Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reading 2666 by Robert Bolaño -- Week 2

For the coming week we are supposed to have read up to page 102 in the Group Read of 2666. (Yes I copied the above “Bolaño” from the site to get that little squiggly thing above the n. Windows Live Writer should give us a way to make it ourselves.)

I can’t say that I have any great insights into this novel at this point but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing in a novel this long. It would be like having great insights into your typical 300 page novel at about page 30. On the other hand, the introductory remarks said that RB wanted to publish each part of the novel separately. If so, I’m more than halfway through what would be the first novel (novella?).

It isn’t like anything I’ve ever read before. I can’t at this point compare it to other long novels I’ve read.

I still think it isn’t that difficult to read. I mean this in a very simple sense. It is certainly a difficult novel to understand. But the physical act of reading isn’t difficult. The structure, while it contains some flashbacks, isn’t confusing. In some ways it has been too linear, too much a history of the relationship of these four academics in chronological terms. The lookbacks mostly occur only when one academic needs to be filled in on something that occurred when all four weren’t together. Sometimes I’ve felt that the story hasn’t really started yet. These pages have had the feel of background and I keep expecting that, at some point, we will reach the present and the story will begin. I’m ready for the story to begin.

I haven’t found the vocabulary difficult although the official read site has a post with a glossary so maybe some people do. In terms of a basic who, when, where, why and how I’m not spending any time trying to figure out the who, when and where. I consider that a mark of a novel that is an easy read; being able to focus on only the what, why and how is a luxury. In Hillary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, I spent a lot of time working on the who because of her (apparently intentional) ambiguous use of the pronoun “he”. I’ve had trouble keeping track of who in the Russian novels I’ve read simply because the characters use multiple names. In science fiction novels the where is often unclear. And sometimes the when. Not in this novel. And the what is only unclear in the larger sense. There is no lack of clarity about what each character is doing at the time.

I wonder if other readers have had trouble with the where and when. The group read site has a person keeping track of locations and another keeping track of chronology. Maybe locations become more important later in the book. Maybe this is one of those novels that, when you get to the end, you must immediately re-read simply for structure and not plot elements. But so far I haven’t been confused, while reading, about where they were or when it was.

In short, these second 50ish pages went by almost as fast as the first 50 pages. I did, however, find myself flipping ahead a couple of times to see where my ending point was going to be. I’ll get to that later. And I can’t say at this point I like or I’d recommend this novel. But, again, we’re 100 pages into a 900 page novel.

Early on in this 50ish page segment, the Italian, Morini, decides to visit Liz Norton in London. Morini is not sexually involved with Norton, unlike the other two scholars Pelletier (the Frenchman) and Espinoza (the Spaniard). Morini is in bad health, he has multiple sclerosis, and he is in a wheel chair. He was involved in an unspecified accident that was referred to in the first 50 pages but never described.

That part went by fairly fast for me. Morini is my favorite of the four scholars and I think RB wrote him with that intention. Although I suspect that he only seems deeper than Pelletier and Espinoza because RB lets us into his mind less often than he does with Pelletier and Espinoza. Morini does, however, seem to have more common sense than Pelletier and Espinoza.

Norton has now broken off her affairs with Pelletier and Espinoza and they are even more obsessed with her than before. They are also intrigued by a new man who has appeared in her life. For pages (and pages and pages and pages, it seemed) they obsessed over him and what his relationship with Norton was. Finally they spill their guts to Morini who very sensibly suggests that they ask her. Truthfully, Morini is my favorite simply because Pelletier and Espinoza seem to me to be so transparently unreliable. Whenever the author is omniscient with those two I figure we’re being led down the wrong path. The author is seldom omniscient with Norton and is less omniscient with Morini. But he spends time describing Morini. The way Morini’s reactions to events are portrayed seem either more natural to me than the reactions of the others or, if not natural, worthy of investigation.

I find myself completely bored with Norton. I think that’s because I don’t trust Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s view of her (and their views are always sexual, whether they are thinking of her sexually or wondering if she is thinking of someone else sexually). I thought that when Morini finally visited London we would see the real Liz Norton. I don’t know if that happened. But, in any event, when she is with Morini she seems less interesting than him.

There were only two incidents in this segment that intrigued me. First, while Morini visits Norton she tells him the story of a painter named Johns who cut off his own hand, had it embalmed and incorporated it into one of his art works. Johns is now committed in an asylum. Toward the end of the 50ish pages Pelletier and Espinoza visit Norton and tell her that Morini has become obsessed with a painter named Johns who is in an asylum. They do not realize that Morini heard the story of the painter from Norton. Morini, with the aid of Pelletier and Espinoza, tracked down the painter and visited him in the asylum.

They describe the entire odd experience and how Morini disappeared without saying goodbye and didn’t appear for a long time. They were quite worried about him. Norton tells them that he came to London to tell her his theory about the painter. (She also tells them that she promised not to reveal this to anyone; so she is breaking that promise to Morini).

I have no idea if this part of the story has significance. While I was reading the part where Norton tells Morini the story of Johns (and Morini feels sick to his stomach as he listens) I didn’t find it that interesting although I found Morini’s reaction interesting. But I found it intriguing that Morini would actually track down Johns and I found his reaction to him intriguing. But as I say I don’t know if it has any significance other than as a look into Morini’s psyche.

It’s hard to know what, if anything has any significance, in this novel.

The other incident that intrigued me was a brief discussion that Pelletier and Espinoza had with the new mysterious man in Norton’s life. He tells them to watch out because she is a Medusa. They try to interpret this in their usual scholarly “let’s over-think this” way. Medusa was the only one of the Gorgons who was human and, therefore, could be killed, and if Norton is a Medusa they should feel sorry for her. When Medusa died the winged Pegasus sprang from her head and Pegasus is a symbol of love. I won’t go into the whole theory but let’s just say that it makes them feel tender toward Norton and sure that they are the key to her happiness. Or at least one of them is.

This is one reason I find them unreliable. Yes, all of these things are part of the Medusa myth. But Pelletier and Espinoza are obsessed with Norton and will interpret anything about her in the light that is best for their relationship with her. I found it striking that they didn’t even begin to consider the most obvious meaning.

A Medusa would be a danger to them because she would turn them to stone. Metaphorically. In reality their obsession would mean that they would cease acting – they would become unable to go forward with whatever they were working on. And in fact that is what happened to them. For a very long time they stopped doing much about Archimboldi and simply skated on their reputations. They obsessed about Norton. Each obsessed about his relationship with Norton. Each obsessed about the other’s relationship with Norton. Then Norton dumps them and they obsess about the new guy and her relationship to (or with) him. The story slowed down to a crawl. It was like it was turning to stone.

Of course there are other interpretations. But they didn’t even really consider that Norton could be BAD for them. They also didn’t consider the interpretation that the only way to really understand Norton is not to look directly at her (her looks, her direct actions, her direct words) but to look at her indirectly. In other words, not to take her at face value. (Perseus defeated Medusa by looking at her in a mirror while he slew her. That way she couldn’t turn him to stone.) I don’t know if that’s a good interpretation because not enough about Norton has been revealed. She may, in fact, be a very simple person and her glamor (in the true sense of the word) may be something they have imbued her with because of their own competition.

And the whole thing might mean nothing because we know next to nothing about this mysterious man and he may just have been saying something he thought was insulting to Norton.

Other than that I found nothing too intriguing in these 50ish pages.

By the end we have finally gotten to Mexico, but only through a story related to the scholars about a person who met the mysterious Archimboldi there.

I was less tolerant of this 50 pages than I was with the first 50. There was a lot of ink expended on Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s obsession with Norton and, as I’ve said, RB hasn’t given me enough about Norton to understand this obsession. She seems ordinary and boring to me in all ways except that she was willing to carry on affairs with two friends simultaneously. And that just made me think she had bad judgment. Combine that with her story of her unhappy marriage to someone she describes as abusive and the obnoxious way that she allowed the mysterious new man to treat her in the one scene where they are together and she seems to have really bad judgment when it comes to men.

In any event, she isn’t actually in the many pages that are spent describing the obsession of Pelletier and Espinoza. RB spent pages (and pages and pages) on a long (I assume) digression about how they go whoring once she breaks up with them and the different effects this has on them. It was around this time that I started looking to see how many pages were left in this assignment.

I’ve never found stories of men’s obsession with sex and thoughts of women as sexual objects that interesting. I get even less interested in men’s thoughts about women they are using as sexual objects but whom they think they are interested in as a person. I can only get through this type of story if the writing is beautiful. I was, for instance, bored by the subjects of many of John Updike’s novels but I read them for his prose. A wonderful use of the English language will make me read novels about subjects that don’t personally speak to me (and not being a man, this subject just doesn’t speak to me).

In this case I have no idea if the writing is beautiful because this is a translated novel. As I said in my previous post the style seems clunky. So I really, REALLY hope that this entire novel isn’t going to be about the internal workings of the mind of men in the midst of sexual obsession. I think that’s why Morini seems interesting to me. If he has a sexual obsession it isn’t at all apparent.

At the main group read site, there is an interview with Lorin Stein, the editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux who edited the translated versions. The last question and answer concerned me:

MB: Without going into too many spoilers, but looking at all the plotlines and characters, what would you say is the overall theme or main idea behind 2666? What is Bolaño trying to achieve here?

LS: If there’s an overall theme or main idea, I don’t know what it is. The murder of women in northern Mexico is clearly central to the book. More generally, 2666 strikes me as preoccupied with death–specifically, with the fear of death. One’s own death, the death of people one loves. That fear erupts throughout Bolaño’s work. It is a kind of existential terror. In most of the books it’s an undertone. But in 2666 those murders make the fear concrete.

No overall theme or main idea. In a 900 page novel. Not a good sign.

I am enjoying some of the posts on the official site and I suspect I will enjoy them more as we get deeper into the novel.