Dreams in The Part about the Critics

The first section of 2666 gives us boatloads of dreams, most of them vivid and several of them downright disturbing. It’s hard to write about dreams before the section is done with while avoiding spoilers, since some of them anticipate other dreams or events in the story. So, while I’ve been cataloguing dreams over at the mother ship, I’ve held off on any sort of heavy duty analysis. Frankly, I’m a little skeptical about doing much in the way of real analysis. To speculate about the meanings of or purposes for events corresponding to the reality of the story as set out in the book puts one on shaky enough ground from a critical perspective; to speculate about the meanings of or purposes for bizarre dreams may be even shakier. Still, a number of little motifs appear in many of the dreams, and I think one can fairly safely draw conclusions about how they support certain impressions about some of the characters and their relationships to themselves and to others.

First, I’ll dump out a catalogue of some of the motifs I spotted. I may have missed some, and I may be making mountains out of molehills for others (for example, the age discrepancy one, the crowd one, and the distance one). After I’ve dumped them out, I’ll end with a few impressions the dreams have helped me to form.

Non-Dreams and Maybe-Dreams

Technically, this little sub-list isn’t a catalogue of motifs so much as a collection of instances in which dreams or dream-like states were referenced, suggesting that even when dreams aren’t real dreams, they’re a pervasive element within the text.

  • 14, Morini: May have dreamed a horrible unrecollected dream
  • 22, Frisian lady: Has trouble sleeping
  • 34, Norton: Enters a hypnotic, post-sex state
  • 35, Morini: Has a weird experience with temporary blindness that it’s conceivable (though not suggested explicitly) could have been a dream.
  • 40: Norton’s ex existing only in dreams
  • 76: beating the Pakistani is said to have taken place during a dreamlike state
  • 94: After Morini’s absence after meeting with Johns, Pelletier describes his reappearance as having been like waking from a bad, baffling dream


  • 35, Morini: Awakened from his maybe-dream by perspiration (and light)
  • 45, Morini: Dreams of Norton diving into a huge pool with oily patches. Fog appears and the pool empties.
  • 78, Pelletier: Lives with Norton near a cliff overlooking a beach, which is later seen to butt up to metallic water. Later in the dream, he sweats and sweats, as if sweating from a spigot you couldn’t turn off. The tremor he spots on the sea makes it look (he thinks) as if the water is also sweating.
  • 114, Pelletier: Dreams of shit and blood in the bathroom containing his broken toilet.
  • 115, Norton: Swollen, pulsing vein in the reflection’s neck makes one think of the blood coursing through that vulnerable spot.
  • 155, Pelletier: Dreams of a boy diving into water that turns out to be alive.

Supernatural Abilities

  • 45, Morini: Norton speaks to Morini via telepathy
  • 78, Pelletier: Can sometimes soar like a seagull.
  • 114, Espinoza: People in the painting move slowly, as if living in a different world in which the speed was different
  • 115, Norton: The woman Norton sees reflected in the mirror isn’t Norton, and the reflection behaves very strangely.


  • 78, Pelletier: Metallic sea is associated with a humming of bees and then an awful silence.
  • 85, Espinoza: Dreams of a distant moaning as of a child or a sheltering animal
  • 114, Pelletier: A muffled noise wakes him up (within the dream)
  • 114, Espinoza: Hears barely audible voices. The word freedom sounds to him like the crack of a whip in an empty classroom.
  • 115, Norton: Hears a noise in the hall and thinks someone may have tried to open the door. Later, there’s total silence.
  • 155, Norton: A thunderclap wakes her up (whether in real life or only in her dream she doesn’t know)


  • 45, Morini: Norton walks away into a forest giving off a red glow.
  • 131, Norton: She plants and replants an oak tree that sometimes has no roots and that at other times trails “long roots like snakes or the locks of a Gorgon”
  • 115, Norton: When thinking about Morini, she sees his empty wheelchair and an impenetrable, dark green forest that turns out to be Hyde Park. She also has a sense that a fire is raging nearby; the juxtaposition of these two images seems noteworthy given Morini’s dream (45) that Norton walks off into a forest giving off a red glow.

Weird Word Stuff

  • 78, Pelletier: He’s reading Archimboldi papers written in French rather than in German
  • 85, Espinoza: Dreams of some indecipherable words a prostitute said to him, and the point of the dream seems to be to try to remember them. The prostitute in the dream is reading some words written on the wall and spelling them out as if she doesn’t know how to read.
  • 114, Espinoza: Words “tunneled through the rarefied air like virulent roots through dead flesh”
  • 114, Espinoza: Recognizes just a few stray words all conveying urgency or haste.
  • 115, Norton: Begins taking notes as the woman reflected in her mirrors cycles through the varying grimaces of madness.
  • 131, Pelletier: Dreams of a page he can’t decipher no matter which way he turns it.

Faces, Facelessness, and Backs Turned

  • 35, Morini: In his maybe-dream about blindness, as he’s trying to compose himself, he thinks of (among other things) still shots of faces.
  • 45, Morini: Dreads the evil woman who wants him to turn and see her face (it turns out to be Norton, who says “there’s no turning back”; earlier, Morini [not in the dream] has said that nothing is ever behind us). Let’s not forget that Norton is described as the Medusa.
  • 78, Pelletier: Norton is more or less a sort of background noise; she’s there but never really quite seen or heard in a meaningful way; when he cries out for help, she’s nowhere around.
  • 115, Norton: Her front is reflected in one mirror and her back in the other; she’s unable to say whether she’s about to move forward or backward. As the head in the mirror turns, she realizes that if it keeps turning, its owner and Norton will eventually see one another’s faces. The reflected face makes a grimace of fear, causing Norton to look behind her for the source.
  • 155, Norton: Morini’s back is to her, a fact that particularly upsets her. His wheelchair is facing her, and the chair and Morini are described almost as if they’re facets of the man himself; this resonates with the duality of Norton in her dream about the mirror.


  • 35, Morini: He’s awakened from his maybe-dream by light (and perspiration)
  • 78, Pelletier: He doesn’t sleep much, and he sometimes, while trying to sleep, looks at the beach and sees it as a black canvas or the bottom of a well that he searches for the hint of a flashlight or a flicker of fire.
  • 85, Espinoza:  Bulbs are burnt out in his prostitute dream.
  • 114, Pelletier: Someone had turned on the bathroom light.
  • 114, Espinoza: “bright desert, such a solar yellow it hurt his eyes”
  • 115, Norton: dreams of herself reflected in dim light (later described as ashen); the dream itself deals with the infinity seen between two mirrors, a trick of light.

Age Discrepancies

  • 45, Morini: Dreams of a much younger Norton
  • 115, Norton: Dreams of herself dressed in the style of the 50s.
  • 131, Espinoza: Dreams of the young girl selling rugs
  • 155, Pelletier: meets a boy who spends the whole day diving into living water.


  • 115, Espinoza: The slowness of the painting in his hotel room was what kept whoever was watching it from losing his mind.
  • 115, Norton: The woman reflected cycles through a series of expressions of madness.


  • 45, Morini: Feels “deeply and inconsolably sad”
  • 78, Pelletier: He weeps
  • 115, Norton: Begins to cry in sorrow or fear. Later, the reflection grimaces in despair. Norton takes notes on the reflection’s expressions as if her happiness depends upon it.


  • 45, Morini: A rock juts from the enormous pool.
  • 78, Pelletier: Once the people leave the beach Pelletier and Norton live near, all that’s left is a “dark form projecting from a yellow pit,” which turns out to be a horrific/beautiful statue


  • 45, Morini: People begin to leave a crowded area
  • 78, Pelletier: People are always on the beach he and Norton live near, doing frivolous things. Eventually, they desert the beach. He has the impression that they move as a crowd, arriving each morning as if for work, or that they live at the beach.


  • 45, Morini: Thinks of the the figure wandering at the bottom of the pool (whom he had thought might be Norton) with sadness, as if she’s his lost love wandering in a labyrinth. He also imagines himself, with legs that still worked, lost on a hopeless climb.
  • 78, Pelletier: People begin to leave the beach, some clinging to bushes or stones and others climbing the cliff. He wonders if he should bury the thing projecting from the beach, “taking all necessary precautions.” Later, he shouts for help, but it’s as if the silence following the water’s tremor and buzzing sound swallows up his cries.
  • 114, Pelletier: He’s more revolted by the shit than afraid of the blood smeared in his bathroom.
  • 115, Norton: the stillness of her body reminiscent of defenselessness; later, a grimace of fear on the face of the reflection causes Norton to look behind her.
  • 131, Espinoza: He dreams of the girl he bought a rug from and wants to tell her something and spirit her away, but the perpetual motion of her arms keeps him somehow from doing it.


  • 45, Morini: The pool is 1000 feet wide by 2 miles long
  • 78, Pelletier: Thinks about how far he’d have to walk to get to the beach; the people in his dream never get very far from shore.

And now for some analysis (or maybe it’s synthesis).

It’s straightforward enough to suggest that the various weird word issues among the dreams speak to insecurities about the particular dreamers’ critical fitness. While they sit in the thrones of their academies and look down upon the third-rate critics who flock around them throughout this section of the book, they, like all of us, wonder about their own capabilities. Pelletier dreams about turning a text this way and that and trying to reread and reread it without success only to find himself lounging about the hotel reading and rereading the Archimboldi books he has brought with him.

For Espinoza, words are secondary somehow to flesh and life and crisis. He seeks to understand the writing on the wall (with all its Biblical freight?) but  only to unravel the mystery behind a probably obscene comment during sex that he’s reminded of when he sees a love bite on his thigh. In other dreams, he seems to hear cries of urgency, and in a dream about the girl who sells rugs, he wants to rescue her from something but can’t (captivated, in a way, by the physical flesh of her thin, dark arms). Even his attempt to decipher the writing on the wall is a sort of rescue, as he tries to save an illiterate prostitute by figuring out what it is she’s trying unsuccessfully to read. Espinoza is the Romantic, perhaps the poet (here the interpreter of arcane knowledge) of the bunch. Recall that he wanted to be a writer rather than a critic. He’s got that Spanish machismo that Maria wrote about (remember that Pakistani cab driver), and the little bit of insight we have into his dreams backs up her assessment of his hot-blooded, sort of heroic, persona.

Norton’s writing in one of her dreams is that of a college student hoping to please. She takes notes as if cramming for an exam, but the exam she’s cramming for has no right answers, for it’s one of identity. Her dreams are of mirrors and faces, uncertainty and fear (noises in the hall and jolting thunderclaps). She explores, in her dreams, where she stands (literally) in relation to herself and to Morini. As she has different personas with Espinoza and Pelletier in the boudoir, so too is there ambiguity about her self-identity within her dreams. Insecurity about who she is (is she the she she sees in the mirror?) manifests itself in that most insecure of instruments for female characters: the mirror, in which she goes so far even as to appraise the outfit the her she doesn’t think is her happens to be wearing.

Pelletier becomes something of a lone wolf as the book moves forward, choosing to read in solitude rather than to go out with Espinoza. When he dreams of living with Norton, she’s background scenery, and even the water begins to sweat when he sweats. The world he looks out over from his house on the cliff is as one constructed for his benefit, the beach-goers showing up as if for a job, filling roles he expects to see filled out on the shore day after day in the world of his making. He can sometimes soar like a seagull. In Pelletier’s dreams, he’s a sort of god. He’s more worried about the dirtiness of shit smears than the dark implications of blood smears (and why not be, for gods are immortal but not necessarily immaculate). Still, he has his insecurities, particularly with respect to his abilities as a critic, as evidenced by the weird word dream incidents outlined above. And it was Pelletier, recall, who demonstrated a fear of being an old bachelor ; the fear rears its head again as he dreams about watching a boy diving over and over into the water. Whether Pelletier sees the boy as an incarnation of youth gone by or as the quarry of a confirmed old bachelor is left to the reader’s imagination (though I tend to favor the former interpretation). When imagining Pelletier as a self-styled god alongside his dream image of a time-worn statue projecting from a vast expanse of beach, I can’t help thinking of Shelley’s “Ozymandius”:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Morini too dreams of a form projecting from the vicinity of a body of water. The form in his dream I suppose is phallic, a rock nearly lost in the enormous landscape of a drained pool, the owner of that phallus (and the dream) an incomplete man ever in need of a helping hand, confined to his home while his male companions run off to Mexico with his would-be lover to consummate at last the ménage a trois that has seemed inevitable for 100 pages.  It’s fitting, given their final reunion in this section of the book, that Morini and Norton’s dreams are the most disturbing, and that they’re linked in a vaguely supernatural way. She finds herself staring at his back in her later dream, where he found himself stared at from behind in his early dream. He and his chair are a single, fractured being in her later dream as she is at one point the woman walking in the bottom of the pool and at another the woman behind him in his dream, and, further, as she is (and isn’t) a reflected woman in her own dream.  Pritchard characterizes Norton as the Medusa, and Morini is afraid to look at her face in his dream. Yet after their gazes do finally meet in his dream, she walks off into a glowing red forest; when she thinks of Morini during her mirror dream, she pictures a dense, green forest and has a sense of nearby fire, and she’s trying (but is unable) to make an exit. As they’re connected in their dreams, so they come together in real life.

It’s not all quite that tidy, of course, but these are some impressions I’ve formed after living with and reflecting on these dreams over the last few weeks. The dreams seem to me to reinforce certain currents that run throughout the book (despair, squalor, crowding, madness, sex, fear), but they also provide color for these characters who, minus their dreams, have seemed awfully homogeneous and flat.

7 thoughts on “Dreams in The Part about the Critics

  1. mattbucher February 9, 2010 / 12:36 am

    Daryl, this is an awesome post, a great synthesis of the dreams we’ve seen so far. Generally, in fiction (in say, the past 50 years), dreams have been used by writers of a more realistic style as a device of either switching back and forth between surrealism and realism or trying to get some traction to shift out of realism entirely. I’m thinking of everyone from Murakami to Wallace to Denis Johnson. I’m not sure what Bolaño’s goal is with the dreams. As you know, there is a lot of talk philosophers in the novel (even more in the next Part) and I think it would be interesting to look at how the philosophers mentioned in the book actually talked about dreaming and consciousness. Not just Freud, but Descartes and Wittgenstein and Heidegger, etc.

  2. Dan Summers February 9, 2010 / 12:00 pm

    You have my sincere admiration for the time you have spent cataloguing and analyzing these dreams. As I have indicated over at my own blog, I lack whatever dedication or literary spirit necessary to take the time myself. (Call me lazy, I won’t argue.) I appreciate your willingness to do some heavy lifting, which deepens my own appreciation for the book. In particular, this line nails it:
    The dreams seem to me to reinforce certain currents that run throughout the book (despair, squalor, crowding, madness, sex, fear), but they also provide color for these characters who, minus their dreams, have seemed awfully homogeneous and flat.

    Bingo. Your analysis has deepened my sympathy for the critics, essentially absent in my own reading until the final passages of the first Part. By delving this deeply into the meanings of the dreams, you’ve given me a different perspective on characters I had otherwise found tiresome. Thanks!

    • Daryl L. L. Houston February 9, 2010 / 12:59 pm

      Hey, glad to help, Dan. A very big part of why I’ve been doing InfiniteSummer is because it forces on me a sort of accountability that makes me be a better reader. When I read 2666 a year ago, I had a vague sense of connectedness among the dreams, but I didn’t put in any time to draw the lines between them. And I finished the first section with a sense of sort of puzzled relief. I don’t know that the dreams have made me feel terribly sympathetic toward them, but they do show me that Bolaño’s doing something with these characters beyond what a shallower reading makes apparent. I’m usually a pretty lazy reader, but I so enjoy what I get out of the books when I obsess over them, and IS has been really good for me. Kind feedback like yours doesn’t hurt either. 🙂

      Matt, your suggestion of looking at philosophers’ takes on dreams is compelling, but I fear (strike that — I know) I’m not up to that challenge.

  3. Señor Steve February 10, 2010 / 11:46 am

    I wish to add my congratulations on this marvelous piece! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work by another obsessive like me. It was delightful. Very well done.

    Pelletier most certainly has developed insecurities about his critical abilities during his stay in Santa Teresa.

    When he returned to the hotel Pelletier was reading Saint Thomas again. When he sat down beside him Pelletier looked up from the book and said there were still things he didn’t understand and probably never would. Espinoza laughed and said nothing.

    I do not recall that Pelletier suffered any professional self-doubt whatsoever back in Europe. And this later. . .

    Espinoza asked whether he was preparing some article or essay on those three books in particular and Pelletier’s answer was vague.

  4. Daryl L. L. Houston February 10, 2010 / 12:58 pm

    Thanks, Señor Steve. I think you’re right about Pelletier’s developing insecurities that didn’t exist before. This, incidentally, fits nicely with a general theme of growth and development in Pelletier and Espinoza. I don’t have details handy right this minute, but at various points in my book, I’ve jotted notes about how they seem to progress through different phases of lifespan development, seeming at times like children, at other times like adolescents, at still other times like young adults on the loose, and finally, in the case of Pelletier, like something of an old man. There’s even something benign and fatherly at times about Espinoza’s oversight of the rug girl and her brother (for all my insistence that he’s a creature of fleshly habits). Of course, we do sort of get to watch these men grow up through their adult lives, but within their adult lives, there’s an accelerated pattern of whole-lifespan development too, I think. Developing insecurities as he ages would fit right in with this, as we tend to learn, as we get older, that we didn’t know as much as we used to think we knew.

  5. Jeff Anderson February 10, 2010 / 3:24 pm

    I agree with Dan; this meticulous post is very helpful in giving me more reason to care about the four critics. I’m especially pleased with the bit about Norton’s and Morini’s dreams’ correspondences. When I finished the Part About the Critics, I thought I was unsurprised to find Norton with Morini because I had no expectations to be overturned—the characterization had been so opaque that I didn’t have any feeling of what might have been out of character or unpredictable. But maybe it was more subtle than that, and I was instead unsurprised because their dreams had been drawing them together for 150 pages or so. Thanks very much for that, Daryl.

  6. Maria Bustillos February 13, 2010 / 2:22 pm

    Ack!!! This is SO GREAT. I hadn’t gotten to the commentary until now, despite Matt’s recommendation. I too had neglected the slow joining of Norton and Morini through the dream world.

    I wish we could sort out the home page at the mothership so that this stuff could be more readily available and not require such a lot of scrolling, because I know I’m going to want to refer to posts like this one over and over as we make our way through the book.

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