This is the second part of a dialogue/collaborative review about Roberto Bolano’s 2666 between contributors Jacob Singer and Benjamin van Loon. Read Part I here.
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The novel is broken into five sections, and the first book follows four academics (all from different European countries) searching for the mysterious novelist Benno von Archimboldi—think Pynchon in the sense that nobody know what he looks like. We readers follow von Archimboldi as he moves from being a cult writer to a canonized, mainstream author. So much of this section focuses on desiring someone or something that is elusive, which reminds me of Pynchon’s V. If they, the academics, could only get their hands on this person than they would understand something important, which puts emphasis on the artist and not the art. Is this a social commentary? Or is this a literary device that keeps characters in motion?
Liz Norton, the lone female academic, ends up having carefree sexual encounters with all three academics. This acts as a subplot that keeps the characters moving and interacting in way that keeps things interesting and plots one against the other, especially Jean-Claude Pelletier and Manuel Espinoza. At one point Norton finds herself saying, “Sooner or later I’ll have to choose” (35). This happens early in the 159 page section but is a theme that plays throughout most of the section. So plot wise you have a quest for von Archimboldi and a love triangle among friends.
One of the things I like about reading this text is how often he marks breaks on the page. When reading some of those other big books (Gravity’s Rainbow/ Infinite Jest) a reader can feel lost as pages continue with what feels like no end. This book isn’t dense, so its length shouldn’t intimidate readers.
One post-modern idea that surfaced in this section is the notion of doubles. On page thirty-nine, Moriri is credited with the idea that:
The Swabian was a grotesque double of Archimboldi, his twin, the negative image of a developed photograph that keeps looming larger, becoming more powerful, more oppressive, without ever losing its link to the negative (which undergoes the reverse process, gradually altered by time and fate), the two images somehow still the same: both young men in the years of terror and barbarism under Hitler, both World War II veterans, both writers, both citizens of a bankrupt nation, both poor bastards adrift at the moment when they meet and (in their grotesque fashion) recognize each other, Archimboldi as a struggling writer, the Swabian as “cultural promoter” in a town where culture was hardly a serious concern. (39)
Here we see Bolaño as a maximalist writer who can produce beautifully structured sentences that unravel before the reader. That’s one of the things I adore about his prose. Just look at how he blends biographical information with pure abstraction—the apprentice writer would shoot for pure abstraction (which falls flat and sophomoric) while the realist would simply compare and contrast the two men (most likely in different sentences or different paragraphs; most likely in different sections of the story, assuming that the reader will connect the facts). As a student of style, I live and die by moments like this in the text because this is the author sliding into a character’s language. Most of the text isn’t this complex; most sentences are not this long. There is another Proustian sentence worth noting: page eighteen to twenty-two. But for the most part these are exception to the norm.
Benjamin, do you consider this purple prose? Is his language too extravagant? All of it? Some of it? Think this is an interesting thing because every reader brings their own aesthetic temperament to a text. I acknowledge that I like convoluted texts, so for me this doesn’t feel overdone. I would consider this to be an Encyclopedic Narrative. Bolaño puts in a lot of factual information about the critics and the conferences they attend.
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BENJAMIN VAN LOON:
Pynchon! That didn’t even occur to me, but now that you said it, I can’t get it out of my head. He’s sought after in that worshipful way, and his enigmatic-ness is partly what lends itself to Pynchon worship. If Archimboldi were ‘real,’ I could see him getting the Simpsons treatment, too.
The sexual relationships play a huge part in the first section of the book. Sex is gravity and gravity is sex. There’s a strange Jules et Jim situation happening here, with Norton obviously fulfilling the Catherine role. She’s aloof in the same way, clearly cognizant about the sexual fervor and frustrations she’s arousing, but refusing to confront these things head on (read: like a man). I found myself, at intermittent moments, wishing that Norton—like Catherine in Truffaut’s film—would just say what’s on her mind. But then, on the other hand, I wonder if she is saying what’s on her mind—just not in words.
This might be the case, because it seems that Bolano is doing the same thing. That is, he’s saying what’s on his mind, just not in the way we’d like him to. This is perhaps why some might find his work obtuse, or polarizing. As you mention, there’s a lot happening in the first section, but I think what Bolano leaves unsaid is what makes it so compelling. By the time I got to the end of the first page, I was hooked.
While this chapter has the pull of a literary intrigue, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s something satiric happening here. What if this sexually-charged academic trio were to actually find Archimboldi? Would it bring them any satisfaction? Is it Archimboldi they’re seeking? And if not Archimboldi, what? You find moments where the characters actually talk about their reasoning for why they are seeking him so ardently, but there’s a tinge of self-doubt in their assessments. Maybe they’re aware of their delusion, and maybe they’re not. Though this might not be so fashionable to say, Archimboldi is a type of god; an idol, maybe. An empty signifier; a giant arrow pointing straight back at the penitents. (Maybe a Feuerbachian I-told-you-so. Plus, like Archimboldi, Feuerbach is German.)
The butt of Bolano’s joke here, I think, is academia par excellence. All three academics, of varying and respectable notoriety, have made names for themselves by chasing a ghost. I think of the various professors I’ve met, and lectures I’ve heard, where I didn’t suspect that these academics were living—if you’ll allow the Biblical allusion—in mansions of sand. The academics in this first chapter have their lives, their thinking, their conversation, and even their sexuality moderated—if notfundamentally affected—by this elusive apparition, or deity figure. And maybe Archimboldi, if he is indeed real (he doesn’t show up anywhere in the first chapter), is none the wiser – simply minding his own business. If that’s the case, maybe he’s the best kind of god there is.
On another note, I agree with you on the style. It’s a big book, and there are a few monolithic passages, but by and large, it’s an ‘easy’ read. Obtuse, but not so difficult. He writes big, but not extravagantly. His language is easy, and at times, almost hard-boiled. But the whole time you’re reading, you suspect that something dangerous is under the surface. Like that first scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It’s just people talking, but death is just around the corner. One of the most prominent themes in 2666, after all, involves the mysterious deaths of hundreds of women in and around the Mexican border-town of Santa Teresa where, for some reason, this academic trio ends up. What brings them there? Is it Archimboldi, or does Santa Teresa have a ‘gravity’ of its own?
Initial thoughts? 2666 is bitter and terrifying. Right up my alley, in other words.