Monday, July 27, 2009

2666: The Part About Fate

"I don't know how to explain it. More alive than an apartment building, for example. Much more alive. Don't be shocked by what I'm about to say, but it looks like a woman who's been hacked to pieces. Who's been hacked to pieces but is still alive. And the prisoners are living inside this woman."

I remember there was one reader who wasn't crazy about "The Part About Amalfitano," the last book of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 we covered in the read-along. Steph felt that "Amalfitano" was thematically disjointed, as well as out of sync with "The Part About the Critics" (which preceded it). Overall, she said, "I didn't really get much out of it." I disagreed, having enjoyed both the intellectual puzzles and the general weirdness of it all. But after finishing "The Part About Fate" I find myself with the same basic reaction: that I just didn't get much out of it. Not saying I hated it - in fact, it was very good reading - but for some reason, it just didn't click with me. Ironically, in a Chilean-Mexican novel with an international cast of characters, "Fate" was the first book to feature an American: a cynical black journalist named Quincy "Fate" Williams, who, still mourning the recent death of his mother, has arrived in Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match only to find himself embroiled in something far bigger. Along the way, Bolaño continues to develop the themes of art, madness, and violence, while adding onto the interlocking mysteries of the reclusive German writer Archimboldi and the dead women of Santa Theresa, Mexico.

"The Part About the Fate" is definitely closer to "The Critics" in that it's very plot-driven, whereas "Amalfitano" was more of a meditation on art and madness. Like both, "Fate" is also pervaded with an overall sense of dust, desert, poverty (economic and spiritual), and violence (physical and psychological). There is obviously some force building up, as there was throughout 2666, but what it is and what it's building up to is unclear. We know only that it has something to do with both Archimoldi and the hundreds of women murdered in and around Santa Theresa. Bolaño is (was) a skilled storyteller. The moods he evokes are subtle, with a menacing atmosphere that never comes across as too forced or self-evident. We know we are moving ominously forward; yet, there is a feeling of stagnancy, like the oppressive heat of high noon in the desert sun. The characters interact as ordinary (if slightly disturbed) people, while a train is running off the tracks somewhere in the background and barreling towards them and will smash them, and they just can't hear it, or they detect it but only in a subliminal sort of way. If that makes any sense.

"The Part About the Critics" dealt with a crazy artist who cut off his hand and attached it to his masterwork, in addition to two mild-mannered university professors suddenly going berserk and start whaling on an obnoxious cab driver. "The Part About Amalfitano" had crazy (or telepathic) Amalfitano, the crazy poet in the nuthouse, and Marco Antonio Guerra ("fucking apocalyptic mayhem"). In "The Part About Fate" there is violence as a horrendous series of unsolved crimes (the women), the drug-fueled and dissolute underworld (of Rosa and her friends), and sport (boxing). So clearly, violence is becoming more overt at the same time that Bolaño is exploring its different manifestations in art, athletics, love, hate, literature, and insanity. When is violence ever legitimate or at least accepted? Bolaño seems to be asking. Boxing is two men beating the hell out of each other before sportswriters and cheering onlookers. Creative geniuses are almost expected to be a little bit "off," so is self-dismemberment really so shocking when it comes from a famous artist? And what about the mass slaughter of hundreds of poor, marginalized, ethnic women in one city over the course of a decade? Does anyone care? Is that "acceptable" violence just like boxing and creative eccentricity?

So I can see what Bolaño was getting at with "The Part About Fate." The book definitely fit with the previous two books, especially with the reappearance of Rosa and Amalfitano. So . . . where did it go wrong with me? Well, maybe not "go wrong," but why didn't I like it as much as the other two books? Steph was able to articulate clearly why she disliked "The Part About Amalfitano," but I'm afraid I can't manage anything more than "it had a lot about boxing and I hate sports; plus, that Seaman speech went on for way too long about nothing that had to do with the rest of the story." Simplistic, I know. And, as was the case with Night Train to Lisbon, "The Part About Fate" deserves a much better analysis. If Bolaño had lived, I'm sure a good editor would have helped. I think that may have been the problem: editing. Did anyone really get anything out of Seaman? Do you think he took up too much room? I can't wait to read what the rest of you wrote. I wonder if I'll be alone or not!

(Interestingly enough, I'm told that the few negative reviewers of 2666 seemed to think "The Part About Fate" was the only part worth reading!)

Also check out:
"The Part About the Critics"
"The Part About Amalfitano"

Click here for a list of all the participants in the read-along.


Richard said...

I won't try and persuade you otherwise, E.L., but I loved the Seaman character both for his speech itself (esp. the way it manipulated literary "time") and for his Melville-esque overtones as a messenger (the calm before the storm before Fate journeys down to Santa Teresa). I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this section as much as the earlier parts, but you bring up a lot of interesting questions in your I'm glad you found it worthwhile in some regards. Later!

Eileen said...

After reading what everyone else has written, I think I've gotten too stuck on the themes I've already written about. 2666 is such a multilayered book, I feel I'm not doing it justice.

Emily said...

Oh man, I loved Seaman. But I can understand your reactions. Actually I just read Frances's review, which spurred a lot of connections for me about that character that I hadn't really considered before. I think there really is a reason for Seaman's inclusion (probably several). Alluding to the Panthers, along with Fate's job on a "magazine for brothers," helps to conjure this vision of being African-American in mid-century America. After reading Frances's review, I think Fate's voice is also reminiscent of characters from that era, like Ellison's Invisible Man and Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas. To tie this together with your thoughts, maybe we're being reminded of mid-century African-Americans because they share a severely marginalized position in society with the poor women of Santa Teresa? It's certainly true that, in the mid-20th century in the US, black folks were viewed as expendable and their deaths went uninvestigated by white detectives (I'm thinking in particular of Tuskeegee). And yet we see Fate's editor perpetuating the same kind of racism when he forbids Fate to stay and cover the murders, solely because none of the victims have been black. I think it's all such an interesting meditation on (lack of) justice.

Thanks for the blog recommendation, by the way! I'll definitely check that out.

Frances said...

Please look again because I thought you would love this section. It is my favorite so far. Love Richard's insights into the cultural and historical references in his post, and his suggestion that the Seaman speech is remarkable for its craftsmanship and the intimacy it invites with the reader. And Emily's insightful look into marginalized characters. And your thoughts/focus on the building, menacing violence. Where are we headed, friends?

Eileen said...

Emily: I got that from Frances's great review too. I think she's right - there's definitely a theme of social justice in 2666, in addition to its international scope.

Frances: As of Sunday afternoon, I am almost through "The Part About the Crimes." And I still have no idea where it's headed!

Anonymous said...

I felt the same way about this section as you did. I finally got all my thoughts down, but I don't really feel like I was able to grasp why I was disappointed either. I don't even know if disappointed is the right word. I think I was completely engrossed by the other two sections, and I read this one counting pages until the end. I don't know how to explain it! I think maybe I just didn't like this style of Bolaño's as much as I did the other ones? Oh well! I might give it another shot before I move on to the next section.

claire said...

I'm sorry you didn't like this as much as the first two parts, but you raised some really interesting points. I'm not articulate enough and love that Richard, Emily, and Frances have all written about how I felt about this section. I really loved it, and is in fact my favourite so far.

I like boxing, but don't like other sports much. But whether it was about boxing or something else wouldn't have mattered to me, as the boxing served only as backdrop and not a highlight.

I really loved the part on Seaman, especially his speech, and wish nothing changed in this section, in fact the whole book. So far.

I love how you describe Bolaño's storytelling: "The moods he evokes are subtle, with a menacing atmosphere that never comes across as too forced or self-evident."

@parridhlantern said...

In my review of the book as a whole, i used the tale of 3 blind kids attempting to describe an elephant, based on their having touched seperate parts.I think with Bolano's work as a whole he's more into questions than statements of fact, that & I think he'd have loved the idea of critics attempting to decipher his every fart lol.

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