2666 is about 900 pages long. Bolaño died as he was finishing it. He left instructions for his heirs to release it as five novels over five years, to maximise income, because he wouldn't be there to provide for them. Instead they have published it according to its original conception - as one huge novel, divided into five semi-autonomous parts. One advantage of this is that you can tackle each sub-novel as a smaller commitment than taking on the whole. Though, alas for this tactic, the first novel is probably the least accessible.
The central theme of the novel is the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa in Sonora, which is based on real-life Ciudad Juarez in Chihuaha. I was already interested in Juarez, because it is the centre of a real-life wave of misogynist murders, in which hundreds of women and little girls have been tortured and killed and dumped in vacant lots and in the desert. Possibly by the most prolific serial killer ever, and possibly as part of an organised operation by porn cartels, or by sex tourists.
The book is compassionate and complex. It values all people, and it is written as such with interlocking lives, in a range of different literary forms. It's is also quite surreal and mystical.
The first novel is about four European academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of a reclusive German novelist called Benno Von Archimbaldi. They come to Santa Teresa, because there are rumours he was seen there. Most of this novel is about their love affairs with each other (three are men from Spain, France and Italy, and one is an English woman). They are really a bunch of silly drips, but the novel is written in an amusingly decadent European style.
The second novel is about the professor of Philosophy at the University of Santa Teresa. He is bringing up his daughter alone because his wife has gone off. Most of the book is his reminiscence about his wife's emotional breakdown when they lived in Spain. Also he is worried that his daughter is in danger because of the constant killing of young women. This novel is very short and is written in a mournful Latin-American style.
The third novel is about a self-sufficient black American reporter who comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match and stays to look into the murders, and falls in love with the professor's daughter. It's written in a tough American style. I found it the most accessible section, but scary.
The fourth novel is what I am reading at the moment. It's about the killings. It includes vivid portraits of individual male policemen and reporters, who are largely trying in good faith to address the killings in the face of official indifference and corruption. But most of this novel is taken up with hundreds and hundreds of descriptions - each about half a page in length for hundreds of pages - of the discovery of individual female bodies. It's not titillating, it's not melodramatic. It makes you confront the vast number of deaths, by blunt repetition. Each dead person is a person, with their own lost life. I can't explain really: it's a way of making you acknowledge the deaths without making them into a source of cheap entertainment.
The fifth novel I haven't got to yet, but from the title it reintroduces the never-seen Von Archimbaldi.
ETA - here are some extracts from reviews, which I stole from wikipedia
Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review: "2666 is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what's possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. The Savage Detectives looks positively hermetic beside it. (...) As in Arcimboldo's paintings, the individual elements of 2666 are easily catalogued, while the composite result, though unmistakable, remains ominously implicit, conveying a power unattainable by more direct strategies. (...) "
Amaia Gabantxo in the Times Literary Supplement:n"(A)n exceptionally exciting literary labyrinth. (...) What strikes one first about it is the stylistic richness: rich, elegant yet slangy language that is immediately recognizable as Bolano's own mixture of Chilean, Mexican and European Spanish. Then there is 2666's resistance to categorization. At times it is reminiscent of James Ellroy: gritty and scurrilous. At other moments it seems as though the Alexandria Quartet had been transposed to Mexico and populated by ragged versions of Durrell's characters. There's also a similarity with W. G. Sebald's work (.....) There are no defining moments in 2666. Mysteries are never resolved. Anecdotes are all there is. Freak or banal events happen simultaneously, inform each other and poignantly keep the wheel turning. There is no logical end to a Bolano book."
Ben Ehrenreich in the The Los Angeles Times:"This is no ordinary whodunit, but it is a murder mystery. Santa Teresa is not just a hell. It's a mirror also -- "the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant, useless metamorphosis." (...) He wrote 2666 in a race against death. His ambitions were appropriately outsized: to make some final reckoning, to take life's measure, to wrestle to the limits of the void. So his reach extends beyond northern Mexico in the 1990s to Weimar Berlin and Stalin's Moscow, to Dracula's castle and the bottom of the sea."
Adam Kirsch in Slate: "2666 is an epic of whispers and details, full of buried structures and intuitions that seem too evanescent, or too terrible, to put into words. It demands from the reader a kind of abject submission—to its willful strangeness, its insistent grimness, even its occasional tedium—that only the greatest books dare to ask for or deserve."
Collation of multiple reviews here: A+ 'Nearly Perfect'