Slogging through “2666”
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book. I think it was middle school, when I failed to complete “The Red Badge of Courage.” And I managed to get through Stephen Crane’s classic war novel in high school, so it no longer counts as an unread book.
It’s been a long time, but I’m now faced with the question of whether to bail on a book: Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s massive 2004 novel “2666.”
I’d heard nothing but good things about “2666,” and when I started reading it, months ago, I was excited. I usually enjoy long, acclaimed literary novels. I liked “Infinite Jest.” I love “Moby Dick.” I’m a fan of both “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” But I’m struggling with “2666.” And because I always finish the books I start, I feel like I’m trapped in a novel I cannot get out of. For various reasons, I cannot bring myself to stop reading. But I feel like, at my current pace, it’s going to take me another three years to read “2666,” and that there are a lot of books I’d rather read instead.
So why can’t I stop reading “2666”? Well, it was so widely praised I feel like at some point it must all come together and start to make sense. I mean, sometimes long literary novels require a certain amount of patience. But I’ve read about 300 pages, and I’m still puzzled by the book’s reason for existence. What is this book about? What is it trying to say? I have no idea. I’m worried that I’ll read all 900 pages and feel like I’ve wasted months and months of precious reading time.
But there’s a part of me that’s optimistic: I actually like Bolano’s writing style, and his knack for storytelling. “2666” is a sprawling, multi-part novel; I’m midway through the third of five sections, and I’ve followed numerous characters through Europe, America and Mexico, where the unsolved serial homicides of young women in Ciudad Juarez has emerged as a major theme. When I an actively reading “2666,” I feel engaged and intrigued, and I take pleasure in the high quality of the writing. But I never feel particularly compelled to read “2666,” which might be fine if it was only 200 pages long, but is a huge detriment when it’s almost 1,000 pages long.
Another factor in my dogged persistence is the high praise “2666” has received from various friends whose taste I respect. When I reached out to my friend Geoff and explained to him my “2666” problem, he had nothing but praise for the novel. But he also admitted that he never finished it. “I read the first part, maybe the first few parts, of “2666” and loved it, but paused and loaned it to a friend who’s had it for years and keeps promising to bring it back,” Geoff wrote. ... “But I guess it’s true that I didn’t finish 2666 and neither has (my friend). And I don’t think her big-reading husband has even tried it.”
Whenever I glance at “2666,” which has taken up a semi-permanent residence on my coffee table, I feel a bit guilty. But my friend TZ informs me that there’s no shame in not finishing a novel. In fact, she adheres to the 50-page rule — the idea that if a book hasn’t grabbed you in 50 pages, it’s not going to grab you, and you should stop reading it. “I always finish books,” I said, when TZ explained the 50-page rule to me. But now I’m starting to see the merits in her approach to reading.
Not too long ago, I told a friend that I was in my late 20s when I realized that you don’t have to finish a drink. This revelation occurred at my friend Brian’s 30th birthday party, when I came to the conclusion that no good could come from finishing the gin and tonic I had just ordered. I put the glass down, bid farewell to my friends, and walked home.
“Books are like drinks,” my friend informed me. “You don’t have to finish them.”
Last night my friend and I found ourselves watching a difficult, patience-trying movie, and for the first time ever I left a film early. I probably would have stuck it out if I was by myself, but my friend was getting increasingly fidgety, and it suddenly occurred to me that it was extremely unlikely that anything interesting would happen in the final five minutes and alter my opinion of the film.
The film we were watching? An experimental feature film called “A Spell to Ward off the Darkness,” which was showing at EMPAC in Troy. I had read about this movie, and wanted to see it. The film is divided into three parts: The first depicts life on a commune in Estonia, the second follows a member of the commune on a solo hiking trip into the woods, and the third shows this man performing in a small club with a Norwegian black metal band.
There were a lot of beautiful, strangely entrancing things in “A Spell to Ward off the Darkness,” and I’ll admit that I’ve been thinking about it ever since I decided I could no longer tolerate its long takes, slow pace and mostly wordless narrative and walked out of the theater.
Like books, I always finish films, and “A Spell to Ward off the Darkness” reminded me a little bit of “2666”: It was fascinating and challenging, but it never rewarded my patience, even though I stuck with it, optimistic and hopeful until almost the very end.
So am I going to stop reading “2666”? Probably not. I’m enjoying the third section, and I’m interested to see where it goes. Maybe around page 500, the method to Bolano’s madness will all become clear.
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