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Reviewers love Roberto Bolano's '2666'

November 8, 2008 | 12:25 pm

2666_1108 At this year's Book Expo conference, the book that everyone wanted an advance copy of was "2666" by Roberto Bolaño. The book was the follow-up to Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives," which was something of a literary sensation when it was published in the U.S. last year. The only problem with picking up a copy of "2666" was lifting it -- it's a massive 898 pages. And maybe there's another tiny problem: a book that big is daunting. You have to be ready to commit to it.

The book is due to hit shelves on Tuesday, and a review of the reviews so far indicates that the commitment should be made. Bolaño was ill while writing "2666," and died in 2003 at age 50 with it still in the form of a not-entirely-corrected draft. In our pages, Ben Ehrenreich gives a clear picture of the book's five sections, and concludes:

He wrote "2666" in a race against death. His ambitions were appropriately outsized: to make some final reckoning, to take life's measure, to wrestle to the limits of the void.... Stories sprout from other stories. Digression rules. Nothing is ever finished, nothing answered, nothing solved. Bolaño is too smart, or too sad, to attempt to piece it all together. He leaves it to a minor character -- an artist confined to an asylum, no less -- to point the finger at a "senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that hurricane, in that osseous explosion, we find communion."

Writing for Slate, Adam Kirsch also lauds the book's resistance to narrative conventions:

So much of the activity of 2666 takes place not along the ordinary novelistic axes of plot and character but on the poetic, even mystical planes of symbol and metaphor. It is in Bolaño's allusions and unexplained coincidences, in his character's frequent, vividly disturbing dreams, in the mad recitations of criminals and preachers and witches ... that the real story of 2666 gets told. That is one reason why the book is so hard to summarize—and why Natasha Wimmer's lucid, versatile translation is so triumphant. 2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve.

In the New York Times, Jonathan Lethem gives clear, high praise:

"2666" is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world.

At Conversational Reading, litblogger Scott Esposito cautions that "any book of this size and being granted this kind of pre-publication esteem deserves space. You just can't adequately address such a book in less than a couple thousand words." I'm not sure if I agree, as he implies, that a long review is the same thing as a good or complex review, or that "pre-publication esteem" means much. They each seem to have enough space to say what they intend, which boils down to a single message: "2666" is a big, worthy commitment.   

-- Carolyn Kellogg