I finished Part I of 2666 ahead of time but expect to be out of town on the day assigned for discussion, so below are some notes from my reading for public consumption. There are no huge plot reveals for anyone past page 30, but if you avoid any kind of spoilers as carefully as I do you should stop now.
First, a note on my literary perspective. I read for fun, I don't like to work too hard at a book, and I enjoy being carried along by a story. A list of authors I've read most should do to reveal my taste. My reading history is divided into before-and-after periods based on my encountering "A Reader's Manifesto" by B. R. Myers, known (or derided) as "lit-crit’s Dennis Rodman."
Though it skewered one of my favorite authors, that article emphasized that highbrow acclaim is not a reliable indicator of quality, at least in contemporary writing. I am now more willing to give up on a book I don't enjoy, and not blame myself for somehow not being up to the task of "getting" it.
2666 applies a clever tactical strategy of appealing to literary critics by making the heroes literary critics. Indeed, the seal of approval on the cover of my copy is the National Book Critics Circle Award. The protagonists are not especially appealing, though I suppose their lifestyle of reading and publishing and jetting around Europe looks tolerable enough. The problem is that I could hardly tell the difference between two of them: the Spanish one, with the helpfully Spanish name, and the French one, with the distinctively French name.
Espinoza may be a little more inclined toward violence and adventure, Pelletier is perhaps more retiring, but by page 29 both are identically consumed with the same passion -- passions, if you include their unifying professional interest -- and they respond to adversity with similar ennui/aburrimiento. The reader is not surprised to find them practically completing each other's sentences.
There is also the sickly Italian with a geographically appropriate name, but his primary characteristic is that he can't emulate his companions because of his chronically declining health, which becomes a bit of a tasteless running gag.
Fortunately, the fourth critic is a woman, and therefore easy to tell apart even without her British residence/surname.
Just as these characters were rounding out, and my interest was sparked by what looked like a good chance of a love triangle or some other polygon forming, The Sentence happened.
A hundred words in, and you can't help but to think I see what you're doing. You slog on, not wanting to miss something important, while looking for but not finding any paragraph indentations on this or the next page. But you still hope to find a full stop hidden in there somewhere.
Alas, no, and you turn the page and find two more solid uninterrupted rectangles of print. The run-on sentence doesn't seem to be getting anywhere yet, but you stumble along, unable to block out thoughts like "I'll mention this awful stunt in my review." You turn another page and it continues on, and you try not to hear the author shouting You're supposed to skim it!
The first line of dialog after the trial by ordeal was "Can anyone solve the riddle?" I wanted to believe that the whole mess was some kind of acrostic, or it said something clever if you read every third word. But I kind of doubt it, and it would have been lost in translation anyway.
When the sentences were of normal length, they were fine, they didn't get in the way. And later there was a run-on that I particularly liked, which perfectly captured the moment:
- Pelletier and Espinoza took pains, however, to make it clear there in front of each other that the ideal thing for them, and they imagined for Norton too, was that she ultimately and in a nontraumatic way (try to make it a soft landing, said Pelletier) choose one of them, or neither of them, said Espinoza, either way the decision was in her hands, Norton's hands, and it was a decision she could make whenever she wanted, whenever was most convenient for her, or never make, put off, defer, postpone, draw out, delay, adjourn until her deathbed, they didn't care, because they were as in love with her now, while Liz was keeping them in limbo, as they had been before, when they were her active lovers or colovers, as in love with her as they would be when she chose one of them or the other, or when she (in a possible future that was only slightly more bitter, a future of shared bitterness, of somehow mitigated bitterness), if such was her wish, chose neither of them.
Other than The Sentence, the prose does its job of moving the quest story along. There was an occasional gimmick of using the wrong word, then correcting -- but it was not always clear who made the error, the author or a character. This being a Latin American novel, it is hard not to expect a sudden outbreak of insomnia or anomia or some kind of magic. Instead there are bizarre dreams, the author apparently not having heard the etiquette column advice that dreams are always more interesting to those who have them than those who are told about them.
But eventually the group arrives in Mexico, where the literary epigram states that "If Franz Kafka were Mexican, he would be a Costumbrista" -- an everyday folklore writer. Things take a turn for the weird, but not much weirder than it already is when professors are chasing after rumors, whores, whisky, and an elusive ménage à trois. Their search for the recluse German author brings them to a circus, the Circo Internacional, which one would like to think has a poster like this:
When it becomes clear that the magician is not their man, they settle for an amusingly perfunctory interview.
- "I'm not German," said Doktor Koenig. "I'm American. My name is Andy López."
With these words he pulled his wallet out of a bag hanging on a hook and held out his driver's license.
"What's your magic act?" Pelletier asked him in English.
"I start by making fleas disappear," said Doktor Koenig, and the five of them laughed.
"It's the truth," said the impresario.
"Then I make pigeons disappear, then I make a cat disappear, then a dog, and I end the act by disappearing a kid." (p. 133)
The horror triggered by that sudden change in transitivity seems not to be present in the original: "Luego hago desaparecer palomas, luego hago desaparecer un gato, luego un perro, y finalizo mi acto haciendo desaparecer a un niño."
As I approached the end of the first part, I started to hope that Part 2 will cover some unrelated story. Four professors chasing a tall German around the world is enough to keep me going this far, but I don't think I want another 700 pages. Perhaps 2666 will be like A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, a collection of disparate stories bundled together and called a novel as a lark.
I have scrupulously avoided reading the back cover or any other material, but the title of Part 2 gives me hope that there is new story on the way.