Slouching Towards Santa Teresa:
According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.
By this standard, there is no doubt that Roberto Bolaño is a great writer. 2666, the enormous novel he had almost completed when he died at 50 in 2003, has the confident strangeness of a masterpiece: In almost every particular, it fails, or refuses, to conform to our expectations of what a novel should be. For one thing, though it is being published as a single work (in a Bible-sized single-volume edition and as a three-paperback set), 2666 is made up of five sections that are so independent Bolaño originally planned to release them as separate books. These parts relate to one another, not as installments or sequels but, rather, as five planets orbiting the same sun. With their very different stories and settings, they seem to describe a single plummeting arc—the trajectory of a universe on the verge of apocalypse.