Our correspondence with the German literature professor began shortly after the last post on Greenwood's Secret Book Club. "Some may believe you are writing a fiction," he emailed, "but I know first-hand the truth of it."
Our admiration for its radical tendencies notwithstanding, we'd recently begun to believe that the Secret Book Club (SBC) had gone rogue, until the gentle, rational comments from this mysterious German, who signed his emails "O," hinted that there might be a sane contingent still alive within the book club, and that our nearly forsaken hope — that there may be a place for us too within the SBC one day — was a dream worth pursuing.
And so we leaped at the chance to read the latest SBC selection, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, the first contemporary novel chosen by the club. It was also the longest, coming in at nearly 900 pages. O had been kind enough to disclose this information, giving us a month or better to read the bursting tome, as well as forwarding, at the risk of his own banishment, an email invitation to the club's next meeting:
La sociedad de los libros secretos se reunirá en el restaurante La Piñata en Greenwood ... Viernes a las 9:30 p.m.
¡No le diga a un alma!
After recalling our semesters of college Spanish and consulting our trusty University of Chicago dictionaries, we were able to decode the clandestine invitation and divined that the book club was meeting at the local Mexican restaurant on the following Friday. It seemed unlikely that the SBC would meet in such a public venue, but we were too blinded by our excitement to give it careful consideration. Finally, we would confront the club, impose our own opinions as the town's professional literary arbiters, and unmask the group's shadowy leader, this Kurtzian "Dr. H."
It wasn't hard to see why the SBC had chosen Bolaño. A Chilean expatriate, rascal poet, political dissident and probable heroin addict, Bolaño, in his bohemian youth, was the epitome of what the SBC found lacking in contemporary literature: a true enfant terrible, unbought and uncompromising, with artistic chops equal or superior to his contemporaries.
In his later years, Bolaño settled in Spain, raised a family and turned his pursuits to fiction, achieving his greatest fame (and a cult following in the U.S) after publishing his novel The Savage Detectives. He devoted an intense five years of his life to constructing 2666, the book that would provide the summation of his life's work, and nearly completed it before dying of liver failure in 2003. The resulting novel does not suffer the deficiencies of so much other literature completed after the author's death. Bolaño was aware of death's imminence and gave explicit instructions on its publication. He decreed that the novel's five books be published separately and consecutively, to provide more residuals for his family, though ultimately his editor and literary executor maintained the integrity of the whole work and published it as one volume in 2004 (and 2008 in English).
The darkest and most treacherous of his books, 2666 was the obvious choice for a group discussion. The five disparate sections of the novel — united by a series of murders that occur in a Mexican border town and a reclusive German novelist (wouldn't you know) who is presumed to be hiding there — make it ideal fodder for high-minded book clubbers.
Our lowly, unsanctioned splinter book group agreed that, while not always an enjoyable experience, reading 2666 was a powerful and unforgettable journey. Having read it would command respect among serious readers, many of whom had "not gotten around to it," or hadn't summoned the stamina for it. We all had copious notes, composed mostly of questions, to prove we'd read it, and we were chomping at the bit to convene with our secret book brethren to prove our mettle in the deconstruction of arcane literature.
On the ascribed evening, we met at the bookstore for a Red Bull and Jagermeister, to fortify our courage and toast our fallen friend P— as well as our new German ally, then loaded up and drove over to the Piñata. It was your typical small-town Mexican dive, replete with faux adobe and neon cerveza signs. Inside we split up and canvased the restaurant to seek out our party. But for one table of giggling teenagers, there was no sizable group, literary or otherwise. Maybe they were running tarde. We took a booth, then ordered beers and queso fundido.
The waiter noted the copy of 2666 in the middle of the table. "Some people were in last night with the same book," he said. We demanded to know how many. He shrugged. "Seven. Mas o menos." We'd been duped, or so we believed. (Later, O mention that he'd forgotten to share the invitation's code — dated one day ahead and one hour late — to ward off snoops like us.)
Dejected, we rallied around beers, burritos, chimichangas, salsa and the casual exchange of our own modest insights into this sumptuous novel. First, and perhaps most inescapable in a proper discussion of the book, was its format. Each reader had decisive opinions on the individual sections — the first, about a group of scholars who meet at literary conferences throughout Europe to present their findings on the German writer, Benno von Archimboldi, and engage in lusty social entanglements; the second, about a Mexican professor and his daughter; the third about an African-American journalist covering a boxing match in the Mexican border town amid the grisly murders; the fourth, a kind of journalistic run-down of the murders; and the fifth, the life story of the mysterious Archimboldi.
The way the pieces fit together is not always clear and yet often surprising, which is usually the case with great novels of this size. A comparison to which we continually returned was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, who may be Bolaño's closest counterpart — both genius minds, detached and fiercely scrutinous; compelling and enigmatic writers whose lives and careers ended prematurely.
We mostly agreed, though, that the most punishing and rewarding were the final two sections of the novel. The fourth, which described the murders in wrenching detail, was hard-going, like reading police reports or some kind of snuff lit, pages and pages of raw murder until suddenly the reader is sickened to discover that he has become desensitized to the brutality, much like the culture Bolaño critiques. Reading repeatedly about "anal rape" lessens the impact until it becomes oddly and shamefully comical. (One member did notice that anal rape had appeared in several books immediately prior and subsequent to 2666, which brought us to the subject of reading motifs, a phenomenon whereby strange and random plot devices or anecdotal occurrences appear over and over throughout a reader's succession of books. For instance, another club member mentioned that every book he'd read this summer included, to varying degrees of textual significance, a loose cougar terrorizing the citizenry.)
Perhaps the best-loved section of the book was the last, which tells the epic story of Archimboldi with a bit of the jauntiness of a wintry Russian tale and the magical freedom of the best Latin writers, a great narrative that loops back to the dark center of the novel where we see, out of the shimmer of bravura storytelling, what clenches the entire hulking masterpiece together.
It was a book, some of us confessed, that we might not have completed on our own, without the pressure of peers and the danger of seeming unworthy before the SBC, and thus would have failed to fully absorb and comprehend its strange wisdom, like the brutal vacation you can only appreciate from the safety and comfort of home. And as the evening wore on and the patrons thinned and we had exhausted several baskets of tortilla chips and downed an impressive amount of cerveza, our gluttony gave way to adoration, and Bolaño's novel took on increased significance. In a matter of drinks and hours, we had determined 2666 to be the most important novel of the new millennium.
We made it home, high on Mexican brew and the complex delights that good discussion can bring out in wonderful literature, and we might not have known it then, but how lucky we were to have missed the Secret Book Club that evening.
After further correspondence with O, we learned details of the SBC meeting we had missed. O had joined the group via cellphone — no doubt eating his cold schnitzel and onions thousands of miles away while his faceless peers munched nosily on tortilla chips and slurped cheese — and confessed he felt awkwardly detached from the morose proceedings. After a lengthy disquisition by Dr. H on Bolaño's merits and shortcomings, the group ultimately sought O's opinion on the more Germanic strains of the novel. O said that he had found 2666 to be much more in the German literary tradition than the Latin American, something colder and fiercer in its tragedy than airy and luscious.
For some reason, the comment did not sit well with the club's cranky leader, who must harbor some queer resentment for German literature. He began to chastise O about his observation, goading him with statements such as, "So what you must be telling me is that it took a Spaniard (sic) to finally write a decent German novel" and "Your cultural pride is irrelevant; why don't you join the rest of us here in the post-nationalistic era!" (That must have turned a few heads at the Piñata.)
O tried to explain himself, but the connection was dropped. Dr. H himself ended the call, he was told later by another club member. Stranger still, Dr. H later confessed to assigning 2666 as mere training for a much larger, more intimidating and surely more provocative work — Dr. H's own unpublished novel, Spawn of Esau, a 1,800-page epic drama tracing the ancestry of the famous feuding Biblical brother and the tragic legacy of sibling rivalry across centuries, right up to the present day and even into the distant future, a monumental literary achievement purportedly even better than Thomas Pynchon. He distributed the book to each member of the club in plain cardboard boxes, single-spaced one-sided pages, and they were all required to sign an affidavit swearing they would neither show nor speak of the novel to anyone.
"I'd say I'm sorry I dragged you down this path," O wrote us, "but I think you might have been introduced to a pretty spectacular piece of literature. Just be glad for your own friends, and consider yourselves fortunate to have escaped with your love of reading intact. I'll be happy to stick with my bleak German novels and send all further calls from America straight to voicemail."