I'm guilty. I admit it. Not only do I judge books by their covers on a daily basis I judge people by what they read. All the time. (Potential boyfriends beware: If you've got a shelf full of David Sedaris...well, we can still be friends.) I'm a snob. It's true. I believe wholeheartedly that if a person is going to read they should read literature or philosophy or poetry, and I embrace my bookishness 100 percent. This, of course, means it's hard to find a new book to read. I need something tried and true. Something international. Something with a Nobel Prize attached to its author perhaps.
I probably miss out on a lot of really good reading because of this attitude, I know. But there are a few people I trust when it comes to reading. In fact, I trust them so much that when they both--and these two friends don't know one another--began to rave about Roberto Bolaño's 2666 I decided to give it a shot, sight unseen.
Imagine my surprise when my book showed up (I couldn't find a copy locally) in the mail weighing in at nearly 3 pounds and 900 pages (that's not my copy pictured, but the fancy pants three part first edition that I kind of wish I'd bought instead of my used British hardbound edition)! But again, this was about trust so I jumped right in and though I can barely hold the damn thing in my skinny little arms I also can't put it down and you should definitely pick it up.
So, for the next five Tuesdays my gift to you, is a review of each of the books five parts. That way you can either be inspired to hoist a copy of your own onto the old bookshelf or, if 900 pages is a bit much, just live vicariously through my reading. Ready, set, here we go:
The Part About the Critics
With a lucid introduction of how his characters came to discover the work of Benno von Archimboldi at the outset of 2666, Roberto Bolaño jumps straight into the intellect of his four critics and of his readers who are forced to think about their own passion for the written word. From the very first sentence Bolaño challenges his readers to finish his epic tome.
The tale begins with four Archimboldi scholars who first meet one another and set off to find their beloved muse. That the scholars, Liz Norton, Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza and Piero Moroni, know nothing about the life of the author Bolaño leaves his own readers in a further state of darkness, giving only the titles of Archimboldi's work, never offering a hint as to what drives the four characters to him.
On might assume, upon seeing the heft of 2666, that Bolaño weighs his readers down in descriptions of the most minute detail. He both does and doesn't. We know nothing of his characters' pasts except what is directly important to their immediate present. What a character looks like, for example, is a detail that has no relevance to their actions and therefore ignored completely. How many times a certain word is used in a conversation, however, is of the utmost importance. "The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times..."
Through this abstract discussion of a telephone conversation Bolaño gives his reader a strong sense of what is said without recounting the entire conversation, allowing the reader to imagine what the emotional discussion sounded like.
It is only his descriptions of characters' dreams that Bolaño's descriptions become overtly visual. "All she saw was an empty wheelchair and behind it an enormous, impenetrable forest, so dark green it was almost black, which it took her a while to recognize as Hyde Park. When she opened her eyes, the gaze of the woman in the mirror and her own gaze intersected at some indeterminate point in the room. The woman's eyes were just like her eyes."
These dreams, haunting, disturbing and, for character and reader alike, becoming nightmarish because of their near lucidity are the only internal understanding Bolaño gives of his characters but they are so real, so familiar and yet so surreal they force a distance from a group of people who remain, at all times, strangers.
When Bolaño, who passed away before the release of 2666, realized that he would not live much longer he instructed his publisher to release the book in five parts so as to better take care of his family financially. His literary executor and family, however, released the book as Bolaño had originally conceived it. Though The Part About the Critics is a nearly complete novella it is also, inherently, the beginning of a larger story in which the four Archimboldi experts can easily fall to the side as an inconsequential piece of the entire puzzle.