Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reading 2666 by Robert Bolano

A few weeks ago I said that I was considering doing the group read of Robert Bolano’s novel 2666. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t as if I had been dying to read it. I knew nothing about the author or the novel except I knew that it won an award (I wasn’t sure which one) and I had a vague idea that it was about murders in Mexico. But even though I’m on hiatus from my own reading groups the idea of reading a novel at the same time (and same pace) as a group of other serious readers appealed to me.

I gave it some thought and decided I would read the novel along with the group but I would not officially participate. I could change my mind about either one of those decisions. (Yes, I have issues with commitment. You aren’t telling me anything I don’t know about myself.)

So first I finished An American Tragedy, which was the big novel I was currently working on. I needed to do that so 2666 could be my “work read” at lunchtime. Then I went out and got the novel. It is big. My paperback version is 898 pages long. (This would be the perfect time to try out a Kindle but apparently it isn’t available on Kindle.)

I didn’t read the back of the book so I still don’t know what it is about. The cover art is some strange religious looking imagery. There is a label on the front that says it won The National Book Critics Circle Award.

The group read begins the week of January 25 and the group is supposed to have read through page 51 by the beginning of that week. So I took it to work with me last week to read during lunch if I could. I ended up having two days free for lunchtime reading and that turned out to be plenty of time.

I thought before the whole group discussion starts I would post my initial thoughts so I could later compare them with what other people thought.

1. I flew through the first 51 pages. Compared to Tolstoy and Dreiser this is an easy read. I’ve been thinking about why and I can’t quite put my finger on it because the story is not as straightforward as theirs were and the writing style is also not as straightforward. Truthfully I think it’s because there are no chapters. I find chapters to be natural stopping points and sometimes I stop when I could very easily go on. Tolstoy has a lot of short chapters. Dreiser also had a lot relatively short chapters. RB has no chapters (I can’t make that little squiggly mark over the “n” in Bolano so I’m just going to call him RB).

2. For many pages I wondered if I had been confusing this novel in my mind with another novel because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with murders or Mexico. But finally, on page 43, one of the characters (Morino) read an Italian news story about killings in Mexico. It is a two paragraph aside and so far has gone nowhere. I have no idea how the story is going to even get to Mexico since so far it is taking place in Europe.

3. The story (so far) is about academics studying an obscure author and I’m a sucker for stories about academics studying authors. This may be why I’m finding it an easy read.

4. I’m not sure I like RB’s style but I can’t decide if it is him that is the problem for me or the translator. I tend to stay away from books in translation and one reason is because of this very question. On the one hand, I think he was going for a somewhat conversational style. The narrator is not a character, yet the authorial “voice” is that of someone verbally telling a story. And just as people telling a story verbally ramble all over the place and have run on sentences and begin lots of phrases with the word “and” …. so does RB. I’ve never read any of his other works so I don’t know if this is typical of his style or if he chose it for this novel. Maybe this will become clear in the commentary for the group read.

An example: There is a sentence that starts on page 18 and I think it doesn’t end until page 22. It is a summary of a story that is told by a visitor and listened to (with bated breath) by the academics. It works perfectly in so far as that is how people really relate stories that they heard to someone who wasn’t there. On the other hand, I read novels because I’m looking for a bit more formality than I get in my everyday life. I found it annoying to a certain extent and I remember thinking in the middle of it that I certainly hoped this wasn’t going to be a regular occurrence. I assume this is RB and not the translator.

Another example: In one paragraph the word “paltry” is used twice and in neither case is it a word I would have chosen. “They spent the free time they had, which was ample, strolling the paltry (in Pelletier’s opinion) sites of interest in Augsburg …” “… Morini wasn’t in the best of health this time, but rather in paltry health …” I probably wouldn’t have noticed the first paltry if the second hadn’t occurred two sentences later. Paltry health? Is this RB? Or is this the translator?

I dislike when word choices and structure choices get in the way of my enjoyment and twice in 51 pages is a lot for an award winning novel.

5. I really dislike the way RB writes women so far. There aren’t many women but there is one key woman character, Liz Norton. The peripheral women characters seem very stereotyped in a male nightmare or fantasy type of way (there’s even an older German woman with a Marlene Dietrich body. good god). Liz Norton has already become an object of desire for two of the other academics and she is carrying on an affair with both of them with full disclosure to the other one. Maybe men think this makes a female character interesting but so far I think it just makes her a stereotypical male fantasy. Add to that the discussion about the familiarity or not by the two other (otherwise boring) academics’ participations in a menage a trois and familiarity with the works of the Marquis de Sade and – well it all just seems like a fantasy created for a novel. We’ll see if RB redeems himself by doing something unexpected. If he doesn’t, this is going to be a real problem for me because my eye rolling is interfering with my reading.

By the way, the plot so far concerns a mysterious German author named Archimboldi (which, yes, doesn’t sound German) who is the object of study of the four academics. Archimboldi is, apparently, still alive but mysterious in more than a JD Salinger kind of way. No pictures, etc. RB has spent pages of detail going through the history of how these four academics (French, Spanish, Italian and British) began studying Archimboldi and got to know each other and become friends (and lovers). Lots of detail on all the conferences they attended and papers they gave. But although that could be dull I thought RB managed to make it work. Again, I have no idea how any of this relates to murders in Mexico.

6. I don’t know why this is called 2666, which doesn’t bother me. That will become clear (I assume). What bothers me is that I don’t know how to pronounce it. I realized this when I told someone I was going to read it. Do you pronounce each number: Two Six Six Six. Or is it Twenty-Six Sixty-Six? Or Two Thousand Six Hundred Sixty Six? Or Two Thousand Six Sixty Six? Or Two Six Sixty Six? You see the problem? Again, I assume all will become clear. But an online reading discussion isn’t going to clear up THAT point unless someone decides to write about it.

I look forward to reading the discussions next week. And despite my complaints about it, I’m still looking forward to the next 50 pages.