Wow... I hadn't realized 2666 was such a huge book. If I had realized it, I would have chosen a simpler introduction to Roberto Bolano. I have no regrets, though. This is a massive, complicated, exciting, baffling, mysterious, powerful book.
I'm really compelled to describe the book, mainly to convince myself that I can wrap my head around it after 900 pages. Here goes:
It's a sprawling book, with dozens of important characters and quite a few plot lines. It is actually composed of five smaller sections or books, with some overlaps between them.
The first book focuses on a group of four literary critics. They are very different people - quite distinct in age, temperament, gender, nationality, and drive, but are united by a fierce dedication to a mysterious German author called Benno von Archimboldi. They sort of "discover" him - he has been publishing for decades, but isn't very well known, and thanks in part to their work they manage to bring him into the public eye. Along the way, a web of really intense relationships grows between the four friends and colleagues. This book, like all the others that follow, is filled with tangents, dreams, stories-within-stories, and random conversations. I thought the most powerful aspect of this early book is the characters' dreams, and the deep sense of unease they introduce. The actual settings in the story are rather mundane - conference halls, apartments, parks - but the dreams carry a deep sense of dread and foreboding. I kept waiting for something to snap, and it never quite did, which made it even worse.
The book ends with three of the four characters traveling to the Mexican city of Santa Teresa, chasing a tip that Archimboldi was seen there. Santa Teresa will prove to be the point that unites all of the five stories, although it's never entirely clear (at least to me) why. The time in Santa Teresa is strange - it feels a bit like the characters are actually disintegrating before our eyes, growing fainter and less vital. The book ends on a disquieting but hardly sinister note.
The first book was called "The Part About the Critics". The second is "The Part About Amalfitano." This takes a philosophy professor, a very minor character from the first book, and makes him the protagonist. We see his time in Spain, learn about his insane wife, and then follow him to Santa Teresa and then - very cool - watch as he slips into madness himself. Now, all five books are told by a third-person limited narrator, so while we don't learn everything, we do get to hear the thoughts of the protagonists. What's interesting and tragic about the professor's case is that, at some level, he realizes that he is going mad. He feels bad about it, and especially guilty about the strain it places on his daughter. But at the same time, he can't help writing crazy diagrams, then trying to derive meaning from them; or, in one of the best images of the book, hanging a book on geometry outside his house like a piece of laundry. (Trust me, it's much more effective in the novel than it sounds.)
The third book, "The Part about Fate," tracks Fate, a political and cultural writer for a Harlem-based magazine. After a really interesting and meandering passage set in Detroit, which includes a sermon that in turn includes several recipes, the book turns once again towards Santa Teresa. By now we've heard several whispers and rumors about the murders in the city, which are making the vague, disassociated dread of the early book more concrete and sinister. Fate goes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but thinks that the murders are much more important, and starts his own inquiries. He crosses paths with some shady characters who may want to help him or kill him, and in their company he meets Rosa, the daughter of Amalfitano. The details we hear about the murders seem unreal - hundreds of women kidnapped, brutally raped and slain, over a span of two decades. Police incompetence or worse keeps the populace on edge. A killer has been found, supposedly, but more murders have been committed after his incarceration than before. And when people ask after the murders, they in turn seem to risk disappearing. Fate ultimately rescues Rosa, and it feels like they're on the brink of figuring out what's going on, but it's simply too big and too dangerous, and the best they can do is flee to Arizona.
The second and third books are both pretty short. The fourth, "The Part about the Crimes," may be the longest. It is the most technically constructed of all five books. For the most part, it is a chronological description of the murders, told one by one, each related in the style of a brief news article. It's clinical and quite horrible. Reading through them is briefly fascinating, then sickening, then intriguing, then fascinating again, then frustrating, and ultimately disgusting. It seems clear that these cannot be random - there are simply too many murders, and too many repeated elements. And yet, they do not all fit together. Some killings may even be accidental. Others appear to be crimes of passion, with a father or boyfriend pleading guilty to the deed. Readers with analytical minds like me will feel compelled to start comparing the murders and trying to induce what is going on. Are there multiple, overlapping serial killers at work, along with some random "normal" murders? Is there a single, brutally efficient killer who changes his tactics and methods to evade discovery? After a few hundred pages, it all seems way too big for one man - no heart could be that evil for so long, could they? So, is it a sinister organization behind it, some malign entity worse than the sum of its parts? Is it the drug cartels? The legendary snuff film industry? Something darker and older, perhaps a rebirth of the Aztec death cults? Your mind can't stop churning, and yet no satisfying answer is forthcoming.
Interwoven with the analytical sections on murder are several parallel plot lines. These mostly concern the police who investigate the crimes, and we learn that they are a wildly diverse bunch... one or two are talented and driven, more are incompetent, and a few are outright bad people. We also meet the accused, a young German small-business owner who met one of the dead. He doesn't seem like a nice person, and you can imagine a story where he is the murderer, but it just doesn't seem to fit together here. The wheels keep turning - did he kill one girl? Five? None? In prison, he dreams of a giant who comes to the prison, destroying everyone to rescue him. You can almost feel the giant's footsteps as his laughter recedes behind prison bars.
The fifth book, "The Part about Archimboldi", brings 2666 back around to the beginning and ties things together without really resolving it (again, as far as I can see). We learn about the origins of the mysterious author, who was born as a large, gentle, and strange child, then fought as part of the Nazi army in World War II, but didn't kill anyone except for a man who ran an impromptu death camp. You read about his transformation into an author, which is beautiful and great to read - I got the sense that we're seeing a lot of Bolano in those passages. A few pieces get linked together. We learn that the German in a Santa Teresa prison is actually Archimboldi's son. The novel ends with Archimboldi heading towards Mexico, before he actually arrives, and hence forming a sort of circle with the part about the critics.
I enjoy mystery and strangeness, and don't feel too gypped that we never learn what's behind the murders, or what Archimboldi does upon reaching Mexico. I'm not convinced that the answers are not in there - if I had more stamina, I'd immediately re-read the book, looking for more clues and connections between the parts. I've read enough Latin American authors to not expect a perfectly rational center, though.
I AM still really curious about what the title itself means. Before I knew anything about the book, I assumed that 2666 was a year, and thought this might be science fiction. That obviously isn't the case, though. Well... I guess there's an extremely remote chance that it might refer to 2666 BC, in which case the Aztecs are way more important than they seem from the brief mentions they get within the book. Assuming there were Aztecs back then... my mesoamerican history is pretty fuzzy. Or, how about this: 666 is the sign of the beast, right? I'm not sure what the prefixing 2 may represent - two devils, doubly evil, etc. While reading the fourth book, it occurred to me more than once that 2666 might refer to the number of murders, including those bodies that were never discovered.
Like a lot of great literature, 2666 is far more than its plot or its characters. The fractured style it possesses is also its strength: you can read it as one novel, as five books, as a dozen plots, as hundreds of stories. Yes, this is all pretty overwhelming, but it's also exhilarating and well told. Having conquered what I'm sure is Bolano's most difficult piece, I'm likely to revisit his gentler offerings in the future.