Bolaño Overflow: 2666

January 23, 2010 at 5:33 pm Leave a comment

Over on The Rumpus, I got embroiled in a debate over a review of Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography. The question seemed to be whether this thing could even be called a book review at all, concerning as it mostly did the reviewer’s own experiences and life story as it related (perhaps only tangentially) to the book. Some people said this was solipsistic bullshit. I said it was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read recently.

People who’ve been with me a while (or with me in classes) know by now my opinions about literature, and criticism: I think the best response to (receiving a) story is to tell, in turn, another story. This is, I think, the essence of conversation, and to enter into such a relationship with a book is to be in conversation with literature (as opposed to about it). In opposition to the sort of “meta” position that criticism usually attempts to hold –commenting from a lofty, ahistorical, “objective” position about the “subjective” workings of literature and language– this approach makes the writer-as-reader a subject of/in language. Call it (to steal from Spivak) a form of critical intimacy.

All of which is a long build-up to the fact that I want to tell you a story.

A few weeks ago, inspired by a friend who had just picked up a copy, I dove back inside the covers of 2666 – almost a year to the day since I’d finished it. I’d bought the book at a newsstand in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport en route to a family wedding in Waco in November 2008, and I remember it vividly because as I stood in the newsstand leafing through the display copy I was thinking “Wow, if stacks of this dense, hyperliterary work, a book in translation, alluding to a horde of characters (real and imaginary) from a culture we know next to nothing about, filled with portentous omens… if this book can make it to an airport newsstand in the (real and cultural) deserts of the American southwest –I mean, in Texas of all places– perhaps there is some hope for us after all.” Or something like that.

But actually Texas was the perfect place to begin my daunting (mis/ad)venture into the pages of this beautiful monstrosity, not least because huge portions of the novel take place in the Sonora desert, in the city of Santa Teresa – a lightly fictionalized version of Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso. But more than that: Texas’ long ramrod highways, its razor-sharp edges, its vast distances interspersed with the occasional jarring signals of a strange civilization seemed the perfect accompaniment to the novel’s scorchingly luminescent severity.

Except that then, back in New York, toting the volume around like a sort of talisman, lugging it to and from my draining job, through long subway rides and the lonely northern winter, I began to feel like the novel was the perfect accompaniment to this city (or vice versa): both of them huge and alien, often dehumanizing or even inhuman, coldly deflecting our attempts to read in hope and meaning, and yet occasionally illuminated by a fleeting glimpse of that rarest and thus most precious of human qualities, which we call, embarrassedly, for lack of a better word, love.

One of the things reading 2666 did (strangely, since only a small portion of the book takes place in the States) was to make me fall back in love with the American landscape.

Picking up 2666 after a year’s time (a year in which, though I hadn’t touched the book, it lay dormant in the corners of my mind, percolating) I wondered what it would be like to come back to the work again. Would I be as blown away a second time, as overwhelmed and awe-inspired before the face of what I truly believed to be a masterpiece? Or would the experience (like so many things) fade with time, become a shadow of its former self, like a lost love which, once immeasurable, now only brushes you with the memory of sadness?

And at first, reading the opening pages, I felt at a strange remove, as if I was looking at the novel through a telescope, or a microscope –looking as if at a natural marvel transformed into a mere curiosity, an object of “scientific interest,” something at once more graspable and infinitely farther away. I noted (what I had missed before) the ingenious construction of the novel, the incredible weightlessness of Bolaño’s sentences, which float on and on, endlessly, beyond the point of credulity… but to see this formal construction, to pierce the façade, meant that, somehow, the magic was gone.

And then, just when I had come to terms with my disappointment, it happened. Somewhere, somehow, right when I’d ceased to expect it, 2666 snuck up on me and grabbed me by the heart, or by the balls, and wrenched me open as surely as (minor spoiler) the novel’s 300-odd victims meet their ends. Like the gasping, gutted creature that I was, I’d been hooked.


I left my copy of 2666 at my parent’s home after the holidays. I figured it would just be one more thing to carry to (and through) New York on my brief 48-hour visit, after which I’d be getting on a plane back to Amsterdam. Instead, I decided, I’d just pick up a new copy at JFK – there seemed to be some sort of link between Bolaño and airport bookstores, one that I felt secretly pleased to reinforce.

(Luckily, the friends I was staying with in New York turned out to own a copy, which I snuck off their shelves for the duration of my visit. I would never have made it those two days.)

And then, at the airport, disaster. Hudson News, which I’d confidently expected to possess veritable stacks of 2666, contained not a single trace of Bolaño. Not one. Not even Amulet or one of his other early novels wedged behind a pile of new arrivals; not even his one translated volume of poetry. Desperately, barely believing, I scanned the shelves a second, third and even a fourth time. Perhaps there was a separate section for works in translation? Or literary masterpeices? Perhaps there was a back room, discernible only to initiates, in which every work of Bolaño –translated or in the original; published and unpublished; manuscripts, scribbled notes, marginalia– was waiting for the pure of heart to claim it for a peso or a poem or a song?

Running out of time, I raced to the other end of the international terminal, where the map said another Hudson News could be found. It was even smaller than the first, barely more than a cubby really, and the selection of “literary” novels (as opposed to what?) was even more infinitesimally tiny: just Coetzee and Murakami, rows and rows of Murakami, they must have had every book the man ever published, usually ten or twelve or even several dozen copies, and was there really such a surge of travellers madly, desperately searching for a copy of The Wind-Up Bird that they couldn’t spare a single copy, a single inch of space to give over to what was inarguably the greatest book of the 21st century? Was there some sort of secret cabal of mustache-twirling, Murakami loving malfeasants bent on world domination, gradually overtaking global newsstands like a slowly encroaching tide, at first indescernible, but growing and growing, unstoppably, until it overwhelmed the last staunch defenders of literature, truth and the bolañian oeuvre?

The love which this book inspires is not entirely sane. (But is that not a definition of literature?) The looming reality of my 8-hour flight had seemed delightful when I imagined myself curled up with Bolaño, holding my hand through the long layover in Rome, and holding me up (and awake) on my last leg(s) back to Holland. Now the flight stood before me like a prolonged trip through purgatory or a trial of strength. The idea of picking up some other book to tide me over (fucking Murakami) seemed as alien and abominable as if, in the throws of an all-consuming passion for an unattainable man (let’s call him Tom), a friend had pushed some scraggly little fellow forward and said “look, here’s Bob, he’s nice and single and has a lovely summer home in Palm Beach. Try him instead!” Jonesing on my love for Tom/Bolaño, I’d say (the fucking truth) “I don’t want somebody else!”

Reading 2666 is insane and addictive, terrifying and awe-inspiring, tragic and joyously exciting. If there’s one thing I hope this blog will do, it’s to get you to read this book.

Anyway, somehow I made it through the endless, unimaginable hours on the plane, the antsy wait in Rome at the crack of dawn, the last few fading hours coming in towards Amsterdam Schiphol. And all was not yet lost: at the airport bookstore in Amsterdam I found a copy of 2666 and bought it and took it with me for the train ride home.


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Bennett Carpenter
Leiden, Netherlands

Random musings about literature, art, politics and (occasionally) my life as a graduate student in sunny Holland. Click on the pic for more about me.


January 2010
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