Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Roberto Bolano's 2,247-word sentence

Last year, I read news stories and reviews buzzing about the late author Roberto Bolano's five-page sentence in his novel 2666. At the time, the sentence was an amusing novelty. I saw references to Faulkner's penchant for long sentences. I heard jokes about a sentence that was longer some short stories.

And then I forgot about it.

Several days ago, I started reading 2666: I had waited until the book came out in paperback. I found Bolano's style easy to read, filled with amusing metaphors and off-beat comparisons.

It didn't take me long to see what Adam Kirsch meant when he wrote that the novel was utterly strange. In his November 2008 review in Slate, Kirsch said, "In almost every particular, it fails, or refuses, to conform to our expectations of what a novel should be." I'd forgotten about this review by the time the novel arrived.

It didn't take me more than several pages to come to the same conclusion about 2666: utterly strange. After reading Dan Brown's race-track-speed The Lost Symbol and other commercial fiction, Bolano's 912-page work begins at a drunk snail's pace, taking its time like a lot of literary fiction in a world where cliff-hangers and cheap-thrill drama don't usually exist. Here we are following several obscure scholars while they write articles about an obscure German author whom almost nobody has ever seen.

Nonetheless, the book moves well. The observations are astute. The metaphors are wonderful. The language is excellent. The characters begin to grown on you, almost in a sly way. There's a casual reference to a subject that will later become an important focus for the novel, then it's forgotten.

In this context, the 2,247-word sentence isn't out of place. After reading several lines, it's hard not to notice the lack of a period. After several more, I begin to smile at the way Bolano has put the sentence together, and I wonder how long it will go on. Several pages go by, and I think, "why are these words familiar?" It dawns on me, then, that this is the long sentence that created all the buzz in July of last year. Following the sentence, I couldn't help but admire it. It flowed effortlessly and the meanings in it were clear. In context, the sentence became an even greater wonder than it was when quoted in isolation. Bottom line, it worked.

"2666," said Kirsch, "is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve." I'm coming to understand Kirsch's point of view and, for a writer, there's simply a lot of joy in reading an utterly strange book that strays purposefully outside the box we've labeled "this is a novel."

This vast novel is going to stay with me a while, and not just because of its length. I know already, I'll never want it to end. But it does, and life goes on; but before it does, reading 2666 is an experience I'm going to savor.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell


J.G. said...

Yeah, but could you diagram it?

That's probably a skill that is quickly dying out, if not already gone. I may be the only one who mourns.

Thanks for visiting the Hotchpot Cafe and sharing my student paper pain. I'm starting to think English teachers must all become saints via their years of reading bad prose.

Sun Singer said...

Oh no, diagrammed sentences. I remember that from English class. As for this sentence, it would take multiple blackboards in a large room to sort the thing out in a diagram.