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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Book Review

2666 by Roberto Bolano
Hardcover: 912 pages
Publisher: Picador (16 Jan 2009)
ISBN-13: 978-0330447423
Victor Manley


It would be easy to come across a positive review for Roberto Bolano’s final novel 2666. Indeed the only negative aspect one may find in the plethora of worshipful reviews is the news that Bolano died in 2003, a year before this book was published in Spain. It was intended to be published in five parts but, for artistic reasons, the novel is presented here as one book.

Bolano’s stock has, rather predictably, soared since his death, causing him to be hailed as one of the great masters of modern fiction. Whether this book would have made so many waves with it’s author alive is impossible to tell, but the knowledge of Bolano’s death certainly adds a kind of quiet intrigue to the novel, as if it should be read in silence, by candlelight, with a reverential expression on one’s face at all times.

I knew that I would need perseverance and patience for this novel, something I usually have with literature, and had read that should I complete the novel the rewards would be absolutely endless. I began excited, reverential and prepared to have the very essence of life unfolded about me. My perseverance was sure to hold out, my patience was boundless, and yet despite my goodwill, I was horrified to find myself flagging. What could be the possible reason for this? Certainly there is little plot to speak of, and yet I am usually drawn to novels that are heavy and ponderous, so what was the reason for my apathy?

In general terms the novel ticks all the boxes of literary greatness. It has a irritatingly enigmatic title, 2666, that is never explained; it skips gaily around between time and space as if it can’t keep still; it has a host of characters with hard-to-pronounce names; it seems to stand before the altar of modern life and throw up it’s hands in a gesture of bewilderment and anger; its author is strangely distant and enigmatic. It certainly looks like a masterpiece, its feels like one, so why was I so frustrated?

The hard-back edition of this book, weighing in at a mighty 900 pages, could certainly be classed as some sort of deadly weapon, and Bolano wastes no time in giving us reams of information, by which I of course mean that very little happens. Not that this is in itself a criticism, but it is the way in which nothing happens that is irritating. The style of the book, at once boundless and curiously restricted, is laced with a thousand conversations or events that have absolutely no wider purpose, that do not move the plot or even further the characters. Such a technique was utilised to greater effect by Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49, where red herrings and pointless events were wound about the central plot in a way where the two were indistinguishable, where even the meaningless sections felt important and interesting. And yet Bolano writes so much more chaff than wheat that the wheat is hardly worth the search. Now, I know that this is all part of some purpose to show the vast canvas of existence, to somehow mirror the meaninglessness of modern life, but it is oversold and as such is (I wince to say this) a bit boring.

Now if a book is not too deeply concerned with plot then it must be about something else. Either time or place or, more commonly, character. 2666 certainly has characters. A great deal of them, both memorable and otherwise. In fact some of the best moments of this novel come from Bolano’s characterisations, for instance the artist who cuts off his hand in artistic insanity, or the elusive German author growing towards Nobel prize notoriety. Bolano, much in keeping with the complex style and tone of the novel, introduces and then axes central characters with alacrity. In other novels such a technique can be the cause for wailing and gnashing teeth, and yet here it passes with little emotional fanfare. Characters come and go and I found myself not caring, indeed I was pleased to lose the old weight of characters who had long since ceased to interest me.

My other main complaint with Bolano’s characters is one which could be levelled at a fairly large proportion of 20th Century male writers- predictably Bolano fails in his attempt to write a convincing female character. All of the women are either nymphomaniac, indecisive, fickle, insane, unnatural or a colourful selection of the above. In fact even some of the men seem ill-drawn, some of the characters reactions utterly unbelievable, and conversation either rushed over or covered in mind-numbing detail.

It is perhaps unfair of me to be quite so negative. There are some very memorable sections of this novel, some interesting characters and observations, and perhaps it is just because every review I have read of this book is so sickeningly positive that I feel so inclined to point out its flaws. I can not help but cast my opinion against the popular tide, and I would encourage anyone with the patience of a saint and that reverential expression to engage with this monolith.

© Victor Manley Feb 12th 2009
vicmanley at gmail.com

Victor is studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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