2666: A Novel
2666: A Novel
Roberto Bolano
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
898 pp., $30.00

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Reviewed by Phil Christman

The Imagination of Man's Heart

A novel that belongs in the company of Infinite Jest, Ulysses, and War and Peace.

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"Formless" is a word that (perhaps not surprisingly) often recurs in discussions of Bolaño. Like its predecessors Distant Star and The Savage Detectives, 2666 has already been greeted with this epithet, and the novel even seems to prepare its own defense with its praise of "great, imperfect, torrential works." But, as fans of Captain Beefheart or Robert Altman already know, powerful visions of formlessness arise paradoxically from the artist's persistent, minute, persnickety attention to form, and 2666 is likewise held together by its massive theme and by several repeated motifs, as well as by the unmistakable Bolaño sentence: endless, digressive, leading to stories within stories within stories (which often mirror each other, bringing us back again to Borges), but with a rhythm that feels identifiable and, after a while, unifying in the very predictability with which it continually diverges. His style has been called "dreamlike," but it resembles much more nearly that point in an interminable late night out when everything begins to feel arbitrary, surreal, and sinister, when the world starts to feel like an old French movie slipped loose from its soundtrack. Here is Amalfitano, the hapless would-be hero of the novel's second section, who has (for reasons unclear to himself) hung an obscure book of poetry entitled the Testamentageometrico from his clothesline:

At that same moment the Santa Teresa police found the body of another teenage girl, half buried in a vacant lot in one of the neighborhoods on the edge of the city, and a strong wind from the west hurled itself against the slope of the mountains to the east, raising dust and a litter of newspaper and cardboard on its way through Santa Teresa, moving the clothes that Rosa had hung in the backyard, as if the wind, young and energetic in its brief life, were trying on Amalfitano's shirts and pants and slipping into his daughter's underpants and reading a few pages of the Testamentogemoetrico to see whether there was anything in it that might be of use, anything that might explain the strange landscape of streets and houses through which it was galloping, or that would explain it to itself as wind.

This sentence is, itself, not a bad description of the Bolaño sentence in general—rippling through cities, books, and women's underwear alike (there is quite a bit of eroticism in his work), searching for an explanation of its own urge to mean.

Early in 2666, there's an exchange between two of the Archimboldians and Amalfitano, about the latter's exiled condition:

"Exile must be a terrible thing," said Norton sympathetically.
"Actually," said Amalfitano, "now I see it as a natural movement, something that, in its way, helps to abolish fate, or what is generally thought of as fate."
"But exile," said Pelletier, "is full of inconveniences, of skips and breaks that essentially keep recurring and interfere with anything you try to do that's important."
"That's just what I mean by abolishing fate," said Amalfitano.

And toward the end of the novel a character describes the necessary "immaturity" of good art. Remarks like these form a sort of running self-explanation on Bolaño part. Storytelling that avoids destructiveness will, he suggests, have skips and breaks that interfere.

That Bolaño tackles all this is impressive. That he does so in a way that grips the heart is astonishing, and lands this book on the same shelf as Infinite Jest or Ulysses or War and Peace, books that have nothing in common except that they lived down their early reputation for formlessness. In this massive meditation on the evils of the 20th century, we have the first indisputably great novel of the 21st.

Phil Christman is a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina.

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