February 27, 2009

What I'm Reading

I am currently reading 2666, a novel by Roberto Bolaño.

2666 - published in Spanish a year after the Chilean author's death in 2003 - has been translated into English and, since its publication last fall, has become a literary sensation, the current "it" novel.

Minh Tran Huy, reviewing the book for Le Magazine Litteraire (Paris) said that Bolaño "borrows from vaudeville and the campus novel, from noir and pulp, from science fiction, from the bildungsroman, from war novels; the tone of his writing oscillates between humor and total darkness, between the simplicity of a fairy tale and the false neutrality of a police report".

Marcela Valdes, writing in The Nation last December, stated that "all of Bolaño's mature novels scrutinize how writers react to repressive regimes ... [and explore] the relationship between art and infamy, craft and crime, the writer and the totalitarian state."

Valdes notes that a large part of the book is "spun from ghastly news: the murder, since 1993, of more than 430 women and girls in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, particularly in Ciudad Juarez". The area is called Santa Teresa in the novel. Bolaño had been fascinated by the murders for a long time and his relationship with reporter Sergio González Rodríguez (who investigated the crimes, most of which remain unsolved; see also Salon, 2002) is explored at length in her article.

Last fall, I had read some David Foster Wallace fans stating that parts of 2666 were similar to Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest, though I'm not sure exactly in what way. Then some of them set-up a group read for 2666. That, coupled with the insanely positive reviews the book has received -- La Vanguardia called it "not just the great Spanish-language novel of this decade, but one of the cornerstones that define an entire literature" -- nudged me to get the book (though I am well behind the pace of the group read).

I don't read a lot of fiction, but over the last decade, I seem to have had a weakness for novels that are long, literary, and well-hyped. That was how I discovered Infinite Jest (1,079 pages). The following year I was drawn to Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (773) and Don DeLillo's Underworld (827) (which I have autographed by both DeLillo and Andy Pafko!) In 2004, I tried Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (800) -- which, oddly, copied the very distinctive ampersand Pynchon used for M&D -- but gave up after about 150 pages.

Now that I think about it, the attraction to big books may date back much earlier. I recall lugging around a hard cover copy of Moby Dick when I was in fifth grade. I read the thing, too. I cannot imagine what the 10-year-old me got out of it.


allan said...

In her article, Valdes links Bolaño to Melville:

"Bolaño once wrote that in the Americas, all modern fiction springs from two sources: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. The Savage Detectives, with its carousing characters, is Bolaño's novel of friendship and adventure. 2666 chases the white whale. For Bolaño, Melville's novel held the key to writing about "the land of evil"; and like Melville's saga, 2666 can be stunning or soporific, depending on your taste for the slow burn. I've read it three times, and I find it to be dense, brilliant and horrifying, with scattered scenes of cleverness and fun."

laura k said...

You know, if you're really obsessed you'll have to learn Spanish and read it in the original.

Now that I think about it, the attraction to big books may date back much earlier. I recall lugging around a hard cover copy of Moby Dick when I was in fifth grade. I read the thing, too. I cannot imagine what the 10-year-old me got out of it.

Like many great novels, Moby Dick works on many levels. It's a good novel for a smart 5th grader, a smart 8th grader and a university student.

I rarely re-read books, but I've read 1984 three times, in three different times of life, and got different things out of it each time. Ditto for The Grapes of Wrath and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Nice post, thanks.

allan said...

You know, if you're really obsessed you'll have to learn Spanish and read it in the original.

Maybe if/when IJ is translated, I'll take lessons.

Benjamin said...

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is worth sticking with. Besides, it's got footnotes.

Crookedtimber had a seminar/series a few years ago on it, if you find blog-related peer pressure helpful.

allan said...

Besides, it's got footnotes.

That was one of its selling points for me.

Benjamin said...

Forgot the Crookedtimber link.

Unknown said...

Anyone ever tell you that you have great taste in fiction?

Bolano is really great; I read 2666 at the end of last year (I think I finished it on Christmas Eve) and since then have been tearing through his books.

Bolano links himself to Melville in 2666. There's a part where one of the characters is talking to a pharmacist about the pharmacists' favorite novels. The pharmacist says his favorite novels are Kafka's Metamorphosis, Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, and Dickens' The Christmas Carol. Bolano has his character lament:

"He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick. . .A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox. . .even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."

Perhaps that is what attracts you to large books?

Bolano's other big book, The Savage Detectives, is just as incredible as 2666. It's about a pair of dada-ish poets, one of which, Arturo Belano, is pretty clearly a stand in for the author. It's very different from 2666, but there's some thematic and narrative overlap.

How is Mason and Dixon? I've really struggled through the Pynchon I've read. It's all kind of rewarding, but awfully hard work. Like Bolano's pharmacist, I greatly prefer The Crying of Lot 49 to Gravity's Rainbow.

allan said...

How is Mason and Dixon?

I loved it. I also have some low-level attraction to that period of American history also, so that helped. I tried to find information on exactly how they plotted the line re the position of the stars -- it's not explained enough for me in the book -- but never found much to really get it.

I made it through about 2/3 of GR -- and that was with the help of yet another list serve group read and the Weisenberger's Reading Companion.

It takes some time to get used to the writing style in M&D, but it soon becomes a non-issue.


More big books!: I read Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver and got through half of The Confusion, before I got burned out. I liked Cryptonomicon.

allan said...

Amnesty International:

Mexico: Intolerable Killings: 10 years of Abductions and Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua: Summary Report and Appeals Cases
Published: 11 August 2003

This report is a summary of a 70 page report which addresses the inability of the Mexican authorities to treat the cases in the context of a specific pattern and their failure to provide the relatives with a proper response or effective legal remedy. ...


Unknown said...

How far into 2666 are you? Do you have the hardcover, or the 3 volume softcover?

The fourth book, which I think is called "The Part About the Crimes" is pretty wild.

allan said...


Page 185, in the Amalfitano section, right after the Lola/Imma/poet section and she returns.