15 March 2009

Epic Fail

Bolaño’s centerless labyrinth

  • Roberto Bolaño. 2666. (Trans. Natasha Wimmer.) FSG. November 2008.

Here is a parlor game I invented while anxiously comparing my own impressions of 2666 with those of every other person who reviewed the book. The object is to match the following gems of anti-insight with the then recently published masterpieces they describe:

a) “a mass of stupid filth”
b) “calm, settled, imperturbable driveling idiocy”
c) “the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”
d) “like lying in someone else’s dirty bath water”
e) “He is gauging, at once, our gullibility and our patience.”

a) In Search of Lost Time
b) Endymion
c) Leaves of Grass
d) Moby-Dick
e) Ulysses

2666 is a novel that explicitly invites comparison with such masterpieces—with what it calls, doing a bit of proselytizing on its own behalf, “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” Unlike the books listed above, however, 2666 has been greeted with near unanimous acclaim, stuff like: “Not just the great Spanish-language novel of this decade, but one of the cornerstones that define an entire literature.” And: “Bolaño has joined the immortals.”

It was, of course, Virginia Woolf who famously described Ulysses as “the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” The churlishness of the judgment can be ascribed, at least in part, to aesthetic envy; it was also confined to her diary. In print she was more generous, calling the book merely “a memorable catastrophe, immense in daring, terrific in disaster.” Bolaño’s immense, grueling, entropic, unrevised final novel strikes me as another daring but finally catastrophic magnum opus. Like Ulysses, it is an anti-novel. Like Ulysses, it seeks to contain (and confound) the universe. Like Ulysses, it exhausts the reader’s patience, goodwill, and charity—and then keeps on going, for another four hundred pages. Having read it, having subjected myself to it, I hope never to read it again: ars longa, vita brevis.

Bolaño, a Chilean who spent his life in nomadic exile, died in 2003, at age 50, after producing a lifetime’s worth of books in his final decade. As this magazine recently observed, few writers have been canonized with such deft lubricity. There he is, all of a sudden, at the end of those lists Harold Bloom seems always to be reeling off: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, Borges, Bolaño. In general, the adulation his work has received seems more than warranted. Yet this adulation has congealed into a doltish piety, one of the attitudes Bolaño consistently lambastes. He seems able to do no wrong, or no significant wrong. As the formidable Sam Sacks wrote in one of the best and, to my knowledge, only negative review of 2666 to date: “It had somehow become axiomatic that this novel was a masterpiece before it had even arrived in bookstores.”1 Certainly when the sentence “Carrying Bolaño’s 2666 Is Like Driving an Open-Top Porsche” can be perpetrated in broad journalistic daylight the time is ripe for a little dose of revisionism. We do a great man a disservice if we fail to credit him with his faults.


Before one begins objecting to 2666, however, it seems only decent to spend a little time fondling the many riches Bolaño’s previous books contain. Yet the first thing one notices about Bolaño is that his writing, at least the surface of his writing, is rather unimpressive. He clearly does not excel (or at least chooses not to excel) at the kind of fine prose studded with shimmering visual specificities, aback-taking turns of phrase, and vital figurative language that is the stock in trade of many contemporary novelists. Samuel Johnson said: “Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” It is unlikely that Bolaño ever had to go to such trouble. His books often read as though writing them was the third most important thing he had to do that day: “For five seconds, his hair stood on end”; “a dark cloud seemed to be looming over us day and night”; “The critics’ hearts leapt at his words.” Bolaño writes as if Flaubert had never suffered his passion of style; his characteristic register is almost pre-modern—loose, rambling, digressive, choked with redundancy and solecism, and always ready to tell the mot juste exactly what it thinks of it.

This antagonism toward literature—or at least toward what Bolaño viewed as vaunting, affected literary perfectionism—is perhaps clearest in By Night in Chile, the deathbed monologue of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix. Most of Bolaño’s characters are anonymous, unproductive troubadours who cling zealously to what they like to think of as their integrity. Lacroix, a Chilean priest and literary critic, is untypical in that his writing career has been a “success,” at least in the sense that he’s published and well known. Morally, he is a catastrophe, attending a literary salon at a house whose basement serves as a torture chamber. Between his aesthetic and political conservatism, his melodramatic spiritual life, and his vain sense that his work helps support the whole edifice of civilization (when in fact all it supports is his own exalted self-image), Lacroix comes across as a kind of parody of Norman Podhoretz. But as death approaches, his exalted self-image begins to unspool: Lacroix’s many moments of cowardice, compromise, evasion, and deceit come tumbling out over the book’s brisk 130 pages until, as Bolaño puts it in his own plainspoken voice at the very end, “the storm of shit begins.”

By Night in Chile is in many respects uncharacteristic of Bolaño, at least as far as style is concerned. None of his other works employ anything close to Lacroix’s rich and cloying prose. At one point Lacroix goes on a tour of Europe where he learns that, in order to protect the churches from pigeon excrement, priests have trained falcons to kill the smaller birds, christening them with names like Othello, Turk, Antonia, and Xenophon. In Avignon it is Ta Gueule (French slang for “Shut up”) who does the killing:

Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Guele splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter.

It’s all a bit much, and its muchness—the extravagant aestheticization that likens blood to paint, the smug little self-corrections and self-elaborations (“like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightening bolt,” “like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta”)—is precisely what signals the narrator’s moral dubiousness. Bolaño himself, as opposed to Lacroix, would never write like this. In his work, it is always the moral toad who expresses himself like a prince.

Bolaño’s more characteristic voice comes through in the figure of the 17-year-old Juan García Madero, whose diary for the end of 1975 and the start of 1976 opens and closes The Savage Detectives. Naïve, sensual, vaguely left-wing, and totally sincere, Madero is the opposite of Lacroix. At one point, the old priest speaks of literary criticism as “a civilized endeavor, an endeavor pursued in a measured, conciliatory tone, like a humble lighthouse on the fatal shore.” One wonders what Lacroix would make of Madero’s journal entry for November 8, shortly after he discovers an “amazing,” highly erotic poem, “The Vampire”:

The first time I read it (a few hours ago), I couldn’t help locking myself in my room and masturbating as I recited it once, twice, three times, as many as ten or fifteen times, imagining Rosario, the waitress, on all fours above me, asking me to write a poem for her long-lost beloved relative or begging me to pound her on the bed with my throbbing cock.

Now that I’ve gotten that over with, I’ve had some time to think about the poem.

There can be no doubt, I think, about the meaning of “deep and gloomy tresses.” The same isn’t true of the first line of the second stanza: “As I unlock the tight rings,” which could refer to the “deep and gloomy tresses” and to the drawing them out or untangling them one by one, but the verb unlock might conceal a different meaning.

“The tight rings” isn’t very clear either. Does it mean curls of pubic hair, the vampire’s curly tresses, or the human orifices—plural? In other words, is he sodomizing her? I think I’m still haunted by my reading of Pierre Louys.

Would that all readers responded so intensely to verse! Here is a passage that could very easily have been too much, or rather, too little: it could have simply gotten its mileage out of Madero’s initial visceral reaction to the poem, and left it at that. But the wonderfully earnest and considered close reading, hot on the heels of the onanistic fantasy, is the real stroke of genius. This is Bolaño’s prose at its best: completely natural and unpretentious, ragged yet robust, it seems to both mimic and mock a literary register it never quite achieves. Nowhere is Bolaño’s touch lighter than in that final sentence, “I think I’m still haunted by my reading of Pierre Louys,” where strenuous, adolescent self-reflection brilliantly jars with the totally unaffected torrent of ardor that comes before.


We never find out exactly what happens to Madero, but the Savage Detectives, with its endless casting call of failed littérateurs, gives us more than enough elbow room to surmise that his grand poetic ambitions remain unfulfilled. Failure lies at the heart of Bolaño’s sense of literature and the literary life. In this respect he owes a clear debt to Borges, whom he read incessantly and whose conception of literary belatedness he inherited. Borges, of course, was able to transform this sense of having come too late into an aesthetic strength. In the preface to The Garden of Forking Paths, for example, he sets out his position with typical coy humility:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.

Where does one go from this point of excruciating contraction, after Borges had taken what may seem like one final way out? Bolaño’s response to the conundrum is inspired in its daring, its flirtation with a kind of supreme irrelevance: he writes, at enormous length, about minor writers who fail to produce anything at all, or at least anything of real significance. His collected works can be read as one great shambling hymn to the nobility of failure.

For Bolaño, however, failure is not only a theme: it is a modus operandi. In this respect, 2666 is the culmination of Bolaño’s career, as so many have claimed. It doesn’t so much “transcend” the novel form as deny or reject it. Rounded personalities, incidents, evocative description: Bolaño seems to have no use for them. Samuel Beckett, the original laureate of failure, needed only a few pages of dialogue or prose to suggest an infinity of excruciating boredom; Bolaño chooses to actually subject us to that boredom, for 900 pages. This epic minimalism is a dubious enterprise. One result is that the book runs the risk of being boring, formless, and ugly, a risk that, to my mind, it does not altogether skirt. I didn’t exactly hate 2666, but I often got the feeling that 2666 wasn’t so fond of me.

In the first of its five sections, “The Part About the Critics,” a quartet of European academics—three men and a woman—are brought together by their mutual devotion to a reclusive German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi. Bolaño always writes obsessively about artists and aesthetes while slyly eliding the question of whether or not their high-toned pursuits actually amount to anything more than fanatical self-conceit. So it is with the four Archimboldeans. Early on the critics realize the search for Archimboldi can never fill their lives. “They could read him, they could study him, they could pick him apart, but they couldn’t laugh or be sad with him, partly because Archimboldi was always far away, partly because the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers.” Nevertheless, on hearing a rumor that Archimboldi has been sighted in Santa Teresa, a city in the north of Mexico near the Arizona border, the critics pack their bags and depart. Of course, the novelist is nowhere to be found. Disheartened, the critics potter about for a bit, re-read Archimboldi novels by the hotel pool, absorb the bleak desert atmosphere—and then, abruptly, the section ends. The critics disappear and are never heard from again.

Disappearance seems the fate of most people in the novel. And as we read on, the rate and speed of these narrative abductions only increases. The second section, “The Part About Amalfitano,” concerns a literature professor at the University of Santa Teresa whose wife abandons him and their daughter to visit an institutionalized poet she once slept with at a party in Barcelona. After seven years (which pass in a few pages), she returns briefly and then leaves again. Later we are told about the death of Archimboldi’s father, a mutilated veteran, whose last wish, as he flees the Russians with his family, is to be buried back home with military honors. His wife and daughter tell him “they would make sure it happened, yes, yes, we promise,” but his body is immediately tossed in a common grave. Scores of similar examples could be produced. Again and again Bolaño sets stories and lives in motion only to snuff them out a few pages on. (“The Part About the Crimes” is the biggest graveyard in the book, but I will come to it later.)

The cumulative effect of all these disappearances, unanswered questions, and stories that don’t end but merely stop is to invest 2666 with an air of epistemological humility. Beyond the basic facts—they ran away, they were shot in the back of the head—Bolaño doesn’t presume to know what happened to these people; indeed, he seems to doubt whether people are knowable at all. Instead of showing us, or attempting to show us, his characters’ inner lives, he rebuffs us with a carapace of exteriority. His endless micro-narratives are not only brief; they are also totally opaque.

The effect, it should be said, is not the same as what happens in the astonishing, 450-page middle section of The Savage Detectives, where dozens of different characters, scattered in time and place, tell each in turn what they know (usually not much) about the peregrine poets, Belano and Lima. Although hardly any palpable or coherent impression of either poet emerges—narrative centrality keeps getting usurped by the various speakers, who often reveal more about themselves than the book’s putative heroes—we feel, at the end, that we have been steeped in personality, even as the essential mysteriousness of Belano and Lima is preserved. They are the negative space that remains in an otherwise dense and pullulating landscape.

By contrast, 2666 is a desert of negative space covered with smudges and chaotic scrawls. What the critics come to realize about Archimboldi in Part One—that he “was always far away” and that “the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers”—is true of everyone in the book. Characters are sketched briskly, impatiently, with few if any telling details, as though Bolaño is simply getting a formality out of the way. After all, why waste time and effort on a person who most likely will disappear in a few pages? This, at least, is often how reading the book feels: that Bolaño is conducting an experiment in how much he can remove of what is usually considered fiction’s principal pleasure—getting to know imaginary characters—without driving us away.

The same goes for the prose, which is consistently underwhelming. Even if we grant that Bolaño is writing badly on purpose—that his bland, imprecise, unnuanced prose is a deliberate rebuke to the supposedly pampered, artificial beautification of a more conventionally literary style, and should therefore be viewed as one more facet of his general skepticism about the ability of art to encompass and faithfully reproduce the world in language—the fact remains that 900 pages of it can be numbing.  “In literature,” said Henry James, “we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it.” What James blesses, Bolaño damns: his style ensures that we know little beyond our own ignorance, that his locales lack all plausible density, that everything seems always far away. Again and again it seems that there is little happening both on the surface of the writing, in the texture of the prose, and “behind” the writing, in the minds of the characters.

Bolaño is playing a serious game here, and there is something courageous about  the way he has pursued his vision—of how little literature can know and do—to such extreme lengths. Yet we condescend to a writer if we only consider his intentions. A work of art, if it is to engage us on a conceptual level—to make us reflect on what we think we know—has first to fulfill the obligation to please. Otherwise it becomes a lesson, a mere demonstration. Ulysses is an anti-novel: in its second half it deconstructs, before our eyes, the mechanisms of realist fiction. Yet the reason this deconstruction is so powerful is that Joyce has spent the first half showing us all that realist fiction can achieve. In 2666 we feel the dialectic is lopsided, that art has not been given a fair chance to show all that it can do. As a result its skepticism feels weightless, tendentious, unearned.

At first it seems as though “The Part About Archimboldi” will be the exception to this rule. The final section presents an account of the writer’s life story, from his childhood in Northern Germany, to his heroic service on the Eastern Front in World War II, and his subsequent literary career. We learn of his happy, passionate marriage to Ingeborg, an unlettered but vivacious Nora Barnaclesque personality; of Ingeborg’s death from an unspecified wasting disease; and of Archimboldi’s years of solitary wandering around Europe. Yet the narrative is a sustained non-revelation. Although we learn more about Archimboldi (whose real name is Hans Reiter) than any other character in the book, he never comes into focus. Bolaño hoards his secrets from us.

Here is a characteristic passage. As a child Reiter for some reason develops an obsession with seaweed, a fact that apparently warrants the following:

Around this time he began to draw all kinds of seaweed in a notebook. He drew Chorda filum, made up of thin strands that could nevertheless grow to be twenty-five feet long. … He also drew Leathesia difformis, the rounded bulbs of olive brown that grew on rocks and other seaweed. A strange-looking plant. … He drew Ascophyllum nodosum, a dun-colored, irregularly patterned seaweed with oval blisters along its branches. There were male and female varieties of Ascophyllum nodosum, which produced fruitlike growths akin to raisins. In the male, they were yellow. In the female, they were a greenish color . . .

And on and on for another half page. To all of which the reader is tempted to respond: So what? The narrative continually devolves into these endlessly extendable lists, whose preening, custodial tone (“A strange-looking plant,” “fruitlike growths akin to raisins”) seems designed simply to frustrate. The list, we are made to realize, is narrative reduced to its most raw, uncoordinated, and artless form: one thing after another. It is not simply that Bolaño throws in a list every so often to unsettle the otherwise orderly and engrossing experience of reading his book, for there is no order to unsettle: the book is itself a list. Disjunction, obliquity, frustration: these have become the conventional procedures of the novel, from which we long for some respite, some variation. 

The list-like quality of 2666 is most evident in “The Part About the Crimes,” the novel’s dark heart, where, as everyone in Christendom is by now surely aware, the reader is subjected to a peeled eyeball inventory of hundreds of female corpses, the victims of an epidemic of femicide that has been afflicting Santa Teresa since the early ’90’s (a semi-fictionalized account of the murder wave that has taken place over the same period in Ciudad Juárez). The section is almost three hundred pages and begins very much as it means to go on: “The first girl’s body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big.” And so, in this neutral, unadorned tone, the horrific evidence is amassed: “Midway through February, in an alley in the center of the city, some garbagemen found another dead woman … She had been stabbed to death, although contusions from multiple blows were visible about her face and abdomen.” “In October the body of another woman was found in the desert, south of Santa Teresa, between two country roads. The body was in a state of decomposition and the forensic scientists said it would take days to determine the cause of death. The victim had red-painted nails, which led the first officers on the scene to think she was a whore.”

In the interstices between the killings a few sub-plots struggle to sprout up with little success: in this book nothing stands but for Bolaño’s scythe to mow. Policemen, detectives, journalists begin investigating the crimes, and for a moment it seems as though the book might take on the recognizable dimensions of a murder mystery; but their investigations all prove fruitless and are quickly swept aside by the numbing, monotonous enumeration of corpses. Form is denied; the list prevails.


Bolaño seems to be throwing his hands up in the face of the horrors he describes: he can no more make sense of them than the characters in his book. Indeed, the whole novel is a kind of admission of artistic defeat. Kafka said, “There is a point beyond which there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” In 2666 that point is far, far behind us: it is a speck in the rearview mirror. The book is a monstrosity, an immense negation of everything we expect literature to provide: form, insight, redemption, happiness. It seems to want to inflict itself upon us. I have suggested that the book is a failure. Yet to call 2666 a failure feels somehow tautological: Bolaño’s imagination was underwritten by the idea that every human impulse is ultimately thwarted, cancelled, destroyed.

In his short story “The Immortal,” Borges tells of a Roman officer who crosses the desert in search of the fabled City of the Immortals. When at last he arrives he is horrified by what awaits him. He describes the palace at the heart of the city as follows:

It abounded in dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors which lead to a cell or pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and balustrades hung downwards. Other stairways, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, would die without leading anywhere, after making two or three turns in the lofty darkness of the cupolas. I do not know if all the examples I have enumerated are literal; I know that for many years they infested my nightmares; I am no longer able to know if such and such a detail is a transcription of reality or of the forms which unhinged my nights.

The reader who has traversed, and continues to traverse, Bolaño’s centerless labyrinth will sympathize with the judgment of “The Immortal’s” narrator:

This City . . . is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way even jeopardizes the stars. As long as it lasts, no one in the world can be strong or happy.

1 In the time between this review’s composition and publication The New Republic ran a piece by William Deresiewicz which, though not as disparaging as Sacks’s review, makes a number of intelligent and judicious complaints about the novel.

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