Reading "2666", "it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish Roberto Bolaño's genius from his excess. Indeed, it starts to seem that Bolaño's genius is his excess", writes Garth Risk Hallberg...


In his treatise on drama, "Three Uses of the Knife", David Mamet cribs a distinction from Stanislavsky. Some narratives, he suggests, leave us saying, "What a masterpiece! Let's get a cup of coffee," while others ask us to wrestle with them for the rest of our lives. It's a contrast that feels almost obsolete in book publishing. On the supply side, publishers rush to promote "instant classics" before posterity can render a verdict. On the demand side, we feel grateful for the distraction of "a good read." An academic cottage industry has arisen to debunk categories of high and low, obscuring tensions between inspiration and craft, between edification and mere delight. Still, the old Horatian binaries tend to obsess the serious novelist, whose medium lives and dies along the borderline where art and entertainment meet.

The late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño had a foot in each territory. His long 1998 novel, "Los detectives salvajes" ("The Savage Detectives"), earned one of the Spanish-speaking world's most prestigious literary awards, and its structural innovations credentialed him as a daring avant-gardist. Most of the book's pleasures, however, lay in its unbuttoned exuberance, its evocation of a mid-70s milieu of sex, drugs, and rebellion.

Bolaño, a poet by vocation, had initially (not to say quixotically) turned to fiction as a money-making proposition, and after the success of "The Savage Detectives", he might have settled into a lucrative middle age repackaging his dissolute youth. His next book, "Amuleto" ("Amulet"), a loose, novella-length expansion of a chapter in "The Savage Detectives", hints at the career that might have been. But Bolaño's longevity was far from assured--in 1992, at age 39, he had been diagnosed with a fatal liver disease--and his ambitions for his remaining years were enormous. The climax of "The Savage Detectives", set in a violent Mexican boom-town called "Santa Teresa," would find him already imagining his way into his next grand edifice.

In real life, Santa Teresa was Ciudad Juárez, and by 1998, it was home to the largest serial killing in recorded history. The brutalised corpses of young women had begun turning up in Juárez' vacant lots and garbage dumps in the early 1990s. Many of the hundreds of eventual victims were migrants from impoverished regions further south, who had come to work in low-wage maqiladoras, assembling consumer goods for Norteamericanos. It's impossible to reconstruct what Bolaño felt when he first read news accounts of these events, just as it's impossible to imagine Proust finding Combray in a madeleine. But in the resulting novel, "2666", we overhear a reporter trying to persuade his editor that the killings in Santa Teresa suggest "a sketch of the industrial landscape in the third world... a piece of reportage about the current situation in Mexico, a panorama of the border." In other words, they offer a writer the scale of the magnum opus--a chance to memorialise himself, even as he memorialises the victims.

Now that we English readers have a posthumous version of "2666" before us, in Natasha Wimmer's vibrant translation, there can be little doubt that Bolaño intended it to be his masterpiece, a work to be wrestled with over the course of a lifetime. However, this naked bid for permanence would seem to complicate the more immediate questions--whether and how we should enjoy "2666".


This 900-page book unfolds in five novel-length sections, each with its own characters, style and chronology. The first volume, "The Part About the Critics," begins on a deceptively intimate scale, introducing us to three young men: Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manual Espinoza and Piero Morini. The Frenchman, the Spaniard and the Italian have made their professional reputations studying a reclusive German novelist, a Teutonic Thomas Pynchon with the unlikely nom de plume, Benno von Archimboldi. The narrative conceit that emerges--literary types on a quest for a vanished writer--will be familiar to readers of "The Savage Detectives". In several ways, however, "The Part About the Critics" departs from Bolaño's standard procedure. Where the poets who populated "The Savage Detectives" were aging adolescents, raging against the dying of the light, these critics are settled, self-satisfied and bourgeois.

The prose, too, diverges from Bolaño's earlier work. Where novels such as "Amulet" and "De nocto Chile" ("By Night in Chile") revelled in orality, the opening of "2666" is conspicuously literary. Bolaño deploys free indirect discourse to comic effect, as our protagonists collectively imagine the "downed flags" of rival scholars and "a book that might be the grand Archimboldean opus, the pilot fish that would swim for a long time beside the great black shark of the German's oeuvre." Pompous equivocations signal differences of opinion--characters have a "talk (or discussion)," or speak of "vanished writers (vanished writers or millionaire writers)"--even as they call our attention to the utter triviality of the opinions in question. Unlike some of Bolaño's previous creations, these pedants easier to laugh at than to love.

A funny thing happens, though, with the introduction of a fourth critic, an Englishwoman, Liz Norton. When she first reads Archimboldi, we are told, it is raining:

Oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park... Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallised spiderwebs or the briefest crystallised vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.

Suddenly, and by dint of the same qualifiers and parentheses that have heretofore served as emblems of meaninglessness, Bolaño is straining against the limits of the expressible. Metaphors arrive like seizures, disorienting in their rapidity.

The fever of significance slowly infects the rest of the novel. As the mystery of Archimboldi's whereabouts draws the four critics in, foreboding images proliferate. A plane passing overhead disappears. A hotel toilet is missing a piece, "as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person's head against the toilet." In each case, the suggestion of violence works like a radioactive marker, alerting us to some sinister symbolism at work beneath the skin of the text. Just as importantly, the abrupt shifts of mood draw us into sympathy with the characters. Still, an excess of atmosphere cannot compensate for a lack of plot, and it's only at the end of "The Part About the Critics", when the Archimboldian pursuit leads the critics to Santa Teresa, that "2666" really gets going--and, paradoxically, breaks down.


A remarkable sense of place enriches the second volume, "The Part About Amalfitano". Descriptions of houses, "devastated" yards, cinderblock walls topped with brick, factories, cavernous bars and omnipresent black Peregrino sedans are as sinister as they are banal. That Santa Teresa could be any number of burgeoning Central American cities is precisely its horror. In dramatic terms, however, "The Part About Amalfitano," the shortest section of "2666", allows the book's energies to dissipate. In a previous cameo, Óscar Amalfitano, a professor of German literature, has served as the critics' guide around Santa Teresa. Now we see him literally losing his mind. The bursts of paranoia that enlivened "The Part About the Critics" swell and distend into lunatic digressions. Absent any meaningful interlocutors, Amalfitano's thoughts become a prison. Part of Bolaño's narrative method is to imply motion as film does, through the alteration of scene and stasis, but as "The Part About Amalfitano" winds down, the gaps begin to show, and the reader begins to wonder if the novel's momentum has been illusory.

In the third volume, "The Part About Fate", Bolaño begins to offer an answer. The stylistic signature here is hardboiled noir. In the uninflected manner of Raymond Chandler, Bolaño follows an African-American journalist named Quincy Williams (aka, Oscar Fate) to Santa Teresa. Assigned to cover a boxing match in which he has little interest, Fate spends several days adrift in the city, ruminating on September 11th, black nationalism, and the relative merits of VHS and DVD, among other subjects. Even as Fate conceals his disaffection, though, the lingering dread of the "Amalfitano" section has thickened, signalling our proximity to the novel's central trauma.

The Santa Teresa killings surface in overheard conversations, in the news media and in moments of unanticipated weirdness. Some sketchy new companions, for example, show Fate a violently pornographic video attributed to Robert Rodriguez. It ends with these images: "Glasses and a jar of Nescafé. A frying pan with the remains of scrambled eggs. A hallway. The body of a half-dressed woman sprawled on the floor. A door. A room in complete disarray." Like Kafka, a writer he often resembles, Bolaño intuits the homology between laughter and horror--the way each confronts us with our ultimate lack of control. "The camera zooms in on the mirror," he tells us. "The tape ends."

It is Amalfitano's daughter who rouses Fate from his torpor, and eventually brings the tension to a head: Fate comes to realise that she may be the killers' next victim. The old-fashioned plot thus initiated begins to unite the discrete pieces we've encountered so far--Amalfitano's madness, the air of menace, and the connection between Archimboldi and Santa Teresa--the way a the presence of a magnet sweeps iron filings into a straight line.


Which brings us to "The Part About The Crimes." Heretofore, Bolaño's vacillations between order and excess, stasis and motion, and divergence and convergence, have suggested an artist struggling with his subject. Now they reveal themselves as the motions of a surgeon preparing his tools. The flat, declarative opening sentence--"The girl's body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores"--lays bare the logic of Bolaño's circuitous approach. Had this come on the novel's first page, we might have written it off as a mechanism to build suspense. Now, after so long a delay, this murder has become literally central to the novel.

The 300-page tour-de-force that follows both recreates and explodes the conventions of the police procedural. In careful detail, Bolaño documents the discovery of scores of bodies between 1993 and 1997. The repetitive descriptions of victims have a percussive effect on the reader; rather than diminishing the victims, the similarities Bolaño catalogues--of dress, of occupation, of injury--compound the tragedy of their deaths. In between postmortems, we meet corrupt politicians and weary working people, journalists and priests and the drug-lords who seem to be behind the killings. Where verisimilitude made the critics of the first volume somewhat ridiculous, it deepens our engagement with characters like Juan de Dios Martínez, a veteran inspector, and Lalo Cura, a rookie with an unbending code of honour.

More affecting still are this volume's many women: mothers and daughters, lovers and wives, each a potential victim. An undercurrent of machismo can sometimes complicate Bolaño's attitude toward his female characters, but in "The Part About the Crimes", the women of Santa Teresa become the avatars of all of history's anonymous victims. A television psychic named Florita Almada exemplifies their courage:

No matter what I take for my nerves, nothing helps. So I stay up until dawn and I try to read and do something useful and practical but in the end I sit down at the kitchen table and start to mull over the problem.... I'm talking about the women brutally murdered in Santa Teresa. I'm talking about the girls and the mothers of families and the workers from all walks of life who turn up dead each day in the neighbourhoods and on the edges of that industrious city in the northern part of our state. I'm talking about Santa Teresa. I'm talking about Santa Teresa.

Florita Almada broadcasts visions as dark and obsessive as anything that has preceded them, but her voice is also, like the novel as a whole, shot through with tenderness, humility, and good humour. As the pages of her monologue pile up, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish Bolaño's genius from his excess. Indeed, it starts to seem that Bolaño's genius is his excess. This impression will find confirmation in the long, wild, final volume of "2666", which returns to that other subject we've been hungry to hear about: Archimboldi.


The structure of "2666" has been parabolic, moving us from Europe to the charnel-pit of Santa Teresa; now, in "The Part About Archimboldi", we find ourselves once again far from the killings, geographically and chronologically. Taking up the style of the Bildungsroman, Bolaño deposits us in the 1920s, in the hermetic imagination of a German boy named Hans Reiter. For Reiter and his family, the "short Twentieth Century" will turn out to be a violent nightmare.

This violence is not purely European, though European culture (including literature) often serves to paper over it. Reiter's journeys as a conscript in the second world war expose him to the Holocaust, but also to the bloody past, and to visions of an apocalyptic future. Elements of the first half of "2666" that had seemed merely digressive now appear, in retrospect, pregnant with meaning. They are entries in an encyclopedia of iniquity that culminates in Santa Teresa. As history takes its toll on Reiter, he becomes more vivid--not the object of irony, but an ironist himself, stunned into detachment. Reiter becomes, in other words, a writer. He adopts a pen-name, and in a set of twists we've been awaiting for hundreds of pages, his own plot discloses its connection with those of the other four volumes of "2666".

This long-delayed concatenation dramatises a running philosophical concern, distilled in the name of one of the novel's hero: Fate. Bolaño's fatalism works in an odd way: it exists, but is invisible to the characters it acts upon. Archimboldi's life now appears, to the reader, to have launched him toward Santa Teresa. And aesthetically, what had seemed a model of postmodern messiness emerges as the kind of modernist masterwork Archimboldi might have constructed himself, polished to a high finish.

Or rather, the conclusion of "2666" posits order and chaos as facets of a single phenomenon, like convergence and digression, the perfect work of art and the spectacular failure. In Bolaño's cosmology, order and infinitude and artistic perfection are imaginary; chaos and digression and futility are merely their earthbound aspects. Which may explain Bolaño's preoccupation with literary immortality: it's as close as we mortals ever get to the real thing. And so, in "2666", he attempted to write a book that would last forever, even as, in reality, the pages ran out.


One way to judge to "2666", then, is to think of it not as a real-world masterpiece, but as an imaginary one--one big enough to encompass any atrocity, one whose ink never dries. Its restlessness and recklessness, its relentless pursuit of the inexpressible, may frustrate readers searching for the finite comedy of Bolaño's earlier novels. But in light of the brevity of his life, and the gravity of his subject, Bolaño's magnum opus resembles an act of heroism. Early in the novel, Amalfitano praises the "great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown." "2666" is imperfect and torrential, as well as upsetting and intricate and unusual. This is not to certify it prematurely as the masterpiece it was clearly meant to be. It is, however, to point out how gaudily improbable--how literary--it is that Roberto Bolaño even came close.


Image credit: Troballola/flickr, Ricky/flickr, Mabel·[equilibrio precario]/flickr, New Directions.

(Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of "A Field Guide to the North American Family", and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. He contributes to the literary weblog, The Millions. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about Joseph Mitchell's "True Facts".)