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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Toby Martinez de las Rivas and his Terror - OF SEX!!!

Or: everything you wanted to know about Terror, but I couldn't find the space to talk about in my review

Considering I just spent a whole damn review talking about Toby Martinez de las Rivas (I can get the name right when I'm writing it) it might seem like overkill to go back to him this early. But in truth there is a lot of stuff in his debut that I wasn't able to cover in the review, so I think a coda of sorts is warranted.

As I already said in the review, Terror is a very original piece of work and it's hard to think of other poets in the UK who are doing something similar, other than perhaps James Brookes, who shares some of the historical concerns but writes in a completely different style. That said, there was one point in Terror where Toby reminded me sharply of another talented young poet in the UK, whose name I shall temporarily withhold for dramatic effect.

Who is our mystery wo/man?

Which English poet is most like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, the bard utterly unlike all other bards of his time?

We'll get to that. First, though, a small preamble – of Terror's four sections, the one that did not find space in my review was the third, a brief pamphlet of prose poems entitled Renovatur. It's actually a very interesting section – so interesting, in truth, that it's worth treating it separately in this article.

One of the best things about the writing in Terror is that it's incredibly subtle – Toby has an extraordinary talent for picking words that, strung together in the bead of a sentence, allow for a great variety of readings. Consider the following lines (I am quoting from Renovatur, as I will be doing without exception for the remainder of this article).

Do not turn from them though they waver & diminish in the fundamental blank of the eye, beacons of vacillate, scared light, or the unrehearsable memory of being born
The gravel beds beyond them, & beyond them, the cress beds

These lines are from a poem called Through the Window into the Garden that was His Last Sight. Starting from the title, and from the opening lines (which are about the birthday of Toby's son), the poem seems to have a lot to do with the mirror processes of coming into and out of life. This concern is immediately followed through in the poem that succeeds Through the Window..., which begins with the line 'I write this on the XVII of March, which is the day I brought you into the world to die'. (Toby's poems seldom work in isolation from each other and this parallelism is not coincidental, but – I would contend – one of the poet's most successful and conscious strategies) 

While the 'unrehearsable memory of being born' is clearly connected to the above topic, what does the last line have to do with anything? 'The gravel beds beyond, & beyond them, the cress beds'. There may be symbolic connotations to real gravel and cress that I'm missing, but on first examination it just looks a solid image in which to anchor the conclusion of the poem after much abstraction.

The line actually works on that level too, BUT – notice for a moment what other words re-echo within that line, by pure strength of consonance:
The grave beds beyond them, & beyond them, the cross beds

'Gravel' folds over into 'grave' and 'cress' folds over into 'cross'. The line then takes on a whole new meaning, one that strongly connects with the rest of the poem, as the 'bed of the grave' lies inevitably beyond birth, and the cross – an overt religious symbol – lies beyond death itself. If you read it this way, the last line of this poem seems to lead quite naturally into the first line of the next.

So a verse that at first seemed to have been placed there almost arbitrarily conceals, in fact, a highly suggestive spiritual arc.

I made my case by this individual poem but I could take examples from almost anywhere. Terror is packed with astoundingly rich verse, the subtlety and ambiguity of which is – and here I must add my voice to the consensus – quite unrivalled in contemporary English poetry, at least from what I've read.

Somehow this image comes up when you Google "unrivalled"
Now I wouldn't be writing this article if I just wanted to spread Nutella onto Toby's already well-buttered toast – and indeed the point is that this incredibly subtle language is a double-edged sword. What I mean is that Toby is able to use this language to adumbrate some enormously suggestive and inspiring ideas, yes, but on the other hand he can't keep it from revealing those aspects of his thinking that are less appealing and grounded.

Allow me to elucidate. The opening line of the beautifully titled Pyropsalm goes like this:
Separate. Radically alone, even inside each other. Physical bliss equals extinction.

I remember that I was immediately struck by this because it resonates with an oddly naïve – even a bit childish – anxiety about sexuality and relationships. I mean, it may be heresy to evoke such a comparison, but the first thing that 'Radically alone, even inside each other' reminded me of was Linkin Park's With You, which goes 'Even though you're so close to me, you're still so distant'.

Pyropsalm, which opens with at least an element of simplistic sexual anxiety, then closes with these lines:
Its denotion of self: vertical, lowering, isolate. Unblent, unbearable in the tower of its resolution 
How far have I fallen? My fontanelle is still open

A fontanelle, as per dictionary, is 'a space between the bones of the skull in an infant or fetus, where ossification is not complete and the sutures not fully formed.' So the final line can be read to mean a lot of things. As an image it brings to mind vulnerability, while philosophically one might read it to say that the mind is open to physical intrusion – possibly violation, echoing Toby's concerns in previous parts of the book about 'The body as image of the state, violated and violating'. In this case, the poet is conflating a physical violation with one of identity – the 'denotion of self', instead of being internally developed and explored, is entering Toby's brain from outside and without permission.

So far, so obvious. But I think there's at least one more really interesting way to read that line; in particular I am interested in what appears to be a very concealed, very silent 'elle', that is to say, French for the pronoun 'she'. The word 'fontanelle' comes from the French and literally means 'little fountain'; broken down, the words could be read as: 'My fountain: elle', where fountain is a source of water, so metaphorically a source of life.

You may say that this reading is about as stretched and convoluted as a rubber octopus. I'll grant you that, taken in isolation, it sounds a bit crazy – and I probably wouldn't have thought of it if 'fontanelle' weren't such an uncommon word, one whose very presence commands reaction and active interpretation. Still, I feel it is at least somewhat validated by the context, over and beyond the teen angst in the opening line. The idea that Toby's poem may be sub-textually privileging the feminine Other is consistent with the terror (what else) that the previous lines express when introducing the phallic signifier: a 'vertical' object, a 'tower', that is 'unbearable' because it contaminates and possibly violates his sense of 'self'. Even the line 'How far have I fallen?' seems to fearfully conflate the self and the phallus – and we can get to this sentiment either by taking the 'I' as a phallic symbol in and of itself, in which case the line becomes a statement of impotence ('How far has my I fallen?'), or simply by consonance: 'I fallen : I phallus'.

The sentence 'My fontanelle is still open' can therefore be decomposed like this.

a.) My fountain: elle means that the speaker finds his sustenance in the Other, specifically the gendered feminine Other, as a classical case of compensation (i.e., his own sexuality is deficient).

b.) is still refers directly to the condition expressed in My fountain: elle, meaning that the condition is chronic. It points to the speaker's inability to grow out of his dependence on the gendered Other (and by extension, the inability of his language to grow out of similar constraints of gender representation, i.e. gender as necessarily framed in a bipolar dependency relation).

c.) open, aside from the patent Yonic connotations that reinforce the sexual undertones of the line, also closes the poem on a statement of vulnerability – reiterating that the speaker's condition is one of fear and need, not comfort or acceptance.

So – 'My fontanelle is still open', in reverse order, translates to:

I am vulnerable – [because] I cannot grow out of – my dependence on the other gender.

In brief, and for all their lyric transport, these are simply the words of someone who is unable to grow up. Now you may say that this reading is about as stretched as Jean Claude Van Damme's legs when he does the splits. Judge, you may tell me, lighting up your pipe, your reading is far too abstract and far-fetched. You should stick a bit more closely to the literal meaning of what you read.

Ok then – let's try that.

What is the literal meaning of 'My fontanelle is still open'? Well, you say, inhaling from your pipe and blowing rings of scented smoke in the air, typically only an infant has an open fontanelle. So what he's saying is that he is still an infant.

Wait a second, what's this? The purely literal reading of the line comes to the same identical conclusion as the wildest abstract reading! In both cases, the poet is giving us the words of someone who can't grow up. (Go sit in the corner, you and your pipe!)

Captain Sparrow, literally
To be clear, I'm as conscious as anybody else that this reading sounds rather far-fetched. What I want to stress is that this is all, I think, validated by context – or at least in line with it – nor would I have ventured into the reading at all if I didn't feel that it was corroborated by the rest of the book. Much like I wouldn't allow for a sexual interpretation of the last line of Pyropsalm if it weren't supported by the language of the rest of the poem, so I wouldn't allow for a sexual interpretation of the poem itself if it were an isolated case in the collection.

It is not.

In fact, the Renovatur section of the collection stands apart from the others in that it bubbles over with more or less explicit sexual allusion everywhere. The number of lines you can quote that have some element or imagery of sex in there is almost overwhelming:
the leaf of the tongue, flickering in her mouth's gospel (p.39) 
I am the unpenned bull of the Lord / whose name confounds me. That is the hunger of women. (p.39)
the lamb might lie beside the vixen, at the nipple of the vixen (p.37)
the water struck by stars & streaked with filth (p.41)
the angel, must suffer us at its nudity (p.46)
the pikeish ventral tank, pillars of flame (p.46)
In my carriage of maleness, I am his radiant bride, bisexual as death. (p.48)
unearned wanting for his bodiless touch (p.48)
lead shot cascading in the broken well (p.49)

Mostly, these lines have in common a sense of unease and inadequacy, especially when it comes to discussing or including masculinity (or tropes thereof). Feminine eroticism is effectively hallowed ('her mouth's gospel'), metaphors to describe the phallus are threatening ('pillars of flame', the 'carriage of maleness' that is associated to 'death'), and the physical reality that sex forces upon you – that is to say, the reality of confronting your own body and someone else's – is infallibly brushed away: contrast the dangerous 'unpenned bull' associated to masculinity (the 'Lord'), with the ethereal and apparently unsexed 'angel' (I say apparently - if the 'elle' in fontanelle is a 'fountain of life', then the feminine Other has already been established as an angel of sorts), and ask yourself why the speaker is 'wanting for his bodiless touch'. Emphasis on the desire for something BODILESS in a collection where the word 'body' is everything.

So it seems that much of Renovatur is really about saying 'I cannot grow up', at least when it comes to the speaker's relationship with the other gender. And yes, I do think this is a genuine and valid criticism that can be levelled at this part of the collection – and the reason I said in my review that the first and second parts of the book are awesome but this third part is so-so. It's not bad by any means – on the contrary, the textual and philosophical richness here is real and rewarding. It's just a shame that it should be held down by this sense of emotional immaturity that rather undermines the composed intelligence of the verse.

In this, Toby Martinez de las Rivas very much reminded me of another rising star of English contemporary poetry, and this would be – drum-roll – our mystery man, a.k.a. Sam Riviere.

It's been a couple of years since I read Riviere, so he may just have grown into his shoes by now, but my conclusion when I reviewed his debut 81 Austerities was that the guy was very creative and intelligent et all, but suffered from a bothersome tendency towards infantilism, evident especially in his approach to sexuality. This is very much the problem with Renovatur – albeit not with Terror as a whole, and I can't explain why this problem surfaces only in the book's third section (parts one and two are, in my opinion, flawless, while part four suffers from other, more serious problems that I explore in the review).

Other than this particular weakness, Martinez has very little in common with Riviere – as indeed he has little in common with any other poet, barring superficial or (arguably) coincidental aspects of his verse. I'd agree with those praising Toby for his originality, as I for one haven't seen anything out there quite like his work. That being said, I sometimes have the impression that when faced with the considerable difficulty of his poetry, some people respond with the Margaret Atwood line: 'I don't understand a word of it, so it must be good'. That's the moment when praise just turns into hype, and in which I step out of the bus. I'd argue that the challenges posed by Terror are an invitation to engage and potentially disagree with it. If this means identifying some aspects of the book where it – or the arguments it forwards – are lacking in coherence or relevance, and also accosting Martinez to other poets in terms of his shortcomings rather than his merits, then I for one am more than happy to bite the bullet. There are many things that should, can and do terrify me, but sex – and for that matter masculinity – are not on the list.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Suzanne Collins' "Catching Fire" and Linda La Plante's "Wrongful Death"

Ain't that scary
Autrement, A Concise Reading Journal by the Judge

Airports terrify me. Not for the prospect of flying, rather because the only way to kill time in there is to go leafing in the bookshops, and these always seem to contain the most insulting samples of literature ever assembled in a single place. This is, I fear, an unfortunate necessity of our civilisation: whenever I have to go on a particularly long journey (eight plus hours, staying away two or three weeks), I have to take a book with me that a.) cannot possibly tire me, no matter how long I sit there reading it, and b.) that won’t be over and done with in just one hour. Airport novels are engineered for just that.

The thing is that there are almost no novels that can meet those criteria and still be good. I can think of George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire that do the job wondrously, and when I was a kid I could read Michael Crichton from dawn to past midnight. The problem with the former is the release date of his next book (see the self-fulfilling prophecy, when the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the mind like leaves), and I’ve kind of grown out of the latter. So I go for whatever I can, crossing my fingers that it’ll keep my mind distracted while I sit inside that box ten-thousand feet above-ground.
Most recent reads: Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and Lynda La Plante’s Wrongful Death.

Golly. Did I steer that car into the tree this time.

(For what it’s worth, the journey was to Brazil – I was there for three weeks over the World Cup – and these books certainly did not live up to the rest of the trip, which admittedly is not a fair comparison as it would take one hell of a novel to beat an evening spent snogging a Brazilian girl).

I suppose this isn’t a ‘review’ as much as an exorcism. These novels have made me so cynical and morose that I'd be recounting them to my therapist, if I had one. Yes, I could dress this up as an intelligent discussion about the ‘airport novel phenomenon’ and what it means to literature, but the idea seems to me like that of studying tarantulas – I’m sure there are plenty of fascinating things to be learnt, but Christ, who the heck wants to go near those things?

Let’s start with Catching Fire. I picked it up because its predecessor, The Hunger Games, actually did its job more than decently as an airport novel. It’s not exactly a difficult book to explain: the set-up is old enough that you can almost hear Suzanne Collins yelling ‘Yabba-Dabba-Doo’ as she is pitching the novel. It’s so old in fact that this is one of its strengths – the dystopian totalitarian future that she represents in such crude detail is positively comforting, being after all a trope that was tired in the early seventies, and the plot is just The Running Man except that Arnold Schwarzenegger gets replaced by an angsty teenage girl (just about the most anti-Schwarzenegger type of character they could find, showing if nothing else that this plot can run pretty smoothly without giving two figs about its central character). Then from halfway onwards it’s just Rambo with something like a love interest vaguely shoe-horned into it and some references to Imperial Rome that nobody in the USA will have picked up (oh, the capital is called ‘Panem’, like panem et circenses, that Roman thing they used to say, get it? Get it? Clever!).

The fun in it, from my personal point of view, lay purely in reading about these characters slugging it out in the woods. Everything else is just an excuse to set up the stage. (Does anyone actually give a fuck about Prim?)

(I just typed that question into Google and found out – SPOILER ALERT – that in the third book she dies).

Prim and proper
I was expecting pretty much the same from the second book, so I found it TOTALLY BAFFLING that, in a book of 400 pages, the author decided to wait until after page 300 (THREEHUNDRED) to actually get her characters to DO what her goddamn novel is supposed to be ABOUT, a.k.a. fighting! Instead, Collins seems adamant in her belief that we want to find out everything about Katniss’s mother and her sister and the hot black-haired what’s-his-name-again and the new house where they live. Or else we get to learn how Katniss goes hunting for squirrels. Or the political science behind this ‘complex’ (groan) totalitarian society. Or the baker boy’s paintings (for crying out loud). Or Prim, when things get really bad.

And even when they FINALLY get into the arena, the Rambo narrative is totally thrown out of the window in favour of these ‘alliance strategies’ they decide to undergo, which have them walking around in a goofy party comprising the angsty teenage girl, the romantic baker who always loved her, Edward Cullen with a trident, a mumbling hag piggy-backed onto the aforementioned vampire, and two genius idiots (not making this up) who can’t speak English. They don’t even fight each other much – most of the time they seem too busy stabbing the monkeys on the island (???). The narrative in Catching Fire feels less like Rambo than it does an episode of It’s a Knock-Out.

I eventually lost the novel somewhere in eastern Brazil – Vitoria, or Itabuna – and I can’t say I’ve ever felt so indifferent about losing a book in my life. I was at around page 330 and I might have been more engaged if I’d been listening to a cricket match that was being narrated by a GPS reader.

But I still had to confront the flight home, so I picked up one of those items that have always been completely arcane to me – a crime novel.

Crime, despite being one of the most popular genres in literature (and, in terms of raw economics, certainly one of the most important), is to me a mysterious whirlpool, dark and chronically holding back all of its truths. For someone with an MA in literature, I suppose it’s kind of embarrassing that I can’t name a single contemporary crime author (is Agatha Christie still alive? Does she count? I haven’t actually read any of her books, but look! I know her name! I know it! Cookie!).

But the fact is that crime fiction is DULL. Even in the theoretically more digestible medium of film, I can never bring myself to give a crap as to why Dick Jones was killed with a marble elephant tossed against his balls or how somebody ran over the granny to inherit the stuffed Komodo dragon that she beats herself on the face with whenever she has to read a crime novel. This, to me, is the greatest of mysteries and the only one I’d really like to see solved – why the hell do people read crime fiction? It’s not just dull, it’s almost unpleasant, this sense of reading without being told what you want to know. And why not tell you anyway? You don’t feel any more satisfied once you found out it was Bob Rogers than you did before. Why not skip to the last page and just find out? (Well, because then you’ve thrown £8.99 into the toilet – there’s your economics).

But I told myself. ‘I’ve read so little, surely I talk out of prejudice’. These novels must at least be entertaining. And there’s nothing else in this bookshop other than ‘How To Make More Money’ by Rich Bastard (whose idea seems to be that I should spend it on his book) or graphic novels about Captain America, which cost about $45 and would scarcely last me an hour. So I picked up the first thing I could find – Lynda La Plante’s Wrongful Death.

Anna Travis, detective. Not looking too bad here.
In retrospect, the title should have blown the whistle and rang the alarm bells. This is a serious question – can you think of anything more banal for a crime novel than titling it ‘Wrongful Death’? Every single crime story ever could have been titled like that – if the death were not ‘wrongful’, then what in the world would the novel be about? What kind of a blurb could you write for a crime novel in which the death is not ‘wrongful’? Josh Malcolm was found dead in his bed at 08:47 in the morning. The coroner initially declared his death to be by natural causes, but when detective Cypher Rage re-examines the scene two days later, he ends up agreeing that it was by natural causes. Malcolm’s death didn’t leave anyone terribly disturbed as he was a bit of an ordinary chap. Now his wife Brenda must make arrangements for the funeral… But to be fair the novel doesn’t start out too bad, and in spite of the prose being rather dry (but I’m happy to overlook this in airport novels), I found myself interested in some of the characters. As often as not the only appealing thing in crime stories, to me at least, is the intellectual cockfight of the main characters, all or most of whom compete at who’s the smartest. Sherlock took this to levels so ridiculous that they usually tumbled into self-parody, but it shows how potent the narrative trick is – and WD uses it appropriately as we are introduced to a remarkably smart American FBI agent, a Ms Jessie Dewar.

Together with the main detective, Anna Travis, they set off to investigate a fishy suicide.

And this is where the novel goes not just downhill but off the cliff altogether. The more I went into it, the less could I bring myself to care whether this guy had actually killed himself or whether he’d been murdered and why. It looks like perhaps his wife, or the wife’s sister, plotted to kill him – because, hmm, probably not for money as they’re already rich, some family feud of some kind I suppose OH GOD WHO GIVES A F –

The novel started losing me around page 50, but I managed to bring myself past page 200 (out of almost 500) before I was back home – and then I put WD on the desk and haven’t touched it since. I doubt if I ever will. I doubt, too, if I’ll ever read another crime novel, but that’s going to depend on whether my next substantial holiday is going to take place before or after George RR Martins releases his next book. The fact that both these things are set in a future more distant than Star Wars is a somewhat depressing prospect.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Josh Ekroy's "Ways to Build a Roadblock"

Latest review is up, ladies and gents. David Clarke, who already tackled Kevin Powers, delves into the subtleties of another poetry book concerned with the Middle-Eastern wars. Or kind-of-concerned-with-that.

Ah heck. Just read the review: Ways to Build a Roadblock by Josh Ekroy.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Stephen Nelson's "Thorn Corners"

Minimalism galore as Harry Giles reviews Thorn Corners, a most unusual poetry collection by Stephen Nelson.

Why unusual? Well - read the full review to find out.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

2666, aka "The First Great Novel of the 21st Century"

written by the Judge
For those who haven't read the book - there are no spoilers at all in this article. I promise. 

I no longer remember how I first heard about 2666. I have a faint recollection of reading somewhere about the Ulysses of Latin America that came out only a few years ago. Since Latin American literature KICKS ASS, I was immediately interested. I wanted to read it in the original Spanish, but didn’t want to spend god knows how much to buy it on the internet. So I waited.

In early 2012 I found myself in Spain, in what I believe was the same contract that led me to purchasing another Great Classic. Going to a different country is always a great opportunity to pick up some books, especially poetry, but 2666 by Roberto Bolaño was one particular novel that I was on a mission to find. Once I did, it rested in my library at home for another two years until last Christmas I started leafing through the first few pages, more out of curiosity than out of a genuine decision to start reading it.

To my great surprise, I was hooked. When you start a book thinking that it’s going to be kind of like Ulysses, you expect difficulty and challenge. Instead, the beginning of 2666 is the reading equivalent of riding a bicycle down a gently sloping hill. The story is gripping and the writing is beautiful. I ended up taking the book with me back to England. A few days ago I finished it.

He does look a bit like Joyce I suppose
I already knew I was going to write an article about this novel, though the original intention – that of spreading the word about a piece of literature that I thought to be relatively unknown – sounds a bit funny now. In only ten years since its release in Spanish (six since that in English), the book appears to have garnered a global reputation as the first Great Novel (R) of the 21st Century. I was feeling pretty swanky as I progressed through it, thinking I’d be able to show off about reading something so advanced and modern and difficult nobody even knew it, but everywhere I pulled it out of my rucksack people went ‘Oh, Bolaño’. Heck, if you Google ‘2666 reviews’ you’ll get a hundred pages of critical commentary – and it’s so ubiquitously positive that it boggles the mind.

In effect, one of the (many, many) springboards for discussion around this book is simply that of its critical reception – and if I had more time and were more qualified, I’d be tempted to question the seemingly homogeneous response that the book has generated.

But that challenge, not unlike the others posed by this book, is one I will defer to the better judgment of others, not because I don’t believe it may be rewarding, but because 2666 – and in this, if in very little else, it truly resembles Joyce’s great work – is a hydra that will devour you no matter how many heads you chop off. I do not know if it is a Great Novel, but it’s certainly the kind of book that you can go on discussing FOREVAH, and that’s scary (and also, perhaps, the very definition of a Great Novel… see me being sucked into yet another of the questions raised by Bolaño even as I declare my resistance to it).

I write this article because I know my limits. A few scattered thoughts is all I can afford; any more than that would be dangerous; any less, an insult.

So – a few thoughts about 2666. If you’ve read this far I assume you must have a vague notion of what the novel is, or what it’s about. Me, I purposely eschewed all information about the book until I could read it, to get as fresh an experience as possible (come to think of it, perhaps that’s why I was unaware of its reputation...). 2666 is a novel divided into five independent parts – or, if you prefer, five separate novels collected together in an anthology. They are only loosely related to each other – they share a fictional city where all the novels are set (or where they end up), and a handful of reappearing characters.

Regrettably "The Neverending Story" was already taken, but it would have been a fitting title
The story behind the writing of this book – how the author was dying, how he planned the books to be published posthumously to support his family – is as legendary as the book itself. It deserves its own article, but I’m going to assume here that you’re at least partly familiar with it.

What can I say about this book? I suppose I could do worse than sharing Alessandro Baricco’s impression: ‘Normally, if you write books, reading your contemporaries provides you with some self-esteem, it stimulates and challenges, sometimes it gives you a bitter perception of your limits: only very infrequently does it crush you.’ In an attempt to describe what the novel is about, he says: ‘I think it’s something like Evil. But I wouldn’t put my money on that. Maybe Evil and the delight of the living. Or Evil and the mystery of the living.’

This is no doubt one of the common threads that I’ve perceived in reviews / summaries of this book: it’s about the problem of evil, in and across the problem of history (or perhaps the two are one and the same). This is because the longest, most difficult and in my opinion the best of the five novels is just a long relation of serial murders in which women are raped and butchered in a town called Santa Teresa (inspired by the real events in Ciudad Juárez).

Though these are clearly important themes in the book, if I had to put my finger on what the book is essentially about, I’d go for something different. In fact, all the way until the end of the third book, I could have sworn that the topic of the whole work was that of dreams, or dreaming, and the significance thereof. It seemed to me that all of the novels were composed of characters experiencing events that take up an oneiric quality, moments in which the real and the surreal mingle at the edges. It’s impossible to tell when something really significant is taking place, and when, on the other hand, you’re faced with something that’s just random. Like the five novels themselves, the episodes within them stand alone as frescoes of sanity and madness, and simultaneously connect to all the others in ways that are subtle and suggestive but never quite definite: everything in this book is referential and intuitive, never quite important in and of itself but always somehow hinting at something that you should be aware of.

It helps my argument that there are several actual dreams being described. I usually dislike it when a writer interrupts the narrative to describe one of his characters falling asleep and having a dream, especially if the description is extensive. But Bolaño pulls it off with remarkable grace, perhaps precisely because all the other episodes are so dream-like anyway. This is but one of a number of small miracles that the author performed for me over the length of the book – another is the fact that the first three novels are about characters that I usually have no interest in reading about, such as critics, academics, philosophers, teachers, and scribblers of various nature (some journalists, though this category I don’t mind too much). And yet I was spell-bound, and very much intrigued by all of them.

If you were to follow the path that I took into the novel – that is to say, reading it as a novel fundamentally about dreams and dreaming – and it is but one of numerous paths that you can take, among other things because the five novels can be read in any order you like (and yes, this will change your experience of 2666 dramatically!) – if you were to follow this path, I was saying, you will inevitably be faced with a challenge when you reach the fourth novel, the one about the crimes in Santa Teresa.

I suppose you’ll be challenged by that bit regardless, because it’s so different from all the others. But for the purposes of my reading, it’s relevant because in many ways it seems to represent the opposite of dreaming: the horrors of the serial killings are so down-to-earth, so grimy, so exhaustively and exhaustingly physical, that you could almost call it a representation of a world without a dreams. Not that it lacks some oneiric moments of its own, including a very esoteric clairvoyant and a whole subplot about ‘giants’ dreamt of by a German convict, but these are far more infrequent, and by comparison they almost seem crushed, powerless, insignificant when confronted to the horrors before them, or tainted in such a way that they partake in the evil.
Mexican noir. The fourth novel is kind of like this, but really long.
It goes without saying that having a part of the book, perhaps the most important part, being about the opposite of dreams does nothing but reinforce the sense that the whole thing may be explicitly about dreams.

At least this was the impression that I walked away with. I can’t really guarantee I’ll be holding to it a year from now – which is really the other half of the reason I’m writing the article, not just to spread 2666 to others, but to record it for myself. There is so much content in this book that the process of forgetting has already begun: like a dream, its details and characters are already becoming fainter.

Is this really the first Great Novel of the 21st Century? I find that question tiresome, but it’s certainly a novel that belongs to a special, personal category: the Novel That I Write an Article About (or, That I *Need* to Write etc.). Not even a semi-humorous article, but a proper article. Yes, that’s rare enough. And I hope someday you’ll join us, as I look forward to reading your own articles. Some novels cause ten thousand words to be written for every word of their own. And when that happens, I guess it doesn’t even matter if the book is good or bad.