Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 isn’t what you’d call an easy read. And I ought to know–as of this writing, I’ve gotten only about halfway through it. Published in Spanish following the Chilean novelist’s death in 2003 and translated into English by Natasha Wimmer in 2008, the book is epic and eerie, at times the sort of nightmare vision you’d expect from Franz Kafka if he were Latin American and read the newspaper. Its subject matter is disturbing, its mysteries often unsolvable, its digressions plentiful, and its page count just shy of 900.
As when tackling many of the intimidating, cinderblock-thick masterpieces of literature (Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Infinite Jest are others in that club), readers of 2666 can be assured of two things: (1) they will be asked to ponder the world’s imponderables and (2) they’ll get headaches from concentrating too hard. One of Bolaño’s own characters describes such books as forms of combat—”when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
That all sounds right up Robert Falls’s alley. The longtime artistic director of Goodman Theatre is not one to shy away from daunting texts or recoil from the aromas of rot and ruin. In his dark, violent, and sexed-up takes on Shakespeare’s King Lear in 2006 and Measure for Measure in 2013, he dove right in. For the Goodman’s ambitious, almost inevitably uneven five-and-a-half-hour distillation of 2666, Falls shares adapting and directing credits with Seth Bockley, whose previous page-to-stage work includes scripts inspired by the fiction of Nathanael West and George Saunders.
Here, Falls and Bockley, their team of designers, and a cast of 15 have set themselves the difficult task of bringing onstage the teeming, sprawling metropolis of Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s fictional stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Though located farther west along the U.S. border than the real-life city, Santa Teresa has all of Juárez’s problems—factories with unsafe working conditions, vicious drug cartels, and scores of unsolved murders involving young female victims, many of them factory employees.
In five acts corresponding to the parts of Bolaño’s book, Santa Teresa is the desert sun around which dozens of interconnected lives orbit. Among the many locals and out-of-towners we meet are four European academics, a literature professor and his teenage daughter, a New York reporter covering a boxing match, the police detectives investigating the murders, and an elderly German novelist—not to mention a cavalcade of secondary artists, thugs, do-gooders, lost souls, obsessives, and creeps.
It’s not the sort of story where all the parts fit neatly together. In fact, chaos and destruction are always lying in wait. The characters’ persistent efforts—whether through art, scholarship, journalism, or justice—to find or invent order and something like a code to live by are imperiled in a place like Santa Teresa, where you’re liable to get the sneaking suspicion that chance and suffering are the twin engines of history. “No one pays attention to these killings,” someone says, referring to the dead girls, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”
Falls and Bockley have tried to leave in as much of the book’s multiplicity as possible, chasing tangents and ancillary characters at such breakneck speed that, despite the play’s overall length, it sometimes feels like we’re zooming through Santa Teresa via high-speed rail. Their dutifulness and efficiency notwithstanding, they only capture in fits and starts the sense you get when reading the book—that you’re tottering on the edge of an abyss.
That’s partly because the script relies way too much on third-person narration. When long stretches go by in which the people onstage talk more to the audience than to each other, it not only starts to feel less like adaptation than recitation, but it also has a way of shrinking the unexplainable to the manageable contours of a lecture. Act three, which centers on the New York reporter and the seemingly doomed girl he gets mixed up with, has the least narration and comes closest to the atmosphere of danger and heartache in the novel.
When they’re allowed to show rather than tell, the cast often turn in vivid and affecting work, including Henry Godinez as a haunted father, Janet Ulrich Brooks as a pragmatic baroness turned book publisher, and Alejandra Escalante and Eric Lynch as star-crossed lovers. Suggesting at various times dreamy desert nights, arid wastelands, storybook forests, and sleek conference rooms, Walt Spangler’s sets and Shawn Sagady’s projections supply a rich and consistently surprising visual equivalent to Bolaño’s shifts in narrative styles, from pulp to fable to reportage to lyrical realism. v