2666: The Part About the Crimes (Book 4)


For better and worse, the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 was, almost universally, not what I expected.

There were three things that did line up with my expectations: The Part About the Crimes was thought-provoking, well-written, and dealt, as the title implies, with the hundreds of sexual homicides committed against women in Mexican border-town Santa Teresa (Bolaño's fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez). But the ways in which these things were true greatly surprised me, and I thought I would organize my thoughts around all those surprises.

First of all, after the slow, Lynchean tension and (as I said in my thoughts on Part 1) "bizarre, semi-surreal wrongness" of the first three parts of the novel, the reader suddenly finds herself, in Part 4, deposited instead in the the clipped, no-nonsense language of a police procedural. Most scenes in The Part About the Crimes are more reminiscent of Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy than than Vladmimir Nabokov, more suggestive of L.A. Confidential than Mulholland Drive:

The woman was wearing a white dress and she was barefoot. She was about five foot seven. There were three cheap rings on her left hand, on the index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. On her right hand she was wearing a couple of bracelets and two big rings with fake stones. According to the medical examiner's report, she had been vaginally and anally raped and then strangled. She wasn't carrying any identification. The case was assigned to Inspector Ernesto Ortiz Rebolledo, who first made inquiries among Santa Teresa's high-class hookers to see whether anyone knew the dead woman, and then, when his questioning yielded scant results, among the cheap hookers, but no one from either group had seen her before.

I found this sylistic shift to be disconcerting, but ultimately quite effective. All along, I had assumed that the root of the wrongness, that intangible thing that was nightmarishly "off" in Santa Teresa, WAS the murders. I had subconsciously assumed that to see the crimes themselves would be to come face to face with the mysterious wrongness - and I think that this is the assumption around which most police dramas revolve. The Part About the Crimes deconstructs this assumption in just about every way possible, and its first method is to remove the sense of mystery, of intangibility, as soon as the crimes are revealed. It's as if the reader has been walking down a long hallway, as Oscar does in The Part About Fate, with a mysterious, tinted light at the end of it. Perhaps there is some distorted music playing in the distance. The reader brushes away veils, distractions, grotesque strangers met in the corridor, and eventually reaches out her hand, pushing the door inward to reveal the mysterious contents of the room...and right at that moment, someone flicks on the switch. The light is no longer sickly green, but plain, everyday white. The occupants of the room are not a sinister pair of businessmen and a femme fatale, but a team of bored cops performing a routine investigation. One of the cops walks over and hits a button on a boom box, and the atmospheric music clicks off. Everything is factual, mundane, even tedious. And yet...there are still hundreds of unsolved murders. Something is still very wrong, but merely looking at the discarded bodies of the murdered women can bring no enlightenment. The wrongness dwells elsewhere.

In a standard police drama, the mysterious horror of human crime is made "okay," neutralized, by the way in which it's solved and explained in the course of the story. I think this is the reason so many readers find murder mysteries to be a comforting genre, even when the crimes involved are horrific. The plot is formulaic and the action, in the abstract, predictable: the reader is presented with the description of a crime scene, sometimes multiple crime scenes, and tries to absorb all the details in order to "solve the mystery" later on. Soon the cops arrive. Sometimes the initial wave of police are corrupt or lazy, inclined to sweep the whole thing under the rug. Eventually, though, the reader is introduced to the main character, who, due either to professional integrity, a personal vendetta, or sheer cussedness, is invested in "getting to the bottom" of the crimes. He (for it is usually a man) strikes out on his investigation, uncovering relevant secrets and overcoming various obstacles. If the story began with multiple, seemingly unrelated crimes, the protagonist usually comes across evidence that connects them. He convinces himself of the true culprit, then runs various risks gathering enough evidence to prove his suspicions. In the end, whether he apprehends the criminal, witnesses the criminal's death, or is forced to let the criminal go, he has at least explained the sequence of events to his own and the reader's satisfaction.

Bolaño turns all this on its head, and toys gleefully with the expectations produced by the crime-writing quality of his language. In the first place, the sheer volume of the Santa Teresa murders would quickly overwhelm any reader stubbornly attempting to process each crime scene in the traditional way, much as it overwhelms the resources of the Santa Teresa police department itself. Whereas, in a traditional cop drama, we are hardly ever treated to descriptions of crimes truly unrelated to the main action, The Part About the Crimes summarizes the discovery of every single female victim of violent death between 1993 and 1997, including those which are proved - or not proved - to be isolated incidents, usually family violence on the part of boyfriends, husbands, or fathers. Presenting this unfiltered, yet clinical, view of the violence against women in Santa Teresa creates a kind of background noise - the constant reports of dead women are like a skipping record against which the reader comes up again and again, always expecting, in vain, to progress to the next bar, the next phase of the mystery plot. Bolaño refuses us a beginning, middle, and end, and gives us instead a perpetual beginning, crime piling on top of crime in a way that obscures them all and confuses any attempts at forward progress.

So too, unlike the neat and tidy, identically "signed" serial murders featured in many crime plots, the Santa Teresa murders are messy, illogical: there are too many specific linking elements to be coincidental, yet many seemingly connected murders lack some or all of the "signature" ingredients. Many women are found anally and vaginally raped and then strangled, but many others are found stabbed, and some are not raped. Many of the victims have long hair, but, as another character points out, this is a trait shared by most of the female population of Santa Teresa. Many witnesses report having seen the victims coerced into a black Peregrino (like the one parked outside Amalfitano's house in Part 2), but on the few occasions the cops manage to catch up with such a car, those who possess it are thieves, who just stole it and don't know its history. Most victims are murdered elsewhere and transported to the place where their bodies are dumped, but this is not always true. As one police inspector tells a reporter toward the end of The Part About the Crimess, it seems futile to apply any organized logic to the pattern of attacks: "It's fucked up, that's the only explanation." This is not the message the reader is left with in a traditional police drama, but it may be a more honest one.

I spent a long time thinking about the presentation of "the crimes" in this section, and how I feel about it. For some reason, I had expected The Part About the Crimes to deal with the murders as they happened, from the perspective of a third-person narrator who would probably have access to the victims' thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, I'm relieved that this wasn't the case, because I don't think I could have made it through that many rapes and murders at such close quarters. Examining what's left over afterward is much easier, and can be much more concise. On the other hand, the decision to present not so much the crimes as the evidence of the crimes, seems to depersonalize the victims in the same way their attackers did. It makes the police the protagonists of the story, rather than the women. To a certain extent this is probably inevitable - as I said, detailed descriptions of the actual crimes would quickly become too disturbing for most readers, including me. And I do think Bolaño's decision to chronicle each specific dead woman, rather than merely stating "That month a dozen more bodies were found," accords each victim some degree of individuality, as well as developing the messiness and confusion of the investigations.

Bolaño confronts the reality of misogyny and classism in Mexican society - especially within the police force - in a way that definitely doesn't condone it. He makes it clear that, despite the overwhelming volume of murders confronting them, the police would be more motivated to solve these crimes if most of the victims were not lower-class maquiladora workers, and female. Many of the cops share, to some degree, the killer's (or killers') view of these women as disposable trash, as evidenced by their joking conversations about how many ways it is possible to rape a woman, and their morning sessions of sexist jokes. The depictions of these callous, sexist cops is far from flattering, and the police who are as close to "heroes" as the novel gives us, are those who oppose them. But I still have mixed feelings about the treatment of women at the hands of the narrative in this section, and I'd be interested in others' thoughts. Is there a feminist way to write a novel about something like the Juarez murders? Maybe, maybe not.

I found The Part About the Crimes less pleasant to read than the first three books of 2666. The seemingly endless descriptions of female corpses got tedious, despite my previous comments about honoring each victim's individual identity, and there were fewer flashes of the satirical humor that pervaded the first few sections. Nevertheless, I thought it did important work: it interrogates what we expect from a crime novel, and posits that our desire to be comforted by a neat, satisfying conclusion after a spate of grisly murders is, in words of Inspector José Márquez, "fucked up, that's the only explanation." I am extremely curious to move on to Part 5, and see where Bolaño's narrative arc will take me.

Dorky lit-crit note, added August 18: While reading Susan McClary's Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, it occurred to me that Bolaño's refusal to "move on" with the story in Part 4, but instead to "stall" in a perpetual beginning of endless crime scenes, could actually be read as explicitly feminist. McClary argues that the traditional story arc, in which the protagonist works diligently toward a climax, overcoming certain obstacles in order to reach his successful conclusion, is a narrative model predicated on a forceful, stereotypically individualist male erotic practice. I know that this will sound wacky to people not used to thinking in terms of feminist criticism, but it strikes me as profoundly relevant. The audience (reader or listener) is taught, by encountering this narrative arc again and again in every TV show and Saturday morning cartoon, to crave that final climax even if - perhaps especially if - it requires a violent explosion of force to bring about. McClary points out that, although this model seems universal and "just the way things go" to modern folks, it hasn't always been the case: prior to the seventeenth century, there were many musical and lyric modes that stressed pleasure rather than desire, which gloried in a voluptuous "being-in-time" quality, rather than an individualistic striving after change and closure. It occurs to me that the standard detective-story narrative is one of the most blatant literary examples of this phallic striving-to-climax model: it even finishes, frequently, with an orgasmic car chase, gun fight, or other display of violent bravado. It therefore makes sense to choose to problematize the detective novel format when writing about the Santa Teresa murders, since all the dead women are victims of exactly the same kind of individualistic male sexual violence that McClary associates with the buildup-to-climax storyline. Perhaps Bolaño didn't want to perpetuate said violence all over again in his narrative structure. Again, I know it sounds kind of off-the-wall, but it was an idea that intrigued me.

Thoughts on Part 3: The Part About Fate
Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About The Critics


  • So, I started following your blog in the middle of this book, so I don't know everything about it (sorry!), but I really found your thoughts on this part interesting (I'm thinking about adding the book to my list of books to read, now). I had two thoughts, one specific, one more general.

    First, I was interested in your struggle with the narrative in this part, in your troubles with the objectivization of the women. Particularly, it was interesting to me that you got bored with it. I wonder if that is, in a way, the intention of the section? I mean, in some sense, you now knows what it feels like to be those detectives - when you see dead body after dead body, you start seeing just that - bodies, not people who have died, crimes instead of victims. And when this happens, the body loses relevance, the crime loses meaning. That's the problem with sex crimes, it makes it very difficult not to see the victim as an object, whether you sympathize or not. But, I, like you, would love to see the OPPOSITE book as well, a bright eyed book showing a vision of how we CAN learn to care about these masses of crimes, a sort of roadmap for the future. Kind of like the world needs Utopian and Dystopian novels, both.

    On the other side, I really found your comments on 'phallic literature' interesting! I can see what you're saying with it. IT does make me wonder, what are some example of non-phallic books in your mind? Like, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, or Anne of Green Gables, where the books are atmospheric and episodic? Don Quixote? I'm also curious, though: this is a somewhat unscientific observation, but it SEEMS, anecdotally, that a very high proportion (particularly compared to other genres) of both writers and readers of mystery novels are female. Why do you think this is, if the format is so male oriented?

  • You touched on something in this section that I did not, and that is the complicit nature of the police and the government. One quote in particular is this:

    "Who the fuck comes up with jokes? asked the inspector. And sayings? Where the fuck do they come from? Who's the firs to think them up? Who's the first to tell them? And after a few seconds of silence, with his eyes closed, as if he'd fallen asleep, the inspector half opened his left eye and said: listen to the one-eyed man, you bastards. A woman's path lies from the kitchen to the bedroom, with a beating along the way. Or he said: women are like laws, they were made to be broken. And the laughter was general. A great blanket of laughter rose over the long room, as if death were being tossed in it. Not all of the cops laughed, of course. Some, at the farthest tables, polished off their eggs with chile or their eggs with meat or their eggs with beans in silence or talked among themselves, about their own business, separate from the others. They ate it, it might be said, hunched over in anguish and doubt. Hunched over in contemplation of essential questions, which doesn't get you anywhere."

    In a sense, I believe Bolaño is saying that they are JUST as complicit by not saying anything. For the first time, I felt that Bolaño was taking a feminist stand point. He, finally, had an opinion that it was wrong.

  • Ah, Emily, it's been such a delight to read and write about Bolaño and then come over here and read about your perspectives on the same with the rest of the readalong group. I'll be back later with a more cohesive response to the particulars of what you've mapped out here, but this post was very interesting to me because you've touched on a couple of important themes (from a very different point of view than my own) that I'd hoped to bring up myself tonight after work. Yes, interesting, very interesting! Thanks for the great analysis!

  • Jason: So many interesting points! Yes, I do think that the tedium was part of Bolaño's intention - one is forced to some degree of sympathy with the jaded policemen, even as one is so frustrated by their misogyny and laziness. The only way I can think to avoid the objectification of the women in this narrative is to tell the stories of their lives and murders from their own perspectives, a la the first part of Truman Capote's narration in In Cold Blood. Like I said, I'm glad Bolaño didn't actually attempt this for every single woman killed in Santa Teresa (I think such an attempt would end up being anything but "bright-eyed"), but at the same time, I felt the lack of the women's actual voices in his book. (A counter-example, which I found that much more disturbing because it did provide the reader with the victim's point of view, is John Fowles's The Collector.)

    And as far as non-phallic literature, what a fascinating can of worms! I have to admit that even I am not totally sold on McClary's points, BUT I can think of a number of examples of literature that stresses her "being-in-time" quality rather than a striving-to-climax plot: much of Virginia Woolf leaps to mind (Mrs. Daoloway, To the Lighthouse), the novels and short stories of Eudora Welty, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. I would also argue that things like Beckett's Waiting for Godot and The Unnamable fit the bill.

    Re: the readership of the mystery genre, I think there are mysteries and then there are mysteries. Most of the really famous authors of this "hard-boiled" mystery that Bolaño is referencing are men: from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley. Then there are the "cozy" murder mysteries (Agatha Christie et al) which are maybe female-dominated? In any case, it's certainly not just men who are socialized to recognize and love this (so-called "phallic") narrative format - just look at the structure of romance novels! Like I said, I haven't totally decided what I think of McClary, but she brings up some interesting points.

  • While I thought this was the most powerful book in the novel so far, Emily, I understand why you (and probably many of the others) will feel less enthusiastic about it than I did. There's no easy solution to the question you pose about a possible feminist way to write a novel on the subject; however, my own view is that Bolaño probably wanted to challenge his readers to feel as indignant as he did about the killings. You make a great point in bringing up James Ellroy, an author whom I understand Bolaño admired; in fact, I thought about Ellroy's My Dark Places, a memoir about his search to find his mother's killer decades after the fact, often while reading the similarly-bleak The Part About the Crimes. Also glad you brought up mysogyny, classism, and maquiladoras, which were definitely under the microscope in this section in between all the other horrors and as part of Bolaño's myriad storylines. An amazing novel amazingly told!

  • There may not be a way to write this book effectively in a feminist way, as, given the culture, it would probably be stripped off of the authenticity.

    You hit the nail about being drawn along the first three parts in a "bizarre, semi-surreal wrongness" and then to be presented with the crimes in this section as matter-of-factly as they come. This really made it easier for me to read.

    Like you, I was expecting to read about the crimes as they happened, to experience the violence. As it is, it was more like watching CSI. And I rather am relieved that it is so. I don't know how I would've gotten through the whole section if it were otherwise.

    Upon my first reading (or skimming) of the first few pages of the section I did find it tedious. Then I started reading over and found that each dead woman described just adds to the overall feeling and tension that while these crimes are significant to us, the readers, they are in fact extremely overlooked.

    As usual, excellent picking apart of another section. I enjoyed every bit of your analysis. :)

  • "It's fucked up, that's the only explanation."

    That's where I am. It is not just the crimes but the world in which they occur and even perhaps the world in general. "Semi-surreal" because we have suspected the brutality, the baseness all along as when the most refined of a cast of characters, the critics, beat their cab driver close to death. It is, I believe Bolano suggests, lurking in us all. Some of us escape the grip of this darkness by filtering ourselves through language, through art. But is that filter a means to purify or disguise the self?

    I am so troubled by my own questions and look for little resolution in part five.

    Excellent post as always!

  • Lu: Yes, I agree. Bolaño is definitely just as down on the silently complicit cops as on the ones who spearhead the misogyny. Reading Richard's responses helped crystallize for me that I think Bolaño is intensely and intelligently engaged with taking the men in this section of the novel to task...whether I think he's equally engaged with the lives of the women in the story, I haven't quite decided yet.

    Richard: Likewise, such a joy! I left a novella over on your posts, but I'll add here that I'm intrigued to learn of Bolaño's admiration for Ellroy. I'll have to check out My Dark Places. In passing, I often marveled while reading 2666 at the apparent breadth of Bolaño's cultural literacy, based on the number of genres and even specific artists he draws on - without ever seeming derivative. Quite an accomplishment.

  • Claire: Your analysis and that of the others who adored the writing in this section are really making me want to go back and re-read. I think I've got a second date with this novel for sometime next year, to see how my first impressions change and deepen now that I understand the overall trajectory. Certainly my experience of this part is already so much deeper having read everyone else's responses!

    Frances: I sympathize with your position. It's been interesting to think about whether Bolaño is commenting on the corrupted state of Mexican/Latin American society and politics, or the basic state of all humans, or somehow both...it definitely gives a person a lot to ponder, and, as you say, question.

  • Emily - An amazing post, as always. I believe the forth paragraph reads just like a Lynch film..

    I think Bolano's choosing to write this section the way he did helps emphasis the "wrongness". It is all so pedestrian, so mundane, just women, being murdered, over and over and over again. I did not feel detached, I felt furious. Still do.

    But I did not jump into 2666 with any expectations at all, and I think that has allowed me to keep reading when I really didn't want to. I enjoyed the dorky lit-crit note. I don't know McCleary but it is an interesting assessment.

  • I agree with you. I didn't like reading this section at all. I became annoyed by it and although I can appreciate what he was trying to do, as a reader I didn't enjoy it.

    I love your dorky lit-crit note. It just highlights the fact that I am one of the modern generation of people who aren't satisfied with things as they are, but want everything to be resolved as quickly as possible - the stalling of the plot was therefore especially irritating to me.

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography