If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may fiiiiiiiiiiiind"
So the writer Robert Bolano was a heroin addict and he got hepatitis and they said he was going to die soon unless he could get a liver transplant.
"It's over," the doctor said. "You shouldn't have done all that fucking smack."
"Do I have time to write any more poems?"
"Why are you asking me? I'm only a doctor."
"How about novels?"
"Everybody likes novels."
"I think I want to be a homicide detective. To do some good in the world."
"You can't do that. You have to study for that."
"Then I think I'm gonna write detective novels for the money."
He sat around and squeezed a stress ball. But then he didn't have any ideas. He watched Robert Rodriguez movies. He watched David Lynch movies.
Well, he had ONE idea. It was the book he wrote in his head whenever he was taking a shower. He wanted to write a detective novel about an ex-Nazi turned Nobel-prize winning expatriate novelist who travels to Mexico to hunt a privileged psychopath: a serial killer insulated from the law by money and power. The psycho kills young factory girls by abducting them in a black sedan, anally raping them, torturing them, and biting off one nipple as his signature mark. Then he leaves the bodies -- bodies chock-full of ignored forensic evidence -- all around town, flaunting his wealth and privilege to keep the town pacified and to make sure the People know their place.
The Mexican authorities lock up the BAD-ASS EX-NAZI WRITER'S nephew because his nephew is a German-American without friends, so the writer must travel to Mexico to get revenge -- revenge Nazi-style -- and to find the real killer. The bad-ass Nazi writer is seven feet tall, and it doesn't even matter that he's eighty-years-old and about to die of liver failure. With the help of his jive-talking sidekick -- a reporter for a Harlem magazine called "Black Dawn" who throws a mean uppercut -- and with the help of a psychic local university professor and a teenage police recruit who is sick and tired of the way things are done, the German novelist will flip Mexico upside down until he gets justice, or until there's nothing left.
He wrote a few pages of this book (tentatively titled: "HAMBURGER") and he sighed.
"No one wants to read that. People will accuse me of self-indulgence. I'll write everything BUT that. People will love it if I write everything BUT that. As long as you write everything BUT that, you are writing literature. I want to write literature; I want to be remembered and revered. I want--"
So that's what this book is. It's 900 pages of everything but that.
There are five parts. Bolano was going to publish the five parts as separate novels for some reason, but I think this was some kind of misguided publicity stunt. The parts barely work when they are all together. In no way do they each stand alone. In no way.
PART ONE: "The Part About the Critics." This part is all back-story about how amazing the German writer is and how great his books are. They are so great that they consume the lives of four academics from four different countries, three men and one woman. The woman is a frosty Brit, and the French and Spanish academics fall in love with her, resulting in a wacky love triangle. The section ends when the frosty British lady instead chooses the legless, sensitive Italian academic. Unless you read this section as Milan Kundera parody, this section doesn't offer much. There are several scenes that explore the place of art in the lives of Europeans without personalities or dreams who live as parasites on the nightmares of moody Scandinavians and drug-addicted colonials. It is flattering to critics if you are a critic. It makes critics seem like they have interesting lives and that they are doing something important. There's one chapter that is merely a list of how often certain words appear in a given phone conversation. One time, the academics beat the shit out of a sexist cab driver and do not know why they do this. Luckily, "The Part about the Critics" is short. You come away knowing that the German writer is AMAZING. He is so AMAZING that one of the academics sits around reading his books OVER AND OVER AGAIN, with his tongue literally hanging out his face. AMAZING, JUST AMAZING: the German writer has fiction superpowers! Also he is freakishly tall and mysterious, like a Gothic castle.
PART TWO: "The Part about Amilfitano." This part is about a university professor who goes crazy in Santa Teresa, a lawless Mexican border town. The professor begins hearing the voice of his dead father (pretending to be his grandfather) who gives him advice about how to keep his daughter from being murdered by the Town Murderer. This part is also short, thank God. There's this whole thing about a geometry book hanging on a clothesline and about the professor drawing circuit diagrams of intellectuals to understand the twentieth century. At this point, I saw how many pages were left and then I read a few reviews, and I wondered: WHY THE FUCK DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS BOOK SO GODDAMN MUCH; WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE. Know this: so far, there is a German writer superhero, and there is a town where there are so many murders happening that it is turning the local intellectuals schizophrenic. Fine.
PART THREE: "The Part about Fate." Now see, this part is just silly. But thankfully, it is well-written and engrossing throughout, and there is a consistent narrative that tells some kind of story. A reporter from Harlem who writes under the pseudonym "Oscar Fate" interviews an old Black Panther who now writes cookbooks, and then travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match between a black guy and a Mexican. Everybody is sure the Mexican will win, but the black guy takes him out in two rounds. The reporter, being black, now faces some animosity, which leads to him ending up at a dangerous drug party full of "choices." He makes some choices, and then gets interested in the Santa Teresa murders, culminating in an interview with the man the police have arrested, a tall German-American who swears he is innocent. This whole section sets up...
PART FOUR: "The Part about the Murders." Basically, this is the book right here. Everything else is strange wrapping paper that ought to have been edited down, tossed, or punched into something else. This part is straight-up, literary history. I've only read a few things more unsettling, and what makes this section even more awful is that much of it is based on a true murder problem in the city of Juarez. Here, Bolano gets deep into the Santa Teresa murders, or at least the remains. He chronicles every woman murdered in the city for three years: her name, how she died, what she was wearing, where the body was found, and what happened to the case. Most of the cases get shelved or go unsolved. There are consistent patterns. Nipple biting. A black sedan. Most of the women are between twelve and twenty. Most of them work at the factories for which the town is famous and that cause the town to have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. A tall German-American suspect is caught on a hunch and locked up in prison, but the murders continue. The Santa Teresa justice system is looked at from every angle: courts, police, prisons, drug dealers, informants, whores, American emissaries. There's this scene in prison where a gang of youths is castrated and killed by the prisoners while the guards take pictures. The gang is executed because they have raped and murdered a rich man's daughter, highlighting the fact that since Mexico doesn't have a death penalty, it has a bristling revenge business. Reading this section, I had to put the book down several times to massage my temples. I felt dread, despair, and anger. I felt like Satan was fucking a hole in the planet called Santa Teresa, and when he whipped his dick out and came all over the Earth, some of the hot drips of magma flew out of the pages of this book and burned me right in my eyes. I wanted there to be some kind of solution or salvation. At a certain point in this section, the criminal underworld reveals the identity of the murderer and a press conference is called, but no one cares.
Is there no one to put an end to this madness, or at least give this madness a name? Is there anyone up to the task?
PART FIVE: "The Part about Archimboldi." This is a biographical journey of the EX-NAZI BADASS GERMAN WRITER from birth to old age. The usual stuff happens. He falls in love, he goes from obscurity to success, he seduces the girl next door. He strangles a war criminal to death for his atrocities against Jews, showing that he is a good German with real strength of character, not one of those weekend Germans who merely drinks dark beer, cries about deforestation, and eats pretzels with mustard. The novel ends with Archimboldi traveling to Mexico to help get his estranged nephew out of jail, a nephew who has been framed for the Santa Teresa murders. A tall German-American.
We know enough about Archimboldi to know that something DEVASTATING will happen once he gets there, once this writer superhero meets the palpable manifestation of the evil that he has been exploring his whole life.
But then the book ends. The book ends where another writer would begin it.
It could be said that 2666 itself is how the writer-superhero would address these crimes, but that would make the book some kind of backhanded journalism, wouldn't it, and not a novel. This is a book which analyzes the modern condition through the lens of serial killing, atrocity, fucking, literature, and Mexico, using that movie "From Dusk Till Dawn" as both running poetic conceit and catalyst. It's definitely not high art, although I read it in translation, so who knows? As a stylist, Bolano is somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut and a newspaper. "The Part about the Murders" is shocking and great. The way he weaves together plots and counterplots in this section is intense and terrifying, like some kind of Bach fugue of pain, futility, frailty, ignorance, and pork tacos. But it is only good because you think it is going somewhere, and when it doesn't, it's kind of cheap and dyspeptic.
At least seven times in the book, I was stunned by how dumb the rest of the plots were: how neatly they got wrapped up, and how much they seemed to be satires of plots instead of representations of actual human events. It was hard to take the characters seriously when they were making such ludicrous decisions while simultaneously being so goddamn moody and self-centered. The love triangle at the beginning is just stupid. Oscar Fate rolling into town and kicking some ass to rescue the professor's daughter is just stupid. The cliche of the good Wehrmacht soldier is just stupid. The psychic saint with her own talkshow is just stupid. But the thing is, these things wouldn't have been stupid if they were rolled into a story with a sense of grander narrative; with a sense of pacing, timing, forward momentum, and, yes, grittiness and asperity. Everything doesn't have to be so smooth and detached, does it? So much like a ghost story? Is everything a joke?
Is murder real or is it simply a cool thing to write novels about?
I liked parts of this book a great deal. About 400 pages of this book are really fantastic. Unfortunately, there are more than 400 pages here, which makes the book hard for me to recommend, given that life is short, and that there are countless better books out there in the world that offer much more and deliver on their promises. I am glad this book was written. Maybe somebody will do something about all those murders in Juarez now. But if people are still reading this book in 553 years, I think they are going to be just as disappointed when they finally turn the last page as I was. It's a bad feeling simultaneously to want the book to keep going and to be glad it is over because you are exhausted.
Maybe that is how it feels to die from liver disease.
Note: The hardback edition of this book is fucking beautiful. Charlotte Strick is credited with the jacket design. If she isn't a freelancer, she deserves a raise over at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This whole book is exceptionally well-made. It smells good, too.
Posted by miracle on Sat, 24 Jan 2009 21:57:10 -0500 -- permanent link