Structures and Mirrors: Jonathan Russell Clark on His Book About “2666”

JRC-Joe Batty credit

It’s been a decade since Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was first published in the United States. Given this amount of time, several writers have begun exploring the impact and influence of Bolaño’s bibliography, with a particular focus on this mammoth work. That’s the case with Jonathan Russell Clark’s An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, which does an excellent job of explaining why Bolaño’s work continues to resonate today, even as it also critiques aspects of it that haven’t aged as well. I asked Clark about the origins of the book, the process of writing it, and what unlikely literary facts can emerge when exploring Bolaño’s body of work.

An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom opens ten years ago, with you reading 2666 for the first time. At what point after that did you realize that this was a book that you had a book’s worth of thoughts on?

Honestly, only when Brian Hurley (the publisher of Fiction Advocate) asked if I’d be interested in writing a book for this series, Afterwords, and sent me a list of possible titles. 2666 was on the list, which, as you said, I’d read some years before. I will say, though, that when I read the book for the first time, I certainly knew I’d eventually have to write about it in order to figure out just what was going on in it. I have to write about something in order to truly know what I think about it in the first place.

In the acknowledgements, you allude to talking with people at both FSG and New Directions about this project. How did you go about assembling the book–and how did you balance the needs of a book about 2666 with Bolaño’s larger body of work?

Well, FSG and New Directions generously provided me with some of Bolaño’s backlist, which was rad of them, as I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford all those books. And in terms of putting the book together, I began with the basic structure, which I knew I would divide into five parts, mirroring the parts of 2666. Then the hard part was the research. Because I felt like I wouldn’t have any authority over 2666 if I hadn’t read everything else of Bolaño’s, especially because his novels and stories feature recurring characters and ideas. But I also knew I wasn’t going to write that much about those other texts, since the focus was not them but 2666. It was a little frustrating, not being able to write an entire book about Bolaño’s novels, but then again, it would have been a much larger project and perhaps beyond my capabilities.

At one point, you allude to the clash between Bolaño’s depiction of violence against women in the narrative of 2666 with the novel’s treatment of gender. Was that something you’d felt conflicted about from the start, or was it something that became apparent as you revisited the novel?

Oh, definitely when I revisited it. When I read it initially, I was like 22 or 23 and didn’t yet view literature through a feminist lens, which I absolutely do now. Back then I was super into Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and Big, Difficult Books, and all that other male blah blah blah bullshit. I mean, I still love long, complex novels (and even those writers), but I no longer view them as measurements of Greatness. I read much of 2666 in New York City, but at the time I was living in Boston, where I met a bunch of amazing people who completely changed my perception of art and the world. People like the playwright and poet April Ranger and the singer-songwriter Ruby Rose Fox, who really taught me feminism (and as a result, other intersectional ideas) as an incorporated part of one’s thinking. That is, that it wasn’t some purely academic “position” one chose, but rather a fundamental component of one’s point-of-view. As a kid in suburban Ohio, and even as a college student, feminism and queer theory and black studies were presented alongside postmodernism or structuralism or fucking new criticism, as if they discrete categories of intellectual preferences. But that’s bullshit, because something like New Criticism, or Historicism, or any of those -ism’s, are not in any way as fundamental as feminism, because for me the most important part of feminism is the way you begin to perceive everything differently, through a different lens. Not the lens of a woman, or a gay person, or a person of color, but from the constant awareness of the possibility of reductive assumptions, made by the world around me and made by me. This isn’t to say I see everything perfectly clear–far from it. It’s not like some veil has been lifted and I see clearly now. It’s an ongoing process, because I have to allow for things like rereading 2666, a book I admire and about which I am writing a book myself, and finding that though Bolaño does delve into the territory of patriarchal aggression, he doesn’t incorporate into the everyday depictions of things, which is typical, I think, for a lot of male writers. A kind of showman’s feminism, like chivalry. Though Bolaño’s is less egregious, but in some lesser writers’ work, the characterization of women is somehow self-congratulatorily affected, like they’re saying, “Hey, here’s this Strong Female Protagonist Who Kicks Butt Just Like the Guys” or some shit. It’s like they want to be commended just for not being dicks.

How has writing this book caused your opinion of 2666 to shift?

Well, aside from the aforementioned stuff about women, I think the biggest thing was reading 2666 in context with his other books, including his poetry. Because it’s absolutely clear that all those other stories and novels were leading up to 2666 and that he really put all his creative and intellectual energy into it. The whole thing of Bolaño writing this book as he neared death, desperate to complete his magnum opus, is all kind of apocryphal, but I definitely got the sense, particularly in his short stories, that much of his fiction was like practice for 2666.

It’s now been a decade since 2666 was first published in the US. What’s your take on how larger perceptions of it have changed in that time?

I have no idea, to tell you the truth. I don’t really hear it mentioned much, and it’s not as if there’s been an immediate rush of 2666 copies. I think a book like 2666 will enormously affect a small number of readers, some of whom will be writers, and some of those will write books, and some (maybe only one) will be a major work, and that link will be enough. But again, I don’t really know of its current level of influence or even readership.

Was there any information about Bolaño or 2666 that you learned while writing this book that didn’t quite fit in to your book?

The only thing I wish I’d been able to include was stuff about Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter after whom Benno von Archimboldi, the elusive novelist at the center of 2666, is clearly named. I’d intended to include this information, with a little analysis, but for whatever reason neglected to actually sit down and do it. All I wanted to say was that Arcimboldo’s style (which is basically combining everyday objects like books or fruit to look like portraits of people), is reminiscent of 2666‘s structure, and how the character Archimboldi was a like an Arcimboldo painting–a person made up of other things. Or something like that. It wouldn’t have been much–just a few paragraphs, probably–but it has bothered me ever since.


Photo: Joe Batty

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