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Is 2666 a “Total Novel”?

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.

–“The Part About Fate,” 2666, p.348

The question of whether 2666 is a total novel seems interesting enough for its own thread. I’m going to copy out below what we’ve discussed so far (mostly in the thread on The Part About Amalfitano) in hopes that we’ll continue the discussion in comments, and maybe glean enough insight for another blog post later — or figure out that the question merits revision.

The question first comes up in the text in relation to the pharmacist. I thought Bolaño was spoofing his own project:

I three was taken by the pharmacist who only reads minor works — interesting to see how it ties into Bolaño’s career. It tied for me directly into the passage that you also reference pages before about how the Kilapán book could have been written by anyone across the Chilean political spectrum. While you were primed to read that as a spoof of dry Chilean writing, I think it’s also a pinprick against the Novel of Everything, the Moby Dicks, Gravity’s Rainbows and 2666es whose errant art flirts ever with utter diffuseness. (Ishmael was the original “Guerran chincuale” (201).) It’s a joke on his own project, and then he changes tack to defend it with full-voice against the pharmacist’s taste.

Pat brought it up in relation to Oscar Fate:

But I also think that there’s something a little odd, from the perspective of a Total Novel that is also about Cosmopolitanism, to have Europeans from the educated classes represent Europe, while the US is represented by a member of the struggling black journalist world (alas, there’s nothing to my mind odd about having Latin America represented by a border town tourist trap on maquiladora steroids with a demonstrated contempt for human life).

Josh M. questioned why exactly we should think of 2666 as a Total Novel:

 I hadn’t really been thinking of this as a Total Novel. To me that usually evokes a book that is trying to argue that everything in the world should be understood through its particular lens: paranoia for Gravity’s Rainbow, the stock market for JR, or the history of Western literature for Ulysses. What makes you describe this as a Total Novel, and if it is one, what is its totalizing lens on the world?

Pat suggested:

(What Bolaño/Amalfitano says is that some really big books are “the great, imperfect, torrential works” that struggle against “that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench” (227)). By the time they’re finished the novel, a lot of critics claim that everything should be understood through the lens of Evil, the ubiquity of it, the possibility of it everywhere. Just as you’re celebrating how civilly you can conduct yourself in a romantic triangle, some Paki cab driver mouths off and there you are, kicking him almost to death or watching with eager fascination. Und so weiter. (Hey, my spellcheck corrected that to “writer”!) But maybe you want to start working up a distinction between a Total Novel and a Global Novel?

I suggested:

If put on the spot, I would guess that some combination of “cosmopolitanism after the American century” and femicide is the totalizing theme of 2666, but I’m still chugging through Oscar Fate.

Here’s Rodrigo Frésan via Natasha Wimmer:

With 2666, Bolaño clearly chooses Moby-Dick over Bartleby. As Ignacio Echevarría points out in his “Note to the First Edition” of 2666, Bolaño “boasted…of having embarked on a colossal project, far surpassing The Savage Detectives in ambition and length.” In Fresán’s words: “What is sought and achieved here is the Total Novel, placing the author of 2666 on the same team as Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Proust, Musil, and Pynchon.”

Más adelante.


July 24, 2012 - Posted by | 2666


  1. Let me toss in another angle on this topic: before he went crazy, Franco Moretti wrote a book called Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez (1997), where he argues that the epic impulse of the novel can no longer restrict itself to the Mediterranean a la The Odyssey but really has to acknowledge the existence of the entire globe, but that when the long-19th c. (including Modernism) starts trying to do so (besides Faust he also looks at Wagner, Moby Dick, Ulysses, and even Pound’s Cantos), the forms get all bent out of shape. He is ferociously ambivalent about 100 Years of Solitude –loves it and hates it– but if it has a shapeliness the other modern epics don’t have, it’s because it was written from the periphery (for the consumption of the center). So, to follow our thread, it’s not the big terrifying themes that are distorting the shape of the novels that our pharmacist won’t read; it’s the size of the world which is pulling the form of the novel out of shape.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 24, 2012

  2. I just finished Part 3 and am starting in on Part 4. It’s interesting, when finishing each section, to think about Bolano’s dying instructions that the novel be divided up and published as five novellas. Part 3 is the most inconclusive so far, and would be terribly disappointing if it ended where it did. As a prologue to the stark descriptions of the murders, though, it’s pretty powerful–with the ambiguous danger to our heroes hanging over the crime reports.

    I recently learned about the McOndo movement as reaction to Garcia Marquez. I’m surprised that Bolano is not discussed as part of it, since his cosmopolitanism and hard-boiled elements seem to fit well.

    Comment by Mark E. | July 25, 2012

  3. I went and Googled “total novel” to see how other people use it, and discovered, at least in cursory research, that the only critic who really seems to have used it much was Mario Vargas Llosa, in talking about his ambitions and those of other Latin American boom writers. For example:

    it was not until the 1960s that the denomination novela total-izadora, or “total”novel,surfaced in Spanish American letters,along with theauthors of the Boom. During this period,writers such as Alejo Carpentier,Julio Cortázar,Carlos Fuentes,Mario Vargas Llosa,and Gabriel García Márquez published a series of essays and novels in an attempt to redefine theparameters of the novelistic tradition in Latin America. Among these writingswas Vargas Llosa’s critical introduction to Joanet Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc (1969),where he articulates the beginnings of a theory of the total novel,in which the novelist supplants or displaces God by creating an autonomous fictional world capable of competing with exterior reality.

    <a href = ""Or this way:

    For Mr. Vargas Llosa, the central feature of the total novel, aside from its encyclopedic pursuit of an all-encompassing overview, is its unassailable autonomy: its own internal coherence and integrity is ultimately what matters, not its relationship to any supposed ”real” world. Indeed, the ”real world” disappears altogether, displaced by the perfectly self-enclosed world of the ”totalized fiction.” The author’s singular task is to serve intransigently as chronicler and explorer of that closed world of his own invention or discovery (”Novels that last are those that spring from that transcendental selfishness that puts absolutely everything at the service of literature,” he has said), while at the same time withdrawing into Flaubert’s God-like remove, omnipresent yet invisible.

    His classic presentation of ”totalization” is his second and most famous novel, ”The Green House,” first published in 1966. Here, the author-deity, himself unseen, omnipotently and suggestively shuffles the elements of five different concurrent plots, remote from one another in time and place, yet each conjoined, as though organically, by the essential givens of the human – and in particular, the Peruvian – condition. Time is telescoped, distant places become as contiguous as film cuts, character dissolves into the landscape, resolution surprises climax, and the book, even while seeming to say more about Peru than any other book ever written, closes in on itself, shutting out everything not within its own pages.

    Given what Pat gave us to read about Bolaño’s attitude toward that generation of Latin American authors, I think it’s highly unlikely that he would have accepted the term Total Novel for himself. It almost seems like he is deliberately assaulting this Total Novel idea, by creating a vast, sprawling work that refuses to be self-enclosed or autonomous, that is constantly running up to the edge of what it is willing to say and then pointing to vital information beyond its bounds.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 29, 2012

  4. Woops, forgot to close a tag.

    Comment by Josh Malbin | July 29, 2012

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