I just finished reading this so I'm going to post my thoughts about it.
I read it very quickly. I started it last Thursday. In some respects it all feels like a blur to me, but also very vivid. I think that's an appropriate sort of impression. This book came highly recommended by a friend whose taste I really trust, so I was going in expecting to like it. I wasn't so much blown away as I was just very solidly impressed. Despite it being his first novel, Bolano doesn't really seem like he's eager to prove anything. The writing is all very solid, natural, paced... for a book about poetry, there aren't many poetic flourishes. This is all praise, by the way. It makes it so when there is a passage of almost indulgent description or meditation, it hits all the harder. The end result is something that is powerful and gripping without ever really feeling overwhelming... just an incredibly solid book. Nothing falls flat and I never wanted to stop reading.
Okay now I'll break down some specific things I liked. Spoilers etc so watch out.
Hierarchies of Character Knowledge
So the second section is all told from different characters' perspectives. And each of them has certain other characters that they're able to speak of, that they have some knowledge of. There's some characters that they can speak fairly definitively on, and other characters that they can only speculate on. And there's varying levels of interest in what the other character is doing. You could pretty easily work out some sort of "score" that is created from the inverse of their knowledge and their interest, a sort of "mystique score". And then you give weight to that score based on the "mystique score" of the character with that perspective. And you could end up with a sort of ranking of the characters based on their "mystique". Things like "interest" are pretty subjective and two different people could have pretty different readings, sure, but that doesn't matter much.
Why would you do this? Well, it isn't so much that you'd want to actually see this thing (although I do sort of want to see a chart like this, I might end up trying to make one), it's that it would have a certain sort of distribution. I think the distribution would be like... a diamond. Very few characters with really low mystique, lots of characters in the midrange, and then fewer again as you went up. I think that is a very good distribution.
But it's not like you'd ever actually think of these sorts of distributions as you read the book. Or likely even after. There is, however, a noticeable effect that this sort of distribution and the ability to construct this sort of hierarchy has when you're reading it. I only started coming up with this bizarre ranking system after trying to pinpoint exactly what this feeling was and how it was functioning.
The feeling itself is probably best described through example... so, like, take an early section. Garcia Medero is very interested in Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. Then you find out that Ulises Lima is just a pen name, and that the name was given to him by Laura Damian, who also is the namesake of Angelica Font's poetry prize. So like... these characters who have some level of "mystique" to the narrator have this other character, Laura Damian, who has some sort of mystique or power over them. When this sort of thing happens... I'm immediately fascinated by that other character, the character two steps away. And the more a hierarchy of respect and interest begins to form in my mind, if only subconsciously, the more I become compelled to find out what's waiting at the top.
And really, these hierarchies can be formed on almost any metric... here, it's elusiveness and poetic respect, in Infinite Jest there's an element of tennis skill, in shonen manga it's based on how well they can fight, etc, etc...the characters who end up at the top end up with this other quality that's almost completely separate from any of their other characteristics, except that they end up with some sort of "gravity" to them that makes you (or at least it makes me) really hyped up to learn more about them. And then, if the author can pull it off, and make those characters live up to the hype, the payoff is all the greater. I think this is one of the key things that makes this novel work. I dunno I probably shouldn't belabor this because I have other stuff I want to talk about but I hope you get it. And yeah I know that these characters are all based on real people and are often just actually real people but I think that just makes his ability to do this even better.
Shifting Conversational Tone
This is probably in many ways the most impressive part of the book, but it isn't something that blows you away... in fact, I think the best evidence of the quality is that you don't really even notice it until you think about it. Part two is all told from the perspectives of various characters as they're questioned about Arturo and Ulises (by Garcia Medero, I think, but I dunno), right? And for each of these characters, the tone is a little different. It's never very extreme (I think the only really obviously different ones are Barbara (Rafael's American girlfriend), Heimito (Ulises's good friend from Israeli prison), Xose Lendoiro (the lawyer that hires Arturo for his magazine)... there might be a few others) but there is a definite unique tone to each of the characters.
What's so amazing is that he manages to not just make each of them unique and realistic, but he makes each of them also a realistic conversational tone. Like, not just a sort of "mental" tone, or "perspective", but an actual tone that sounds feasibly like someone telling a story while being prompted. And, even beyond that, this tone is consistent with how the character behaves and is described by others. That's... really something, you know? Like, that isn't just something you can do naturally. That's something that requires a lot of hard work and discipline and analysis and revision. And that's true genius.
The pacing of the book is also marvelous and pretty unique, especially in part 2. There are chapters that are just one long account, and others that are several small accounts. And then there's ones that are a long account followed by a short account, or a short account followed by a long... even discarding the entire content, I think these sorts of variation in even the most basic structural elements is somehow very intriguing, very poetic. At least to me. But I'm the type of person who gets excited just looking at the structure of the length of tracks on an album (btw, To Be Kind, which I'm listening to atm for the fourth or fifth time, is the AOTY for track length structuring).
Looking a little closer, the pacing of these accounts themselves is also really magnificently structured. There are some accounts that need a lot of context, and he happily provides it, deliberately leading you through each character's fascinating lives to the "point" of the account, which is usually when they encounter Ulises or Arturo... the fact that you know that one of these characters, or someone else with a high "mystique", will eventually show up, but in an unknown and often obscured capacity, makes their history even more compelling and interesting. Then there's other accounts where the characters are familiar and all that's required is a little "check in" with their immediate circumstances. Then there's others where both the character and the circumstance is known, whether it be because the section immediately follows another account of the same events, or because the section continues immediately after the last account from that character. So there's a varying level of "foreplay" for each of the sections, that is good too.
And really, everything else you can think of varies, too. Some accounts span one evening but have flashbacks within them that jump around in previous decades. Others span a few hours and are very immediate and detailed. Others are summaries of whole careers and lifetimes. He plays with all these elements. But the amazing thing, again, isn't anything noticeable about these variations, but instead how natural they all seem. Everything sounds, again, like a totally feasible story being told conversationally.
Okay, so this is the heart of it. I hope I've made it clear how impressed I am by the realism aspects of the novel, how natural it all seems, etc. But all of that is nothing without the visceral heart. Basically, this novel is, as far as I can say, people's accounts of the moments in life that stayed with them, that impacted them to their very core. And the goal of the novel is to have you situate yourself in their lifestyle such that when these things happen to them, you feel a similar effect. Does that make sense? Is that obvious?
So the first thing is that you need to become accustomed to a character's way of life. It doesn't have to be an ordinary lifestyle, or stable, or relatable, but it needs to be believable. This aspect is always done excellently. Some of them I found myself more attached to, or less, which I think is a good sign, because something like this you want to make very intimate and personal, which means different "lifestyle sections" ought to relate to different people. Lately I have felt somewhat obsessed about the idea of "stability" and "perpetual lifestyles" and such, so a lot of these I found especially fascinating. Other people more interested in politics or whatever could find the political implications of some of them more fascinating, whatever.
These sections alone are really masterful slices of life. They can be funny, heartwarming, endearing... scary, alien, unsettling... often melancholy, often a sort of feeling of ragged momentum or dying energy... But the important thing is a sense of understanding of the lifestyle, like, a sort of calm or peace. Even when the lifestyle itself is turbulent, there's an understanding of it that sort of "settles" it into a calmness.
And then you get the events that "make waves" in their lifestyle, the thing that lead to their revelations, or unforgettable incidents, or whatever. Of course, characters with high "mystique" are usually at the heart of it, churning things up for someone "lower" on the "ladder", which adds to this compelling mystery. And also these sections are where Bolano gets a bit indulgent, and it makes sense, because it's when the speaker of the account would also get a bit indulgent, and it's also always indulgent in the way that they would be, but all of it is... poetic, haunting, beautiful. What's more, it never feels like it's indulgent for the sake of the reader, like, often I felt myself torn, because I wanted to see more of a given scene, but the speaking character didn't give the same sort of indulgent emphasis to it that I did... the best example is probably when Heimito witnesses Ulises and Arturo say goodbye to each other, but can't understand what they're talking about. These events, which are naturally obscured by the limited perspective of the speakers, carry an even greater haunting weight than any description.
Oh, but there are cases where that isn't true, either... something like Cesarea Tinjero's poem, that is just... well outside and much greater than anything I could have imagined, either. When I read the section where they first see it and at the end they say "There is no mystery" (the end of chapter 17), I felt like I was swooning, and I let out a long sigh, and I felt like the book could have ended there and I would have been happy, but I'm glad it didn't... that's just my absolute favorite feeling in reading books.
Cesarea Tinjero's poem is the very pinnacle of visceral realism... it has the whole thing in it, right there. You have the settled line and you have the waves. There's a lot to think about. I'm not sure what more I can say. I think I'll be thinking about it for a long, long time.
There was some more stuff I was going to write but I think none of it is that important compared to the idea of Cesarea Tinjero's poem. I was going to talk about the idea of "investigation" and mystery in a book. I was going to talk about things like the section in Africa or the section in Israel and the sort of "episodicness" of the book... but my point with all of these was going to be, basically, that he does all these things very naturally, and without showing off that he was doing it, and it all seems very real, and that all of that emphasizes the, well, viscerality of other parts... but I can't really get the appeal of that visceralness into words, so it seems kinda moot, maybe.
I dunno, you get the idea... it was a really good book. I think I'll read 2666 soon.