Well, that was something. The quick context is that Bolaño was a Chilean writer who died in 2003; this novel (basically finished at the time of his death) was published posthumously to great acclaim, and when the English translation appeared in 2008 it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and made every critic’s top 10 list.
Which surprises me. Not because it’s bad – it’s very good – but because it’s very unconventional and very uncompromising. With a book like this I’d expect the responses to be one-third rapturous encomiums, one-third “I’m impressed but it’s not for me”, and one-third “the emperor has no clothes!”.
It’s 900 pages and consists of five sub-novels (Bolaño intended for them to be published separately, largely for financial reasons, it seems) that have frequent connections and illuminate each other, but generally don’t really go anywhere. It’s also very dark, with hundreds of meaningless deaths and a constant tinge of gloom even in the happier parts.
Anyway, you can read all the details elsewhere. My personal reaction was somewhere between the first two of the three categories I mentioned above. It was undeniably a bit of a slog in places, even if obviously intentionally so, but after coming out the other side, I find that it’s really sticking with me, in a way that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. I said while I was in the middle of it that I would probably like it more in retrospect than while reading it, and that turned out to be the case.