The 2008 release of Roberto Bolaño’s final novel 2666 was a fortuitous event for readers, his fans, publishers, and the American literary world. It was only a little over a year after The Savage Detectives became a critical and commercial success that moved Bolaño’s reputation from the “small but serious” (as John Irving put it) to the literary mainstream. Fortuitous for all except Bolaño, who had died five years previously.
The nightmarish 2666 seemed like an exponential growth from The Savage Detectives. Both books are heavily structured yet loose enough to contain multitudes of characters and stories; the US edition of 2666 is almost 900 pages long. It consists of five books:
– The Part About The Critics, in which four professors obsessed with a reclusive German writer form a love quadrangle and act as each others friends, enemies, confidants and competition
– The Part About Amalfitano, in which a professor living in the small Mexican town of Santa Teresa begins doubting his sanity
– The Part About Fate, in which an African-American journalist named Oscar Fate is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match
– The Part About the Crimes, namely the crimes of Santa Teresa where over 200 women have been brutally murdered;
– The Part About Archimboldi, the life story of the reclusive German writer sought by the four professors in the novel’s first section.
The writing is self-consciously formal yet free enough to go off on a tangent; it’s as formal and formless as wandering through a museum. After 230+ pages of Archimboldi’s biography (nowhere near complete at that point) the narrator suddenly announces “And at last we come to Achimboldi’s sister, Lotte Reiter” which signals that the novel will then follow the sister. Bolaño is a master of not giving the reader what they expect or what they think they want. Even when the characters meet each other (Amalfitano acts as a tour guide for the professors when they visit Santa Teresa and his daughter meets Oscar Fate, while Archimboldi travels to Mexico because of a family connection to women being murdered) it never has the payoff we’ve come to expect post-Pulp Fiction when characters appear in each other’s stories. Ten years after the book was published, I haven’t found any essays detailing subtle connections between the characters because I don’t think they’re are any.
Bolaño doesn’t try to fool the reader with psychologically realistic characters. The tone of the novel is too detached and the scope too broad – imagine Where’s Waldo? with atrocities. This is especially true at the book’s dark heart, The Part About The Crimes, in which over a hundredof the murdered women of Santa Teresa are described, first as corpses then as human beings, pre-crime. Each one’s story is told. Some of those who their deaths touch – police, reporters, friends and family – have stories that continue after the murder victim has been forgotten in lieu of a new victim. The language in this section is the deadpan of a police report or journalist’s notebook and the reader’s mind pivots between numbness and awoken horror.
The novel’s various mysteries remain unsolved at the end. There is no resolution or satisfying conclusion to any of the stories. It’s never revealed who is responsible for the serial murders in Santa Teresa. We learn why Archimboldi became a recluse without ever touching the essential mystery of the man himself. In fact, once he adapts “Archimboldi” as a pen name rather than use his real name “Reiter” (nice pun!) he becomes more mysterious. Still present in the novel but more opaque. We see him act but are no longer privy to his thought process.
There are books and movies that still feel satisfying even though their central mystery is never solved: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract come to mind. But 2666 not only refuses narrative closure, it refuses meaning. One experiences horror and compassion while reading the book, but Bolaño doesn’t offer any clues beyond that as to how to feel. He’s “a person who didn’t pretend to reconcile the irreconcilable, as was the fashion these days.”