Saturday, November 15, 2008

2666, by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is a long book, and instead of waiting to finish it to write a summary post recording my reactions and thoughts, I'll be taking it in the five sections it is already divided into.

'The Part about the Critics'

A site that is very much in the spirit of Bolaño's work is The Invisible Library, a project run by Levi Stahl and Ed Park. The Invisible Library is an index of imaginary books, alphabetized by author and citing, in each instance, the "real" work from which the fanciful creation derives. E.g.

WHARFINGER, Richard: The Courier's Tragedy
—from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

The editors' choice to set it up as a blog instead of a wiki is interesting, as its point, one would think, would be to remove the limitations of a centralized archive, or at least to suggest the arbitrariness of such limitations.

After all, the thrilling thing about the idea of imaginary books is that, like nuclear weapons, they seem designed to proliferate. Once you create (or even read about) one imaginary book, you can—in fact, must—see its imaginary neighbors on a shelf, a whole imaginary bibliography of secondary literature for its exegesis, a whole imaginary floor in a library dedicated to its imaginary subject. What this immediate proliferation suggests is infinite time.

This desire is incredibly powerful, and it is deeply related to the passions which drive readers to read. Bolaño is not the first to find a way to incorporate this power into his books, but he is masterful at storing the tension of the reader's imagination in his own plots. By now, it's pretty obvious he's even developed a formula, which can be enumerated thus:
  1. The key to this tension is always the shape of the plot. It must be a search, an investigation.
  2. That search must be for a source of the literature, not just a singular book or poem, and finding that source must be the protagonist's objective.
  3. Although the protagonist(s) finds definite products from this sought-after source, the existence of the source needs to remain in doubt.
  4. Its existence needs to remain in doubt so that we are tempted (and so are the protagonist{s}) to imagine alternative sources which could have produced these products.
  5. There also need to be unattributable products which we (and the protagonist{s}) are tempted to attribute to the source.
  6. These unattributable products should be foreboding in nature. They do not, however, need to be literary products, though some should.
This is the way The Savage Detectives works, the way Nazi Literature in the Americas works on a macro-level, the way Distant Star (which is an extrapolation of one of the entries in Nazi Literature) works, and the way 'The Part about the Critics' works. The writer Benno von Archimboldi is the mysterious producer that Bolaño has buried in 2666, and the four critics (Norton, Morini, Espinoza and Pelletier) are the searchers.

For what it's worth, it's also the way The Crying of Lot 49 works, and a good deal of Borges too. (And Lynch for that matter, only his sources and products aren't literary in nature.) But what Bolaño does more completely than any of those writers is immerse his mysterious sources and products in an environment of real literature, to the point where you begin looking up virtually every name, even if you know it's real. Next to the mysterious source, however, these real authors seem sterile. Take, for example, Octavio Paz, who appears in The Savage Detectives. A mandarin met in a city garden, sedentary and innocuous. And those writers who are mentioned by name are often only mentioned by name, severed from their works.

A lot is made of the fact that none of Bolaño's characters who call themselves writers seem to write anything, or at least that we never see their writing, and we rarely see them in the act of writing. But the reason for their unproductivity is not, I think, merely that they are busy doing other things (arguing about literature, having sex, doing drugs, accomplishing all three at once). Bolaño needs for his characters to be unproductive (as he needs for the writers he mentions to be removed from their works) because he needs to concentrate all creative activity in his mysterious source. Doing so creates a sort of singularity of the imagination, which becomes fathomless, focusing the reader's imagination, drawing it deeper and deeper into the story.

It's a neat trick, for sure.

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