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2666 part3

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about fate

While The Critics and Amalfitano skirted around the topic of the ongoing femicide taking place in Santa Teresa, in Fate it is, in the very least, acknowledged. But initially the  unsettling foreshadowing that we have become attuned to so far continue in this chapter. The Part About Fate begins far from the Mexican border city and doesn’t deal with Fate in a philosophical term; rather it refers to the nickname of the central protagonist for part three. Quincy Williams is a thirty year old African American journalist for Harlem based magazine Black Dawn, mourning the recent death of his mother, and haunted by internal ‘ghosts’. Known by his colleagues (and referred throughout part three by Bolaño) as Oscar Fate, we are given the picture of a man, much like Oscar Amalfitano, clearly not in a great state of mind – albeit for different reasons. An inner turmoil and pain seems to have set upon him.

Where did it all begin? he thought. When did I go under? A dark, vaguely familiar Aztec lake. The nightmare. How do I get away? How do I take control? And the questions kept coming: Was getting away really what he wanted? Did he really want to leave it all behind?

Before Fate is thrown into the malevolent vortex of Santa Teresa, he tends to his dead mother’s house then travels to Detroit for an interview with Barry Seaman, former member of the Black Panthers. Fate is present for a speech Seaman gives to a small local church, addressing five subjects (DANGER, MONEY, FOOD, STARS, USEFULNESS). The speech is fantastic – I couldn’t pick a preferred quote but Bolaño flexes his muscles to deliver poignant and humorous anecdotes and absurd monologues, as he does throughout 2666. And while you begin to wonder what all this has to do with events down in Mexico, a report of an American missing in Santa Teresa plays on Fate’s hotel television while he sleeps.

After he has finished interviewing Seaman Fate receives a call from his editor: the magazine’s sports editor has died suddenly, and an opportunity arises to travel down to Mexico, to the border town of Santa Teresa, to cover a boxing match. Despite having no expertise or knowledge, Fate agrees to cover the match, admitting to himself that some time away from New York would probably do him some good. En route he stops at a diner in Tucson, and overhears the following conversation.

“And what’s your unofficial opinion about what’s going on there?”
“I have several opinions, Edward, and I’d prefer that none of them be published without my consent.”
The young man covered his face with his hands and said:
“Professor Kessler, my lips are sealed.”
“All right, then,” said the white-haired man. “I’ll tell you three things I’m sure of: (a) everyone living in that city is outside of society, and everyone, I mean everyone, is like the ancient Christians in the Roman circus; (b) the crimes have different signatures; (c) the city seems to be booming, it seems to be moving ahead in some ineffable way, but the best thing would be for every last one of the people there to head out into the desert some night and cross the border.”

Albert Kessler will reappear in The Part About The Crimes, but his forthright views on Santa Teresa are ominous. So already Fate, who has yet to reach Santa Teresa, has been subconsciously touched by the news of the murders. Then, upon crossing the border Fate’s presence as a member of the press is assumed to be for something very different to sport.

The customs officer asked for his passport and Fate handed it to him. With the passport was his press ID. The customs officer asked if he was coming to write about the killings.
“No,” said Fate, “I’m going to cover the fight on Saturday.”
“What fight?” asked the customs officer.
“Count Pickett, the light heavyweight from New York.”
“Never heard of him,” said the officer.

Once in Santa Teresa, Fate is soon disillusioned by the task at hand, an inane and unimportant bout of fighting. He meets several contacts at the hotel: sports writers, trainers, sparring partners. In a local reporter, Guadalupe Roncal, Fate receives a brief insider report on the crimes. Her colleague (predecessor) who was previously working on the case “was killed, of course. He got in too deep and they killed him”. Another local reporter Chucho Flores takes Fate out with his friends Charly Cruz, Rosa Méndez, and eventually he is introduced a beautiful young woman called Rosa Amalfitano- the daughter of Oscar Amalfitano, the Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa whom by now we are familiar. It becomes clear that Fate is attracted to Rosa – he sees a goodness in her, in contrast to the detached malice he can sense in her friends Chucho and Charly amongst others.

Some of the girls had tears in their eyes, and they seemed unreal, faces glimpsed in a dream.
“This place is like hell,” he said to Rosa Amalfitano.
“You’re right,” she said, looking at him sympathetically, “but the food isn’t bad.”

After the (anti-climatic) fight is over, the gang take Fate out to a series of clubs and cafes where they get food and proceed to get very drunk. Increased pace and an erratic narrator leads to a breathless and tense climax to part three. We know Fate is drunk and we know the people around him have questionable morals. Location to location we read descriptions of dark corridors and surreal paints and defaced religious statues, all adding to the ever-building dread. Subtle observations of places and people that could mean everything or nothing. And while the reader wants Fate to get out of there, we don’t want Rosa to be left behind either. He acts impulsively, boldly, to ensure her safety. The final passages are chopped into disarray, an indication of Fate’s state of mind, or the inability to process what happened on his last night in Santa Teresa. And to end, a giant, singing German prisoner, the prime suspect in the murders.

The Part About Fate gives us our best indication yet on the status quo in Santa Teresa, possibly in an attempt to make the crimes taking place in part four easier to comprehend. Violence is celebrated, a brutality towards woman, and a tendency to look away from the horrors at hand could not be encapsulated better than this scene Fate witnesses in a club.

Fate thought about Spain. He was going to ask her what part of Spain she was from when he saw a man hit a woman in a corner of the room. The first blow made the woman’s head snap violently and the second blow knocked her down. Without thinking, Fate tried to move toward them, but someone grabbed his arm. When he turned to see who it was, no one was there. In the opposite corner of the club the man who had hit the woman stepped next to where she was huddled on the ground and kicked her in the stomach. A few feet away from him he saw Rosa Méndez smiling happily.

The Part About Fate is less speculative than the previous parts of 2666. Something more akin to a defined narrative (for Bolaño) is present which makes this chapter more accessible. At times it reads like a crime noir or thriller with its changes of pace, but there is still plenty to chew on here. And in Oscar Fate we are given a conflicted, fascinating character and, I’d also say, one of the most likeable characters in the book. When he consciously becomes aware of the scale of the murders, he acknowledges them. He wants to investigate, and write a story for his paper. In Fate we encounter a character that takes an active interest in the problem strangling the city, rather than someone with their head stuck firmly in the Sonoran sand, like Amalfitano*.

*Although, perhaps this is due to a higher understanding Amalfitano, and the rest of the inhabitants of Santa Teresa, have – a fear, or knowing, that the crimes are like the seasons; they will keep coming, and they can’t be stopped.

the crying of lot 49 2

Oedipa Maas has been named executrix of her ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity’s vast estate. She leaves her normal, uninspiring life with radio DJ husband Mucho, to travel to the industrial town of San Narcisco. Here she meets a variety of strange individuals. Miles, frontman of The Paranoids, a band of young stoners and a clear parody of the Beatles. Doctor Hilarius, Oedipa’s shrink who calls her late every night to persuade her to take part in an LSD experiment on housewives. Mike Fallopian, a member of a secret mail service who Oedipa meets at electro bar The Scope.

From here on it gets real weird.

Oedipa, as she digs deeper into Pierce’s legacy, begins to uncover a trail of breadcrumbs that potentially unearths a conflict between two mail distribtion companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero.

Pynchon’s wordplay is frantic and clever, with sentences that interweave and change meaning in an instance. The feeling of paranoia, unsettling conspiracy, addiction and confusion are nailed by Pynchon. I’d find myself smirking, feeling unsettled, then confusion would kick in…all within the space of a paragraph.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed The Crying Of Lot 49. I found it funny, in that nauseating way that you find the strangest things funny when you’ve had too much to drink.

“I came,” she said, “hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.”

Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely. “What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by it’s little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”

The lengthy play-within-a-play, The Courier’s Tragedy is an intriguing drama that mirrors a lot of what Oedipa is picking up in San Narcisco. I dunno, there’s something about fiction-within-fiction that really appeals to me. The Man In The High Castle had ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ which paralleled the events of the central plot and brought a foreshadowing to proceedings. Here, the events of the play, a Jacobean revenge play, is as confusing and convoluted as the actual book in which it is found, but one thing is clear; Trystero, whom in the play have conflict with Thurn und Taxis, and whose agents seem to represent a shadowy organisation that has no qualms in killing to further its unknown missions.

Suddenly, in lithe and terrible silence, with dancers’ grace, three figures, long-limbed, effeminate, dressed in black tights, leotards and gloves, black silk hose pulled over their faces, come capering onstage and stop, gazing at him. Their faces behind the stockings are shadowy and deformed. They wait. The lights all go out.

And all this tying into the postal service, a potential conflict that has been running for hundreds of years, Thurn and Taxis (which is actually a real postal service) and Trystero. It’s an interesting premise, and as the men Oedipa meets start to become silenced, there seems to be a real threat.

the crying of lot 49

There is an interesting passage within the first chapter where Oedipa refers to herself as Rapunzel, trapped in an unscalable tower that is her mundane life. Among the suggestions of Inverarity creating a joke to lead her astray, could this also be the willful seeing of what is not there, in  order to create something truely massive in her life that has so far left her unfulfilled?

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?

The titled crying of Lot 49 refers to the auction that takes place in the book’s open-ended conclusion, with Inverarity’s stamp collection (filled with forged Trystero stamps) up for sale. As the auction starts we feel as exasperated as Oedipa does. Will the mystery bidder be a Trystero representative, validating all of Oedipa’s hopes and fears? Or will it have all been a game, a joke at her expense, set up by her eccentric and wealthy ex? Hell, maybe she was taking her shrink’s advice and it’s an LSD-fuelled hallucination. We don’t know, and when we leave Oedipa on the brink of insanity, for all her weeks of exhausting and at times involuntary scrutiny, she still does not know. 

The Crying Of Lot 49 is touted as an exceptional piece of postmodernist fiction, and certainly the uncertainty of it all is a trait of the postmodern movement. The more scientific, theoretical ramblings of the definitions of meaning, when considering proof and paranoia, didn’t really work for me. Or maybe it did. I’m still unsure whether I enjoyed the book…and I’m OK with that. I think.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2015

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

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Slaughterhouse 5 follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who was present during the horrors of the Dresden bombing. A prisoner of war at the time, we read a rambled account of his life before, during and after this cataclysmic event. Rambled you ask? Yep. That’s because Billy Pilgrim time travels, subconsciously. This account of his life takes him from war-torn France to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, to his days in school to his enclosure at the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and eventually to his death. So it goes.

Not in any particular order mind you. Billy Pilgrim does not experience his life on a continuous plane, and nor does the reader. How anyone else would experience their lives, as a linear progression of events and ageing as time goes on, is declared absurd. At least, this is what Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians who abduct him and teach him about life, time, free will and the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians are strange alien creatures. Their ideas on free-will and the fourth dimension hugely influence the Slaughterhouse 5’s unorthodox narrative. The events of the novel, zipping backwards and forwards from one of Billy Pilgrim’s life event to the next, is very much how the Tralfamadorians view time. They can see the 4th dimension, and are believers that everything that has happened, is happening or will happen, can’t be changed.

Rather than a straight line, they see time as assembled moments which can be experienced simultaneously, memories and experiences being ‘all at once’.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The Tralfamadorian in the passage above speaks to Billy on the strange fascination that humanity has with the idea of free will. For them, and by the sounds of it all other life in the universe, all events are structured beyond the control of their participants. In other words, enjoy the ride. This applies to death too. Death is unavoidable and as such there is no fear of it. The Tralfamadorian saying “So it goes” is adopted by Billy Pilgrim and the narrator throughout the book, a casual saying that highlights the nonchalant approach to death. It is not an end, rather another moment that exists at the same time as all other moments one will experience in their life.

“Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.”

We can see why Billy Pilgrim finds it easy to believe the Tralfamadorians and refuse the notion of free will. The passage above shows that even at an early stage, Billy Pilgrim had little choice in his circumstances. He was going to learn to swim, and he had no choice in the matter. He would later be rescuing from drowning, and he had no choice in that either. Billy is slightly awkward and a very nervous individual, something which he attributes to his moving through time – he never knows which piece of his life he will have to perform next.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Slaughterhouse 5 is a satirical anti-war novel, or at least that’s what it might appear to be upon first glance. Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden atrocities, which makes the book somewhat semi-autobiographical. And so it would make sense for the novel to be anti-war. Who better to write it than Vonnegut, who was present and witness the destruction first hand? The unnamed narrator of the book, who introduces the life of Billy Pilgrim, is almost certainly a version of Vonnegut himself. And several times in the novel, he is mentioned as being present. When the American soldiers are emptying their upset stomachs into the latrines, the narrator is there with them. When the prisoners of war finally arrive in the German city of Dresden, the troops are enamoured by its beauty. The narrator pipes up, describing it as ‘Oz’. These mentions keep the book rooted in reality and make its impact more meaningful and believable.

After some time away from the novel (and a chance to let it sink in), I have more of an idea of what this book is meant to be. I’ve reached over for my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 more times than I can count in the last fortnight. Not to give it a proper re-read – not yet anyway – but I find myself skimming through random passages and chapters, much like Billy Pilgrim finds his mind scattered between his life’s timeline.

This is a book which cannot be pinned down by genre. It is a book of Billy Pilgrim’s search for a reasoning behind human suffering. Religion and patriotism don’t really cut it, and so Billy Pilgrim (either in his mind, or for real) leaves Earth for Tralfamadore, where you can experience your good memories and you can never die. Even before birth and after death you can sense something, before being swung back into a memory from within your lifetime.

Billy is indifferent to life. He ends up being in situations against his will – reinforcing the Tralfamadorian notion of fate over free will. He’s dragged to war in a position he hates:

“Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”

An uninspiring insipid existence which sums up most of Billy Pilgrim’s life. He stumbles through it. He doesn’t take action. A passenger in his own life. He rarely makes choices. The war, his marriage, even as he grows old his daughter walks all over him. He is an observer to the mindless violence and horror, which eventually drives him (or his mind) to another planet, somewhere where he can attempt to make sense of all this. But even then, he doesn’t discover any of this for himself – the Tralfamadorians teach him all he knows.

Billy manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge where stronger, fitter, better men perish. Fate? He is forced to continue through enemy lines by Roland Weary, a violent but equally inexperienced soldier with grand ideas of war and fighting and heroics. Frequently, exhausted and broken Billy tells Weary and the scouts who accompany them, “You go on. . .You guys go on without me. I’m all right.” But Weary forces him to continue.

Billy, at least later on in his life, seems to acknowledge this indifference to life, and is ashamed and embarrassed as it makes his relationship with his mother unbearable.

“Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward – always got much sicker until she went away…She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”

Whilst reading I never had any doubt that Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on Tralfamadore were real; or at least he was convinced they were real. He speaks of the abduction very matter-of-factly

“Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer…Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.”

The war plays a huge part of the novel, and obviously shook Vonnegut. War is described using particular experiences. Very little heroics, very few soldiers wanting to be where they are. And for the majority of the book, the soldiers we experienced are prisoners of war. They have no choice, no freedom, no control over their situations. War is not romanticised here, and characters in the book that do look upon it favourably, e.g. Roland Weary or Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, who tries to reason with Billy in a hospital ward they at one time share that Dresden was justified, are cast by Vonnegut as the villains of the piece.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

The wife of the narrator’s war comrade is furious to find out he is to be writing a book on the war and his experiences, as she thinks he will glamorise war. He does not – Slaughterhouse 5 reinforces the pointlessness of war, and the narrator even promises that he will call the book ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which is actually the subtitle to the book itself.

Vonnegut describes some moments that typify war and suffering, and certainly does not romanticise or glorify war in any way.

“Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.”

In the aftermath of the firebombing that ravaged Dresden, Billy observes the calculated ruthlessness that has murdered a large proportion of a city. When the bombs dropped, no thought was given to who the targets would be – soldiers, women, children…or ironically, American prisoners of war.

“So Billy made a [syrup] lollipop for [Edgar Derby]. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears.”

One of the most noble, senior officers, Edgar Derby, is reduced to tears after tasting syrup; so desperately starving he had been. To see someone that Billy Pilgrim looked up to, as a real gentleman and good guy, dehumanised as a victim of sufferable war, is significant.

“A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed – that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. . .

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scoled him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.”

This is also extremely interesting albeit sad and tragic. Billy cries for the only time during the war. Why? Because of the condition of the horses? The horses are similar to Billy, and the rest of his imprisoned soliders. They are following orders, with no way of making sense of the destruction that surrounds them. Like Billy, they are innocent, but continue marching on, following orders that they can’t possibly understand.

So it becomes reasonable to assume that Billy Pilgrim, understandably, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he has experienced in the war. Suddenly a lot of the strange observations and memories make more sense. Those terribly written but fantastical stories written by Kilmore Trout – a way of escaping reality, or to lose himself within the absurd plots.

When considering Billy’s nightmares, his kicking and screaming in his sleep while on the boxcart in Germany (resulting in the other soldiers unwilling to sleep next to him), easily startled and the flashbacks – not becoming unstuck in time, but relieving moments from the war that he cannot forget.

The prime example of these flashbacks is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary. A barbershop quartet performs for Billy and his fat wife, Valencia. A latent memory from Dresden is triggered, and the effect it has on Billy speaks for itself.

“Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. . . Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.”

“‘You look so awful.’

‘Really – I’m O.K.’ And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.”

The whole space travel experience on Tralfamadore is now put into perspective. A way for Billy to deal with the horrors he has seen and can’t explain. An attempt to make sense of the senselessness of war. If we have no free will, and our actions are pre-determined, then it is hopeless attempting to explain and prevent such appalling events such as war and suffering. And so Billy Pilgrim creating a world for himself, where there is no free will, is his way of attempting to comfort himself, his existence and his peace of mind.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”

This was my first Vonnegut experience, and I loved every word. The genre of Kurt Vonnegut, from what I’ve heard, is primarily a blend of satire and science-fiction. But I don’t recognise Slaughterhouse 5 as a science fiction book. Sure, Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time spend on Tralfamadore comes straight from the world of science-fiction, and Kilmore Trout is introduced along with many of his bizarre fantasy books as a science-fiction writer. But these are fronts. Methods of escape used by the characters. Billy and his mental ward-mate Rosewater read these works of science fiction by a rather poor writer in Trout to escape a reality that they can, or no longer want to face. Billy escapes to Tralfamadore to find explanations to life, suffering, war and the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden.

Poo-tee-weet?” is the final phrase of the novel. Billy observes the charred landscape of a ruined Dresden, met with silence but for the song of birds. The question mark indicates this bird is asking a question, but as we cannot understand it and it makes no sense to us, we have no way of answering. I think Billy Pilgrim (and Kurt Vonnegut) realise that the question of war, and the atrocities come with it, also pose questions that we simply cannot answer. In which case, “Poo-tee-weet?” is as intelligible a thing to say at the end of a massacre as any spoken words we could actually understand when trying to describe the indescribable.

It’s a strange piece of work and anything but coherent. It has dark humour, a meandering plot; it’s beautiful and emotional as you might expect from someone who was present at the time. Make sure you read it before you ‘die’. So it goes.