He’d given me a book—more accurately, three volumes shrinkwrapped in a tan, cardboard slipcase—and said something about it being amazing. I probably said thanks and stuck it with all the rest of his gifts: zines of obscure communist theory, Italian modernist poetry, assorted Dalkey Archive paperbacks. Our lives were in many ways at cross-purposes—he a vegan straightedge animal rights activist with a penchant for literature, me an uneducated anarcho-primitivist crustpunk turned vegetable farmer—but we bonded over books.
I don’t know what eventually drew me to pull it from the tottering stack of milk crates we used for shelves. Maybe the daunting size of the thing, or the elaborate patterns on each of the spines, or the mysterious title the collection bore: “2666,” a number evoking both Satan and the future. I must have started it in winter—when the harvest was over, the canning was complete, and the only real task was to tend the hearth against the wet Kentucky cold and read—and continued between planting in the spring. I really can’t remember; and as I reach into my memory for details, the complete separation between the details of the book and my life as I read it gives me pause.
I lived in Bolaño’s world for months. I fell into the darkness with his litterateurs; I watched with Amalfitano as his geometry text withered on the line in the Mexican heat; I prowled about Santa Teresa with Oscar Fate, horrified yet resolute; I sat cooking in the sun at every crime scene, grew mad with Lalo Cura, stared too long into the eyes of Haase; and I wandered broken across the ruins of Europe with Archimboldi, lost in a dream of a world undone. When I closed the final volume and returned to normal life, I’d found the real world I lived in changed forever.
It’s an elementary observation, of course—the stuff of college application essays and youthful romanticism. But I’d never written such an essay—the local state university required only GPA and a valid bank account—and I was in fact a youthful romantic. (Now I’m an old one.) And despite my relatively cosmopolitan form of life at the time—riding freight trains around America, talking with people from all walks of life, learning something about the ways of the world—I knew very little about anything. A handful of novels I’d read extracurricular, some half-remembered facts about American reconstruction and postbellum industrial expansion, a distaste for boredom and fluorescent lighting—these were the fruits of my 12 years of schooling. I’d been everywhere and back again, but I still lived in the confines of my ignorance. Bolaño changed that.
Thinking about it now, the first two sections of the novel—The Part About the Critics, The Part About Amalfitano—must have been the first intimate visions afforded to me into the life of academics. To this day, I still have never read a “campus novel” (unless one counts Ravelstein, which I read last year in Chicago); I only ever tasted “the college experience” through a few young women I briefly and confusedly courted; none of the movies I ever watched about university life seemed to leave any impression on my soul. Academia was terra incognita; Bolaño’s must have been the first map I found.
I’m talking from a studio where the chaos is just a mask or the faint stink of anesthesia. I’m talking from a studio with the lights out, where the sinew of the will detaches itself from the rest of the body the way the snake tongue detaches itself from the body and slithers away, self-mutilated, amid the rubbish. I’m talking from the perspective of the simple things in life. You teach philosophy? said the voice. You teach Wittgenstein? said the voice. And have you asked yourself whether your hand is a hand? said the voice. I’ve asked myself, said Amalfitano. But now you have more important things to ask yourself, am I right? said the voice. No, said Amalfitano.