. But part of me feels that it simply can’t live up to the hype.
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BENJAMIN VAN LOON:
The Big Novel. In the same way that all good writers are self-loathing, so are all good readers. Aside from their mutual sense of self-loathing, good writers and readers also have in common their love of Big Novels. In this way, I don’t think Big Novels are ever meant for the mass market, though they sometimes end up there against their best intentions. Perhaps some are more successful than others because they arouse curiosity from the more general public? I know, when I was carrying around 2666, it would turn heads. The title is printed big and bold on the cover, and 666—as a number—has certainly gained a cultural notoriety. With the pseudo-religious art filling out the rest of the cover, this big, thick book is definitely a head-turner. I don’t know if it is so much magical as put together well. If it were any less thick, or had a less borderline-heretical cover, I wonder if it would instead be relegated to the standard occluded domain occupied by Big Novels.
On the other hand, the prose does generate an attractive gravity. For a part-time existentialist like myself, I’m attracted to spiritual anxiety. America is founded on Protestant values, and there’s not much you can do to get away from the ‘fear and trembling’ this fosters. And this is probably why, out of all the ‘books’ in 2666, I liked Book II best. It’s a perfect Lynchian cocktail, and there are moments I can recall in reading about Amalfitano—a pseudo-tragic, Kafkaesque, Eraserhead-type figure—where I felt genuinely terrified. He’s got the requisite sexual anxiety, totemistic psychic appeals (hanging a geometry textbook from a clothesline), and the lucid, philosophical conversations with a spiteful, disembodied voice. It was in reading about Amalfitano, in fact, that I realized that I like the book.
It’s affecting me, and after all of the conversations about literature and theory and philosophy and all of that bullshit, I sometimes need to remember that the whole reason stories exist is to arouse emotion. In the case of 2666, that emotion is a combination of fear and anxiety, but it’s an emotion all the same. A 21st-century emotion, but still an emotion. Like your experience in Tucson, I’ve spent a little bit of time in El Paso, a literal border-town which informs how I ‘understand’ Bolano’s Santa Teresa. If El Paso isn’t seeped in fear and anxiety (and violence), then I don’t know what is. It’s the spirit of the desert, maybe, or where all of the foul things on the American continent go to congeal.
I realize that I’m thinking about this like an American. For Mexicans, this border world has quite a different meaning, or role. What do you suppose it is Bolano had in mind by locating a town in the Sonoran desert? I usually don’t think of northern Mexico as a major stop-off point for intellectual culture and tourism, as in Book I of 2666. It leads me to suspect that that’s a bit of irony at play in the background here—another 21st-century flourish.
Also, I really like Amalfitano’s games of Connect-The-Philosopher-Dots. A great Borgesian touch.