Vanishing points

Real change, or changing the subject — the search for truth within Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666

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ESSAY/REVIEW There is a wry but hilarious scene near the very end of Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 912 pages; $30), in which a French literary critic finds a German writer, Archimboldi, lodging at what the critic calls "a home for vanished writers." After checking into a room at the large estate, the elderly vanished writer wanders the grounds, meeting with the other vanished authors, residents whom Archimboldi finds friendly but increasingly eccentric. Gradually it dawns on Archimboldi that all is not as it seems. Walking back to the entrance gate, he sees, without surprise, a sign announcing that the estate is the "Mercier Clinic and Rest Home — Neurological Center." The home for vanished writers is an insane asylum.

As we enter the Obama era, with all its promise of "change," I've found it impossible to read 2666 without being haunted by the memory of those who vanished into the lunatic asylum of the long George W. Bush years — not just the nameless and unlucky left to rot in the Bush administration's secret torture cells throughout the world, but also those who disappeared right here at home. For instance, a guy I worked with a couple of years ago. One day he was training me on the job, and a week or so later he was in a federal prison, labeled a "terrorist" — which in his case meant that he edited a Web site called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.

There were other ghosts, those who vanished after refusing to speak to grand juries. They were rumored to have gone over the border, or back to the land, or who knows where, their very names now superstitiously verboten to speak out loud, lest we bring the heat down on ourselves. Now that Obama is here and everybody is eager for "change," who will remember the once-bright hopes and dreams of the generation that beat the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the dawn of this decade — the hopes that would later be chased down and gassed and beaten by riot police under cover of media blackout in the streets of Miami, St. Paul, or countless other cities? Of course, there were the suicides and overdoses, and other kinds of disappearances, different but related, too: the abandoned novels, or the guitars taken to the pawnshop. Three people in my community jumped off bridges. Only one survived. The human toll of the Bush years in my life has been enormous.

Watching the celebrations in the streets of the Mission District on election night in November, I could tell all of this was soon to be trivia. I saw a virtually all-white crowd of completely wasted people take over the intersection at 19th and Valencia, shouting "Obama!" and dancing in the street. In one way, this scene was touching: the spontaneous gathering was a product of the true feelings of human hope that people have for a better world. Yet the moment already had the scripted feel of something self-conscious or mediated, like the Pepsi ad campaign it would soon become. I had a sinking realization: those of us who have spent eight years battling the post-9/11 mantra of Everything Is Different Now were now going to soon be up against a new era of, well, Everything Is Different Now.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our country are important. Just when a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is most needed to write a detailed narrative of the Bush era's torture, spying, illegal war, and swindling, I could already see the opportunity for that kind of change slipping away into the blackout amnesia aftermaths of the street parties taking place all across the nation. The election of a president of the United States from among the ranks of the nation's most oppressed minorities has offered the country a new triumphant storyline.

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