"Every minor work has a secret author and every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces. Who writes the minor work? A minor writer, or so it appears. The poor man's wife can testify to that, she's seen him sitting at the table, bent over the blank pages, restless in his chair, his pen racing over the paper. The evidence would seem to be incontrovertible. But what she's seen is only the outside. The shell of literature. A semblance," said the old man to Archimboldi and Archimboldi thought of Ansky. "The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece...It took me a long time to read this book--so long that it has already stopped being fashionable. I read The Savage Detectives late, too, but very quickly: after you get through the first, deliberately naif-puerile-bohemian section, the rest is an irresistible and momentous narrative that engulfs you whole. I have nothing but praise and admiration for it; there are few works of literature that better capture the experience of being around poets and feeling in pursuit of something, and do it with so little sentimentality or cynicism. With 2666, I am much more conflicted.
"Excuse the metaphors. Sometimes, in my excitement, I wax romantic. But listen. Every work that isn't a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. You've been a soldier, I imagine, and you know what I mean. Every book that isn't a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot solider, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece. When I came to this realization, I gave up writing. Still, my mind didn't stop working. In fact, it worked better when I wasn't writing. I asked myself: why does a masterpiece need to be hidden? What strange forces wreath it in secrecy and mystery?
...Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it."
- Roberto Bolaño, 2666
First, the book is long. It is long for a host of good reasons, and the length does become less pressing as one nears the end; still, the weight imposes a certain dread and a set of expectations that the narrative is not designed to fulfill. Originally, Bolaño wanted it to be published as five books (primarily for financial reasons). I can't help but wonder if it would not have been better that way, especially because it would have fit more neatly with his earlier work. Second--and this is of course a related complaint--the individual parts are uneasy with one another. Sometimes Bolaño seems enraptured by their separate plotlines and pursues them further than they should really go, only to be pulled back by the centripetal force of the novel's center.
This "hidden center," as we are informed by the brief concluding essay, is something Bolaño thought of as crucial to the narrative. It is supposed, of course, to be tied in with the date 2666 (which is not, to my knowledge, even mentioned), and it has something to do with the murders and with the city of Santa Teresa. We are evidently to puzzle over the book and find it, and all the mysteries and loose ends will be revealed. I cannot be the only reader who resents having to play this kind of game. I resent it in Joyce, I resent it in Cortázar, and, depending on my mood, I definitely resent it in Eco. (I'll make an exception for Pale Fire.) It amounts to a kind of crude literalist interpretation of every author's fondest wish--to be read carefully. Invariably these puzzle-box novels carry with them a claim of profundity, but the artificiality of the device belies this and reduces them to the status of a Choose Your Own Adventure. This is even worse when the author is dead and hence no longer able to make ex cathedra pronouncements à la J. K. Rowling.
Fortunately, 2666 is admirably capable of redeeming itself. Bolaño's real gift as a writer is not simply his sensitivity to mysterious, unarticulable driving forces. It is also his ability to make new stories sprout from every nook and cranny of the narrative. In 2666, minor, rich, barely relevant stories are everywhere: they're found in notebooks, in casual conversations, on the Internet. Every murder, even, is its own story. It is precisely these literary blooms--which, under the theory of the hidden center, would no doubt appear as "minor works"--that give the most rewarding structure to the book. Forget Santa Teresa; Bolaño has other stories to tell.
My own reading, then--adopted, in true contemporary spirit, in contradiction to the author's explicit statements--is one in which the center disappears. The Savage Detectives is a spiral with no center, or rather with a center consisting of an insoluble (?) puzzle. 2666 is too. The lines converge towards some kind of point, sure, but this point is in effect an emptiness. One can give this emptiness a mystical twist--or see it as a red herring. It matters little. 2666 might disintegrate, but its stories remain.