Sunday, May 31, 2009

2666: The Part About the Critics

I can identify with Claire of Kiss a Cloud on dreams. I don't usually have nightmares, but one book, following a three-hour reading marathon, did have me waking up the next day going WTF was that??? What exactly transpired in the nightmare inspired by Dan Simmons's The Terror eludes my memory, but I remember it as more violent than disturbing. "Disturbing" is definitely what characterizes the dream sequences in the first book of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, "The Part About the Critics." Claire says her own nightmares arose from a Stephen King phase and that she has since sworn off horror novels and movies. As someone who does read and watch horror (and I do recommend The Terror, by the way, because Dan Simmons is a serious genius), I found that statement funny! 2666 is shaping up to be by far one of the most disquieting books I have ever read.

Although I had planned on reading 2666 eventually, I was inspired to do so now by a challenge I had read about on the Nonsuch Book blog in which participants were to cover one book of 2666 per month. It is being hosted by Claire and Steph of Steph and Tony Investigate! and will run until September. They have both laid out a series of questions for other readers to think about.

From Claire:

How effectively did you click with Bolaño's writing? Did you feel it was overly descriptive?

I loved his writing style! I didn't think it was overly descriptive at all. It felt very immediate, if that makes any sense.

Do you believe Archimboldi is real or a pseudonym? Could he be Mrs. Bubis?

No, I definitely think he's real, although just what he is, I have no idea. Is he human? An idea? Or something . . . metaphysical? The plot of 2666 is so vague and I'm not far into it yet, so I really have no idea what could end up happening.

How do you see the development of the critics' friendship and their involvement among one another?

That part was rather odd. Steph wrote that she was uneasy about what she perceived to be Bolaño's sexism - like Liz Norton simply functioned as the recipient of the male critics' sexual release. And it bugged me right from the start that her personality is described as less ambitious and more emotionally-driven. But the four critics - Norton, her lovers Pelletier and Espinoza, and the Italian Morini - never come across as well-developed characters with distinct personalities, which I think Bolaño did deliberately. The violence they commit, the sexuality they display, and their collective obsession with Archimboldi are what compose them as human beings. Like Steph, I believe there was some irony intended here - kind of a satire on sexism, base instinct, and the "progressive" academic.

Do you think that Pelletier and Espinoza's violent act towards the taxi driver is a foreshadow of things to come?

Possibly. It demonstrated what the two of them are capable of. Of course, it's not like the taxi driver was entirely innocent. You can't verbally assault a strange woman in the presence of two men she has a relationship with and not expect to get your ass kicked. But the violence sure was excessive. Afterwords Pelletier and Espinoza wondered if their actions had expressed a subconscious xenophobia (the taxi driver was Pakistani). Again, I wonder if that was more satire directed at the caricature (beloved of conservatives) of the oh-so-liberal professor.

What sort of feelings did the dreams evoke in you? Were you able to catch all the symbolisms?

Symbolism? Nah, I just though the dreams were really cool and creepy. Especially Norton's nightmare involving the two mirrors in her hotel room. Whoa!

Did the ending answer some of your questions? Do you feel that this can be a standalone novel or not?

If this had been a stand-alone novel, it would have felt very incomplete. So they're still in that depressing city in the desert? And - ?

How eager or how hesitant are you to move on to the next books?

VERY eager! Where is it going? What does it all mean???

From Steph:

Did you feel this section could stand alone as its own published work?

Again, no.

What did you like best about this section? What did you like least?

I liked the overall creepiness and suspense. I actually can't think of anything I didn't like!

Any surprises for you as a reader thus far?

I had no idea what to expect from 2666. Judging from the cover art, I knew it was going to be intense. So I guess it matches my expectations so far.

Hazard a guess and tell me what you think Bolaño’s getting at in Part One.

There was so much madness and violence and general unrest going on beneath the surface. It feels like something is simmering. When you juxtapose those dark elements alongside all the talk of art and literature, it definitely feels like Bolaño is making a statement on the relationship between creation and destruction. Salman Rushdie explored similar themes, albeit in a very different manner, in his 2003 novel Fury. (Henry Miller tackled this as well in The Tropic of Cancer, but I can't stand that guy.) In Rushdie's words (also quoted in my Miller post):
Life is fury. . . Fury – sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal – drives us to our finest heights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover. The Furies pursue us; Shiva dances his furious dance to create and also to destroy. But never mind about gods! . . .This is what we are, what we civilize ourselves to disguise – the terrifying human animal in us, the exalted, transcendent, self-destructive, untrammeled lord of creation. We raise each other to the heights of joy. We tear each other limb from fucking limb.
How have you responded to Bolaño’s take on sexuality and violence? Do you feel the cab scene was an isolated incident or does it foreshadow things to come?

I think he links sex and violence as twin/dual aspects of human passion. The two can build one one another or one can inspire the other.

Can anyone make sense of the numerous dream sequences for me?

Nope. Sorry.

Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen is currently reading 2666 in its original Spanish. In my initial post about Claire and Steph's challenge, he left a comment wondering how the "direct rawness of [Bolaño's] Spanish prose will appear in translation." Unfortunately, despite my penchant for international literature, I remain sadly monolingual, so I really can't compare the Spanish Bolaño wrote in to the English I am reading him in. But Larry's right in that there is a real rawness to 2666, and I don't think it is entirely a result of the prose. The subject matter is also very visceral: there's the destructive nature of human passion (be it love, sex, or art - all acts of creation - or the violence arising from them) laid out in full force alongside the haunting images found in the darkest dreams and a background mystery involving hundreds of murdered women in a dusty Mexican border town. A painter cuts off his hand for the sake of his work and goes insane. Four literary critics are so obsessed with a reclusive German writer that they will travel halfway around the world for him like some lovesick hero in a bombastic romance novel. Although there clearly is a plot (at least, to "The Part About the Critics"; I don't know about the rest), the story still feels rather vague and meandering. So far 2666 is shaping up to be a novel of ideas and sensations, and I love it. And onward!

Update: Check out this great post on "The Part About the Critics" from Gavin of Page247, another read-along participant. She picks up on a few things I hadn’t considered, such as the critics’ isolation in their own little tower of academia with its conferences and scholarly quarrels, and how violence and madness still seep in through the fortress walls.


Steph said...

Wonderful wrap-up of Part One! I love how everyone focuses on slightly different aspects of what we've read so far, and I really feel like I'm getting so much more out of it by reading everyone's thoughts.

I agree that 2666 does have something raw about it. The prose does feel polished, but there is still a very rough/brash vibe to all of it. As you said, the material is quite visceral and passionate, but I think there is something to be said about Bolaño's voice as well.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed this first part (I think everyone did, which is great!), and can't wait to hear your thoughts on Part Two. Also, I've updated my original wrap-up post to include a link to this post.

claire said...

Wonderful post! I do know what you mean by his writing feeling immediate. I sensed that, too, as well as the rawness of it. I'm glad to hear there was nothing you didn't like about it (me, too). :D

I agree with Steph: reading everyone's thoughts has given me more insights, and this really helps in leading me along the rest of the story.

Both Liz's mirror dream and Morini's pool dream depict Liz two ways: as a good, scared Liz and an evil, scary Liz. Is King that hilarious? Lol! I was in high school then, and the early part of college. Currently, the only King I own is The Eyes of the Dragon which I absolutely love. (Is Drood as scary as The Terror?)

I'm so glad you're enjoying this! Looking forward to the next part!!

Anonymous said...

Great review! I definitely agree that something is "simmering," as you put it. That's such a great way to explain it. I felt like that as well, that things were just waiting to boil over.

Great job! Looking forward to what you have to say about the second part! :)

Richard said...

Hi E.L. Fay!

I'm reading this with you as part of the read-along and just wanted to compliment you on a very interesting review. Although I agree with you on many of your observations, I actually felt like I had a grasp on what Espinoza and Pelletier wre all about--that they were in fact "distinct personalities" to me. Norton and Morini, on the other hand, remain ciphers to me (which is totally OK at this point). Anyway, glad you're participating in this with the rest of us and I look forward to reading your upcoming posts on the later installments. Cheers!

E. L. Fay said...

Grrrrr. I've been so bad about responding!

Steph: Thanks! Glad to hear everyone's enjoying it!

Claire: Haven't read Drood yet, although I really want to. But if King scared you, The Terror will truly freeze your soul.

Rumination: Thanks! I'll be sure to check out your review!

Richard: Cool! Your blog's bilingual! I know someone else who's read 2666 in Spanish as well. God, I wish I could!

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