The book is named after the title figure in Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener." Melville's Bartleby is profoundly disengaged from life, and he responds to virtually every request, even those simply asking him to do his job as a scrivener or copy clerk, "I would prefer not to". Vila-Matas uses Bartleby as the prototype for authors who, in one way or another, preferred not to write. Presented as a series of footnotes to a "text that is invisible", BARTLEBY & CO. explores that denial and variants thereof through literature. Among the variants are writers who (somewhat paradoxically) never wrote, writers who vowed not to write again, those with writers' block, those who committed suicide, or those (like Thomas Pynchon) who are especially secretive.
In many respects, the book is an extended essay -- in turn, meditative, irreverent, witty, and (alas) also boring. But it is set in a context that is fictional, almost fantastical: the narrator (named Marcelo) is a reclusive hunchback, unsuccessful with women, who ultimately is fired from his job because he takes off too much time to pursue his obsession with "the literature of the No". The "footnotes" to the invisible text actually take the form of diary entries for the year 1999.
Much of BARTLEBY & CO. clearly is a commentary on contemporary literature or the "impossibility of literature," posing the question, among others, what is the future of literature? At other times, however, the book seems to be a somewhat impressionistic portrayal of existential ennui. (That latter aspect probably is responsible for the former dilemma.)
The novel certainly reflects quite extensive reading on the part of Vila-Matas. Among the writers who are mentioned (in rough order of appearance in the novel): Robert Walser, Robert Moretti, Juan Rulfo, Rimbaud, Socrates, Hofmannsthal and "Letter of Lord Chandos" (the "pinnacle of the literature of the No"), Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Valery Larbaud, Pepin Bello, Bobi Bazlen, Danielle Del Grudice, Robert Derain, Arthur Cravan, Hart Crane, Joseph Joubert, Chamfort, Felisberto Hernandez, J.D. Salinger, Fernando Passoa, Elias Canetti, Paul Celan, John Keats, Herman Broch, Mallarme, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde, Henry Roth, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Marcel Maniere, Derek Walcott, Thomas Pynchon, Guy de Maupassant, B. Traven, and Tolstoy.
If you are not familiar with Melville's story, I strongly recommend taking an hour to read it before starting BARTLEBY & CO. Those who have read the Melville story know that Bartleby is an odd duck. It is doubly fitting that this novel be named after him, because not only does it develop the "Bartleby syndrome" but it too is an odd duck, or an odd book. At first the conceit is interesting, but I found it overdone. Three-and-a-half stars.