Saturday, February 13, 2010
2666 Part 3: Fate
[Part 1 here; Part 2 here]. Part 3, ‘The Part About Fate’, is not, despite its title, about destiny in the abstract, but rather about its main character. His name is Quincy Williams, but ‘everybody at work called him Oscar Fate’, and that’s what Bolaño calls him too. Fate is a journalist working for a niche New York magazine. At the beginning of this book his mother dies, and we learn about Fate’s vaguely L’Étrangerish reaction to his bereavement. He deals with his mother’s effects, and then flies out Detroit, where he interviews an ex-Black Panther called Barry Seaman, for a magazine article—Seaman is now an elderly and rather eccentric preacher, and Bolaño includes one of his (lengthy) sermons, unabridged. In Detroit, a sickening Fate (he vomits several times, perhaps because he has a stomach bug, perhaps in psychosomatic reaction to his mother’s death) is called by his New York editor. The magazine’s sports reporter died recently, and has not been replaced. Despite not having any experience reporting sport, Fate is to go down and report on a big boxing match in Santa Teresa, Mexico. Fate flies to Tucson and drives over the border. The rest of the book is taken up with a lengthy, and perhaps over-detailed account of Fate’s doings in Santa Teresa, the build-up to the fight (between a Mexican fighter called Merolino and a Yankee called Count Pickett). Said build up soon begins to feel interminable, and the actual fight is rendered in a deliberately anti-climactic manner. Indeed, I’d say that up to the point the whole section is pretty hit-and-miss: duller than either of the two earlier sections, and exhibiting several nontrivial problems in the representation of its central character.
Here’s one thing that struck me: Fate is African American (the magazine he works for, Black Dawn serves a black readership) and rather distractingly Bolaño characterizes him as seeing the world through, as it were, race-tinted glasses. Every time he sees another person, the colour of their skin, whether it’s relevant or not, is recorded. Fate watches a movie: ‘a white man is arrested by three black cops … the cop opening the crates and unpacking the bricks is black. Next to him, another black cop is tossing the bricks into a fire barrel’ ; he gets a taxi to the airport, ‘the taxi driver was Hispanic’ ; in Detroit he notes that a mural includes ‘a black teenager’ and goes into a bar where he is served by ‘a heavy black man in his sixties’ [241-2] and so on. There’s a lot more like this, and it quickly began to irritate me. I assume the point is to isolate ‘race’ as a salient for the section as a whole; but it reads, I thought crassly; as if a non-black writer, trying to think himself into the sensorium of a black character, can’t stop himself thinking ‘gosh it must be weird being black! if I were black I’d be constantly aware of my blackness, and continually struck by the blackness or otherwise of others.’ Needless to say, I don’t believe most black people go around thinking ‘my god, I’m black!’, any more than I step out of my front door of a morning and think, ‘good grief I’m white! And look how many white people there are in Middlesex!’ (To be clear: the issue isn’t here that some black people—just as some white certainly do—carry a more intrusive and shaping awareness of ‘race’ than others; I assume that’s what Bolaño was aiming for here. But I don’t think it works.)
That said, where I thought the tone in the first two-thirds of this section less effectively realised than in Parts 1 and 2, I’d say it redeems itself in the final third. Fate isn’t really interested in reporting the boxing match; but he goes through the motions, since it’s his job. When he finds out about the serial killing of women in Santa Teresa he calls his editor to pitch the story to him. The editor isn’t interested:
’It’s a great story,’ said Fate.
‘How many black men are involved in this shit?’ asked the editor
‘Black men? Say what?’ asked Fate.
‘How many niggers have ropes around their neck?’ asked the editor.
‘How should I know? I’m talking about a great story.’ …
‘So in other words, there are no black men.’ 
He doesn’t sell the story, but the fact of the murders hangs continues to fascinate him, and hangs over the whole section. And in the final straight Bolaño shifts gears into a genuinely unsettling David Lynch-like scene, something he maintains very skillfully, intensifying the oddness and menace for nearly forty pages.
At the fight Fate gets together with a Mexican sports reporter he has befriended, called Chucho Flores, and one of Flores’ friends, a minor Mexican celebrity and DVD-emporium owner called Charly Cruz, together with two women: one called Rosa Méndez, and the other Rosa Amalfitano, whom of course we know from Part 2. They eat, and go back to Cruz’s large house and are joined by a sinister man with a moustache who says little; their conversation is banal, but Bolaño deftly increases the tension. Fate, a little drunk, and (speaking generally) existentially discombobulated by—I don’t know—his bereavement, his nausea, his sense of not-fitting-in in Mexico, experiences an inward sense of coup-de-foudre for Rosa Amalfitano. At the same time he, and we, become increasingly aware of some immanent, unspoken threat to her, as to so many of the Santa Teresan women. It’s cleverly done. Things come to a kind of climax when Fate punches Cruz on the chin, relieves him of his handgun and ‘rescues’ Rosa, taking her back to his motel; and later, under the impression (reinforced by Rosa’s father) that the police, or more sinister forces, are after them, drives her and another woman (Guadalupe Roncal, a reporter covering the murders) north across the border. This whole episode is very well handled indeed; worth, as the phrase goes, the price of admission on its own.
I find myself not quite able to make sense of this section, to be honest. It is, in some sense, about hostility: the ceremonialized antagonism of a boxing match provides its major axis; but Fate’s perspective also (via his interactions with the black panthers, his isolation in Mexico—a country, characters rather implausibly insist, without black inhabitants—and his fisticuffs with Cruz add to this. Fate is a journalist, type—like the academics of Parts 1 and 2—of ‘seeker after truth’; the policemen of the fourth section are another species of this archetype. But whether there is any truth to be discovered in the world of this novel remains to be seen … apart, that is, from the obvious Kurtzian horror. Barely repressed currents of violence is the theme of this section, and as such it has myriad connections with the larger pattern of the novel. Or I suppose so, at any rate.
I’m with you so far. Still can’t wait to see what you make of part 4. I’m inclined to believe most people who rave about this novel haven’t read it.
I once started reading a book called _Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras_ by Terence Grocott. It’s a deadpan chronological account of every single shipwreck recorded in newspapers (etc.) of the time, and it includes details of interest for each incident.
I made it about as far in that book as I did part 4 of _2666_.
I’m interested in what you think about part 4 as well. Talk about painful. I though the first part quite enjoyable, the second part okay, and the third a bit cack-handed for the same reasons you described, but still probably the best part of the book after the first one (thanks to the Lynchian tone).
The fourth was one of those things where I see it as being important to the overall theme of the book but one of the least interesting pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time.
Oh, and I thought the fifth section was filled with every thing I hate about modern writing (overly pretentious, nonsensical prose), but still better than the fourth.
I guess overall, 2666 is one of those books that I hated reading - mainly due to section four - but that gave a great overall sense that I don’t think you could get a different way. I don’t know how to interpret my feelings about that.
very thoughtful comments - i read through first 3 sections/volumes, really enjoying it at first but with increasing despair wondering where this was leading me (I know that may have been the point, but still...) and as much as I admired Bolano’s serious intentions in volume 4 I, like others on this thread, could not finish that volume and put the 2666 aside - there’s only so much time and so many books. I think his stories are excellent - maybe his work needs the tight space of a short form rather than the endless expanse of a multivolume novel.
"The vital wider world goes wanting”? I’m not so sure. It’s been several months since I read the novel, but I found the fourth section a crucial material and historical frame of reference for the entire work. I think it makes the book. “The Part about the Murders” is fiction, of course, but it is based on an all-too-real time and place (Juarez, with its 300+ murdered women). The section’s tedious repetition uses the language of police reports, in my reading, to defamiliarize a real world situation and further complicate our understanding of what the “real” story of the novel might be.
Of course, that doesn’t make the paratactic device of the fourth section any less literary. Still, I would say it becomes an example of where a literary device can interact with an historical fact and, in turn, create a new and much more complex context for all of the other devices and plots in the novel. I found the result compelling, if not easily interpretable.
Thanks for your posts, Adam. I look forward to hearing your take on the rest of the novel.
I’ll add that the problem with creating great novels as with creating great (or even survivable) culture is that the right is bankrupt and the left is broke. (And the middle is middlin’.) I think only as part of the rebuilding and the establishing of the left can the needed novels be written, that is the far greater novels than the celebrated pap that dominates.
No blueprint for this but I think there’s a knowing where to to look, or at least a recognition of where the light is that helps, that is the only chance.
This is a continuation from my comment on Adam’s previous post on this novel:
While it may appear that the novel collapsed in the “West” of its own weight around the turn of the century, a century ago, very roughly, I think it’s more accurate to note that it collapsed, or was warped, due to sociopolitical throttling.
The novel was partially revived in the twentieth century by the international and multicultural forces of the left - from where it seems to me the most exciting and promising developments continue to appear.
Much of this history and creativity is explored in our recently released Liberation Literature anthology.
Michael Denning has done some interesting work in this regard:
Michael Denning, “The Novelists’ International” Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (2004):
In the middle of the age of three worlds (1945-1989), the novel looked dead, exhausted. In the capitalist First World, it was reduced to increasingly arid formalisms alongside an industry of formulaic genre fictions. In the Communist Second World, the official conventions of socialist realism were ritualized into a form of didactic popular literature. Into the freeze of this literary cold war erupted Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (1967), the first international bestseller from Latin America and perhaps the most influential novel of the last third of the twentieth century. In its wake, a new sense of a world novel emerged, with Cien años de soledad as its avatar, the Third World as its home, and a vaguely defined magical realism as its aesthetic rubric.
Like world music, the world novel is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan world beat, with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted. There is, however, a historical truth to the sense that there are links between writers who now constitute the emerging canon of the world novel – writers as unalike as García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadime Gordimer, José Saramago, Paule Marshall, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer – for the work of each has roots in the remarkable international literary movement that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century under the slogans of “proletarian literature,” “neorealism,” and “progressive,” “engaged,” or “committed” writing…. And though the novelists of this movement were deeply influenced by the experimental modernisms of the early decades of the century, they rarely fit into the canonical genealogies of Western modernism and postmodernism. Though the royalties were small, the writers not all proletarians, and the audience often more a promise than a reality, the movement transformed the history of the novel. By imagining an international of novelists, it reshaped the geography of the novel. It enfranchised a generation of writers, often of plebeian backgrounds, and it was the first self-conscious attempt to create a world literature. From Maxim Gorky to Gabriel García Márquez, from Lu Xun to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, from Richard Wright to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, from Patrícia Galvão to Isabel Allende: the novelists’ international spans the globe and the century….
The turning point was the world upheaval of 1917-1921. In the wake of the European slaughter, regimes and empires were challenged: there were revolutions in Czarist Russia and Mexico, brief lived socialist republics in Germany, Hungary and Persia, uprisings against colonialism in Ireland, India, and China, and massive strike waves and factory occupations in Japan, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil, and the United States. The “imaginative proximity of social revolution” electrified a generation of young writers who came together in a variety of revolutionary and proletarian writers’ groups….
Their books were experiments in form, attempts to reshape the novel. Several challenges immediately presented themselves: the attempt to represent working-class life in a genre that had developed as the quintessential narrator of bourgeois or middle-class manners, kin structures, and social circles; the attempt to represent a collective subject in a form built around the interior life of the individual; the attempt to create a public, agitational work in a form which, unlike drama, depended on private, often domestic, consumption; and the attempt to create a vision of revolutionary social change in a form almost inherently committed to the solidity of society and history. The early novels are often awkward and un-novelistic….
The worldwide migration from country to city was one of the central historical events of the age of three worlds…“the death of the peasantry”…. Out of the clash of peasant and proletarian worlds came the most powerful new form to emerge from the proletarian literary movements: magical or marvelous realism. Though magical realism is often considered as a successor and antagonist to social realism, its roots lay in the left-wing writers’ movements….
[Magical realism’s] insistence on the specific reality of the colonized world at the moment of liberation in India, Indonesia, and China, a moment that finds its historical precursor not in the French Revolution (as the Bolsheviks did) but in the Haitian Revolution.
If this is true, one can see why the notion of magical realism resonates far beyond the Caribbean islands and coasts where it began. The term comes to represent a larger shift in the aesthetic of the novelists’ international, from the powerful censoring of desire in the early novels (the works of the epoch of worldwide depression are novels of lack and hunger, and the utopian novel is rare) to an unleashing of desire and utopia, foreshadowing the liberation ideologies of the New Left. This is why it is common to see magical realism as the antithesis of an earlier social realism….
Magical realism finds its most celebrated avatar in Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad. The 1967 novel, part of the celebrated boom in Latin American fiction, came to stand for the moment of Third World hopefulness in the wake of decolonization…[yet] Cien años de soledad stands as both a sign of the crisis in the literary desire to represent workers that had animated a generation of plebian writers and as an attempt to bear witness to that desire. [The results are mixed at best, and] …nearly a century after the first calls for an international proletarian literature and socialist realism, that desire seems not only defeated, but nonexistent and unimaginable. [Note: It might be of no small significance that Denning is writing here several years before the publication of Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s great world novel, Wizard of the Crow.] Yet like the strike story in Cien años de soledad, the aspirations and aesthetics of the novelists’ international remain the forgotten, repressed history behind the contemporary globalization of the novel.
D., Adam: I do understand what you mean.
Paul: “I think it makes the book. “The Part about the Murders” is fiction, of course, but it is based on an all-too-real time and place (Juarez, with its 300+ murdered women).“
It certainly bends the book around the lines of force of its vision. Maybe that amounts to the same thing.
“The section’s tedious repetition uses the language of police reports, in my reading, to defamiliarize a real world situation and further complicate our understanding of what the “real” story of the novel might be.“
I wonder about this. You may be right, although unlike (say) the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses, I wonder if doesn’t do the oppposite of defamiliarise. Which is to say, I wonder whether it doesn’t drive home its one horrible point over and over to the point where it starts to seem rote-learned and second-nature (’this is how the world is’). Grounded, as you say, in the reality of Juarez.
Tony C. “Compare your feelings to an equally long novel you’ve read.“ Indeed. I do find myself thinking, from time to time, of Littell’s Kindly Ones, which also deals with mass death, and attempts something larger. And maybe that does suggest a kind of ‘messiness’ in Bolaño’s practice; although I worry that this indexes some essentialist ’2666 is a Latin American novel and Kindly Ones a European novel’ response buried in my critical hindbrain—though, of course, Littell is American. But that sense that a carnival sprawl is somehow the distinctive flavour of the Latin American artist. I assume that’s bollocks. Which is to say, I assume it reflects only my ignorance of the field. Which in turns leads into:
Like world music, the world novel is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan world beat, with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted.
That chimes rightly to me, although I’m not sure if it’s Denning, or you yourself Tony. I assume the former?
From the colon on down, that’s all Denning.
Apart from local diversity, which is important or vital, I see far more similarities across European, American (North and South), African, and Asian novels than differences. (Though maybe I’ve read too selectively.) It seems there’s more variance within place than across it. (I think science has determined that the same is true for race.) Underlying this is the socio-political commitments, no matter the place, the kind of basic ground-level commitments of the novel. And while those can vary vastly within a single city, given the interests or commitments of the novelist, they can and have also taken form of a global solidarity and movement, as Denning points out.
So, human nature is universal, socio-political and other commitments of novelists vary but can and have taken the form of an international, and yet too much discussion of novels goes on out of all broad socio-political or historical context, as if the form or genre were not a living organic socio-political (that is, historical) thing, a knowable creature in the overall socio-historical web. So often novels are treated like alien objects landed from outer space which must be hermetically probed and de-encrypted. This is flattering to the author but shows weakness or snobbery in the critic. Which then impoverishes thinking and making, including novel thinking and novel making, as it makes even utterly typical novels look freakish, strange, and more unique, promising, or interesting than they are, due to some idiosyncratic quirk or particular threaded element. And this suits short term or short sight marketing, which goes its own pathological way.
Which goes back to Denning:
“Like world music, the world novel is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan world beat, with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted”
The vapid and pathological marketing of marginal or pathological or subservient novels, one is to be wary of, but the novels that do represent the “transformed geography of the novel” of liberation, that Denning gets toward, that’s where the discussion of novels would do well to be, for humanistic, intellectual, and artistic reasons all. To do otherwise, is to engage in discussion that is “often...empty and contrived,” trivial or marginal, or obscurant, however sometimes or seemingly complex.
2666 and the Bolano oeuvre by and large, including the short stories, fail to impress, though are not totally without interest. Not totally. As for The Kindly Ones, I get the sense it was written as a joke or as a sheerly careerist effort, or a dull combination of the two. The flood of commentary on the The Kindly Ones reads to me much like a Bolano novel, that is, as a stunted phenomena barely endurable or alive, a few lively or pointed moments aside. Overly harsh? I’m comparing the work of Bolano to the great and vital works that are neglected, that are where the greater life of the novel, of fiction, is really going on.