Thursday, May 6, 2010

Reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño – The End

And so I come to the end of the Group Read of Robert Bolaño’s very long novel, 2666. I’ve been thinking of how I can describe how I feel about it.

A long time ago I went to a special exhibition, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, of the paintings of Max Beckmann. Beckmann is generally classified as an expressionist. SLAM has the largest public collection of Beckmann paintings in the world, probably because Beckmann taught art here at Washington University during the last years of his life. They were exhibiting the works they owned and, I believe, other works lent for the exhibition.

Three of us went to see the exhibition: me, my long time friend Leslie and my sister CB. Leslie is one of those people who has a natural eye for art. Her dad was a professional photographer and Leslie always had the ability to notice and appreciate small details in art that eluded me. She really enjoyed the exhibition and I was glad to have her along because she pointed out things to me that I might not have noticed on my own. My sister, CB, on the other hand did not enjoy it. We found her, at the end of the galleries, sitting on a bench in the center of the room with her eyes closed. “This gave me a headache,” she announced. “Can we please get out of here.”

I could understand how the art gave her a headache. It was harshly colored and portrayed ugly people doing ugly things. I sympathized with her. It didn’t give me a headache but I was more than willing to leave. Leslie thought the art was great. Me? I was glad I could appreciate it better because of Leslie’s insights but on the whole I didn’t care if I ever saw it again. It wasn’t my style. I didn’t regret seeing it, though, because I had learned about it and I had learned I didn’t like it and I could put it behind me. Walking out of the museum that day I found that I was in the minority. The people leaving seemed to fall into either Leslie or CB’s camp. They loved it or hated it.

I’ve never intentionally gone into the Beckmann galleries at SLAM again.

It seems to me that the reactions to 2666 are similar to our three reactions to the Beckmann exhibition. For a lot of people, it seems to have given them a metaphorical headache. During the group read I saw people talking about how many people just couldn’t take it, especially the Part About the Crimes. Some of the people who started reading with the group dropped out. Others proclaimed that this novel “rocked my world”.

Me? Like the Beckmann exhibition, which I don’t think I would have gotten much out of without Leslie, I’m glad I read it while others were reading and discussing it. I don’t regret reading it because I learned that, whatever style or genre this is, I don’t like it. I don’t see what the others who love it see in it. There was nothing in it that gave me a headache that made me want to run from it. But I don’t need to read anything like it again.

Before I began reading 2666, I didn’t want to know anything about it. I like to come to novels without a lot of preconceived notions. I don’t like spoilers. The only thing I knew about it was that it had won an award and it had something to do with the murders of a lot of women in Mexico. Now that I’ve finished it, I decided to go read what the critics had to say about it.

The reviews that I find are uniformly good. A “masterpiece”; “complete, achieved and satisfying”, “a difficult novel to shake off”. Most of the time they admit that it was unfinished when Bolaño died. The other day I read that a sixth part was found among Bolaño’s papers. If that is true then I don’t see how anyone can really definitively interpret this novel as it was published. Because to interpret it as it is now would require you to say that Bolaño intended there to be no “real” ending. Perhaps that’s true or perhaps the new Part Six will show otherwise.

What I find very odd, however, is that almost none of the critics say what I think is obvious about this novel. It’s a mess. This is novel written by someone who died before it was finished and it really needed the author to have lived through the editing process. That didn’t happen and it shows. I really can’t take reviews seriously that don’t even mention this. Obviously the critics think this novel works despite the mess. Or maybe it works because of the mess. Maybe they are right; maybe they are wrong. But I don’t see how you review this novel without stating the obvious mess that it is.

Of course, Bolaño himself didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for the critics he created as characters for his novel. So I see no reason why I should defer to the real critics. This is an unfinished novel and it shows.

Perhaps I should have started with a different Bolaño novel, but I started with this one. I intensely disliked the way he wrote women (although I should say that in the last section he creates a wonderful woman character in Lotte). I was bored by all the diversions into side stories. I didn’t like his verbose style which pervaded every section except The Part About the Crimes which was my favorite section. He never made me care what happened to the characters. No, not a single character. I gave up thinking that the novel was going to “go” anywhere and by the last section was reconciled that he had no intention of letting anything really be wrapped up or come together. Throughout the read I watched the other readers who were carefully documenting lists of the deaths and other details – as thought it would all be relevant at some point. I wondered if it would all come together at the end and I would want to go back and see how the puzzle fit together. But by the last section I knew that wasn’t going to happen. It was like Bolaño threw a bunch of puzzle pieces in a box but they weren’t necessarily all to the same puzzle so you were never going to be able to see the picture.

The darkness of the story did not bother me. The seeming pointlessness of it did. And what really bothered me about it was … I never thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. It just did not grab me intellectually. I think that’s why I was never even tempted to try to go participate in any of the discussions about it. I just didn’t see the point in spending a lot of time trying to figure it out.

So now it’s over and I will put it behind me. I wonder if I will think about it again.