Thursday, February 25, 2010

Notes on Bolaño, 2666, and "The Part about the Crimes"

I read Roberto Bolaño's enormous 2666 over the last two weeks, finishing the other night. It's an incredible read. The other Bolaño books I've read are, in order, The Savage Detectives, By Night in Chile, Amulet, and Last Evenings on Earth. I'd say 2666 stands with the very short By Night in Chile as the best of these. I'd say further, among many other attributes, that both novels offer nice examples of viable political fiction, contrary to certain claims.

Backing up a bit: It's been difficult to avoid the Bolaño hype in recent years. The blog buzz was fairly deafening well in advance of the English translation of The Savage Detectives. For some readers, the appearance of that book likely marked the beginning of their awareness of the hype, but for me, wary of the hype itself, perhaps the main thing moving Bolaño onto my personal radar—as a writer I expected I would read, that is—was the fact that his shorter works were all being published by the excellent New Directions. My attention was elsewhere at the time, but my intention was to read some of these before tackling The Savage Detectives. But events dictated otherwise: a friend left her paperback at our house, and since I was between books, I picked it up and read. I was not immediately overwhelmed. I had great difficulty with the opening section of the novel—the diary of the 17 year-old poet Juan Garcia Madero, with all the tedium and exaggerated sexual exploits and so on: I was bored and was not looking forward to plowing my way through it, nor returning to that voice in the final section. But the middle section was something else. Here, with the testimony from many different characters who at one time or another knew our elusive poets, the Bolaño stand-in Arturo Belano and his partner Ulises Lima, there was much to like, plenty to love. Ultimately, though I wasn't quite convinced of Bolaño's genius, I saw enough there to continue reading. (Even looking back at the bookended diary extracts, I can see that that voice, like so many of the others, is expertly performed. I just didn't enjoy having him around, at least at that time.)

Then 2666 appeared and the hype was simply overwhelming. I still wanted to read the short stuff, but before doing so, I succumbed: I asked for and received the heavy hardcover of 2666 for Christmas 2008. Occasionally in 2009, I'd pull it down from the shelf and wonder why I didn't ask for the paperback. When was I going to want to be hauling this guy back and forth on the train? And my heart sank a bit as I'd read the not-very-exciting opening page of "The Part about the Critics", wondering if I'd ever get through this book. But then I read By Night In Chile, and I was impressed. I read Amulet, which is somewhat odder, a bit fantastic, a bit political, the novel fleshed out from one of the accounts in The Savage Detectives; I more or less enjoyed it. Then came Last Evenings on Earth, stories, some quite nice...

Ok, ok, so why this personal history with Bolaño? It occurs to me that there are numerous routes to any author, and Bolaño, with all of the misleading hype, can be difficult to read amidst it all. It can be tempting to dismiss an author with all of the attending noise. If your first awareness of Bolaño came with, say, a New York Times or New Yorker review of The Savage Detectives—perhaps you don't have any prior knowledge of New Directions—and you pick up that book and read it, and have more or less the experience that I did, or perhaps you liked it even less. Might not the urge to dismiss be strong? We have so much to read and selection is necessary and aren't we already subject to enough overrated writing?, isn't it true that the establishment controls enough as it is?, isn't Bolaño being pushed a bit too heavily? Maybe. But it happens that hype is fairly random and uncontrollable and sometimes the establishment favors something good, if perhaps for the wrong reasons (and anyway, hasn't it long been, um, established, that anything can be, and is, commodified?)—on this last point, take a look again at Edmond Caldwell's essay on James Wood's review. Caldwell's essay serves as both a brilliant critique, in political and literary terms—quite the same thing here—of Wood's characteristic domestication of Bolaño, as well as an invigorating interpretation of the novel, again, in political and literary terms.

Which, in fact, brings me back to 2666. As noted, as time wore on, I was rather dreading this novel, its size, the unpromising opening, and, especially, the notorious fourth book, "The Part about the Crimes". I heard so much griping about this portion of the novel—page after page, 300 pages, we were told, of flat, graphic police reports of dead women, most of whom were raped and tortured and then tossed aside like so much garbage. We were told variously that it was a bad joke, a tedious experiment, that it was offensive, that it's a big "fuck you" to the readers, that it was unreadable, indefensible, etc, etc and so on. I felt I was going to need to brace myself, if I ever bothered to start. But then two weeks ago I was unexpectedly home for a week (snow), and I picked it up and began reading.

I'm not planning to review the novel properly, or to write in any great detail about it—this post is already long enough, and I'm not really up for it—but I will offer some thoughts, in particular about that fourth part (I'm sorry to say I won't be providing any passages from the novel; with this book, I just read, taking no notes). Though I'd obviously been able to glean some details about the book over the several months since it appeared, in general I managed to avoid reading most reviews. Having now finished, I have gone back and read only Waggish's quartet of posts (1, 2, 3, 4). In addition, it happened that Adam Roberts was reading 2666 at the same time I was and posting his thoughts in a quintet of posts at The Valve, one for each of the novel's parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5; actually, each post is a fairly detailed synopsis of the part under discussion, so I'm going to direct you there for the summaries, though I don't always agree with Adam's perspective); his posts elicited the usual combination of excellent, helpful comments and not-so-helpful comments (as well as several characteristically lengthy and impertinent comments from one reader in particular). I thought Adam had some interesting things to say about the novel, but I find I generally agree with Waggish's take. I, too, found the first book, "The Part about the Critics" comparatively boring. It wasn't bad—there are some amusing bits about academia, to be sure; the critics of the title are experts on a German writer named Archimboldi and attend various conferences and ultimately try to find their hero—but it turned out to be easily the least good part of the novel. The second, "The Part about Amalfitano", which follows a minor character from the end of the first part, was much better. "The Part about Fate" was a bit meandering, and I agree with Adam Roberts that it really picks up about fifty pages from the end, the momentum leading us right into the much-dreaded "Part about the Crimes". After which we come to "The Part about Archimboldi", which in part tells us the story of the writer who was the focus of the critics in book one. This part has some stunning writing, including some fascinating meta stuff about writing, but I admit that my attention flagged on occasion, in part, I think, because more than once, all of a sudden the story comes to a halt and we embark on another biographical sketch, from the beginning. This fifth book resolves virtually none of the major story elements raised in the other four.

But I want to talk, finally, about "The Part about the Crimes". Adam calls it "a thoroughly grueling read", "a horrible read", "monotonously intense and repetitive": "It is unpleasant to read; it must have been deeply unpleasant to write." He is not alone, and of course this is exactly what I feared, but it turns out that I strenuously disagree. I disagree, but I nevertheless think Adam's on to something when he wonders whether the repetitiveness "isn’t designed to say something about men":
The point is not just that they so often relate to women only in terms of sexualized aggression and hostility; but more precisely that there is something mechanical, a structuring monotonous repetition, about that violence. Men are like jack-hammers, banging away over and over and over (banging in a sexual sense; banging in a discursive sense—banging, in this man’s novel at this point, in a textual sense); and it is women who find themselves underneath the hammerhead. This vision, that the world is always and everywhere horribly the same dominates the section, and justifies its experimental form.
He notes that there are some passages that challenge this idea, but they are overwhelmed by "the masculine vision that everything is everywhere remorselessly the same; and that sameness is the repetitive monotony of male sexual violence, of hatred and suffering inflicted and death." I'll take this up in a moment. First I want to say that I agree with Waggish, and some of Adam's commenters, that this section is the key to the book. I also found it an incredibly powerful, and politically resonant, reading experience. I see an example of fiction's willingness to not look away, and yet this is not violence porn: the violence is not narrated, only reported forensically. And the traditional order of the detective novel is undermined, as no satisfactory resolution is found. Some other features that stood out for me: we are given several glimpses of some of the lives of the women, and it is invariably in the context of seeking work and the promise of a better life; nearly all of the women were employees of maquiladoras (the real-life murders are also known as the "maquiladora murders"); the period of time begins just prior to the implementation of NAFTA and runs throughout its first decade; maquiladora officials are completely indifferent, and cruel towards family members, in the manner consistent with faceless corporate managers—these women are workers, women in the workplace; at one point it is explicitly observed that these were workers. We hear from a few feminist organizations, large and small, publicly decrying the ongoing violence, outraged at the inability of the police to stop it.

In what way, then, does this resonate for me, beyond the brilliant piece of writing I believe it to be? I naturally don't know precisely what Bolaño intended, and I'm not convinced it matters, but as I was reading this book I had firmly in mind Maria Mies' Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale. If we link what Adam says about what "The Part about the Crimes" could appear to be saying about men with the kind of argument Mies makes in her book, I think something very interesting emerges, which I will only briefly discuss here. Among the many important points Mies makes is that periods of modernization and proletarianization are always accompanied by increased violence against women, as men in general seek to maintain some semblance of control in the drastically changing political and economic landscape, some power at home as relative power is reduced outside it. (For example, she discusses at length increases in rape and dowry murders during the modernization process in India since the late 1960s.) She describes various production relations, each "based on violence and coercion" in which "we can observe an interplay between men (fathers, brothers, husbands, pimps, sons), the patriarchal family, the state and capitalist enterprises." Of course, Bolaño does not pedantically mention NAFTA or American hegemony. And some might say I'm taking liberties. Perhaps, perhaps. But I think that, to the extent that art is politically resonant, it allows us to think not only in those terms only laid out in the text, and it provides us with unforeseen opportunities in which to do so. I would like to suggest that, in refusing to look away, in brilliantly structuring this part the way he did, at least one thing Bolaño accomplished is he provided a powerful aesthetic experience which allows us see what doesn't get seen in the push to progress, to structure the overwhelming and repetitive violence immanent in such processes, to finally bear witness to its unfolding.

1 comment:

David Auerbach said...

I know I'm a bit late but I just wanted to say I agree completely with what you said here (far more elegantly and concisely than I expressed my own opinions). People have been so vague in their effusive praise of Bolano it's great to see such a careful examination.