My feelings about 2666 are extremely mixed; in fact, they're in conflict with one another. Not only do I feel that some parts were boring/pretentious while other parts were engrossing, I found some parts somehow boring/pretentious and engrossing. I have very little patience for books I'm not enjoying and I have no reluctance to put a book down forever if I'm not getting "pleasure"* from it. But there were parts of 2666 where I was bored, exasperated, and resentful (of Bolaño for boring me), and I still didn't put the book down. I did occasionally skim, but I'll get to that later.
(I will say one thing right off--the critical adoration for Bolaño seems to me more inflated than the real estate market was in the summer of 2007. I'm thinking in particular of the infamous NYT review by Jonathan Lethem, whose novels I have sometimes enjoyed, but who I must now and forever consider to be a person who smokes crack. Rereading that review, it seems to me to be literally the ravings of an insane person. "a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world...delivering itself into our hearts, sentence by questing, unassuming sentence..." Are you kidding me? And his favorable comparison of Bolaño to two other giants of modern popular fiction--Murakami and Ellroy--only serves to remind me how much more resonant, affecting, and memorable their huge, eccentric novels about human evil, L.A. Confidential and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, are than 2666.)
Although the manuscript was apparently finished before Bolaño died, it feels like a first draft. Bolaño veers too often and too arbitrarily into random digressions about previously unheard-of characters. I'm going to try to give you an idea of what these passages are like by writing a paragraph in the style of Bolaño:
Alfonso was holding a book, either hardback or paperback, called Reflections on a Melancholy Diadem. For some reason it reminded him of another book, The Prismatic Email, which he had read in 1997 in Italy while his ex-wife Ramona was in the bathtub, either talking to God or knitting. One summer when it was very hot, Ramona went hitchhiking to Brussels with her lesbian seer friend Rafaela, whose words seemed to tremble like a bronchitic and morally horrified earthworm that was more gigantic than anything that had ever existed, more gigantic than the world even, although it lived, and always had lived since the beginning of time, or even before the beginning of time, in the space between an infant's eyelid and his eyeball. Ramona and Rafaella were going to see a famous circus clown, not really famous but admired in certain circles, who had gone insane and was now living peacefully in an asylum. On the trip, they only ate tuna fish sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, one or the other.
And on and on.
Most of these digressions are totally boring and intolerable, and after a while I began to skim them. I didn't start skimming until near the end of Book 2, "The Part About Amalfitano," which is maybe the worst of the books. In it, a scholar named Amalfitano finds a book in his house that he doesn't remember buying, so he hangs it on a clothesline in the backyard and watches it. Later, he draws geometric figures, and at their vertices he writes the names of philosophers and writers. Still later--in the most exciting part!--that book reminds him of another book about Araucanian Indians and ancient Greeks. That book is then summarized.
I really can't emphasize how extraordinarily boring this is.
The third book, "The Part About Fate," is also fairly bad. The main character is named Fate. We are subjected to a tedious monologue from a completely unncessary character, a faux-mystical ramble about his wanderings. Slightly interesting things begin to happen--we hear about murders happening on the edge of the desert.
The fourth book, "The Part About the Crimes," is the one everyone talks about. It is a list of murder scenes. It is a desert of boredom containing sites of interest. Once in a while, things happen--certain characters reappear (a suspect, a few detectives). Young women are being killed in a Mexican city. We don't see the crimes, we just get a detached third person voice describing the bodies. Always, "the hyoid bone was fractured." Occasionally there are scenes of horrific prison torture and murder. (These scenes are much more disturbing than the murders, which we never "see.") I found this section the most problematic--it is generally tedious, for one thing, but worse, I think it's exploitative. I haven't heard anyone else say this about 2666, but I really felt like Bolaño was using the murders for easy literary capital--using the dead women as props, as flavor, and illuminating nothing. (Remember, these are based on real murders--hundreds of women dumped in the desert outside Juárez.) Describing horrific crime scenes in a politely repetitive tone for 300 pages isn't interesting, productive, compelling... it's wasteful and it's boring, and after a while I became angry at Bolaño for building his novel around this litany in what seems a very arbitrary way. Certainly a powerful novel involving the Juárez murders (which do feel apocalyptic and unreal) could have been written. This isn't it.
The first book ("The Part About the Critics") and the fifth book ("The Part About Archimboldi") are the best, although in retrospect the first feels a bit arbitrary (in fact, "arbitrary" might be the best word to describe the entire novel, toward which, as I read, I kept mentally directing words like, "Why?" and "So?"). The fifth doesn't quite bring things together, but it is the most engrossing, and the sequences involving its protagonist wandering through WWII and swimming in the ocean as a child are sometimes easy to get lost in (in a good way, I mean). It also contains the novel's best sequence, a digression (yes, another) about a mid-level Third Reich bureaucrat who got an unexpected trainload of Jewish prisoners delivered to his obscure town and put them to work as street sweepers, until he was informed that they had only been sent to him by accident and were actually destined for Auschwitz... but since he had them already, could he please just go ahead and dispose of them? It's this section that reminded me a little of Murakami's Mongolia chapter from Wind-Up Bird.
So I liked those two books, even though I did skim some digressions in Five, and there is something compelling about the whole thing--the aura of creeping death, the sense that artistic genius (Archimboldi) is only a fleck of genetic material removed from sociopathic, perhaps homicidal weirdness (Klaus Haas), the feeling of the Mexican desert being the center of some horrible impending paradigm shift in human evil. Certain recurring images (the giant, the swaying stalks of seaweed) take on a totemic feeling. I kept reading because something pulled me along, and I often felt/hoped that if I wasn't enjoying what I was reading, I might enjoy the next part. And when I found parts I liked, I was thrilled--but it always seemed to throw itself away again. Like in the novel's final passage, with its silly, solemnly "meaningful" anecdote about the inventor of a kind of ice cream. That's how he ends his 900-page book? I'm not saying it couldn't work... but it doesn't. On some level I deeply admired the novel and what it was trying to do... but I wanted it to do it better.
* "pleasure" in the reader's sense, meaning addictive stimulation, meaning any strong emotion excluding boredom or moral repulsion directed toward the author. so fear and horror can be kinds of pleasure in this case.