The Part about the Critics as Comedy

In her post for this week, Sarah says, probably correctly, that if this part of 2666 had been published on its own as Bolaño had instructed his heirs to do, it would have been something of a disappointment. Chatter generally has been that though the critics themselves have seemed kind of aimless and homogeneous, the writing is pleasant enough. Still, is vaguely pleasant writing enough to sustain a book in which the characters aren’t really all that compelling?

After reading Sarah’s post, I read Jeff’s comment on my long piece about the dreams. He says:

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.

Suddenly it occurred to me — what if we regard this section of 2666 as a comedy , not in the Seinfeldian sense (necessarily, though it often enough applies) but in a literary sense?

Consider the following excerpted matter from the passage about comedies of manners in A Handbook to Literature:

The stylized fashions and manners of [members of an artificial, highly sophisticated society] dominate the surface and determine the pace and tone of this sort of comedy. Characters are more likely to be types than individuals. Plot, though often involving a clever handling of situation and intrigue, is less important than atmosphere, dialogue, and satire… Satire is directed in the main against the follies and deficiencies of typical characters… A distinguishing characteristic of the comedy of manners is its emphasis on an illicit love duel, involving at least one pair of witty and often amoral lovers.

Just try to tell me we don’t see a lot of these things in 2666 so far!

My college Shakespeare professor described comedy in the Elizabethan sense as the sort of literature in which there is some problem in the beginning (e.g. mismatched pairs of lovers, political problems) that can be resolved by a the proper alignment of and marriage of a pair or pairs of lovers. (Tragedy, by contrast, is when there’s a problem that a strategic marriage would solve that goes unsolved when the marriage falls through; Romeo and Juliet, within this set of definitions, is comedy turned tragedy.) All’s Well that Ends Well, which describes the nature of the Shakespearean comedy in its title, is a comedy. As You Like It is another. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another.

Dreams in the summerish climate of Mexico are what finally tie Norton and Morini together after several attempts at mismatched relationships within 2666. In comedy, there really are, to borrow a phrase from Jeff, no expectations to be overturned.  Shakespeare’s plays are pretty transparent from the beginning about which pairs should and will line up and get married at the end to resolve the central conflict.  Bolaño isn’t up front about the proper pairing, but upon analysis of the dream content binding Norton and Morini together, it becomes obvious (I contend, if obvious only in retrospect and with a bit of digging, which I suppose isn’t in fact all that obvious after all) that they are destined from the beginning to come together. Whether or not their union resolves any central conflict besides the Pelletier/Espinoza/Norton love triangle is debatable.

(Consider comedy on the big screen today, though. I defy you to name a Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts movie in which the characters you know in the beginning will get together don’t get together in the end. These movies pay lip service to there being some larger central conflict — a life ruined by tabloid photographers, a chain store edging the little guy out of business, etc. — but they are ultimately about resolution of the relationship. I suppose we want to expect more of Bolaño, but maybe we shouldn’t; maybe the point for him is that focus on atmosphere and satire that the venerable editors of the Handbook describe.)

In any case, Bolaño seems in some way to be influenced by the old convention here. I wonder, then, if it’s not useful to think of this part of the book as a sort of comedy in that old sense (I also raised the question in a comment somewhere of whether or not part 1 was something of a picaresque). If so, I wonder also if each part of the book will emerge as a take on another subgenre of literature, and I wonder how those parts will play together.

6 thoughts on “The Part about the Critics as Comedy

  1. Dan Summers February 11, 2010 / 2:14 pm

    The only thing I would add is that, from what we are led to believe, 2666 would only have been released as separate books for financial considerations. We are told that it is being released as a single volume because it was determined that, from a purely literary perspective, Bolaño would have wanted it published that way. It is for that reason that I think we should judge the Part About the Critics as part of a whole, and not try to picture it as a stand-alone book.

    (As a tangent, I think it would have been a failed financial strategy to publish the parts separately. Many [most?] of us seem to be tepid in our reaction to the Part About the Critics, and I can imagine it failing to win the acclaim that 2666 has earned as a whole. I am taking it on faith at this point that the further sections will justify this acclaim.)

    I appreciate this post a lot. I had never thought of this section as a comedy of manners, but with that in mind I retrospectively appreciate it a bit more. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that thus far I cannot identify a particular genre in the Part About Amaltifano, but look forward to your perspective on that, too.

    • Jeff Anderson February 11, 2010 / 5:36 pm

      I’d probably say I can’t imagine 2666, Volume 1: The Part About the Critics being praised the way the whole novel has been. But, like you say, I read on in the assumption that the gestalt of the book will be deeper and, oh, better.

      I think there may be a larger conflict resolved by Norton’s and Morini’s pairing up than just the triangle—in some ways, it seems to me that the quest to identify the real Archimboldi, to meet the man, gets superseded. Once Norton leaves Mexico, the other two don’t really spend much time trying to find Archimboldi anymore. Pelletier, in fact, seems almost to retreat into the literature again, finding some of it brand new on rereading. Right at the end of the whole section, followed only by Norton’s declaration that she and Morini love each other (have we seen that word “love” very much?), Pelletier says that what’s important about his and Espinoza’s trip isn’t trying to understand why they haven’t found Archimboldi: it’s realizing that they’re as close as they’ll ever be to him. (And just now it strikes me that Pelletier appears to have learned this through his experience with Norton—whom he is also now as close to as he’s going to be. So he literally did learn the lesson that resolves the problem from the “marriage.”)

      Which is to say: Great post. I appreciate the first part more now, having a better understanding of what it’s doing and how.

  2. d February 16, 2010 / 5:52 pm

    Yes, Part 1 as comedy is my current reading as well, but it wasn’t confirmed for me until I finished the novel. If one reviews Part 1 in relation to ‘The Part About Archimboldi’… well, you’ll see!

  3. naptimewriting February 22, 2010 / 5:23 pm

    I agree completely that it’s a comedy of elite manners and has much of a picaresque. Mocking satire that doesn’t question the sincerity of the critics but shows them in a light that mocks their dissociation from reality and society…I think you’re spot on with this analysis, Daryl.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s