I was speaking to someone recently about the band Radiohead. Now, I really like a couple of their songs, but, on the whole, I find the group excruciating to listen to. The problem is probably best summed up as a clash of personalities: mine and the lead singer’s. Of course, I’ve never met Thom Yorke, and as a rule I prefer to withhold judgement on people I do not know, but in his case I can’t help myself. It would be unfair to disparage without providing evidence, so here goes:
– Thom Yorke once claimed that melody made him feel sick [I don’t even like traditionally melodic music, but this irked me].
– The constant allusions to the torturous recording process, as though he’s so much of a damaged genius that it takes years of hair-pulling and hand-wringing to birth these flawless records.
– The lyrics.
– The h in Thom.
– The cover art.
– The lyrics.
– The pompous political blather in interviews.
– The lyrics.
On those lyrics, let me expound my objection a little bit: I know that song lyrics are mostly awful. I get that. Even the lyricists that are meant to be top-notch, your Dylans and so forth, are still pretty terrible. However, Thom’s lyrics annoy me like no one else’s, because not only are they rubbish, they are nonsensical rubbish, and, what’s more, the man himself seems to regard them as mind-expanding and heart-rending statements of profound and painful insight. Profound?
Cracked eggs, dead birds scream as they fight for life!
Dead birds screaming as they, uh, fight for life…fighting for life, even though they are, um, dead…screaming, but, er, dead. Fuck off with that shit.
What has any of this got to do with 2666? Well, prior to reading it I thought I hated Roberto Bolaño in much the same way. His most highly praised work, The Savage Detectives, based on the reviews etc I had read, always struck me as having been written specifically to irritate me. A book featuring a roving gang of poets called the Visceral Realists? Oh, please. An On the Road for a new generation? I despise the beats, hippies, and bohemians; they can turn on, tune in, drop out and fuck off as far as I’m concerned. Then there are the stories about how Bolaño would turn up at poetry readings, heckle the more famous poet on stage, and proceed to read his own poetry from the back of the hall. Oh no no no no no no; seriously now, I just can’t take it.
So, for the most part, on the basis of these objections, I tried to avoid the author as much as possible, and as a consequence I had no idea about the furore surrounding 2666 prior to and upon publication. I’m not even sure I knew he had passed away. In fact, a lot of the time I got him confused with Paulo Coelho. Then, one day, when wandering around my local bookshop, I spied a large imposing hardback book out of the corner of my eye. I love big books, they call to me like weighty wrist-wrecking sirens, so I trundled over and picked it up. Oh, it’s some shit by that guy who wrote The Savage Detectives and The Alchemist, I thought to myself, and so I put it down and left the shop. A few weeks later, though, I was back. Again, my eye alights on the book, again I pick it up. 2666. The title intrigued me. I check the cover: some bumph about murders. I think about buying it; I tell myself that I won’t read it, that I just want to, y’know, own it and hold it and caress it; but then I remember the transsexual behind the counter, his large hands, and badly applied make-up, and how he always talks to me about the books I buy, and I just don’t want to get into that kind of conversation, not about someone like Bolaño.
The upshot of this rambling is that it took me quite a while to find the pluck to buy and read 2666. Indeed, I experienced the same level of resistance and dread intermingled with a perverse curiosity that I feel when someone tries to play me the new Radiohead record. So, yeah, I didn’t have high expectations, but I couldn’t help myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who read things they don’t like merely to be able to say that they read it. I bought and read the book because something about it spoke to me, some hard-to-define thing rapped on my brain with its knuckles giving me no peace until I did. And I am so glad, because aspects of the book still haunt the back-alleys of my mind.
Yet, it starts breezily enough with a Borgesian tale of a group of academics on the trail of an obscure author; and it’s all a bit Scooby Doo, and all a bit ridiculous [intentionally so, for the most part. Bolaño is funnier than he is often given credit for], but there is a point of interest here, for bibliophiles anyway, which is the current obsession amongst academics and the publishing industry for unearthing forgotten masterpieces and great obscure writers. There are numerous examples of this in recent years: Marai, Grossman, Banffy, Szerb, Zweig, etc. I’m not disparaging this trend, it has brought to the surface some wonderful novels, but I felt at times as though Bolaño was perhaps lampooning it.
Intermission: why are all of Bolaño’s men incredible lovers? They seem to be able to bring a woman to orgasm by raising an eyebrow.
The heart of the novel, the section upon which it either succeeds of fails as a truly great work, is the murders. For me, without this section the book would be occasionally charming, and diverting, but lacking in any substance [although it is worth noting that some readers seem to find this part of the novel hard-going]. The Part About The Crimes, to my mind, is an incredible piece of writing, is amongst the finest sections to be found in any hulking tome out there. For me, those long and difficult wrist-wreckers are defined by the scenes, the passages, that leap out of the text and burn themselves into your consciousness. Let’s be honest, in nearly all 900+ page books there are peaks and troughs, that is part of the appeal, but it is the height of the peaks that usually separates the very good ones from the truly great ones.
The Part About The Crimes is pretty much as it sounds. There are a series, a seemingly relentless series, of grisly murders of young women. It ought to be repetitive, it ought to reduce these shocking acts to a level of reader-tedium, but it doesn’t. One should be thinking after about twenty of them: Oh no, not another; I’m bored by this shit now. Yet, the opposite is the case; each crime is subtly different, each draws you in, as you ponder both the similarities and differences and start to wonder if they have been committed by the same man or different men. More than any other novel dealing with murder and brutal crimes 2666 makes you consider, makes you feel, just how habitual, how ubiquitous violence is. One begins to feel overwhelmed by it, but by highlighting each and every one they never feel like a mere statistic, and this is Bolaño’s greatest achievement.
You may well ask, what is 2666 about? Honestly, I don’t know. There is a sense of a world falling apart, or spiraling out of control, and yet, to all intents and purposes, despite some theories about how the book is set in the future [that 2666 is a date, the year the novel is set] the world of 2666 is our world; and I found that devastatingly moving, because the idea of a world, of humanity, collapsing under the weight of its own faeces aligns with my own feelings. And Thom Yorke’s too probably.