As I wandered (not lonely as a cloud) through Nepal one of the heaviest luxuries in my kitbag was a copy of Roberto Bolano’s 2666. I read it through, and then I read quite a bit of it again since I was without anything else to read. Each night in whatever bedding I was allocated I would curl up with Bolano and read by the light of my headtorch. I did this until I bought Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and Haruki Murakami’s Underground (which, I might say, is a heartbreaking book, the sadness pours through every page) in Tatopani, which, being conscious of the weight being carried by Sudeep the Porter, I exchanged for 2666. But for almost three weeks each night culminated with Bolano and the horror, the horror.
It was crystal clear that as I traversed some of the frontiers of modernity that Bolano’s book was as hearty a condemnation of modernity as he could manage before it had its final way with him. The opening, the bit about the critics, reminded me very much of those Hemingway stories where men from Chicago or Flint or Saint Paul head into the wilderness and emerge later somehow concave by uncertainty, lost amongst the unmediable thing of living. But Bolano goes further than just loss, he sees our existence bent into citizenship. Lives not made concave but convex, and not by the fact of living but by the contortions of our desires to have lives that appear in the context of good citizenship.
Bolano can’t stand the contrivances of simply appearing to be a good person because it just evades the big questions that actually being an existing person calls upon us to answer: where is a person when they exist in the vastness of modernity? who is a person when they exist among a neverending hall of mirrors? who is real and who is a reflection, contorted? And if these are answerable questions, who do we share the answers with? Bolano also asks why so few people are interested in seeing the movement behind the deeper, darker shadows and why so many people constrict themselves to playing with reflections?
For me the obvious reference points for these questions were Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Each of these, and 2666, turns over in their hands shapes of things which might contain modernity, flipping and shaking them to determine how leaky that container may turn out to be. Solzhenitsyn, a true believer in uncontorted humanity if ever there was one, sees the leaks as the container: an endless drip, drip, drip of souls connected on a oceanic scale. The islands of the archipelago are not prisons but consciousnesses holding their heads above the waterline. They are souls who refuse to drown and believe the lie.
For DFW there’s no chance of not drowning, no possibility of getting your head above water. The best you can hope for is to be aware that you and everyone around you is drowning, DFW wants us to pay attention to the fact that we are right now, drowning. DFW wants us to notice the weight of all this; the pressure of the water; the cold of it; the slow, soggy calm of being here in modernity. Paying attention to specifics, to actual and particular things and beings, is for DFW the only morally viable means for proceeding. This is why The Pale King is about tax, which is so, so particular.
2666 is pretty similar is scope and ambition to The Gulag Archipelago and Infinite Jest but it also makes clear that there are worse kinds of doom than New England tennis academies and their Stanlinist equivalents. Bolano also makes clear that the feature of modernity that really matters is its inclusivity, that there is no escape from it. We are in it, and as it is in us. Everything, like the oceanic waters, is one thing. Furthermore, as one thing it is the thing we all share and because we share it none of us can evade it, or cast it aside, and as a result Bolano spends many hundreds of pages mapping the varieties of modernist death that we can’t escape.And like Solzhenitsyn’s islands, like the drugs and footnotes of DFW, this sharedness of doom is the core of being here now.
For Bolano acknowledging the terms and conditions of being here now means hearing the many stories that lead to the only available narrative conclusion: our death. A person in modernity is a doomed person, there are no immaterialities that might call us toward other lives, there’s just being and compost. As such the stories count, they are weight, they are pressure, they are being and time, they are gifts from the drowned to the drowning.
2666 says this: know your doom, tell it.