Review of Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño releases another posthumous book from beyond the grave. More Bolaño is welcome in this day and age, but each time it happens I recall that 2666 was his crowning achievement.

How many more manuscripts did he leave in the desk drawers? This book, along with the Spirit of Science Fiction, and Woes of the True Policeman are satellites orbiting his deathbed opus. All entertaining, but not riveting.

In these novellas, Bolaño discusses poets and the lifestyles of poets. He has done this before, but I somehow don’t tire of it. Whether his mainstay character Arturo Bolano is just sitting around gabbing, drinking, or shoplifting books, it tends to make for nostalgic and bittersweet reading.

There is one really interesting science fiction idea inserted haphazardly. One of those patented Bolaño surprises. An alien invasion scenario. As in much of the author’s work, there is not a clear drive toward a moral or a particular interpretation. He writes seemingly at random, jumping around from subject to subject, but his style is addictive. It is not frilly, but rather gritty, if that makes sense. Old pals like Parra and Carrington show up again, along with Mistral and the other badasses he liked to namedrop.

Sink your teeth into this brief Bolaño sandwich of tales, even if it has fake meat, it is well-seasoned.

Review of 2666 (2666 #1-5) by Roberto Bolaño

ISBN 0312429215 (ISBN13: 9780312429218)

Read on a cruise ship. And I remember very little else about the cruise itself. This was eight years ago, but the book stands out in my mind, murky but stamped among the convolutions of my hippocampus.

This book reaffirmed why I love reading. It is a book of literary mysteries. First, the structure of 5 intertwined novels, its unfinished nature and the unexplained title lend to its mystique, and combine to baffle as they entertain. Beyond all this intrigue and amid the sinusoid life of its obliquely likable author, the book reads like a dream, one with shades of nightmare and joy. A slow-paced thrill, a force of heated literary dopamine to be swallowed in a few sittings with a slavering mind, but lingered over in remembrance. There is a 2666-shaped lump of putty in my chest to this day.

The heart of the book lies in a complex network of murder and obsession. It is a celebration of expression and devotion. Any interpretation is inevitably flawed because any answers it offers do not quite congeal around the unknowns. You have the naive but determined linguists, on the chase for their Pynchonian prey, reporters and detectives, and a jaunt across continents, to keep your blood pumping. If Bolaño never would have written this masterpiece he would still be pretty high up there in my author pantheon. I raced through his oeuvre and revisit the smaller novels and story collections from time to time. He shares a shelf with Antunes and Cortazar. To read Bolaño is to feel him in your presence. But because this book exists, any distaste that might have lingered in my mind relating to The Savage Detectives or his strange and unappealing poetry, has evaporated. I glimpsed the hidden depths. I caught sight of the monster he spent the latter part of his life chasing. Subtly, Bolaño’s opus explores the possibility of mastering the art of the novel. In the end, my appreciation of his value as a writer only grows the more I delve into and reread his work. I do not dissect his stories or critique his novels, I simply keep reading them for pleasure.

From the crystalline first pages to the bittersweet final chapter there is enough plot and character in the book to satisfy any reader. Whether you go for pulp or poetry, contemporary or classics, 2666 fits between the interstices of genre, unwieldy but unignorable.

In a brilliant cascade of stylistic techniques, 2666 delivers near-constant engagement with fictional precedents, bearing up against comparisons with Don Quixote, 100 Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, and any other of those hefty tomes spawned in the cultural Euro-Latin collision built into the music of the Spanish language. I do not think it is possible to remain unmoved by the end of this book. It is scattered, deviating into labyrinths of love and hate, but consistently interesting, harrowing, surprising and alive. It breathes as you clutch it in your hands, and blinks back at you as you stare in wonder.

Like its competitors, Underworld, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, and Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666 is another concrete-dense pleasure-dome, decreeing freedom from mediocrity. It is a building block of imaginative ore to be sequestered for the construction of the cosmological shelf of human artifacts, a stone in the pillar of our civilization.