Roberto Bolano has invented a new genre of crime writing

At the close of his book of essays How Fiction Works, literary critic James Wood writes: "The writer has to act as if the available novelistic methods are continually about to turn into mere convention and so has to outwit that inevitable ageing. The true writer is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped."

This is as good a notion as any when thinking about Roberto Bolaño's monstrous novel 2666. It's an intimidating book, not just because of the size (898 pages), or because of Bolaño's much-hyped reputation as a towering genius of South American literature, or even because this "novel" is really five novels crammed together. It's got something to do with Bolaño's determination to break every rule of conventional literature. Expect the plot to be resolved? Characters to develop? A moral? It's not going to happen while Bolaño's around. And in this way he seems to be doing exactly what what Wood suggests - writing a new kind of novel that expresses his idea of the messiness and inconclusiveness of life.

In the massive fourth part of 2666, 'The Part About The Crimes', Bolano seems to have invented a new genre of crime writing.

It is set in the nightmarish fictional town of Santa Teresa, clearly based on Ciudad Juarez. The town is in the grip of drug lords, corrupt politicians, businessmen and cops. Young women are raped and murdered at a rate of several every month - mostly working class young women employed at the maquiladoras (factories operated by multinationals). This section gives the impression of being partly true crime, part fiction, but it is nothing like traditional genre fiction: rather than a few murders and a dedicated investigator who tracks down the killers, we have dozens, perhaps hundreds of murders (I lost count), multiple killers, and investigators who occasionally manifest interest but often seem indifferent or even complicit in the crimes.

What is chilling about Bolano's account is not just the matter-of-fact way the crimes are described, but the lack of reaction to them. "The dead woman must have been about twenty-five and she had a congenital dislocation of the right hip. And yet, no one missed her ..." There is little official response to the crimes, and the only person passionate about bringing them to public attention is an elderly, female television psychic. There are many hints of official cover-ups - forensic evidence is always disappearing - and it is suggested (as has been claimed in the case of the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez) that powerful people are having women murdered at orgies. Almost as many women, though, are killed in banal working-class domestics - and Bolano describes these too. It could be argued that the whole town, or the whole of Mexico, is the murderer.

A longer version of this review is at

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Comment by Kirk Wilson on March 4, 2010 at 9:14am
Loved 2666, especially the wild riffs that go on for pages and pages without apparent contribution to the "story," really stories in themselves. J.J. Parker is right that the Juarez crime passages come straight out of that world. Don't agree that breaking all the rules is the "easy part," though, not if that means writing as well as Bolano did. Sure, it's hard to sell, and that's a shame.
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 4, 2010 at 12:26am
Sounds a bit like what is going on with the Mexican Mafia in places like Juarez. In other words: this my be entirely realistic rather than messy.
As for the business of breaking all the rules: that's the easy part. Selling the result is much harder.

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