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Bemusings

Well I must say I’m a bit at a loss with this book so far. It’s pleasant enough reading—the tone, particularly, which I guess I would call “warmly distant”—but I don’t really have any idea yet why I’m reading. Things just sort of happen (when they happen), and as a reader I feel kind of like I’m just floating along in an undifferentiated sea of…stuff. I don’t come to the book with too many expectations, but given the places I’ve seen it praised and recommended, I had thought it would be more stylistically striking. Instead, it reads like a mash-up of If on a winter’s night a traveler and Life: A User’s Manual, but without the metaliterary verve or great heart.

Which certainly all sounds like I dislike the book, but that isn’t true. I’m enjoying it. I just don’t know what to do with it. But I wonder whether that isn’t the point. I note (like Madame Psychosis) that this first section is called “The Part About the Critics,” and that, whatever its lacks, there are all kinds of readings to pry out of it. So I’m going to suggest that maybe this part is written the way it is on purpose, that it’s intentionally depriving the reader of the things we might usually expect (plot, character, style, etc.) in order to put us in the critical stance, trying to mine every rift for ore. That the Part About the Critics is the part where we learn how to be the kind of critic the book demands. (I’m assuming things change.) Since we don’t really have any of the features we’re used to orienting ourselves in a text with, we have to pick up stones here to pile up a cairn and carve markers in a tree trunk there to find our way. It’s certainly been fun so far seeing the different routes that the readers in this group read have started to pick out for themselves, and in the back of my mind I feel a tiny smirking presence of the author waiting to see how we end up building our own traps for later on…

I also want to make a quick mention of probably my favorite bit so far: the Swabian’s retelling of the Frisian lady’s story. For one thing, I’m a sucker for hypodiegesis (and for the word itself). For another, though, that’s perhaps the only time in reading this first portion that I’ve felt like something was stylistically at stake, with the four-page sentence. The episode was good enough in a number of ways that I expect to be surprised later on by how much the book drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore.

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  1. January 26, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    I very much agree that the first part of the book feels kind of floaty and basically purposeless. It’s pleasant enough, but what’s all the hoopla about? (The Savage Detectives, by the way, felt much the same to me, though it’s a bit grittier than 2666 is here at the beginning. I didn’t finish the shorter book but did finish this one and am back for more. So there is definitely a pay-off. I most enjoyed the last section but am really looking forward to seeing what new things a reread exposes to me about how the parts of the book work together.

    I wonder: Is it useful to think about this first part of the book as something of a picaresque?

  2. January 27, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    I can see that there could be some utility in thinking about this part as a picaresque. What’s still funny to me is how driftless a picaresque it would make. I’m not super familiar with the genre (mostly because, as far as I know, I’m not very interested in it), but compare to Huck Finn. On the one hand: Dress in drag; narrowly escape death in a gunfight; get run out of town with two charlatans; and unlearn racism. On the other hand: Go to a literary conference; go to another literary conference; go to still another literary conference; have sex; read a list of recipe names to a bum.

    • January 28, 2010 at 8:57 am

      That’s hilarious, Jeff. More does begin to happen to the characters as the book moves forward (though not a whole lot more, if I recall correctly). The degree to which it’s useful to think about this as a picaresque may change as we go on.

  3. January 28, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    1) I also love the word “hypodiegesis.” Sadly, this is the first time I have ever read it, and before I can use it impressively in a sentence, I need to know what it means. Google has failed me, and I can only guess at the precise meaning from the context. Toss a guy a bone with the definition?

    2) As for the kind of purposeless feeling of this first part, I have two interpretations. First of all (as I’ve commented on other threads), I’m beginning to wonder if this section refers to the opening epigraph, and if the endless stream of academic conferences by essentially interchangeable characters isn’t the “desert of boredom.” [On the theme of boredom, I’m still looking forward to The Pale King, as I understand it treats boredom very differently.] I also think it’s becoming increasingly clear as the section unfolds that Bolano [still having trouble with that damn tilde] is poking (gentle) fun at the critics, and calling into question the value of what they do. The bit with the publisher’s widow (a character sketched far more vividly in her brief appearance) lends credence to this, I think.

  4. January 28, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    Isn’t it great, Dan? It just means storytelling inside a story, but it sounds so elegant. I love it.

    I think you’re certainly right about the section poking fun at the critics. Of course, then I don’t know how well that squares with what I said in the post, which I also think… (Mrs. Bubis does have a pretty great cameo, you’re right.)

    I’m also very much looking forward to The Pale King. I was at a reading of DFW’s, hmm…while Oblivion was in hardback, and he read an excerpt of The Long Thing that has since been published (I think in Harper’s, possibly under the title “The Compliance Department”), about the baby in the office. Hilarious.

    But all the talk I’ve seen about boredom as the book’s theme reminds me of something a music-history professor of mine once said. He said he only half-jokingly had a theory of boredom, well illustrated by Carmen. Parts of that opera are insufferably boring, he said, but that’s on purpose, to give the less-respectful audiences of the time an opportunity to have the conversations they were going to have anyway, only without interrupting any of the good stuff. But even more importantly, it’s to allow some relief from constant stimulation. His contention was that constant interest desensitizes an audience, so you have to lull them back into sensitization by way of contrast—by adding boring parts. Doesn’t seem like it could possibly be as controversial a position as he presented it as: who doesn’t know about beats, and writerly rhythm? But it’s stuck with me.

  5. February 2, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks Jeff, both for the post, which I ‘m totally on board with, and hypodiegesis my new favorite word (I hope to use it in one of my future posts for 2666.

    As I was reading the beginning of your post, my exact thought process was: I agree totally with what you’re saying, but I like the book. Of course then you go on to say that you like it too, so phew, there. But yes, it so very much feels like nothing is happening, and I’m not even entirely sure I like any of the critics, and yet I’m totally hooked by the story. I almost said by the writing, but even the writing isn’t that knock-your-socks off. It must just be the tone, it’s very inviting…all the details that don’t really lead you anywhere, but flesh out the piece so much that you’re practically in the room with them.

    I’m assuming the style of the Serbian’s story will come back later in the book (I’ve read a few of his short stories and they seem very multi-page-sentence-y. And who doesn’t love that?

    • February 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm

      I think you’re right, Paul—through the first week’s reading, it was mostly the tone that kept me interested. (Well, that and good old-fashioned curiosity.) There were occasional passages where the writing really grabbed me (the “quadrangular sky” looking like “the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness,” p. 9, was delightfully weird), but mostly the narration was just so genial that I couldn’t help playing along.

      And now that we’ve finished week two’s reading, I desperately want to know more about Edwin Johns and El Cerdo, so I’m hooked in more traditional ways too, now.

  6. terrywson
    February 3, 2010 at 10:55 am

    First, realizing that we’ve moved on from week one, I’m hoping that people are still looking at the old posts. Post from the group reading are scattered about on different blogs, so its difficult to keep up with them all. Thought that the comments here were some of the more interesting, so I thought I would join in this discussion.

    This is my second read of 2666. I was reading it last year about this time. The first time, I read it straight through without trying to determine the reason for all the reference to other authors, artists, etc. I’d already read everything else of Bolano’s [you know, it’s just too much trouble to worry about that damn tilde] that had been translated at the time. I knew I liked his writing style already from his previous books. He’s a very quirky writer. His stories are far from being traditional. They don’t necessarily take you to any meaningful end where the loose ends in the plot get neatly tied in a pretty package. With Bolano, the point is in all the twists and turns and rabbit trials along the path, but most particularly in the style and the tone of his writing.

    Having said all that, I find that in reading 2666 through a second time, Bolano seems to be up to something much more important in The Part about the Critics. While he is introducing the reader to the characters, he isn’t a writer who explains much. His style is to reveal what’s important about the character by what the character does, even if that’s sometimes enigmatic. So stick with what he’s doing in the first part and the dividend will come later (to a certain extent; much like life).

    While it may feel as if not much is happening in the first part, I think this is because there is so very much happening beneath the plot. Through the use of his references to other real writers and artists, the precious few details we learn about Archimboldi, and the locales, Bolano is revealing the themes that he will explore throughout the remainder of the novel, which happen to be the big themes of the 20th century. In reflecting on this, 2666 is Bolano’s retrospective on the 20th century, as well as his own life. Most of those references in the first section point to events and philosophies that Bolano believes were the most significant in shaping the 20 century. Of course, based on all the dismissal of literary criticism in this part, I could be all wrong, and Bolano’s having a good laugh about us trying to dissect his book.

    • February 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks for the overview, Terry (and for checking us out here at IZ!). I figured something like that must be going on; the book could hardly be as acclaimed as it is if the first 150-ish pages could just be completely excised. But I’m excited now to keep an eye out for thematic echoes of the Part About the Critics throughout the rest of the book. Your mention of Bolaño’s use of real artists as a revelation of theme makes me think Daryl may be on to more than we realize. Which means [sigh] I’m going to have to think about Duchamp some more.

      • February 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm

        Jeff, there’s more on Duchamp later too, though I think it’s mostly oblique, and one possible tie-in (the possible real-life artist Edwin Johns corresponds to) was brought to my attention just today over at bolanobolano.

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