Thursday, June 10, 2010

The anti-Ulysses: Some thoughts on 2666

Roberto Bolaño. Image (along with a brief bio and good discussion of 2666) from here.

It seems appropriate to me to begin talking about this book by talking briefly about another book. Or, two.

I am early on in my bedtime reading of a very odd book by Adam Thirlwell whose full title is The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes. Also, "Mademoiselle O," a Story by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Adam Thirlwell. Its equally-big subject is translation: from one language to another, of course; but also and more subtly, of a writer's style from one language to another and from one writer to another, both of whom are contemporaries and speak the same language; and, most crucially, of Life-as-experienced into literature. I'm still trying to figure out why Barnes & Noble had this book shelved in the Fiction and Literature section of the store; I confess that it's that lingering question in my mind, as much as anything else, that leads me to call this book "odd." It's not fiction, but it's most definitely not straight criticism, either. It's more like dramatized literary history that doesn't follow a strict chronology but, rather, a kind of analytical interior monologue. Sort of. But, I keep reading: even if I can't tell exactly where we're headed, it's pretty clear to me that Thirlwell knows.

Reading is always something of a faith act, isn't it?

Anyway, the section I'm in at present is one in which Thirlwell is discussing Gustave Flaubert's influence on the style of the first novel of his contemporary, Guy de Maupassant (Maupassant's "The Necklace," often gets credit for being the first modern short story); along the way, Thirwell says this within the context of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and that novel's influence on the novel as an art form:

Form in a novel is a matter of composition, of architecture. It is based on the repetition and variation of specific elements, not the unity of a linear story. This can mean that a novel can dispense with a plot almost entirely, so that Milan Kundera can state, in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that the 'coherence of the whole is created solely [italics are Thirlwell's] by the unity of a few themes (and motifs), which are developed in variations'. In this way, its closest analogue is the composition of a piece of music, which is also a successive presentation of elements, structured on a basis of theme and motif. (57)

Thirlwell's claim about the novel's being able to dispense with a plot "almost entirely" and yet still have a form may seem surprising and perhaps even disturbing to fans of not just Jane Austen but, say, Ulysses, or fans of genre-fiction such as mysteries. But a little thought even about those novels will show that they are ordered or framed not by calendars but by the narrator's (or, in Ulysses, narrators') attentiveness to "the successive presentation of elements" at the point in time that they (and we) happen to find ourselves. In the case of Joyce's novel, not a heck of a lot happens; indeed, one way to think about Leopold Bloom's sections is that he's engaged in keeping something from happening: he deliberately delays his return home to avoid encountering his wife Molly and her singing manager Blazes Boylan, the two of whom he suspects of having a tryst. But in terms of being structured, it's difficult to think of a more obsessively-ordered book. Bloom has not just the above-mentioned preoccupation but several others that shape his movements and thoughts; the same is true of Molly (even though she never leaves the house) and Stephen Dedalus, the novel's third major character. And there's also the novel's most famous ordering structure, which those characters aren't even aware of: the superimposing of episodes and themes from the Odyssey over these characters and their activities, all set in a very real Dublin presented to the reader with meticulous attention to how it actually appeared on June 16, 1904.

2666 is a little longer than Ulysses; its title's significance never emerges in the book but instead lies in another book by Bolaño that one needn't have read beforehand (more about the title later); and most of its action is firmly located in a city that, though fictional, one could map with reasonable completeness. However, as I implied here a while back, it is in many ways Ulysses' opposite. Joyce's novel's difficulties arise, I think, essentially from the fact that most readers are pretty sure they're not catching all that architecture I referred to above. 2066's chief difficulty is that, apart from its attention to the layout of Santa Teresa, it appears to lack any such architecture--especially maddening given the subject that takes up most of the novel's physical space, the mostly-unsolved/unexplained murders of scores of young women in Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is a fictional border town in the Mexican state of Sonora. If it were real, it'd be located near Nogales, but it's pretty clear that Bolaño has Ciudad Juarez in mind as its model--not least of which because, just before the open warfare among the drug gangs there that began a couple of years ago, Juarez experienced the unsolved murders of scores of young women over the course of several years.) As readers, we naturally want justice for these deaths, or at least an explanation for them. Except in a very few instances, none is forthcoming. Meanwhile, for the main characters with whom we spend the most time, the murders either barely rouse their curiosity or they can't seem to get others interested in them.

What in the name of all that is (traditionally-considered) novelistic is going on?

Some speculation below the fold.

2666, for reasons of style as well as its often very grim subject matter, is not easy going. I know/have read of some otherwise very good readers who struggle to see what it's up to, what its point is. I think that one way to approach it is to consider the fact that Bolaño's novel pushes Thirlwell's observation above to its breaking point--or, depending on your tastes, beyond it. And more: the central feature of this novel's textual physics is, well, no center. Santa Teresa has drawn all these people--not just the academics, writers and journalists we spend the most time with but also the murder victims--to itself for all sorts of deliberate and arbitrary reasons and, with very few exceptions, does not allow them to escape. It is a black hole for which we are provided no explanation but to which we are asked to bear witness.

This black hole is Henry Hitchings' image for the novel as well, as he reports in his review (linked to in the picture caption above). He also has this to say about the title:
The novel's cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like "a cemetery in the year 2666". Why this particular date? Perhaps it's because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation.
"Perhaps" is the crucial word here. It's hard to find signs of spiritual redemption in this novel . . . though, of course, any attentive reader of Exodus can tell you that the Israelites had exactly the same trouble, more often than not. There's also that "666" embedded in the number, thus suggesting as well that something ominous is on its way . . . or often, one gets the feeling while reading this bleak novel, has already cast its shadow on this narrative space--and, given its contemporary setting, on us as well.

But what exactly is is that slouches toward this particular Bethlehem? What is the nature of this new Jerusalem? The short answer is, 2666 doesn't say. Consider something I said earlier in this post: That, though a fictional space, Bolaño has provided sufficient details of Santa Teresa's layout and its relation to actual cities in Mexico and the U.S. that if one were so inclined, one could draw a reasonably-accurate map showing the city's major streets, the relative locations of its neighborhoods, and even some major and not-so-major points of interest and businesses. But whereas in Ulysses one can do the same thing because the narrator informs us of all this via Dedalus's and Bloom's movements through Dublin, in 2666 the map becomes possible because the reader is given fairly precise information regarding the location of, it seems, each and every one of the bodies of the murdered women--sometimes, down to the very street addresses. That's a most distressing thing, to be able to map a city not because of where the living reside and how they move about but because of where the dead are found--the city as cemetery. It's even more distressing when, as I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of these unsolved murders were committed in the same way. Someone/Something is at work here, but who/what? And why? We're never told. There's a terrible irony in the fact that, as Kant tells us, we create knowledge out of the connections we make between/among discrete phenomena--that is, we establish patterns--yet those murders which clearly establish a pattern are the ones that go unsolved.

As I was thinking about 2666's lack of a center, I found myself thinking about another bleak reading experience, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Still, as horrifying a read as that novel is, at least McCarthy has judge Holden explain its violence with the mantra "War is god." That is a terrible notion to consider, but it nevertheless gives the reader an anchor in its seas and rivers of bloodshed--and, more importantly, an idea to assess and respond to. In 2666, though, we're not even offered the explanation of the absence of (a) god.

By now you've probably gathered that 2666 is not exactly the feel-good novel of the 21st century's first decade. That may keep you from giving it a try. Or, you may read that Bolaño died before he finished its final draft and assume, as some have, that its sense of lack due to that it isn't in fact as close to being finished as his literary executors claim it is; and that, in combination with the fact that the novel's five sections don't seem to add up to a whole, may keep you away. But I would still encourage you, especially if you've read this far, to try it anyway, keeping in mind that though its sections touch each other, if only tangentially, they aren't in chronological order relative to each other--as just one example, the murders will begin at some point during the novel's opening section; we just won't know when that is because this section opens in Europe: the characters we meet haven't even heard of Santa Teresa, much less know, for some years, that they'll be heading there. Each of its sections has its own plot, but they don't add up to a single plot. It is, in other words, a pretty daring experiment in form and a very odd reading experience in that we're made to feel as though we're truly on our own as we try to make sense of what we're being told. In that sense, this particular novel feels a lot like Life.


R. Sherman said...

I recall your earlier post, and stashed it on my Wishlist, for some future spending spree.

Actually, I'm more interested in the Thurwell book, because you mentioned it, and would relish a review of that. With my German lit background, I've had occasion to ponder translations between English and German and many times have been quite disappointed with the translator's efforts. As you point out, language is one thing; style and "voice" another entirely.

I need to get home to supper, but I'll ponder this some more.


John B. said...

Thanks for coming by, Randall.

Thirlwell's book is worthy of a separate post. Despite its subject, it's very readable, if one is patient--Thirlwell's prose is packed. But it's that packed nature that will make it hard to give an accounting of it in a single post. One example: at one point he spends two full pages on how to translate one sentence from Madame Bovary, because he's simultaneously talking about how to convey style and something of the original's sound and rhythm. But even such examples as that, as detailed as it is, are pretty simple compared to his discussion of style--which is, of course, a kind of translation as well.

I may solve the problem by throwing up a few "Our Story Thus Far"-type posts.

Abraxsas said...

I came across this post while doing a Google search for 2666 in hopes of finding some enlightening summaries of each of the five parts. It struck me as an odd coincidence because I had just finished reading Ulysses before starting 2666. It was a completely random selection of reading material on my part and I was excited to find your comparison of the two. Very interesting!

I'm still making my way through 2666, but it definately has the feel of Italian new-wave cinema, particulary Fellini. Ulysses felt like French new-wave cinema, particularly Jean Luc Goddard.

Similarly to those different film styles, it seems to me that 2666 is about life in the same way that Fellini's films are about life and that Ulysses is more of a satire of life in the same way that Jean Luc Goddard's films are.

Like you were saying, 2666 and Ulysses are lacking in a "center". I feel the same about Italian new-wave and French new-wave cinema, but one feels like you are living someone else's life and the other feels like a fever dream.

Anyway...that's my take on the two. This was the first post of yours that I've read. I'm looking forward to reading more.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind comments.

It's been a while since I looked at it, but I seem to recall that Wikipedia's entry on 2666 has a decent summary of each section.

As for your comparisons of each novel to different genres of film, I'm not sure I can usefully comment on that, though from what I've seen of Fellini, I'm intrigued by that comparison you make. It also makes me wonder how one might translate this novel's contrapuntal structure to film (I've spent the past ten minutes of so pondering that: the screen divided, one section per vignette, but synced to a single, common time, such that each vignette would be running at the same time? The sections as separate vignettes, shown one at a time, as the novel presents them?)

Anyway, thanks again for the visit.