Tuesday, 3 February 2009

2666 - The Part About The Crimes

Ow. It's starting to hurt now. The fourth part of the journey is almost as long as the three before it put together and from the first sentence it is clear things aren't going to be pleasant (well, the title is another clue, obviously)

The girl's body turned up in a vacant lot in Colonia Las Flores. She was dressed in a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a yellow knee-length skirt, a size too big.

In Santa Teresa (standing in for the real-life town of Ciudad Juarez) the bodies of women and young girls are found with alarming frequency, broken and abandoned in the desert. Is it the work of a serial killer or killers? What we have here is a police procedural. With forensic detail and over almost 300 pages we 'meet' the many victims, with the repetitive, monotonous prose of police bureaucracy. The clinical delivery of these macabre findings has a numbing effect, much like the boring detail contained within American Psycho, so that they soon become less and less shocking and, worryingly, more and more acceptable. There are many characters to get a handle on (but with Bolaño you never know on meeting someone whether they will be significant or never heard from again) including one of the detectives assigned first to a case involving a man they call 'the Penitent', wanted after desecrating a church and then murdering a priest. The diagnosis of Elvira Campos, director of the asylum, is sacrophobia ('fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion') which links back to the discussion about the end of the sacred from part three. Whilst she reels off a list of phobias she alights on one which is significant I think to the novel as a whole.

...Or gynophobia, which is fear of women, and naturally afflicts only men. Very widespread in Mexico, although it manifests itself in different ways. Isn't that a slight exaggeration? Not a bit: almost all Mexican men are afraid of women. I don't know what to say to that, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

He will go on to show his own fear when a relationship develops between the two of them but always on her terms (much like the ménage in part one)

The list of phobias isn't the only time I found my eyes wanting to skim a little. The back story of a TV seer, La Santa, doesn't add much to a character who raves on TV about the killings without furthering our knowledge of them. Similarly, the lineage of a young boy who becomes a cop was a bit like trawling through the 'and so-and-so begat so-and-so' pages of the Old Testament. Bolaño is known for subverting convention and it is a strange experience to read a crime thriller which isn't thrilling and which leaves you no clearer as to who the killer(s) might be. This refusal to play by the rules is fine as long as you intend to replace what should be there with something else. It's just that at the moment I'm not quite sure what that thing is. This 'undercutting' which I have mentioned before happens again when a female Governor whose friend has gone missing in Santa Teresa finally brings some passion to the proceedings, only to have them negated by the private detective she has hired.

Do you mean you think Kelly is dead? I shouted. More or less, he said without losing his composure in the slightest. What do you mean, more or less? I shouted. For fuck's sake, you're either dead or you're not! In Mexico a person can be more or less dead, he answered very seriously. I stared at him, wanting to hit him. What a cold detached man he was. No, I said, almost hissing, no one can be more or less dead, in Mexico or anywhere else in the world. Stop talking like a tour guide. Either my friend is alive, which means I want you to find her, or my friend is dead, which means I want the people who killed her. Loya smiled. What are you laughing at? I asked him. The tour guide part was funny, he said.

I'm not sure what I'm searching for in this book, but I'm beginning to worry that despite still having over 250 pages to go I may never find it.


Trevor 3 February 2009 at 14:41  

Can't wait for your final thoughts!

William Rycroft 3 February 2009 at 20:47  

I'm looking forward to finding out what I think about it too!

justynbatchelor 7 September 2010 at 20:05  

Part 4

I thought that reading about the numerous murders with horrific descriptions was a kind of test to emphasise the macabre fascination of the human species. When you had enough you could skip to the end or if your that way inclined read it all over again.

I skipped to the end and there are just more murders, the frequency is not desensitizing it becomes a rant.

Hopefully by the end there will something incredible to justify the idea that 2666 is a masterpiece.

William Rycroft 7 September 2010 at 23:48  

I wish that I could offer you some words of comfort Justyn. Please come back when you've completed the journey...

declanwhite 30 June 2012 at 19:45  

I didn't find anything harrowing about Baloney's 2666.

The shortcoming of his book is the lack of analysis of any sort. He throws the paint everywhere.

Does he ever pause for thought? Slapdash. It's like that film Thunderball, where they're all in a mad race.

What's difficult to read is the personal stories of people from war, like individual accounts from WWII. I got nothing graphic from the Crime section of Bolano. He's never vivid, never sad, never poignantly funny. There's no suspense; no gear shifting. A full, senseless speed all the way.

He drives a souped up tank shelling off an unending round. I never got that writer. Extremely boring.

Fair play with all the work you put into your blog. Very well organized - and all the reading you do! I don't know where you get the motivation. You obviously take pleasure in it for its own sake.

William Rycroft 1 July 2012 at 08:14  

Not quite sure how to take your final comment Declan! I certainly enjoy reading, and hope to be able to find something of merit in even the books that turn out to be disappointing reads (if only the ability to realise what it was about it exactly that disappointed). I firmly believe that reading is itself a skill and one that I've been working to get better at over the years.

I can sense your frustration with this novel (my own is well documented in the various reviews I wrote on its parts) and wonder if it's something to do with the manner in which it was written and rushed into publication as he approached his death. Could that perhaps explain the 'full, senseless speed' that reminded you of that film (I presume you mean The Cannonball Run rather than the Bond film Thunderball)?

I think Bolano is certainly vivid, sad, funny and other things in parts of his writing. I found much to admire in The Savage Detectives for example. But I have never managed to rustle up as much enthusiasm for him as some sections of the literati.

Thanks for the comment Declan.

declanwhite 1 July 2012 at 12:01  

I agree about reading, a challenge, just like life, to give the emotionally open response, in the case of a book, the aspect of life being reacted to, the expressions of another mind.

I think it's a skill that can be overplayed, though. People make it sound like a science or an art. But I think you can learn as much, in the emotional things, as your personality will allow.

But I take your point. Reading is great. I came across a review site recently, you may or may not know of, great site: www.theomnivore.co.uk - Adam Mars Jones, I think he's an excellent reviewer. His lengthy essay on Martin Amis's latest, really Amis a writer generally - that's a good one.

declanwhite 1 July 2012 at 13:50  

I think my final reaction to Bolano is that he squanders the best effects that words and sentences can have by being so trigger-happy. I think he's a spendthrift.

He has a bowl of words and a blank page and he thinks: confetti, confetti, CONFETTI CONFETTI.

I'd like to see how Henry James would contrive his critical reaction to him. He finds so well the mind and disposition of the writer in the writing. He's able to take the heart out of the books he read, takes it in his hands and says: 'and here is the heart'.

It doesn't make me like Balzac. I think you understand someone because you like them; whereas James seems to think you can like them if only you understand them - as he does. That's too ambitious.

I like how James likes Balzac. I still don't like Balzac!

I'm clearly not the man to appreciate Bolano. I admit my limitations. But he'd want to have some very fine points indeed, because his flaws are writ very large. He tries the patience of the intelligent reader and - is there a profound or sophisticated sentence in all his writing?? I mean, 2666 - that's the only thing of his I've read. I read a page or two of Savage Detectives and then my mind blew the whistle. I would've had more respect for my referee if he sounded long before the end of 2666.

declanwhite 1 July 2012 at 16:22  

One thing I think about Bonano is that, when I was reading him, I kept thinking 'he'll start writing high-class literature as we know it on the next page' - 'alright, he'll start on the next page' - 'no no, stick with it, he'll start writing on the next page' - 'it's more than just a thriller, the journalists were enthusiastic, there has to be something in him, FIND IT, or it's your fault'.

Do not many people have an experience like this reading Bolano?

I should leave off criticizing him. Any negative analysis, however justifiable, is self-defeating just by being negative. We are all at our best when we love. Celebration has meaning; denigration has none.

He's a mixed bag, at best. No matter which way you turn his literary stone in the light, a lot of it is common mineral.

There'd have to be a huge masterpiece of a critical upheavel to raise it all to a precios stone status.

It's not Bolano I've a problem with. He did his best and has his fans.

It's those self-appointed critics who wrote him into law, so the rest of us have to get up off our chairs and throw thousands of cabbages at the legislation. It should never have been enacted. That's my gripe. :-D

declanwhite 1 July 2012 at 17:55  

I can go one word better than Hemingway himself with a 5 word story:

'For free: Britannica Encycopaedia, unread'.

I don't agree with that six word story idea. It doesn't do anything. It's like saying a picture can be made of one line or you can play a song on the piano with one key.

It's a load of nonsense. Those six words by Hemingway are rubbish. Anyone who gets sad at that story's a fool.

William Rycroft 1 July 2012 at 22:33  

Thats quite a lot to respond to Declan! Thanks for such enthusiastic comments, much appreciated; I like some provocation.


I have come across The Omnivore and certainly Adam Mars-Jones who is, as you say, a fabulous critic. He's a pretty decent writer of his own fiction too; I've only read The Waters of Thirst but head over here for excellent reviews of his recent novels and an interview.

As for Bolano, I have tried. I have read five of his books now and my favourite is still the first of those (The Savage Detectives). I still have no idea why the critics are so in love with him. I have read cleverer, more inventive, more audacious, more touching, hell - just plain better South American fiction and yet his entire back catalogue is receiving lots of attention and adulation. The one I haven't read and which many people like is By Night In Chile. Maybe I will one day. But I'm in no rush.

As for the six word stories; they are just a bit of fun naturally but having a go at writing one does go to show how hard it is to condense much of a story at all into so few words. That's why I'll stand behind Hemingway's effort because it does contain a whole story, not in the words themselves but in what those words mean to the reader when they read them, the gap the reader fills in and the sensation of working out what those few words really mean. Going back to our earlier comments about the act of reading itself, those six words are a perfect example of the way in which the reader completes the writing. I'm not surprised that Hemingway wondered if it might have been his best work. That kind of economy is much harder than it looks.

declanwhite 1 July 2012 at 23:34  

I think Hemingway could've only meant that as his best work with tongue in cheek or as a modest reference to his fiction, or a sense of modesty about how fiction or art is all hyped up anyway.

I don't know how you can take six word stories seriously.

The meaning, the gap, the sensation you refer to. The only reaction I have is a very mild, fleeting sensation of a shop window and a newspaper-story kind of sadness. But that feeling is already helped along by over-reverential feelings that I know this is a trumped-up idea about six word stories from a master writer.

I don't think six word stories are hard or not hard to do. I don't think they're good stories. I take Hemingway's paltry six words as an example of that.

Artsy people are in a fever to over-emote. There should be a tablet for that.

Thanks for the Mars interview link. I'm a Cadbury's man myself, but I'll have a look now. His waffles have a good flavour!

Thanks for your reply; I enjoyed reading it, though I was surprised by your defence of six word stories at the end. If you've more thoughts on that, and you think it might be worthwhile sending them my way, I'd read with interest.

William Rycroft 4 July 2012 at 08:43  

Hemingway as you say probably didn't mean it was actually his best work, modesty about his work in general might be a factor although he wasn't much given to modesty as I understand. I don't think he meant nothing by it though. His story is probably the only one I've read that actually works. Most of the rest aren't even stories, let alone good ones. And nearly every one that I've read apes his in its structure.

Another writer could waffle and emote for page after page about the impact of infant mortality on a couple, indeed there are entire novels devoted to the subject, and yet Hemingway's story cuts through all of that, gets to the essence without really writing anything 'about' it and leaves the reader to do the rest of the work. If it doesn't chime with the reader then its never going to have a great impact. That's why reading is always an intensely personal experience. There can sometimes be consensus about good or great writing but in the end we all experience the same words differently.

The one contribution to my little project that bucked the trend was Wesley Robins artwork but I guess that's because the old cliche holds true: a picture paints...

declanwhite 5 July 2012 at 15:56  

Hi William,

What I think Hemingway meant about it being his best work was a way of poking fun at how all writing is over-praised, as if there's more life in writing than life itself.

It's like a good sentence from Mars Jones large review of Amis's new novel - extending to an overview of all Amis's novels and writing - I don't remember the quote exactly but it's something along the lines of writers think words are the most important thing in the world.

I wasn't saying Hemingway was modest about his writing compared to other writing, or modest about the quality of his writing; more that he was modest about the place of writing in the scheme of things, in life itself.

In that sense, it was very well said, to say that's his best writing, that six word story. In the scheme of things, Farewell to Arms is not much more important than a silly six word story (I don't wish to offend, I know you don't think it's silly).

I have been aware, it certainly is a problem, that other six word stories don't match up to Hemingway's one. The point I want to make against that, I first want to insist, for my own sake, that I don't think those six words are a good story. They don't move me or make me think. But conceding for a moment that it is a good, thoughtful creation...

Then, the fact that most other six word stories are poor imitations of Hemingway's tells me the six word story is not a worthwhile type of expression, as worthwhile things flourish and are doable. The six word story is clearly not.

What if there were lots of successful six word stories? People being provoked to think or be moved by little collections of six word stories...but there aren't and can't be.

Writers don't go around distilling creative impulses into meaningful batches of six words. They don't channel into things in that way. It's clearly not a useful type of expression.

And as the hand fits the glove, at the receiving end of the writing game, where the readers are waiting with open minds, it is likewise, people generally don't respond to an isolated, self-enclosed world conveyed through six words. Sorry if that's vague. I can work on that a bit better but the sun is shining :-D

The reader doing the work of what the rich six words have implied. I don't think the reader does any work with those six words. What work?

If those six words release an energy in you, or in any reader, such that it's quite a creation, you might - or it behoves you - to be able to explain your reaction, like Freud explains how a dream is compressed and full of meaning.

Sincerely and thanks for reading,

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