I started reading Robert Bolaño’s formidable novel 2666 last month, and I’m sure it’ll take me another month to get through it. I don’t read nearly as much as I should, which sometimes makes long novels a pain in the ass to get through. But not this novel. I’m savoring every minute of it.
There are slumps. The book is divided into five sections of varying length, adding up to an intimidating 913 pages. The throw-the-reader-against-the-wall part, the part that most agents and writing workshops tell the young writer to open with, doesn’t come around until almost the second half of the book, and when it does, it’s crafted in such a way to not as much throw you up against a wall, but to numb you with what feels like an almost endless parade of dry accounts of young women raped and killed in the most brutal ways imaginable.
There are several ways into these murders, which do form the heart of the story, but don’t feel like it at first, given the almost unnecessarily long tangential arcs various characters take to get to them. Sometimes the postmortems are 10 pages long, sometimes they’re 50 pages or more. The names and circumstances float by as if on a bloody river, presenting the reader with almost inverted sense of literary conflict. You want murders? Here are four dozen of them. And we never see them happen. Like the residents of the northern Mexican city around which they occur, we happen upon the scene with the unfortunate souls who discover the bodies, followed almost immediately by bored investigators.
There are a number of things I adore about Boleño’s prose. He’s easily within driving distance of other postmodern lights like DeLillo and Pynchon with run-on sentences and pages-long paragraphs. The narration jumps like a nervous mosquito from one set of characters to another, often without warning, and usually in the same breath. As with Wallace’s infinite Infinite Jest, there are plenty of treasures along the way to keep even the most restless reader from wandering, from the quippy (“Next they made their way through all the formalities and red tape of a Swiss lunatic asylum.”) to the profound (“As he waited by the highway for three trucks to go by on their way from Santa Theresa to Arizona, he remembered what he said to the cashier. I’m American. Why didn’t I say I was African American? Because I’m in a foreign country? But can I really consider myself to be in a foreign country when I could go walking back to my own country right now if I wanted, and it wouldn’t even take very long? Does this mean that in some places I’m American and in some places I’m African American and other places, by logical extension, I’m nobody?”).
There’s so much to love in this book. I’m barely halfway through, and in this case at least, I don’t mind that it takes me so long to slog through a novel. I indent to make it go as slowly as possible.