Wednesday, February 10, 2010
2666 Part 1: Critics
The first part of Bolaño’s leviathanic 2666 is named, after the logic of a Friends episode, ‘The Part About The Critics’. It’s a novel-sized chunk of text in its own right—something like 70,000 words—and it is indeed about critics, four in number: Jean-Claude Pelletier, from France; Piero Morini, from Italy; Manuel Espinoza, from Spain; and Liz Norton from England. All four are Germanists, and all four specialize in an obscure German-language novelist called Benno von Archimboldi. This is how the book starts:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read Bruno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse of bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
Each of the four has a similar reaction to Archimboldi, and as they age, each becoming prominent academics, they fall in with one another. Bolaño works hard to add detail and depth to characters who (like Archimboldi’s novels) perhaps run the risk of collapsing back into merely notional national-European figurative types: as if the story is a Continental version of the venerable old joke that begins ‘an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman…’
Archimboldi is extraordinarily reclusive, and none of the four has ever so much as seen him. They write articles about him, attend academic conferences upon him; as the narrative moves through the 90s he is even shortlisted for the Nobel prize, but he never gives interviews, and nobody so much as knows where he is living. One strand of the ‘Part About the Critics’ is the four critics searching, with increasing obsessiveness, simply to locate the writer to whom they have devoted their lives. They speak to his German publisher, and to people who met Archimboldi decades earlier; follow up increasingly tangential clues. Upon hearing that he may have visited Mexico City three of the four fly out there, and then, still hoping they are following the writer’s trail, to the smaller Mexican town of Santa Teresa, where they spend the last third of the text hanging out, soaking in the Mexican ambience, looking for their man. All they know about Archimboldi is that he is very tall, blue-eyed individual in his eighties. They do not discover him.
The other strand is the complicated ménage-a-quatre dynamic of these three men and this one woman. After a slow start all three of the men fall in love with Norton. Morini, the Italian, suffers some sort of accident and is confined to a wheelchair; Norton takes both Pelletier and Espinoza as lovers—all of this perfectly openly. Indeed the four spend an inordinate amount of time phoning one another (London, Paris, Madrid, Milan) at all hours of the day and night and jawing on and on about their emotional entanglements, as well as about the weather, Archimboldi, academia and anything else. The eccentric energy and disorientation of this tangle is well conveyed; rather choking to read about, but deliberately so. I found it hard to swallow that these university employees possess endless spare time to fly to one another’s countries, or to Mexico for (it seems) months at the drop of a hat; as well as bottomless funds for hotels and flights and so on. But otherwise the world of academic conferences, and politics, and infighting is pretty well drawn.
Now, I’ve never before read a Bolaño novel, so this is my first encounter with what I’m told is his distinctive style. It’s compelling. The ‘mystery’ of Archimboldi is surprisingly engaging; it could have been a cheesy device (it’s hardly the most original conceit the literature) but it draws the reader in. There’s quite a lot of sex, although the mechanics aren’t detailed; and occasional bursts of hard-to-rationalise violence. At one point Norton suggests to Pelletier and Espinoza that they all three go to bed together; and although they do not do so (the threesome happens, rather anticlimactically, much later in the book) the possibility hangs spectrally over them for a while, accentuating some hidden intensity of transgressive energy in their relationship, sharpening the edges of their metaphorical triangle. The three are in a taxi in London discussing the possibility, when the Pakistani driver butts in to tell them he considers it shameful. At this the bookishly intellectual Pelletier and Espinoza, who had hitherto shown no violent tendencies, drag the driver from the cab and kick him nearly to death.
The most striking thing about Bolaño’s style is what you might call its egregious twitting of the Chekov principle. If Bolaño were to have a character hammer a nail into the wall at the beginning of Act 1 not only would the character not hang himself upon it at the end of Act 3, but he would spend Act 1 hammering nails all over the place, selling his hammer to a character who never appears again, describing elaborately detailed but wholly oblique dreams, observing, doing and thinking a blizzard of things that seem to have no relationship to the larger pattern. The richness of detail is often striking, and usually well managed, either on the level of individual phrase (‘the sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower’ 129), or else well selected. To pick one example from many dozens: it may or may not be significant that, in the hotel in which he stays in in Santa Teresa, Pelletier’s toilet is missing a chunk (‘it wasn’t visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no-one notice this? wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing’ 111). The broken toilet is mentioned again several times, and Pelletier even has a detailed dream about it. Is it relevant? Does it, perhaps, symbolize something important about this tale, about waste, about shit, about gaping absences (the inability to locate Archimboldi, the disconnection in the four critics’ co-dependent sexualized intimacy)? Or is it just another element in a shifting mosaic of data, some relevant, most not, because that’s what the world is actually like? The problem with Chekov’s nail is that, once you’re aware of the principle, it constrains the audience’s response: like a whodunit in which there are only two characters, it closes down your interpretive options. Bolaño works hard against that. So, which of his details matter, and which are just window dressing? The British painter who crowned his career by cutting off his own right hand, mummifying it and incorporating it in his last canvas—is he ‘important’ to the novel? Or is he just Poe-like garnish, only there to establish a vaguely guignol-y mood? What about the scene where Moroni suffers hysterical blindness, only to recover his sight a little later? What about the young English teacher, Pritchard, who hangs around Norton, and tells Pelletier and Espinoza that she is the Medusa? The scene where Morini recites an Italian restaurant menu as if it were poetry, ‘slowly and with an actor’s intonation’? The interlude when, temporarily rejected by Norton, the two men take up with a succession of prostitutes, Pelletier getting involved with ‘a girl called Vanessa’, going so far as to visit her home where she lives with her complaisant Moroccan husband and blonde son? What about Amalfitano, an effete Chilean academic who works at the University of Santa Teresa, and who befriends Pelletier, Norton and Espinoza when they stay there? Is he important? The fact that the second section, which I shall read next, is called ‘The Part About Amalfitano’ leads me to believe he will be; although it’s also possible that this chaff-blizzard of detail is all misdirection, and that in the end nothing will be.
One problem with the detail is that it does not always invite belief. To be precise: mostly it does, although I don’t know Mexico, or Madrid, or Milan well enough to know whether Bolaño’s detailed accounts of those locales are spot-on or not. They feel convincing, but that might merely index my ignorance. What leads me to doubt it is England, which I do know, and which isn’t quite right, here. Pelletier and Espinoza visit London often, because Norton lives there; and even wheelchairbound Moroni comes over from time to time. But there are petty errors: ‘Pelletier and Espinoza met at the London airport and got a cab to a hotel’  can’t be right (Heathrow, Gatwick or Stanstead maybe; London airport is a tiny business-class service in the east end; and I suspect that ‘the London airport’ records a vague Bolañesque sense that the metropolis is served by one big one). Robert Louis Stevenson was not ‘an English writer’ . Norton’s admirer Pritchard works ‘in a town near Bournemouth’, which is possible, although ‘the school where he taught was a council school with a good number of students from immigrant families’  doesn’t chime right: a Brit would say ‘state school’ not ‘council school’ (this latter is not a kind of British school); and, probably, ‘pupils’ not ‘students’ (the latter are college or university level); and I don’t believe there are any towns near Bournemouth that harbor large immigrant populations. When Norton drives her two lovers about London the streets along which they pass are all carefully named, but this reads more like a writer thumbing through a London street atlas than the way these journeys might be experienced on the ground.
This is nitpicking, of course; but it’s defensible, I’d say, on the grounds that the novel invites a kind of interpretive microscopism. Just as its characters pore over the minutest detail of Archimboldi’s work and life, trying, by solving the mysteries of the writer to whom they have devoted their lives, to comprehend what those lives have and do mean; so the reader is drawn into the thicket of 2666’s multivalent elements, trying to piece them all together.
One other thing to note before I plunge on into Part 2: Bolaño’s style. This is show-offy, in the self-conscious ‘I’m a literary artist’ way, although that’s not a bad thing. 2666 is after all a self-reflexive exercise, a novel about the work of an imaginary novelist, a book about the interpretation of books. Pelletier feels ‘Archimboldi was by now a part of him’ and that his own Archimboldian criticism helps to make sense of the work; but then at other times
…especially since he and Espinoza had given up their trips to London and stopped seeing Norton, Archimboldi’s work, his novels and stories, that is, seemed completely foreign, a shapeless and mysterious verbal mass, something that appeared and disappeared capriciously, literally a pretext, a false door, a murderer’s alias. [82-3]
This, though, is a writer’s, not a critic’s, apprehension of novels, and their capacity for protean metamorphosis into something swampy and suffocating.
I enjoyed this. (Last spring, I read up until The Part About the Crimes, and decided to stop, mainly b/c I knew I couldn’t stomach hundreds of pages of rape and murder.)
One way of looking at Bolaño’s realworld inaccuracies, I think, might be to see his stories as taking place in a world *like* ours but not quite our world. A kind of ghostly double for it, an acknowledgment of fiction as a fiction. Which may be, in part, what lends his relentless details so much eeriness.
And, another great self-referential description, from The Part About Amalfitano (not a spoiler):
“What a sad paradox, though Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze the path into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Looking forward to reading the rest of your commentary.
Nitpicking will have to be defended then, since the supposed sins might be an artifact of translation (and Natasha Wimmer is of course American). But the first example isn’t: the London airport isn’t a proper name, and what you think is London Airport is London City Airport, whilst the rest all have ‘London’ appended before their names; so the definite article suggests London Heathrow Airport is meant, if it makes any difference.
Adam, I am so glad you are writing on 2666 as I am listening to the audio book now. Bolano seems like a maximalist Borges and kind of wish he could be a wee bit more concise. I really enjoyed your review of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and I have the same ”mammoth in a tar pit” feeling here with this book. Since you positively reviewed another maximalist project Pynchon’s “Against The Day” in these here pages, I would be interested to see what you thought of these types of big projects in general.
Pynchon, Stephenson, and Bolano seem to have a similar style and I think a comparison would be very fruitful. Especially for you since they can be seen, in essence, as postmodern SF projects.
nnyhav: not sure anybody would call Heathrow (say) ‘the London airport’; but you’re probably right ... and good point about the Americanness of the translator.
Christopher: there is something Pynchonesque about 2666, yet a marked difference in tone also. It’s worth pondering more.
Also, somebody (I can’t remember who I’m afraid) posted a comment saying they’d read the novel up to Part 4 and then given up—like Alyssa—because 300 pages of rape and murder was too much to wade through ... in a great phrase, the comment said it was like reading ‘a police blotter.’ I thought I’d OK’d that comment, but it seems to have disaappeared; sorry to whoever posted it.
I think it’s interesting that you say that the style is “show-offy”. I would have said just the opposite. (It reads nothing like Pynchon’s, for example.)
’Show-offy’ is probably more pejorative than I mean; but the style does seem to me to be that of a writer going ‘look what I can do!’ The shifting from dialogue in quotation marks to dialogue a la Cormac McCarthy, without, say; or the way at one point he runs a single sentence over half a dozen pages.
I see what you mean. Your use of “show-offy” led me to think you were using style in a more superficial sense (i.e., the surface style).