At 900 pages, 2666 pretty much kicks its readers' asses the entire way through. It took me about six months to read, partly because it wasn't all that fun the entire time, and partly because it takes me a long time to read books, which is itself partly to do with my limited reading time and also my slow reading ability.
2666 is really five inter-connected novellas that span the globe from the UK, Spain, Mexico, the US, Germany, the USSR, Italy, and France. Each novella swirls in some way around the fictional city Santa Teresa on the Mexico-US border (and based on Ciudad Juarez), where hundreds of women have been found raped and murdered in the desert, picking up bit characters and detritus and grime as the story blows through these countries, and these people. Despite each novella being inter-connected*, they really have their own unique character and pacing and depth, designed for different purposes, to tell different stories about the character of brotherhood and violence in our modern world.
The book starts with the easy-going "Part About The Critics" which introduces the two main ideas that anchor the remainder of the novel: The whereabouts of the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, and the violent character of Santa Teresa. Most of this section is a melodrama about four European Literature critics who bond, fight, and ultimately fall apart over their love of Archimboldi's work. Largely responsible for bringing his work such notoriety and acclaim, the critics forge life-long bonds that are tested when they catch wind of Archimboldi's living in Santa Teresa. They fly to the border city and from there everything they know about the world seems to fall away and become meaningless. What starts as an enjoyable study of academia and the politics of fame grows dark and foreboding once it touches on Mexican soil.
That darker character deepens throughout the next three parts, as Bolano tells the tales of an academic stuck between the world of words and ideas and that of the evil festering in the desert outside Santa Teresa; of a music critic sent to Mexico to write about a boxing match, and winds up closer to the heart of this darkness than he ever intended; and ultimately the tale of the murders themselves.
It is this fourth part, "The Part About The Murders," that tests the reader. Arriving nearly 500 pages into the novel, "The Part About The Murders" is the longest section, an unceasing depiction of violence, frustration, and loneliness, set to the constantly repeating refrain, "...there was evidence of vaginal and anal tearing." It's brutal, brutal stuff and only a sadist would blame someone for losing the heart to slog through the bitterness. But there is a beauty to what Bolano is doing here as well. If 2666 is partly about madness and obsession, the murders are a subtle depiction of both. The madness of the murders themselves are obvious, but this section is also about the madness and obsession of the police officers and politicians who spend day after day in this darkness, risking life and limb to shed even the smallest bulb of light.
It's also an incredible piece of performance art, in that by repeating murder after murder after murder, Bolano forces the reader into the same sort of numb denialism that has taken root in Santa Teresa. It's impossible to care about every victim, to get invested and really feel each murder without quitting the book entirely. Therefore, in order to finish the book, one must see the victims in the abstract, deny their humanity, or else the moral weight of so much bloodshed becomes impossible to bear. That Santa Teresa is merely a stand in for a very real, and very dangerous place just makes it all the more hard to swallow. This section doesn't offer any answers, nor does it place blame, but suggests that violence is so pervasive that only a madman would stand in its way.
The final section is "The Part About Archimboldi" in which Bolano answers all the questions about the mysterious author, while subsequently not answering anything at all. It is to Bolano's great credit as an storyteller that he can tell the reader all of the who/what/why/when's of Archimboldi's life and yet in doing so create so many unanswered questions.
2666 was the second most satisfying read of the last five years for me**. It is beautifully-written and contains all of the characteristics one wants most from a 900-page book: humor, terror, intensity, and moral complexity. It's a deep look at the darkest parts of human nature, and a shining light blinkering in the abyss.
*For instance, other than the Santa Teresa connection, I noticed that each successive novella takes a side character from the previous novella and blows them up into the main character in the next novella, e.g. Amalfitano shows up at the end of "The Part About The Critics" and becomes the main character in "The Part About Amalfitano".
**Two guesses as to what was the most satisfying read.