Book Review: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is hypnotic and dreamlike as the author segues through the lives of dozens of characters, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes in a dark, twisted journey of horror.

Title: 2666
Author: Roberto Bolaño,
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

A book review of 2666

2666 by Roberto Bolaño centers around the fictional Santa Theresa, Mexico. On the U.S border, Santa Theresa is a city of maquiladoras and poverty where hundreds of women have been murdered. If this sounds like Ciudad Juarez, it is meant to, although it’s location corresponds more closely to Nogales, on the Arizona border.

The novel is divided into five parts, each with its own cast of characters, some interconnected. In the first part, entitled “The Part about the Critics,” three European academics travel to Mexico in search of mysterious and elusive Benno von Archimbaldi, a German novelist around which they all have built their careers. But Archimbaldi is never found and the critics leave, not sure if he was ever there at all. Ever in the background are the murders, like a news item in the morning paper.

The murders remain in the background until the third part, in which an African-American reporter from New York, in Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match, learns of the crimes and unsuccessfully tries to get permission from his editor to stay and investigate. In part four, we finally come to “The Part about the Crimes.” Interspersed with stories of the policemen who are assigned to the cases, Bolaño details one murder after another, as though they were being read from the police blotters, until the true horror of the crimes begin to sink into your subconscious. Finally, in the last part, “The Part about Archimbaldi,” we are given the story of the German novelist, who was a soldier on the Eastern Front in World War II, and witnessed the horrors of the Nazi regime. This section is almost fairy-tale like, but it is a dark, terrible fairy-tale about genocide and the atrocities of war.

2666 is hypnotic and dreamlike as the author segues through the lives of dozens of characters, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes in a dark, twisted journey of horror. The novel ends as Archimbaldi is leaving for Mexico to help his nephew, imprisoned and charged with killing four women. But there is no ending here, just a story which appears to stop in the middle, unfinished. This passage, describing the fictional writing of the fictional Benno von Archimbaldi, found near the end of the book, is a fair description of 2666, itself:

“The style was strange. The writing clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.”

This is not a traditional novel with a beginning and neatly tied-up ending. It is more like a meditation on human nature, and how we humans rationalize and cope with the most horrible of crimes, and how our rationalizations (and complicity) end up biting us in the ass .

Near the end of the book, an old writer says to Archimboldi:

“I too believe in the intrinsic goodness of human beings, but it means nothing. In their hearts, killers are good, as we Germans have reason to know. So what? I might spend a night drinking with a killer, and as the two of us watch the sun come up, perhaps we’ll burst into song or hum some Beethoven. So what? The killer might weep on my shoulder. Naturally. Being a killer isn’t easy, as you and I well know. It isn’t easy at all. It requires purity and will, will and purity. Crystalline purity and steel-hard will. And I myself might even weep on the killer’s shoulder, and whisper sweet words to him, words like ‘brother,’ ‘friend,’ or ‘comrade in misfortune.’ At this moment the killer is good, because he’s intrinsically good, and I’m an idiot, because I’m intrinsically an idiot, and we’re both sentimental, because our culture tends inexorably toward sentimentality. But when the performance is over and I’m alone, the killer will open the window of my room and come tiptoeing in like a nurse and slit my throat, bleed me dry.”

For me, this passage most clearly sums up my understanding of what this novel is trying to say. Maybe you will read something different into it.

This is a difficult and complex novel in a number of ways, and may be of interest only to academics and other writers. At about 900 pages of dense prose, it took me about three weeks to read, but the subject matter, too, made this book a hard slog. Don’t get me wrong, it was worth every minute I spent with it.

Roberto Bolaño is a Chilean, who has lived much of his life in Mexico. The author died in 2004, and this book was published posthumously.

My rating: 5.0 stars


Screen page formats needed

Every time I receive a manuscript by email –the only way we take them– I struggle with reading it on my laptop. It’s not so bad if it’s in a MS Word format, but an 8.5 x 11 pdf just does not fit well on my screen.

All of the word-processors and pdf-making software programs out there are set up with standard page formats: Letter, Legal, #10 Envelope, various European sizes. And that makes sense if the output destination is a printer.

But what if your destination is a monitor screen, as are more and more of the things we write? Letter-sized PDFs are awkward to read on a monitor and require excessive scrolling. A “half-letter” or “half-legal” size is perfect for reading on a screen, but most of our submitters would never think of it, or be afraid to submit a piece that way, because it is not an acceptable industry “standard”.

And the reflection on us if we buck the “standard” might not be acceptable, either.

Here’s the thing. As a publisher, all of our submissions are electronic. For final output to a book layout, the dimensions of a digital file do not matter. But for reading on a screen, they most certainly do.

We do not, as a rule, print manuscripts on a printer. And there is a lot more digital content out there on the web which is not meant to be printed out in a letter format. Why do we insist on this being our standard in the digital age?

So why don’t we have standard “Screen” layouts for our software programs. It really doesn’t make sense not too.

One more word on POD

POD, print-on-demand. That’s vanity publishing, right?


Print-on-demand is a book printing technology, and vanity publishing is a business model. It’s pineapples and ugly-fruit. So why is it that tradition publishers, book review organizations, and others in the trade insist on conflating the two?

“We don’t accept POD books for review,” says one book review site I visited recently. Of course, I know they surely meant “vanity press books.” Right?

The Habit of Rainy Nights Press, like a growing number of tiny presses out there, is taking advantage of the low overhead cost of publishing our books through Lightning Source. Besides low up-front costs, there are sound environmental reasons for not printing and warehousing thousands of books which may or may not sell. Our books are available nationwide (and some internationally). We take advantage of the same distribution system as traditionally-printed books, and our books are a superior quality product. In addition, we print the works of highly-respected authors.

Why then should we be tarred with the same brush as the pay-to-be-published crowd, simply because of the technology we use? Please wake up out there in publishing land. Don’t conflate POD with vanity publishing or self-publishing.

And when it comes to self-publishing…well, that’s a different article for another day. But my point is: traditional attitudes need to be drastically revised.

Keep Oregon Historical Society budget intact

Lack of access to our state’s historical documents diminishes us. Not only writers and historians suffer, but everyone who reads, or goes to school, or needs to be informed about the world prior to us. In other words, everyone.

The Oregon Historical Society is scheduled to reopen on April 2nd with drastically curtailed hours: one to five pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. But even those hours are tenuous. The state legislature wants to cut the OHS budget funding in half, from $2.4 million to $1.4 million.

If you think that funding this century-old institution is frivolous, consider, as local historian Michael Munk pointed out recently, that the City of Portland just voted to subsidize the wealthy owner of the local soccer team. Is a professional sports team more important than our historical heritage? Is this what we’ve come to?

There is still time to lobby your state legislators to maintain funding for the Oregon Historical Society. You can also sign the petition.

Review: Felina’s Arrow

International Women’s Day at The Backspace.
Patty and I don’t get out much these days to hear live music. But waiting for the gates of spring to burst open had us chewing at the bit, so we decided Saturday night was the night.

Felina’s Arrow

International Women’s Day at The Backspace, Portland, OR, March 7

Patty and I don’t get out much these days to hear live music. But waiting for the gates of spring to burst open had us chewing at the bit, so we decided Saturday night was the night. We were going to find some good music, one way or another. Of course, not part of a demographic targeted by the current music scene, and no longer following the latest bands, we were confused. The days of punk and hard rock concerts are over for our aging and precious ears, and in this youth-oriented town, it’s hard to know what you’ll stumble into.

But we did know about International Women’s Day. And the event at The Backspace looked interesting. So, we googled the performers and listened. Okay, we decided, we’ll try them out. We were surprised by an evening of enjoyable music.

The first act was Nicole Sangsuree, backed up by members of Felina’s Arrow. She has a very competent, smooth voice with a strong presence. While the love songs she performed were not particularly inspiring to our demanding ears, many listeners would undoubtedly enjoy them more. I will confess a prejudice here. For a love/relationship song to pass muster with me it has to be really, really, really good. It has to touch something deep. Didn’t quite make it.

The second act, Ivy Ross, was great fun. Her slightly quirky voice reminded me of Jolie Holland at times and Iris Dement at others. She encouraged audience participation–which I love–and her songs were full of great social commentary and meaning. While maybe not as polished as the other two acts, she was very competent and had an winning stage personality. We’d go hear Ivy Ross again.

Felina’s Arrow was the crown of the evening. Felicia Figueroa’s amazing bass and guitar work was both accomplished and nuanced. I suspect she is classically trained, but her range of styles is impressive. The pieces ranged from jazzy samba style rhythms to Eastern European folk sounds. Poeina Suddarth’s vocals were equally amazing in range and precision. From soulful to tender, she didn’t miss a beat.

The songs, too, were skillfully written and very moving. The anthemic “Amelia” was the height of the evening, with beautifully structured minimalism and soulful pain.

My only gripe–and this is true of 95% of the live shows I’ve ever attended–the vocals are too far back in the mix.  I’m a lyrics guy, and I want to hear every single one of those beautiful words. As an ex-performer myself, I realize the problem is often the venue. Old brick buildings with concrete floors aren’t the best acoustic environment. And what you, the performer hear in the stage monitors is not the same thing your audience hears.  The ideal situation is to have a sound engineer you can trust, which is unrealistic most of the time. And then there is the obnoxious blathering redhead sitting near me–I really didn’t pay $7 to hear your self-absorbed chatter all night.

Despite the distractions, this is a very nice discovery for us. We will be catching Felina’s Arrow again soon.

My rating: 4.5 stars