Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Reader’s Rehab: Bolano's 2666

Ex-English Major Syndrome can be broken into two components:


Symptoms: Inability to clearly recall the plot, setting or characters of a book read as recently as a week ago; confusion of plot, setting or characters with another book; omission of plot elements or characters.


Symptoms: Inability to commit to a given book for more than half its length; sudden conviction that one should be reading something else entirely, right now; perpetual guilt for being unread in the Russian formalists, the new critics, the new historicists, the deconstructionists, Proust, Joyce, Tolstoy, Bellow; Cervantes; preoccupation with the physical act of reading; literary amnesia.

I majored in reading. I store my books in three separate shelving units. If there’s one constant in my 25 years, it’s a book by my bed. So it feels strange to realize that, in the past few years, I feel like I’ve only really read a half-dozen or so books.

Accredit it to any number of excuses. I work. Sometimes I work out. I’m supposed to wedge a social life in there, right? But when it comes down to it, I do my most significant reading on the toilet, before bed or during my lunch break – times when there’s nothing better to do.

Am I just lazy, or is there some deeper trauma? In order to find out, I resumed a book that stopped me cold a year ago: Roberto Bolano’s 2666.

I chose Bolano’s posthumous opus in hopes it would serve as a truth serum: do I read because I’m conditioned to read, or because I love to read?

2666 was a publishing event. By the time Natasha Wimmer had finished translating its 893 pages, Bolano had already been dead five years. Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives had been published to rapturous acclaim in 2007, and her Chilean novelist, dead by liver failure (via heroin), was more than popular – he was in vogue. The line for 2666’s launch party stretched around a New York City block. Bloggers blogged, twitterers twittered, and the Bolano was suddenly the new Marquez. Even Time Magazine named 2666 its book of the year.

Given its sheer dimensions, I suspect 2666 is a book more bought than read. From where I stand on page 272, it’s fantastic, but it’s something of a Ulysses, Joyce’s oft-lauded, seldom read masterpiece – a book not read, but conquered, picked up for the self-satisfying audacity of the project.

Am I just trendy, a literary poser? I didn’t make it through The Savage Detectives, and as with my first waltz with 2666, I halted after the first section. But I remember liking Bolano’s seamy realism. It was funny – and not the cold, mannered “funny” you might point out in some stick-up-its-ass book like Johnathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It made you laugh, smile, and genuinely happy to be reading (as opposed to, say, overdosing on prescription painkillers. The Corrections and I parted on bad terms). No, Bolano came to his readers with a forceful, persuasive romanticism, mouthy and cocksure and full of heart.

So I settled down with a cup of coffee and flipped to book two, “The Part About Amalfitano.” Amalfitano is a mentally displaced professor freshly arrived at a university in Santa Teresa, Mexico (a stand-in for Ciudad Juarez). As the chapter wears on, his displacement verges into schizophrenia, but before he hangs a geometry text on the clothesline, we learn about his wife, Lola, and Bolano’s magic crystallizes.

It was Lola, Rosa’s mother, who always traveled with a weapon, never going anywhere without her stainless-steel spring-loaded switchblade, Amalfitano remembered as he smoked a Mexican cigarette, sitting in his office or standing on the dark porch. Once they were stopped in an airport, before Rosa was born, and Lola was asked what she was doing with the knife. It’s for peeling fruit, she said. Oranges, apples, pears, kiwis, all kinds of fruit. The officer gave her a long look and let her go. A year and a few months after that, Rosa was born. Two years later, Lola left, still carrying the knife.

A simple story told with simple language, set to the casual cadence of an afternoon conversation. I would kill to write like this, I thought. It was a reoccurring sentiment as I rolled through book two, especially as Bolano guides his character into madness, succeeding where so lesser writers dependably fail.

Is this why we read? To admire? To gawk at 2666 like American tourists gawking at Michelangelo’s David?

For some, perhaps. English majors are taught not to bother explaining a book’s greatness – in some schools of thought, “greatness” is relative and irrelevant, at best a selling point and at worst a product of historical pressures. They see “great” as a hollow and counterproductive descriptor.

And I agree. Calling a book “great” fails to do anything more than set it among books like Great Expectations. In terms of nuts-and-bolts analysis, it’s useless to the critic.

But there is, under all the analysis, close-reading and deciphering, a reason we read. And who says it needs to be any more complicated than a need to read a great book?

Maybe 2666 is teaching me how to read again.