Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reading 2666 by Robert Bolaño – Week 5

This week the group read moves into the third part of 2666 – The Part About Fate  -- and the venue shifts to the United States and we gain a new character.  

A few thoughts:

1.     The first surprise is that “Fate” isn’t something metaphysical, it is a person:  Quincy Williams whose nickname is Oscar Fate.   This is never explained.   Williams/Fate is 30 years old, African American and works as a reporter for a Harlem magazine called Black Dawn.  Making him a reporter means that Bolaño has created a character that should have a sense of curiosity about the world around him – which has been lacking so far in the characters in this novel.  

2.   This is the first time in the novel that I was momentarily unsure of location and time.  The Part About Fate starts with a brief paragraph that tells us we are heading to flashback territory.  The paragraph mentions an Aztec lake so I assumed we were in Mexico, but then the story shifted into flashback and it wasn’t at all clear where we were.  New York, it turns out.  Fate has just learned, by telephone in his office cubicle, that his mother is dead.  But even though I could place the action in New York, I have not yet figured out if the action takes place before or after the three academics went to Santa Teresa and met Amalfitano.

3.  I’m a little unsure of the play on words with “fate” and am still waiting to see how far Bolaño takes it.   Although Fate is a person, there is a certain amount of fate in  The Part About Fate.  First there is the fate of Williams’ mom.  It is unclear how she died.  The neighbors in the building are unhelpful in filling in the details  because, in the excitement, the neighbor closest to the mother had a heart attack and also died. 

I thought the pages dealing with the mother’s death and funeral were very effectively written.  The confusion that a person goes through when they are suddenly told someone is dead were captured perfectly.   A couple of times I’ve been told of death by telephone in my office and it is a terrible way to find out bad news.  There is no privacy and by the time you think of questions to ask, the person has hung up.   You are left with this empty feeling and completely unsure exactly what you are supposed to do.  To put on your coat and leave, explaining “so and so is dead” just seems too bizarre when  the person you are telling has been sitting at a desk for the last five minutes during which time nothing has changed for them and a lot has changed for you.   So I’ve never explained.  Which is what Williams/Fate  does in the story. 

Then by creating the confusion with the dead neighbor and Williams/Fate’s inability to get anyone to even talk to him about his mother’s last moments, Bolaño emphasizes how alone and confused Williams/Fate is at this time.    But it also reinforces the idea that the mother died  simply because it was her fate to die.  No explanation will be given.

4.   The mother’s death occurs right before Williams/Fate must go on a business trip to Detroit to interview an old Black Panther named Barry Seaman.    I was unclear exactly why this section was necessary except that it got Williams/Fate out of New York, thus further creating a sense of a man out of sync with his own life.   Seaman is an interesting character but also seems a diversion.  On the other hand, Williams/Fate listens to him give a talk/sermon that emphasizes the importance of changing one’s self and one’s life, so maybe this will be an impetus for Williams/Fate.

5.  Williams/Fate is sick.  He keeps throwing up.  Is it a reaction to his mother’s death?  Does he have the stomach flu?  Is he sicker than that and doesn’t know it? I don’t really have anything to say about it except that I find it completely unlikely that after throwing up for days, he would have chosen to eat a steak covered with hot salsa. 

5.  Another death occurs early in this part, the magazine’s sportswriter (who we never meet and in fact Fate has never met) dies.   This is another instance of fate – his death means there is no one to cover a boxing match in Santa Teresa Mexico and so the magazine calls Williams/Fate and sends him.  As Fate later realizes, the magazine must not have any reporters in Texas (or Los Angeles?), otherwise why would they think that someone in Detroit was a logical person to send?  On the other hand we’re talking about New Yorkers and their idea of the geography of the United States  ….   so the idea that Detroit isn’t that far from Mexico may not be wholly unlikely. 

Getting Williams/Fate to Mexico sounds a little contrived but it actually worked perfectly in the novel.  Williams/Fate’s world is so upside down (and he is sick)  that being sent to Mexico to cover a boxing match just seems like yet another thing that is happening to him that is a little odd but that he’ll go along with.

6.  Once in Mexico to cover the boxing match, Williams/Fate hooks up with the other sportswriters (both American and Mexican) and learns about the murders in Santa Teresa.  (Actually, while he was passed out in Detroit with the TV on, a story about the murders comes on – yet another hint that fate with a small “f” is at work?)  At the end of this segment he is emailing his editor to ask if he can stay on and do a story about the murders.  The editor say no, there is no budget for that.  But I suspect he will stay.

I quite liked this section so far.  It is the first section that I’ve read that I could imagine reading as a stand alone novella.   It has a nice combination of realism and fatalistic unrealism.  It also, for the first time, is a section in which there seems to be a narrative force.  Of course, I could be wrong and all of this could be leading up to nothing. 

Finally, as we head up to the part that will deal with the murders, I have a real appreciation for how Bolaño has written around them.  All of his characters are living their lives, separate and unaffected directly by the murders.  They are all incredulous when they hear how many women have died and yet they continue on with their own lives.  Towards to the middle of this section, as Williams/Fate drives through Arizona toward the border, he stops at a cafe and listens to a conversation between two other diners.   An old man is having a discussion with a young man about murders and how society can close its eyes to mass murders if those murdered are of outsiders.   He gives the example of hundreds of slaves dying on slaving ships that received no reports in the press of the day, whereas a plantation owner who went crazy and killed his family would be reported on. 

Or look at the French.   During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye.  Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police.  The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner.   How come?  The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were.  What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. 

What people choose to write about and what people choose to read has been an ongoing theme in this novel.  So far no one has chosen to write about the dead women.  In this novel, their story is, so far, only told orally. 

I am reminded of Pelletier in Mexico.  After Norton left and after finding out about all the murdered women, he spent his days in the hotel re-reading Archimbaldo’s novels.   Amalfitano, who seems to be in the process of rejecting the academic world, does not study the geometry book he finds, he hangs it on the clothes line.

Even  Bolaño has written around, not about, the dead women so far.  Very effective, I think.