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The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

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John: Kevin, I know that our commentaries are meant to be dialogs back and forth between the two of us, but for today’s contest, I feel compelled to address 2666 directly.

An Open Letter to the Novel 2666 by Robert Bolaño

Dear 2666,

In my commentary on your first-round contest with Steer Toward Rock I said some not particularly kind things about you. I doubted your status as “masterpiece.” I called you “tedious.” I implied (OK, more than implied) that your warm critical reception is at least partially, if not primarily a function of groupthink.

But I must admit that the strength of tide of your support has me doubting those conclusions. A staggering 93 percent of our peanut gallery agreed with your victory (though to be fair, so did I). Since our first meeting you have won the National Book Critics Circle award. In the comments on that commentary I was told I look, “reactionary.” And now, Maud Newton, a reader whose taste I find virtually unimpeachable, also finds you compelling and puts you through to the next round.

So, I tried you again. But in the end, I’m afraid that I just can quit you. Your champions tell me that the litany of sex acts in Book One and the interchangeability of the male characters is part of the point, Bolaño is illustrating the shallowness of the male psyche when it comes to sex and human relationships. It is funny. It is ironic.

OK, maybe.

Or Book Four where we are given a litany of horrific details about how women have been raped and murdered. Eventually, the horror gives way to numbness as the body count rises beyond counting. This is the point, your backers say. Bolaño is demonstrating how we become immune to violence as we are exposed to more and more of it.

Fair enough, possibly. I’m almost ready to admit that it’s not you, it’s me. I’m the problem. I’m failing to see your genius because of the reactionary scrim over my eyes.

But then, I read first round judge Brockman’s semi-confessional that he didn’t really get you either.

And I also start to wonder if some of your supporters aren’t guilty of the “imitative fallacy” where we can explain away the tedium and numbing quality of the experience by saying the tedium is the point. The book is sprawling and unfocussed and refuses to resolve because life is sprawling and unfocused and refuses to resolve. You are offering us nothing less than the sum total of the human experience in all its numbing tediousness.

Under this model, even if we decide that the whole thing is an ultra-meta in-joke designed to see how far critics will stretch themselves in order to rationalize a masterpiece, you’ve got us covered because you can always say, “well, that was the point.” You have become a vessel into which we can pour just about anything, which I suppose is something.

In the end, what I’m forced to recognize is that it’s not you, and it’s not me, it’s us. You and I just aren’t compatible. I suppose I can appreciate you as an object of fascination, but I’m not entirely convinced there’s anything sincere about you and so while I hope we part friends, I think it’s important that we part once and for all. I know we’re going to have to spend more time together in the next round and quite possibly the Zombie round and finals as well, but I think I’ll probably spend most of my time commenting about whatever book(s) you’re matched against, or something entirely unrelated, which is what I’ve done in previous years when I hadn’t bothered to read any of the books in the tournament.

Just so you know, I’ll be taking you to the library sale where I hope you’ll be able to find a good home.

John Warner

Kevin: There are few people out there who talk about books with more class and intelligence than Maud. And frankly it’s not hard to see how 2666 got past A Partisan’s Daughter (or Steer Toward Rock). If you put 2666 on a table next to either of those books and left the room, the Bolaño would probably eat them all by itself.

After Bolaño’s first-round win several champions of the book stated that you and I hadn’t really justified why we don’t think 2666 is very good. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to mix it up in the comments, but as long as we’re going to have this novel to kick around for a little while, let me pick up where I left off.

Did you ever hear a six-year-old try to describe a TV show he’s just watched, and his confused re-telling of what happened takes longer than watching the actual show? Reading 2666 is like listening to someone tell you about a story he’s heard and doesn’t remember very well. You always feel once or twice removed from the action. A lot of the description is vague or passive. The narrator frequently forgets something important that happened in a previous scene and so he just inserts it five pages later. It’s almost as if Bolaño meant to go back and move these sentences to their proper place but either forgot or ran out of time.

And it’s boring. Especially the first 250 pages or so. It gets a little better after that, almost like the first two “books” were a test of the reader’s dedication. Despite Bolaño’s alleged instructions that each of the five sections should be released as separate novels over five years, the third part, which is about an American journalist who travels to Mexico to see a boxing match, is the only book of the five that could actually survive in some form on its own. Book Four tries to take certain elements of crime novels and fashion them into something, but what he fashions them into isn’t nearly as interesting as an actual crime novel. I counted 106 murdered women in this section (I might have missed some), all with names and backstories, their ultimate fates described in gruesome detail. Incredibly there is a complete absence of tension to accompany any of it. As you point out Bolaño’s defenders will say that numbness is supposed to be the point. The question you have to ask yourself is whether the experience of being numbed by this book is worth the price of being bored by it.

Perhaps the heart of my disagreement with people who love 2666 is simply a semantic one over the definition of a novel (they will almost certainly tell me this too is the point). There are scenes here and there that resemble plot, and figures we’ll call characters, but none of them actually add up to a story. After 900 pages the revelation at the end is barely worth the calories required to shrug. The novel doesn’t have a narrative arc so much as a narrative starburst, with fuzzy ideas and events unraveling in all different directions, occasionally referring to each other in superficial ways but never ending and never much resolving. The effect is more like somebody blew up a novel and glued it back together as best he could even if he couldn’t find all the pieces.

And maybe that’s exactly what Bolaño did. There is news of a missing sixth book to 2666 recently discovered among the author’s papers. This could be a joke (and the people who have given awards to 2666, a group that may soon include us, are probably hoping it is), but the fact that they might have published only 5/6 of this novel and nobody’s even noticed until now is actually kind of unsurprising. Adding another 200 pages probably wouldn’t change it in any material way, other than lengthwise. Heck, if you had taken an entire section of the existing book away—any of the first three sections really—I doubt anyone would have missed them either.

As you mention, with maybe two exceptions, the male characters are hardly differentiated from one another. Each sounds pretty much like all the others, and they are all mostly unpleasant. The men they don’t respect are always “faggots” or “cocksuckers.” The women in 2666 exist in order to be worshipped or to be fucked or to be tortured and murdered. If a woman isn’t an object of worship, she’s a whore. Actual whores, who are far more populous in the world of this novel than they are in the real lives of literary critics and magazine journalists (or at least I think so), are also whores.

It’s all pretty tedious even though Bolaño can be occasionally interesting or even profound. For instance, there is a thousand-word rant, appropriately enough about literary ambition, starting around page 785—“Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed…”—that’s so good (and directly relevant to the work in a self-referential way) it manages to jolt you out of your reading stupor. I’m guessing that one out of a hundred people who pick up 2666 will ever get to page 785. There is other good stuff, much of it in the final book, but finding it is like feeling around for pieces of hay in a needlestack.

In the afterward, the editor says that Bolaño left behind a note explaining that the narrator is someone named “Arturo Belano.” Belano is a fictional writer who doesn’t appear anywhere in 2666, but he is a character in other Roberto Bolaño stories where I’m told he acts as the author’s alter ego. So if I interpret that correctly, Bolaño is telling us that 2666 is supposed to be a novel written not by Bolaño but by Belano, which would make all the people in this book not fictional characters, but fictional fictional characters. Maybe that’s why I didn’t care about any of them.

Bolaño fans no doubt find all of that exciting. I would rather read 900-page novels that haven’t been blowed up so good.

On to Zombie news. A Partisan’s Daughter has now been eliminated and so we check to see where it fared in Zombie voting and we find that it didn’t do all that well. It tied for 13th, in fact. So our Zombie leaders remain the same. Through today’s match the top four (in alphabetical order) are:
  • The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
  • Netherland
  • Steer Toward Rock
  • Unaccustomed Earth

Reader Comments

On March 19, 2009 at 8:26 AM Matt Evans said…

I saw /2666/ on an episode of "Cops" the other night: on the street outside a West Village bar, shirt- and pantless, wearing grayish Hanes briefs, drunk, shouting profanities. A small, stylishly dressed crowd looks on. At one point he takes a swing at a deputy, and gets clubbed down with a nightstick. You see him in the cop car's back seat, blood and drool and snot on his chin, trying to hump the front seat. He gets clubbed again. Lying in the foot-well, face halfway to the camera, alternately weeping and mumbling, "I'm a goddamn hero. I'm a goddamn hero!"

On March 19, 2009 at 9:10 AM Matt said…

It's Belano.

On March 19, 2009 at 9:17 AM Rosecrans said…

Thanks for the correction Matt, it's been fixed.

On March 19, 2009 at 9:52 AM J said…

Having not read 2666 (but living with someone who did and was underwhelmed), I have to say thanks for your well-argued commentaries above. Salivating over 2666 by critics has become as cliche as politicians and Miss America contestants choosing the Bible as their favorite book. So here's a suggestion for next year -- decide to either completely fill the brackets with "critical darlings" (whatever next year's 2666 or NETHERLAND or A MERCY are) and let them battle each other out in something that'd likely resemble a Michiko Kakutani fever dream (but be of less interest to the average good reader); or fill it with books you and like-minded folks actually loved (CITY OF REFUGE, NORTHERN CLEMENCY, DART LEAGUE KING, FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS) which'd not only take the "snob appeal" aspect out of play, but also provide more slots for book discovery. (I've already found three or four books I'd not been familiar with that I'm now going to go out and get because of this tournament -- all originally seeded 3 or 4. Filling the whole bracket with these smaller -- yet no less worthy -- books would only open up the potential reading pool even more.) Just an idea... That said, enjoying the tournament as always.

On March 19, 2009 at 10:19 AM Amy said…

What J said. Books like 2666 have gotten plenty of press. I'd never heard of City of Refuge before this tournament, and I'm reading it now and loving it.

On March 19, 2009 at 10:24 AM Drew Johnson said…


I applaud your efforts. I still disagree with you both regarding 2666--and I still think you both resemble the fellow in the horror film casting about for chairs, tables, lampshades, ANYTHING to put between you and Bolano's Monster.

BUT your explanations weren't dismissive--they tried to account for the elephant on your nightstands. That's the difference.

Let me concede that when I read The Savage Detectives a couple of years back, I really liked the writing and parts of the book but was disappointed with it as a whole and as a novel.

2666 wasn't disappointing--and, just let me say, with that prior experience of The Savage Detectives, I sort of expected disappointment.

I don't know if it matters (or whether either of you would be prepared to give more of your lives to Bolano) but I think his shorter works are a better way in. They certainly were for me. New Directions has been dutifully bringing them out for years while FSG gets to swoop in and grab the cover review of the NYTBR twice.

By Night In Chile is pretty damn nifty. Distant Star, too. Of the stories (in Last Evenings on Earth) try "Sensini" and/or "Anne Moore's Life" and/or "Dentist"

On March 19, 2009 at 10:29 AM A said…

I am thoroughly enjoying the tournament, including the judges' reviews and Kevin and John's commentary. Similar to "J" above, I've found several books I hadn't heard of that I now want to read. I had been feeling compelled to read 2666 and Netherlands based on all the attention they were getting, but the more detailed commentary and analysis in this tournament has confirmed my decision not to read them. I can't wait to see what happens to 2666 in the next round.

On March 19, 2009 at 10:59 AM Timothy said…

I actually like seeing the kind of giants vs. cinderella match-ups here, just as I do in the NCAA tournament. If you just have books like 2666 and A Mercy battling right off, you'd have no potential for a real upset. It'd be kind of boring, actually. At the same time, I also don't quite understand the choices for the cinderellas. There are better books with better chances out there.

Another thing I don't quite like: this sort of weirdly populist resentment posture against books like Home, Netherland, etc. If you'd rather be doing some beach reading, it's alright, but I sense just a tad much of this undertone on both the judges' and commenters' part, in terms of cheering for the ironically low-brow. There are acclaimed books that maybe undeserving of their praise, but just because a book is challenging and asks more of you the reader than passive entertainement, doesn't mean it should be chucked away off-hand.

On March 19, 2009 at 11:08 AM Kevin Guilfoile said…

/"I still think you both resemble the fellow in the horror film casting about for chairs, tables, lampshades, ANYTHING to put between you and Bolano's Monster."/

Ha! I like that.

To your point, Drew, I don't think this is a book that should just be dismissed. There is probably more stuff to talk about in this novel than any book I've read in a long time, and if /2666/ keeps winning I'm prepared to go on and on about it.

I agree there is enough good stuff in here to make up a good (much shorter) novel. I just think Bolaño put way, way too many obstacles between the good stuff and the reader, and he put too little (I might argue even no) effort into tying it all together. In the end it felt sort of nihilistic to me, which I don't think was his point (unless nihilism WAS his point, in which case, well done!) I suspect a lot of people are either going to give up on it or be unsatisfied when it's over.

But I would read Bolaño again. Especially shorter Bolaño. I appreciate the list of suggestions.

On March 19, 2009 at 12:40 PM Jim said…

The hugest problem with the book, which certainly has its shimmering, blissful moments of genius, is that Part IV is pretty much unreadable. Yes, the numbness to violence IS part of the point. But isn't there a less apparent, more involving way of saying that? I would call that part of the book, which I've heard many people refer to as the centerpiece, shallow and obvious. If you don't get the point in the first 50 pages of it, there's certainly no need to read through the next 200.

On March 20, 2009 at 12:36 AM Toni Morrison Loves Fruits and Vegetables said…

Try Nazi Literature in the Americas, a series of short bios of fictional leaders across the two continents.

On March 20, 2009 at 12:59 AM chiles said…

i thoroughly enjoyed 2666 and didn't find it boring at all. But i have to disagree with my fellow 2666-defenders, the ones you mention in your commentary. Personally, i don't think 'that was the point' is the only defense or, in fact, the *right* one for 2666. If you say something against the book, then being told 'that's the point' won't--and shouldn't--make you go, 'oh, well, that's perfectly all right then.' I mean, if you don't like what was done and see it as a fault, if you don't like what the author's done for you, doesn't the *intention* to do it all the same just make the author a bastard? Besides, it seems a bit presumptuous for us to say 'that was [Bolaño's] point' as the fact is we really can't say; we don't really know what B intended. Add to that the fact that different readers have different responses to the same things in the book. For instance, i've heard readers say that for them the horror of the Part about the Crimes never went away and in fact continued to increase, gaining tension as the number of bodies piled up, until the floor inevitably dropped from under them and they realized there would be no solution to these horrors, contrary to the numbness others experienced and say is 'the point' of the book. Did these readers, then, 'miss the point'?

The best defense i've heard for this Part (which, sadly, will probably do nothing to alleviate your boredom) is two fold: 1) B's style, the affectless litany of details, plus the completeness of the list of victims actually constitute the most respectful way of handling these attrocities, based as they were on real life killings; 2) the style, mimicking forensic reports, allows the reader to play a more active role as detective, leading the thoughtful reader to some rather interesting conclusions re:what's going on in Santa Teresa versus what's going on in the rest of 2666.

i agree that 2666 isn't quite a novel, or not a novel as we've come to expect it. To me, B's work, more than simply perhaps perversely rejecting formal ideas of 'different kinds of literature', irrespective of how we classify them (e.g., novel vs short story; prose vs poetry; fiction vs nonfiction; biography vs memoir vs novel; mainstream vs genre; detective fiction vs science fiction; journalistic article vs laundry list; &c), makes the case for an 'unprejudiced' approach to literature, i.e., one that doesn't make this kind of distinction between forms. Which will be inevitably offputting for a lot of people, i know, but i find it pretty invigorating.

Plus, that it's such an ugly--truly grotesque, in fact--monster of a book makes it all the more entertaining for me to watch it stomp through the competition, wondering what could possibly bring it down, like Godzilla or something, a giant radioactive monster lizard that spews flames and whose existence makes no real sense.

On March 20, 2009 at 4:11 AM Jack said…

I discovered Bolaño through reading many of the books of last year's ToB. I didn't find "The Savage Detectives" very palatable. And it did lose in the first round last year. After finding "Savage Detectives" disappointing, I was still sufficiently impressed with his reputation to seek out other books.

"Nazi Literature in America" seemed like the best bet -- because I'm a big fan of satire. And also perhaps because I like the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem -- and he wrote a book of reviews of fictional books -- "A Perfect Vacuum." So maybe "Nazi Lit" would be something like that -- only much better, I hoped, since "Perfect Vacuum" wasn't one of my favorites of Lem's work -- not by a long shot. But "Nazi Literature in America" proved hard to find -- none of the libraries had it -- and neither did the bookstores I checked.

So I had hopes seeing 2666 in this year's list of tournament books that maybe this would be the novel which would reveal to me the real genius of this man Bolaño. Except for Maud Newton's decision today -- nearly everything I've read about it makes me want to skip it altogether. Newton's verdict is so short and essentially bland, that it does little to change my mind.

I'm convinced she honestly enjoyed it -- or at least found it more worthy of reading than Bernières. "Partisan's Daughter" was barely worth mentioning; that's the sense her words conveyed to me.

I'm a big fan of ToB,however -- and have begun reading several of the other entries in this year's round. Maybe it's more a problem with the judging. In at least a couple of the matches, the judges seem to have been heavily swayed by a book or an author's reputation, while finding the actual reading difficult (Matthiessen's and Bolaño's books, mostly).

We readers don't want this sort of judging. We're looking for judges to tell us what's really exciting and fun to read -- not what we're supposed to like or which author ranks highest as a literary celebrity.

Being a judge means accepting this responsibility. If they're too cowed by books which have won other literary awards, or by an author's fame -- then they should bow out and let someone else step forward who's able to put those things aside.

On March 20, 2009 at 1:53 PM meave said…

Timothy, consider the implications when you say things like: "Another thing I don't quite like: this sort of weirdly populist resentment posture against books like Home, Netherland, etc. If you'd rather be doing some beach reading, it's alright, but I sense just a tad much of this undertone on both the judges' and commenters' part, in terms of cheering for the ironically low-brow."

What are you calling "ironically low-brow" -- other books in the ToB? Certainly the writing, scope, plot, everything in each novel in the Tournament differs from the others, but does the brevity of one in comparison to the massiveness of another make the smaller one "low-brow"? Are you criticizing ease of reading? Difficulty is, of course, in no way indicative of quality.

Further, "populist resentment posture" -- I find that rather rude. "Populist" does not mean "lowest common denominator" or "the great unread majority." Come now.