Beyond the rules of fiction

2666 by Roberto Bolano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 898 pages

Dear reader, it seems altogether fitting to begin the New Year with a review of the novel that is being hailed as “the book of the century.” Now, before you get cynical on me and dismiss such accolades as typical promotional blather, let me hasten to add that this is an international judgment. Here is a sampling: “A masterpiece,” says Le Magazine Litteraire (Paris); “An often shocking and raunchy tour de force,” says The New York Review of Books; “A cornerstone that defines an entire literature,” says La Vanguardia (Spain); “A world of a novel in which the power of words triumphs over savagery,” proclaims L’ Express magazine (France). The reviews from Italy, Chile (Bolano’s birthplace), England and Germany are equally enthusiastic.

The critical response to 2666 seems excessive. Certainly, no major work has been greeted with such enthusiasm since some 40 years ago when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, one major critic noted that if Marquez laid the cornerstone of literary excellence, then Bolano has “shifted that cornerstone.” Essays are cropping up that compare Bolano to Jorge Luis Borges, the acknowledged master of South American literature and a number of American magazines are already publishing lengthy articles that evaluate the significance of Bolano’s “magnum opus.” One of the most impressive is Francine Prose’s “More is More” in Harper’s this month.

However, there are dissenters. A handful of critics found the 2666 either “chaotic” or “bleak and depressing.” Even some of the novel’s strongest advocates found the writing “ugly,” (Adam Kirch in Slate magazine) but defended the repugnant aspects as “a new an unexpected kind of beauty.” Critics are at a loss for comparisons. One critic notes that 2666 resembles the eerie, surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch movie. Another rhapsodizes about apocalyptic themes. The words “daring” and “courageous” appear in the majority of the reviews. Finally, the most appropriate critique calls the novel “a leap into the darkness,” because the author has broken all the rules of current fiction and established new ones.

2666 consists of five sections (novels?) that appear to be unrelated to each other. However, in the final section, the reader discovers that the five divisions are like “five planets orbiting the same dark sun.” Suddenly, the pieces effortlessly unite like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.

Section One, “The Part About the Critics,” deals with a quartet of academic critics (Italian, French, Spanish and English) who devote their lives to tracking down an elusive writer who may be a candidate for the Nobel Prize. As they globetrot from city to city, they bicker, drink and fornicate with abandon (three males and one female). They finally end up in Saint Teresa (Ciudad Juarez), Mexico.

Section Two, “The Part About Amalefitano” concerns a mentally unstable professor at the University of Saint Teresa and his daughter. The professor lives in a constant state of dread because he suspects (imagines) some evil is imminent and his daughter is in danger. As it turns out, Amalefitano’s fears are well founded.

Section Three, “The Part About Fate,” deals with an Afro-American journalist who travels to Saint Teresa to cover a boxing match and ends up accompanying other journalists to a prison to interview a serial murderer.

Section Four, “The Part About the Crimes,” provides a disturbing history of the unsolved murders of female factory workers in Saint Teresa. (The style in this section resembles crime fiction and is based on the hundreds (perhaps over a thousand) of rape/murders around the maquiladoras (NAFTA plants) in Ciudad Juarez.

Section Five, “The Part about Archimboldi” chronicles the life of a German writer who survives WWII, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes a series of novels that attract national attention. However, he avoids publicity and refuses interviews. Then, a series of personal dilemmas brings him to Saint Teresa, “the city of paper houses” (cardboard slums).

It is impossible to discuss the plot of 2666 since its complexities would require extensive explanations. Suffice it to say that it is a frustrating, bewildering and, at times, an exhilarating work. Dozens of characters, including prophets, corrupt policemen, tormented lovers and psychopaths appear only to vanish and never return. Bolano shifts genres, veering for science fiction, to crime novel to “magic realism,” to erotica to folk tale and myth. Eventually, it becomes evident that the author purposely creates unstructured and meaningless action because he perceives life to have those same qualities (unstructured and meaningless).

Certainly, one of the most perplexing questions is the significance of the title. Is 2666 the future date in which the world will be reduced to sterile waste? Is that why this novel contains several thinly veiled references to the William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and the approach of the final Apocalypse? (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”)

Note: Robert Bolano died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50. However, aware of his impending death, he spent the last three months of his life preparing 2666 for publication. The final translation and publication has been an arduous, complex process. 2666 finally arrived in the United States about six months ago.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Tuning in once again

The Sweetest Sounds

The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear

Are still inside my head.

The kindest words I’ll ever know

Are waiting to be said.

— Rogers and Hart


Over the past 40 years, as my hearing has steadily declined, most of my friends became accustomed to my evasive behavior. Instead of saying, “I can’t hear you,” I developed a habit of nodding, smiling and saying, “Yes.”

Rash's Chemistry "notable"

Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador, 2007. 230 pages

This remarkable collection of short stories has already been named one of the 15 “notable books” of 2007 by the Story Prize Committee — an award that is presented annually in recognition of the nation’s best. The top award, $20,000, is the largest literary prize in America. In announcing their selection, the contest officials stated “The Appalachian Mountains are the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.”

When the snows fell on Babbie’s house

When winter comes now, and I see those familiar pale shafts of sunlight that briefly touch the tops of the Balsams — just before total darkness settles on Rhodes Cove — I find myself remembering a trip to see my great grandmother some 60 years ago.

A look at the dark side of the season

The Christmas Curmudgeon is available at: Barnes &, the Western Carolina Internet Café in Dillsboro, or directly from the author at James Cox, P. O. Box 272, Whittier, NC, 28789. Send check ($14.95 plus postage) and your name and address.

Hark! Do you hear it? It is the faint drum rolls of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Rumma-Tum-Tum, and it is growing nearer every day. Yes, the “Holiday Season” is coming. In another week, the malls will be packed, the traffic will gridlock and our TVs will resound with hearty enticements to max out our credit cards.

What is wrong with teaching in the US?

In 1991, 30-year veteran and master teacher John Taylor Gatto resigned immediately after being named “Teacher of the Year” in New York. A number of educators and concerned parents took note — especially after the disillusioned teacher’s reasons for resigning appeared in the Wall Street Journal, under the caption, “I Quit, I Think.”

Heir to the King

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 2007. 376 pages

Although both the publisher and the author of Heart-Shaped Box seem reluctant to admit that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, there is ample evidence to support this conclusion.

Stories from the dead

In the small Southern community where she lives, Finch Nobles, the narrator of A Gracious Plenty, easily qualifies as a “quare woman.” Disfigured by a household accident at the age of 4 (a pot of boiling water), Finch finds that the townspeople commonly regarded her ruined face with pity or revulsion.

War can be murder

Recently, a distressing bit of information surfaced on CNN about the war in Iraq. There has been a significant increase in the number of civilian rapes and murders in Iraq and Iran (and correspondingly in West Africa). New evidence indicates that many of these crimes may be the work serial killers who are using the war as a convenient camouflage.

Contacting my hirsute love

Back in the early 1950s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little co-ed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills.

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