Readers of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 typically enter this whirlpool of a novel through its first section, “The Part About the Critics.” Recent editions of the novel have split it up by section into five shorter books, as Bolaño specified before his death, opening up the possibility of a non-sequential reading of the work. The five sections could certainly be read in any order, but one wonders if a re-sequencing would have a significant impact on one’s interpretation of the novel.
The sections are related to each other by the recurrence of characters and places—a place, really—and each section follows a different protagonist or set of protagonists. Each section really is a separate narrative, overlapping each other in a barely discernible way. Structurally, it calls to mind the wheel-spoke novels of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, although that work was more clearly designed as a unified whole.
Still, the first readers of 2666—those who raved about it and recommended it to others—encountered it in a fixed sequence, beginning with a story about the intertwining lives of four literary scholars. This section, as are the other sections of the novel, is made up of short chunks of narrative, some of which present a complete, closed-off subplot, or establish and continue longer plot threads. As the beginning of a novel, “The Part About the Critics” faces many reader expectations, not all of which it fulfills, and plays a crucial role in compelling readers to continue until the end of the novel, or to abandon it.
I myself was mesmerized by the opening section, despite the absence of a goal-oriented narrative, a clearly defined protagonist, or a causally driven, gradually complicating plot. Conventional writer’s wisdom has these elements as the keys to generating and sustaining reader interest in a narrative—the suggestion of a coherent structure promising closure is supposed to keep readers committed to finishing a novel.
Indeed, this structure, perceived only through suggestion at the start of a conventional novel, is the source of the impression that “something happens,” which is the core of any narrative. In themselves, events strung together do not result in the sense that something is happening, perhaps because there must be an indication that they logically lead to a single point of closure. For instance, though many things happen over the course of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the play leads one to conclude that “nothing happens.”
Similarly, many things happen in “The Part About the Critics”: scholars develop an interest in an obscure author, pursue this interest, become friends and lovers, and come close to tracking down their elusive quarry. Yet not even the search for Benno von Archimboldi functions as a central plot line. Instead, it is only one among many plot lines intertwining in an unruly braid, some continuing to the end of the section, others pursued for a while, then stopped (not ended, which implies a definite closing-off of a causal progression).
Because there is no single goal pursued, not any central problem demanding to be solved, there can be no rising action, which results when obstacles or complications impede the increasingly urgent resolution of a plot’s central issue. Instead, suspense and a sense of acceleration are generated in the last few chunks of the section, which intercuts between the reported contents of a break-up letter and the lives of the letter’s recipients after they receive it. This technique disguises the fact that the novel stops following these characters at this point, instead of seeing them arrive at a neat conclusion.
The absence of a central issue in the section’s story keeps it loose and suggests that the story continues to unfold as these characters go on living, and the narrator allows readers the privilege of seeing a part of a longer narrative that proceeds off the page.
In this, Bolaño reveals himself to be a much more traditional novelist than the unconventional forms of his novel would suggest. The amorphous plotting of “The Part About the Critics” imparts a sense of sprawl, conveying the messiness of lived reality, which proceeds in a largely random, open manner. The doorstop novels of the 18th and 19th centuries sprawled in a similar way, although novelists tended to organize the events of their plots around a single memorable character or two, or into a sequence of neatly closed episodes. Bolaño offers up a handful of characters and follows them through various incidents, ending a chunk of narrative before it coalesces into a meaningful episode.
This storytelling style affords certain pleasures which arises out of the voyeuristic engagement in the mundane details of a person’s unfolding life. It is these sorts of pleasures that compel fans of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I suspect, because his stories are paced much too slowly for conventional thrillers or mysteries. While there are complaints about his obsessive cataloguing of inconsequential objects and events, the wealth of detail satisfies a desire to organize the messiness of life, if only in its tangible aspects.
Bolaño keeps things moving at a fast clip, telling his story almost entirely through summary and narration, slowing occasionally to render brief scenes with dialogue, or deliver terse descriptions. The narrator of “The Part About the Critics” delivers story information with deadpan precision, suggesting the authority of someone who knows exactly what he needs to say. While the characters are moderately interesting and amusing, the narrator’s tone keeps readers reading, assuring them that this is all going to have a point, eventually, even when it doesn’t. It also calls to mind the voiceover narration in Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, which dispassionately x-rays the goofy protagonists and imbues them with heroic gravitas.
This authoritative narration stands in direct contrast to some recent “literary” fiction in which omniscient 3rd-person narrators hesitate, grope for words, rephrase or correct themselves, or devolve into pointless purple description, sounding much like method actors hamming their way through a monologue. Such precious affectations could work for telling a more conventionally structured story, but a vaguely formless sprawl requires a firmer, more assured voice that seems to know the way through.
If a reader does make it all the way through 2666, it is only because “The Part About the Critics” manages to rope him in and convince him that something meaningful awaits in the succeeding sections. This it does with a firm, confident narrator and an abiding faith in the heart of all narrative: “First, this happened. And then this happened. And then this…”