Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The parts about Fate and about the crimes and a vast introductory digression in which I compare and contrast 2666 and Infinite Jest

I left off from Roberto Bolaño's 2666 in order to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest along with a couple thousand other people in the Infinite Summer reading group project. Plus, I really needed the breathing space, after all the rape, murder, and mutilation of part 4.

Weirdly, there are various unpleasantnesses to contend with in IJ as well. But they are deeply human and emotional, and so kind of cathartic. The murders in 2666, on the other hand, are numbing.

Right. So. I'd actually started in on the next and final part, and wanted and still want to speed ahead. But this is a weird little exercise in restraint for me, cuz I'm more about the go with the flow whatever feels right when it comes to reading, yet I want and feel it's important to think a little about what's going on in 2666, to figure it out, to draw it out — not in the sense of prolonging the experience but rather more to engage in conversation with and see it become itself. And it feels right to do so, so I'm going with that.

Also a bit weird w/r/t reading 2666 interlaced with IJ is this urge to compare and contrast these 2 books, or at least the experiences of reading these 2 books, when really they're almost not at all alike apart from their size. As part of an Infinite Summer roundtable, Kevin Guilfoile said, "During the Tournament of Books I said about Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that in order for a novel to be a masterpiece it probably also has to be at least a little bit terrible. I said that with some tongue in my cheek, although compared to Infinite Jest I found 2666 to be a lot less ambitious and a lot more terrible." I found myself feeling a bit defensive about this, being as I was pretty fresh off a deep immersion in 2666 and at that point still well behind the IJ schedule. But I've had a very different kind of engagement with the books. And I'm temporarily thinking he may be right.

There was a tipping point with IJ: there came a page when something clicked, it made some kind of sense, I got it, and everything that came before was richer and being informed by what came next. I am still waiting for such a point in 2666, fully expecting it never to come. 2666 is definitely the more cryptic of the 2 novels. It started with a fairly heavy mood, and this has been maintained to the two-thirds mark, which is what necessitated my need for a little breathing space away from it; something hangs over this book, some impending doom, and that's fine — great actually — it's lofty and poetic and mysterious — but to what end?

Where does this leave me? Recognizing that the ambitions of these books are different (I think). Apples and oranges. Un cheval, une patate.

They are both, I realize now, somewhat surreal — in that kind of slippery, Lynchian sense of the word — and dreams figure quite prominently in both, with that vaguely nightmarish hint of something slipping between the known realm and someplace generally left untapped. Ironically (and let's ignore whether I'm using that term correctly), while IJ is set in the near future, or an alternate now, I found it much easier to relate to, to accept these characters as real; 2666 is based in our world (and inspired by true events), yet I'm not connecting with the characters, our view of which is quite controlled, filtered, distant (and the same could be said w/r/t its plot) (and this distance serves its own purpose — I merely comment on the fact of it).

Also, a Lovecraftian horror, as Jonathan Lethem pointed out:

As the four become sexually and emotionally entangled, the puzzle of their devotion to a writer who declines their interest — declines, in fact, ever to appear — inches like a great Lovecraftian shadow over their lives.


In IJ there's a face in the floor, and the black, billowy triangle-ish shape of horror, as easily attributable to Lovecraft as to Lynch.

IJ has earnestness, and a fair bit of humour. 2666 has... I want to say poetry, but I don't think that's quite true, not the way the language in Bolaño's short novels sings with awe about our nobler purpose or the dirt under our fingernails. But, OK, it has this "quality" about its language, and this other admirable thing I can't think of any other way to describe but mood.

The Part about Fate
I didn't much like The Part about Fate, being part 3 and one of the smaller parts of 2666. There's some good stuff in there, which I'll get to in a minute, but this is the way I feel about this part and let me see if I can figure out why that is.

It's not about fate as destiny; it's about American Oscar Fate, whose real name is Quincy Williams, and I don't know why they call him Oscar Fate at work, but they do — maybe it's his chosen pen name as a journalist. Well, maybe you could say the whole thing really is about fate, the name must've been chosen deliberately, symbolically, and I wonder whether it was Fate in the original Spanish or whether the name was translated.

It starts with the death of his mother. Then there's the death of a coworker. He has odd dreams, and starts to occasionally vomit, here and there fairly randomly. Aggressive snippets of movies, of television, or other people's conversations seem to accidentally infiltrate his consciousness, which for the most part is pretty blank, or maybe numb (with grief? exhaustion?) or lost. Something about rap music and suicide and misogyny.

Fate is on assignment to interview Barry Seaman, a former Panther who did some serious prison time and published a book of ribs recipes. Seaman now mostly gives lectures, one of which Fate attends, and it discusses Danger, Money, Food, Stars, and Usefuleness in a fairly random, disconnected way; Seaman stretches to segue very clumsily from one topic to the next — it's almost a stream of consciousness, and I have the impression some of his audience may perceive his mental workings as profound, but I think it's merely primitive. Seaman has the air of a prophet about him, and I don't mean to diminish how "interesting" his speech is, but the lecture as a whole doesn't really fit together; as is the case with many prophets, maybe it's for the audience to find their own significance in it. Seaman does, however, profess an apreciation of metaphor and love for reading, with a deep fondness for An Abridged Digest of the Complete Works of Voltaire.

Fate is reading The Slave Trade. He heads to Mexico to cover a boxing match, the story his dead coworker was supposed to be on. Fate witnesses a couple of Camaros (which I now know figure in the part that follows) and starts hearing about the killings in Santa Teresa.

In the nineteenth century, toward the middle or the end of the nineteenth century, said the white-haired man, society tended to filter death through the fabric of words. [...] Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale, to Virginia, say. And that didn't get anyone upset or make headlines in the Virginia papers or make anyone go out and call for the ship captain to be hanged. But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor and then went galloping back home, dismounted and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total, Virginia society spent the next six months in fear, and the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. [...] [They] weren't part of society [...]. What happened to them could be written, you might say, it was legible. That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same.


Absolutely Santa Teresa is the fringes of society. (Fate wants to do some reportage about the situation, but his editor's not interested.) So this, finally, is the heart of Bolaño's ambition: to reveal the avoidance.

(As I'm sitting here rethumbing these pages, I realize how many hints there are of things to come, characters and scenarios we will meet again. Of one personage, a suspect: "He has the face of a dreamer, but of a dreamer who's dreaming at great speed. A dreamer whose dreams are far out ahead of our dreams." I'm suddenly seeing all sorts of commonalities with IJ — the fragmentation of the narrative, a cubist view, an other-dimensional perspective, the problem of the speed at which we process experience. This part about Fate is in fact much more vital to the whole than I'd initially given it credit. Oh, and: both writers reference David Lynch quite extensively.)

They talk about the end of the sacred, which I take to mean something like intimacy and connectedness in the way we engage with our world.

And so Fate is immersed in the seamy underbelly of Santa Teresa. I'm not sure whether the boxing match serves a purpose other than as a plot device to bring this journalist to Mexico.

I see now that The Part about Fate begins with its end:

When did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get away? How do I take control? And the questions kept coming: Was getting away what he really wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind? And he also thought: the pain doesn't matter anymore. And also: maybe it all began with my mother's death. And also: the pain doesn't matter, as long as it doesn't get any worse, as long as it isn't unbearable. And also: fuck, it hurts, fuck, it hurts. Pay it no mind, pay it no mind. And all around him, ghosts.


(Aztecs turn up again on page 473: “The Aztecs cooked posole with pieces of human flesh.”)

The Part about the Crimes
The Part about the Crimes is a grotesque and fairly disjointed inventory of the gruesome crimes occurring in Santa Teresa.

The following passage is from early on in this lengthy part. I love the way it dances around the space, the focus flitting from the two people engaged in dialogue to the figurants (a word I would not have used before having read IJ) in the room, wafting through the subject of the conversation itself and describing (the way you describe a geometric figure) the relationships within that space.

What is sacrophobia exactly? Juan de Dios Martínez asked the director. Teach me a little about it. The director said her name was Elvira Campos and she ordered a whiskey. Juan de Dios Martínez ordered a beer and glanced around the bar. On the terrace an accordion player, followed by a violinist, was trying to attract the atention of a man dressed like a rancher. A narco, thought Juan de Dios Martínez, although since the man had his back to him, he couldn't say who it was. Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I've given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martínez. The accordion player was very young, twenty at most, and round as an apple. The way he held himself, however, made him look at least twenty-five, except when he smiled, which was often, and then all of a sudden it was clear how young and inexperienced he was. He doesn't carry the knife to hurt anyone, any living thing, I mean, but to destroy the sacred images he finds in churches, said the director. Shall we call each other by our first names? Juan de Dios Martínez asked her. Elvira Campos smiled and nodded. You're a very attractive woman, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Thin and attractive. You don't like thin women, Inspector? asked the director. The violinist was taller than the accordionist and she was wearing a black blouse and black leggings. She had long straight hair down to her waist and sometimes she closed her eyes, especially when the accordeonist sang and played. The saddest thing, thought Juan de Dios Martínez, was that the narco, or the suited back of the man he thought was narco, was hardly paying any attention to them, busy as he was talking to a man with face of a mongoose and hooker with the face of a cat. Weren't we going ot call each other by our first names? asked Juan de Dios Martínez. You're right, said the director. So are you sure the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? The director said she'd been looking through the archives at the asylum to see whether she could find some former patient with a case history like the Penitent's. She hadn't come up with anything. If he's as old as you say he is, I'd guess he's been institutionalized at some point. The accordion player suddenly started to stamp in time to the music. From where they were sitting they couldn't hear him, but he was making faces, working his mouth and eyebrows, and then he ruffled his hair with one hand and seemed to howl with laughter. The violinist had her eyes closed. The narco's head swiveled. Juan de Dios Martínez thought to himself that the boy had finally gotten what he wanted. There's probably a file on him in some psychiatric center in Hermosillo or Tijuana. It can't be such a rare case. Maybe he was on medication until recently. Maybe he stopped taking it, said teh director. Are you married, do you live with anyone? asked Juan de Dios Martínez in an almost inaudible voice. I live alone, said the director. But you have children, I saw the pictures in your office. I have a daughter, she's married. Juan de Dios Martínez felt something release inside of him and he laughed. Don't tell me you're already a grandmother. That's not the kind of thing you say to a woman, Inspector. How old are you? asked the director. Thirty-four, said Juan de Dios Martínez. Seventeen years younger than me. You don't look more than forty, said the inspector. The director laughed: I exercise every day, I don't smoke, I drink very little, I eat right, I used to go running every morning. Not anymore? No, now I've bought myself a treadmill. The two of them laughed. I listen to Bach on my headphones and I almost always run three or four miles a day. Sacraphobia. If I tell my colleagues the Penitent is suffering from sacraphobia, they'll laugh at me. The man with the mongoose face rose from his chair and said something into the accordionist's ear. Then he sat down again and teh accordionist's mouth screwed up into a pout. Like a child on teh verg of tears. The violinis had her eyes open and she was smiling. The narco and the woman with cat face bent their heads together. The narco's nose was big and bony and aristocratic looking. But aristocratic looking how? There was a wild expression on the accordionist's face, except for his lips. Unfamiliar currents surged through the inspector's chest. The world is a strange and fascinating place, he thought.


The Penitent is a desecrator of churches, probably unconnected to the murders, but it's all connected, isn't it? I bookmarked this passage when I first read it more than a month ago, but I think it might highlight yet another theme, which is somewhat illuminated, I see now, by the conversation in part 3: What is sacred?

But the murders! Bolaño took as his basis for 2666 real events in Ciudad Juárez: According to Amnesty International, as of February 2005 more than 800 bodies had been found, and over 3000 women were still missing. Bolaño gives us a repetitive forensic detailing. I lost count of how many murders (rather, murder victims) he describes, but there are many. To read this was a mind-numbing experience. I found myself more than once thinking, oh, another murder, just like all the rest, I'll just skim this bit, it's just another body, which is kind of the point Bolaño is making, that these women and girls have been dehumanized, by their killers and by the authorities, not to mention the society as a whole that brought the bulk of them to live on the fringes of society in the first place, and it's a startling revelation as a reader to realize that I also am guilty for failing to see each victim as uniquely human.

Bolaño at least offers us occasional glimpses of the lives they led when they were last seen. He is giving them a kind of voice. (It is the lot also of Florita Almada, television seer, to be giving the girls of Santa Teresa a voice. She appears alongside a ventriloquist.)

There are patterns, there must be patterns, but they are hard to discern. Then there are murders that break from the pattern and establish new patterns. More murders, they follow an old pattern. Newer patterns emerge that are a combination of previous patterns. It's clear no one person is responsible.

Surely some investigator must see patterns too. You'd think. (The very young and ironically named Lalo Cura — la locura, lunacy — is perhaps the clearest-seeing of the lot.) But no investigation lasts more than a few days. Most (all?) of the cases are shelved. No one seems to care.

Could all these men, could this whole culture of men, in separate and multiple incidents, of their individual accords, and maybe some of them conspiratorially, could they be killings their own wives, sisters, daughters?

Are the murders simply being ignored, or are they being covered up?

Adam Kirsch writes the following in his review, "Slouching Towards Santa Teresa: Roberto Bolaño's utterly strange masterpiece":

At the same time, Bolaño manages to suggest that the violence in Santa Teresa is something much more than a local crime wave. One of the characters who looms into individuality, out of the anonymous crowd of the dead, is Klaus Haas, a German-born American citizen who is imprisoned by the Mexican police as a scapegoat for the murders. He may or may not have killed a woman — Bolaño never lets us know for sure — but he is certainly not "the Santa Teresa killer," if only because the murders continue after he is arrested. Yet when Sergio Gonzales, a journalist reporting on his case, calls Haas in jail, Bolaño writes that over the phone line he "heard the sound of the desert and something like the tread of an animal." It is an understated but clear allusion to Yeats' "The Second Coming," where the poet sees "somewhere in sands of the desert/ A shape with lion body and the head of a man," and asks, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

In this indirect fashion, Bolaño hints that Haas is, if not an anti-Christ, at least a sign of the times: a beast whose advent signals some cosmic realignment. It is just one of countless moments in 2666 that suggest the metaphysical dimension of Bolaño's vision. The attentive reader will be reminded of a remark by a minor character in the novel's third section, some 200 pages earlier: "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them." And then she might remember a strange dream that Espinoza, one of the critics, had in Part 1, in which "he could see the still, bright desert, such a solar yellow it hurt his eyes, and the figures on horseback, whose movements — the movements of horses and riders — were barely perceptible, as if they were living in a world different from ours, where speed was different, a kind of speed that looked to Espinoza like slowness, although he knew it was only the slowness that kept whoever watched from losing his mind."


While the title "2666" is often thought to refers to a year, this review reinforces my impression that the "666" portion of it is critical, as in a 2nd coming of 666.

Clearly Haas is a scapegoat, but he's also very creepy.

In his dreams he saw himself walking the corridors of the prison, the different cell block, and he could see his eyes like a hawk's as he strode that labyrinth of snores and nightmares, aware of what was going on in each cell, until suddenly he could go no farther and he came to a stop at the edge of an abyss (since the prison of his dreams was like a castle built on the edge of a bottomless abyss). There, unable to retreat, he lifted his arms, as if beseeching the heavens (which were as dark as the abyss), and tried to say something to a legion of miniature Klaus Haases, speak to them, warn, them, impart advice, but he realized, or for an instant he had the impression, that someone had sewn his lips shut. (p 488)


More dreams!

What are you trying to say to me? asked Sergio González. That here in prison they know I'm innocent, said Haas. And how do they know it? asked Haas. That was a little harder for me to figure out. It's like a noise you hear in a dream. The dream, like everything dreamed in enclosed spaces, is contagious. Suddenly someone dreams it and after a while half the prisoners dream it. But the noise you hear isn't part of the dream, it's real. The noise belongs to a separate order of things. Do you understand? First someone and then everyone hears a noise in a dream, but the noise is from real life, not the dream. The noise is real. Do you understand? (p 450)


There's a psychic connection between Florita and Haas. I'm thinking the book she describes (pages 431-433) that faithfully depicts the shepherding experience was written by Haas (aka Archimboldi?).

Haas like to sit on the ground, against the wall, in the shady part of the yard. And he liked to think. He liked to imagine that God didn't exist. For three minutes, at least. He also liked to think about the insignificance of human beings. Five minutes. If pain didn't exist, he thought, we would be perfect. Insignificant and ignorant of pain. Fucking perfect. But there was pain to fuck everything up. Finally he would think about luxury. The luxury of memory, the luxury of knowing a language or several languages, the luxury of thinking and not running away. Then he opened his eyes and contemplated, as if in a dream, some of the Bisontes, who were moving around the sunny part of the yard, the other side, as if they were grazing. The Bisontes graze in the prison yard, he thought, and that calmed him like a fast-acting tranquilizer, because sometimes, though not often, Haas started the day as if his head had been pierced with the point of a knife.


There's some recurring imagery: the crater, the abyss.

Shortly after they left the ranch they passed an enormous black stone. On the stone Lalo thought he saw a Gila monster, motionless, staring into the endless west. They say that stone is really a meteorite, said Pedro Negrete. In a gully, farther to the north the Río Paredes curved, and from the road the tops of trees were visible like a green-black carpet with a cloud of dust hanging over them were Pedro Rengifo's cattle came to drink each afternoon. But if it was a meteorite, said Pedro Negrete, it would've left a crater, and where's the crater? When Lalo Cura looked at the black stone again in the rearview mirror, the Gila monster was gone. (p 399)


This oasis of horror in the desert ("The desert is an endless sea." p 559), as if by meteor a great evil embedded itself there in the earth.

If it had been up to her, everyone around her, the shadowy figures on the edges of the photograph, would have disappeared instantly, and so would the room, the prison, jailers and jailed, the hundred-year-old walls of the Santa Teresa penitentiary, and all that was left would be a crater, and in the crater there would be only silence and the vague presence of the lawyer and Haas, chained in the depths. (p 591)


I lost track of many character's names and their backstories: druglords, reporters, government officials. In my brief re-skimming of this part a month after my first read-through, different portions are jumping out at me as significant. I suspect this truly would be a book much richer on rereading, being informed by the knowledge of how it all comes together.

A favourite sentence: "The scarred moon still shone in the sky" (p 401).
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