I’ve been thinking for a while about possibly starting up a read for the summer. I have George Saunders on the brain. Before I put in the work, I wanted to collect some feedback to gauge interest. Please lodge your interest or lack thereof below. Note that if you express interest, you can also volunteer to participate more actively by writing for the blog, and you can express preferences about the scope of the project. I imagine we’d start in July sometime if the read materializes.
As you’re planning your summer reading, you should be aware that a new Infinite Jest reading group has sprung up. Summer of Jest starts in just a few days and may be of interest to those who’ve landed on this post either because they’re long-time readers of the site or because they did a search for Infinite Jest and landed here by accident.Take The Survey!
Although I have read a fair amount of literature that can safely be called experimental or at least non-conventional, I tend to doubt my ability to make fair, sound judgments about which among these works are good works. Much of Barth is tedious and masturbatory, and there’s plenty under Pynchon’s name that strikes me as very weak, for example, and yet both are widely regarded as masters at what they do. (And of course they’ve also both written plenty that I do find worth serious study.)
In spite of my self-doubt when it comes to such judgments, I think I’ve made some correct calls. Gaddis and Wallace write good books. Some of Bolaño and Pynchon I recognize to be quality work even when it doesn’t appeal to me personally. When a book is a great book, I think I generally have the sense to recognize it as such.
Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton, a Biography, however much it is a book I found myself rooting for, is not a great book. It is not, in fact, even a terribly successful book. But it is a book that I really wanted to be successful, whose conceit I found appealing if, in the end, very overworked.
The promotional blurb sets the novel up rather promisingly (if a little over-enthusiastically):
Chris Eaton, A Biography is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we’ve heard from others. Chris Eaton, A Biography constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.
This, it seems, will be a book about what it means to be a person struggling through life, and this is what the great books tend to be about. I won’t say that I agree with every word of the blurb, but I thought the use of a shared name as the thread through a life, or a series of lives, demonstrating the universality of the human condition, seemed new and interesting. So often it’s time and place that throw characters together, and I was receptive to this different organization of a novel’s happenings.
Right off the bat, Eaton introduces us to a number of characters whose histories are compelling. It’s a little confusing at first, not least of all because without further comment, he begins suddenly using the feminine pronoun for one of the Chris Eaton characters. It’s unexpected and gave me a pleasant little jolt. A little confusion in a book like this isn’t really a liability. It’s probably part of the point, in fact. But as the book unfolds, we meet more and more characters and some of the story lines begin to blur in what for me were unpleasantly disorienting ways. Was I reading, at a given moment, about the life of the punk rocker, the politician, the artist, the wrestler, the pornographer, the carpenter, or somebody else? And for that matter, was it possible that some of these apparently distinct characters were in fact the same character at different times of life, with me having simply missed the connections linking them across the novel’s time? And if so, was this all really the designed point — that blur that the novel’s blurb mentions — or was it a flaw of the book? And if it was the designed point, was it a good design? These are the sorts of questions that I think make assessing non-conventional literature so hard. It’s tricky to decide when the flaw is in the work and when it is in the reader.
Chris Eaton, a Biography grows more fantastical as we move further into it, with conspiracy plots and people with comically specific occupations and proclivities. Some of these I found rewarding and others gratuitous. We meet many people tangentially related to the various main plots, and they become, in spite of the humor with which their stories are so often told, a really big distraction. Think of Pynchon’s lightbulb conspiracy or adenoid taming repeated over and over in a much shorter book. What’s more, their names or the names of their organizations or areas of interest tend to be anagrams of Chris Eaton, which is clever given the underlying conceit of the book but which becomes so heavy-handed here as to become not just a distraction but a game one can’t help but play.
I’m reminded of a thriller by Dan Brown entitled Digital Fortress whose entire plot hangs on the existence of someone’s anagrammatized name. The last half of Brown’s book hinges on this clue that none of the inspiringly brilliant people in the novel can puzzle out, which turns out to be the anagram that practically blinks on the page. The inability of the novel’s brilliant inhabitants to see this obvious thing becomes infuriatingly comical.
Similarly, Eaton’s book becomes a sardonic game of “spot the anagram.” Some of the anagrams are cute, and I enjoyed some of the stories that go with the name variants, but the game became tiresome. Tonia Hersc? Tina Cerosh? Hornet Cisa? Ian Rotches? A pair named Chorea and Nits studying creatures known as antioch ers? Those couldn’t possibly be anagrams for Chris Eaton, could they?
Many of the side stories Eaton presents seem to exist solely for the purpose of introducing another anagram of the name, so that we get a three-page digression here and another there as back story for a back story. These are often hilarious and well enough written, but they also become a little annoying, the more so because they contribute to the muddling of the plots of the main Chris Eatons.
These side stories also result in the book’s seeming to consist of summary after summary. Again and again we read “he did, she did” prose but precious little (if any) dialogue that brings us closer to the characters. We skip around from one zany summary to the next, and though the book does contain a number of conflicts, it seems to me by and large very emotionally sterile, devoid of any humanizing drama presented in a way that makes me feel for the characters. The result is a book full of cleverness but lacking the gravity that I think is necessary for a book purporting to offer truths about what it means to be alive.
I wanted to like this book on the basis of its conceit alone, and I did enjoy many of the stories in the book, but I don’t think it holds up very well as a novel. It often feels as if Eaton made a list of anagrams and wrote little stories for each one, then stitched them all together into a book loosely centered on the lives of a cluster of Chris Eatons. I’m receptive enough to fragmented narratives, but Chris Eaton, a Biography I think ultimately falls short because of a lack of coherence among its parts. There’s too much in the book that’s not essential.
Still, on the basis of this effort, I’ll root for Eaton. I would try another of his books. I think what he’s written here is intelligent and well-meaning if not altogether successful. It’s something more than a curiosity if something far short of a masterpiece.
William Gass’s The Tunnel is really too big to write about coherently in small chunks. It crosses genres (including drawing, history, memoir, diary, quotation, encomium, rant, fiction, doggerel, epic invocation, and others) and is, by design, a confusion of ideas and modes of thought and means of expression. It’s a maddening, ugly book but is at times also a true and lovely book so far. I’m about halfway through it. If you’re interested in longer and better analysis of the book, follow along over at Conversational Reading, where for the first week’s reading, the topic of truth comes up.
The topic I thought I’d write a few words about today is confession. The Tunnel is essentially a diary, and diaries are essentially confessions. This is not to say that they’re true confessions, though. I was recently reading back through some old journal entries from my college days, and although there was plenty of earnest yearning for meaning about the world and about what I was reading and writing, there was also plenty of posturing. After all, maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer one day, my scribbled journals carefully photographed for archival and then typeset and lent out so that the world might know whence my later genius sprang.
Even in more recent things I’ve written for myself, I think I pose more than I really ought, though not, I think, in quite so naively calculating a way, and I hope not with quite as much silliness and laughable gravitas. Still, now as when I was younger, there is a question of whom exactly I’m writing for and what I want from the effort. I write primarily about my reading and writing, for example. I don’t, as folks used to, catalogue my food intake and bowel movements. I don’t generally write about my family. So if I constrain my writing generally to the literary topics, even if I’m not consciously writing for an imagined future audience, there’s room for questions about why I stick to letters and what that says about what’s important to me and whether I don’t still quietly hope for a scholarly audience for these supposed private ramblings one day after all and why I see fit to scribble my thoughts in the first place.
Well, writing of course helps us work through our thoughts, and in my case — I’m dreadfully forgetful — it helps me have a way of getting back to elusive thoughts later. But writing, and especially diaristic writing, is also a sort of confession. Gass’s Kohler is surely a learned man, but he doesn’t stick to the literary in his diary. We learn about his affairs with younger women, about his being fondled by a young boy, about his pretty thorough dislike of his wife, and other things. So for Kohler, the diary’s undoubtedly a space for confession as much as for literary endeavor. He even addresses the topic head on in a couple of places. Take this bit from page 21:
Gide meant: could he confess upon the page; put into the writer’s pretty paper world some creatures whose troubled breathing would betray the fact they were not fictions; record a few feelings in an ink our blood would flow through like a vein? Sincerity — this Christmas wrap around a rascal — could he dispense with even its concealments and reach reality, expose himself to his own eye?
And this, also on 21:
[I]t is often easier to confess to a capital crime, so long as its sentences sing and its features rhyme, than to admit you like to fondle-off into a bottle (to cite an honest-sounding instance)… words nailed like shingles to the page, the earnest straightforward bite of the spike, is the one which suits sincerity; sincerity cannot gamble, cannot play, cannot hedge its bets, forswear a wager, bear to lose; sincerity is tidy; it shits in a paper sack to pretend it’s innocent of food…
In that one, he even suggests that the confession he writes about isn’t in fact a real one but sounds like the sort of thing one might confess, undermining our ability to believe that even the things he writes that seem honest in fact are.
Later, on 106, he confesses, “I would hate to have my wife see this.” In fact, he hides his diary among the pages of his long manuscript on Nazi Germany, which has a conveniently confessional title Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. And he worries that his soft touch on the topic will be perceived as a sort of confession of Nazi sympathy (which, well, is he maybe a little sympathetic?).
He blends his concerns about both the personal and the historical writerly impulse on page 106:
When I write about the Third Reich, or now, when I write about myself, is it truly the truth I want? What do I want? to find out who I am? What is the good of that? I want to feel a little less uneasy.
He peppers his diary with limericks (mostly written by colleague Culp, I believe), overwhelmingly starting with variations on the formula “I once went to bed with a nun.” Well, nuns are Catholic, and Catholics dig confession. Moreover, the content of these limericks itself is framed as a sort of confession.
So, I’ve spent a lot of words here to say that this diaristic work seems to be full, as diaries are, of confession. Well duh. What’s more interesting within the context of the book is the nature of truth in confession. That is, is confession a sort of Heisenbergian act in that the fact of knowing that you’re saying or writing something that others will (or at least may) consume alters how you say it, so that confession is by its nature meta-confession, written here in Kohler’s singing sentences and altered subtly in the process? Which is to ask whether you can take confession at face value, ever. Can a trip to the confessional in which you admit “impure thoughts” but fail to mention an inclination toward pederasty really count for anything? Or, to go the other way, can over-confessing so that you make yourself out to be worse than you are as a sort of absolution through self-immolation really suffice? Is true confession really even possible? Or in confession, are we — as a commenter at Conversational Reading suggests more broadly and as becomes more and more important through this book about how we create and receive history — just fooling ourselves?
As noted the other day, there’s currently a group reread of Infinite Jest in progress on the wallace-l mailing list. We’re only on the second week of it, so there’s time to catch up if you’re interested. I introduced pages 49 – 87 last night and have pasted in my introduction below. If you find it at all enticing, be sure to tune in via the list, as the discussion that follows these intro posts tends to be really good. If you fall asleep or die before you manage to get to the end of this thing, I’ll hardly blame you. Since this is a reread, the spoiler rule’s out the window.
Main things that happen and concepts that appear in this section:
- Hal gets covertly high.
- Oh look, an underworld in the form of tunnels (even including a sort of limbo for the poor protectors).
- Gately dons a toothbrush.
- A weird detached list on page 60 that I didn’t give any attention to below but that maybe merits some attention for its weird detachedness.
- Note 21, the first of a series of inter-referential notes.
- A face in the floor (and other nightmares).
- Note 24, the filmography (brace yourself).
- Orin in cardinal gear, reluctantly.
- Pemulis teaches his little buddies about shrooms.
- Kate Gompert, reluctant to admit to a pot addiction, wants ECT.
- The medical attaché’s wife comes home to find him enthralled. Others follow.
- Schtitt and Mario go for ice cream.
- Tiny Ewell goes to detox.
I actually write about very little of that stuff below.
A theme that runs through this section and in fact through the whole book so far is failure to communicate. It begins of course with Hal at the university and moves back through time to Hal being interviewed by a father who doesn’t believe he speaks. But we also see it in things like Erdeddy’s inability to choose between answering the phone and the door, his habit of cutting off communication with anyone he’s dealt with before to get pot. We see it also in Gompert, who for example displays sometimes a flat affect and sometimes forced facial expressions (recall Hal at the beginning) while speaking with a singsongy voice that leaves the doctor (also trying hard to communicate using both voice and mannerism) confused.
I think there’s also some interesting stuff pertaining to communication going on in the end notes. For one thing, they are themselves a sort of barrier to direct communication, and even today I think sometimes about skimming the ones that just give drug info or don’t seem to relate in terribly important ways to the main story. In the big note 24, the matter of communication gets really out of hand, though. The editors of the book that the note quotes haven’t seen some of the films they describe, for example (some of which weren’t ever filmed), and yet they write about them, communicating in some cases non-information, which if you think about it is very strange indeed.
Consider the film Annular Amplified Light: Some Reflections. Well, its title is a silly pun, first off, but that’s superficial. It’s got sound and is sign-interpreted for the deaf, but although it purports to be a “nontechnical explanation of the applications of cooled-photon lasers in DT-cycle lithiumized annular fusion,” it’s hard to imagine that one could do such a topic any justice in a nontechnical film, much less in one whose almost certainly specialized language it’s hard to imagine could be signed efficiently.
And: Union of Nurses in Berkeley, silent and closed-captioned interviews with hearing-impaired RNs and LPNs. I suppose it’s silent either to elicit a sort of empathy with the interviewees or maybe to avoid what could be a comical treatment of audible interviews of people whose pronunciation and enunciation may have suffered thanks to their hearing impairment. It’s a strange audiovisual blend, at any rate, that seems to be fooling around with ways in which people communicate.
And: Cage II in which a blind convict and a deaf-mute convict placed in solitary confinement attempt to figure out ways of communicating with one another. This is a bad joke, of course (and calls to mind the old Wilder/Prior movie), but it also demonstrates a concern with how people manage to connect. It’s a wonder this one wasn’t at least captioned if not signed.
And: Death in Scarsdale, in color, silent, with closed-caption subtitles, which almost becomes hard to visualize once you’ve got all this business on the brain. In this one, an endocrinologist begins to sweat excessively while treating a boy who sweats excessively, which again, with this stuff on the brain and maybe under no other circumstance, makes me think of things like how you never stutter until you find yourself speaking with somebody who stutters, when you suddenly start channeling Porky Pig out of maybe sympathy or self-consciousness.
A couple of the other films are sign-interpreted as well, and in general, JOI’s films demonstrate an awareness of the interplay between sight and sound, different ways of perceiving things, of being perceived, and of being perceived while perceiving things such that you morph from subject into object and back into subject again.
All of this of course is mediated through films and (usually) soundtracks themselves devised by makers whose communication with you is from the past and not at all personal, which can be a little creepy if you think about it too much. And all of that is further mediated through a book of fiction and yet further through end notes that put it at an even greater distance.
Early in the book we’re exposed to Hal’s precocity with respect to grammar and usage, given to him by good old Avril. She and Steven Pinker make appearances in the filmography in a silent, closed-captioned film documenting a grammar convention. This strikes me as kind of funny and really quite interesting, since closed-captioning would have the effect of memorializing in print the words spoken by the grammarians. Grammar being generally a little looser for even the strident among us when speaking aloud than when writing formally, the idea of capturing in print any non grammatical speech by these super-grammarians would be kind of tantalizing, and of course I can imagine that making the viewers of the film read the language while connecting it to the images moving onscreen could have a weird effect (in the way that watching subtitled films if you’re not accustomed to doing so can make a movie a lot of work and hard to trust that you’ve really grokked). I guess it’s worth noting that though Hal speaks, his father hears no words coming from him, and this film seems to capture the effect.
Grammar of course is just a map of our language. Descriptivists will say that if it’s spoken naturally by a native speaker, it’s grammatical and ought to be recorded, while prescriptivists tend more to demand adherence to an existing set of written rules. (This is a gross oversimplification, I know.) In either case, we can see grammar as a sort of map of language, and the main thing at issue is whether the map ought to change along with the terrain or not. “Map” and “terrain” turn out to be loaded terms when talking about IJ, of course, and they make appearances in the filmography, if obliquely. In the most oblique treatment, we see Every Inch of Disney Leith, in which the eponymous man has his innards mapped. Comically, the title uses the Imperial measure, while in the film he listens to a forum on metricization in North America, which is another way of communicating the same things using different terms. Later, in No Troy, we learn about the erasure of Troy, NY from both terrain and map (by, explicitly, cartographers). Sort of humorously, archivists don’t list the title by the name given here but variously use the names The Violet City and The Violet Ex-City.
So then to me the threads of language as communication, language as a construct (i.e., grammar), and map/terrain — which roughly corresponds to the relationship between language as construct and language as communication — begin to become intertwined very early in the novel in the notes about the filmography, which is itself, of course, nothing if not a map whose aim is to relate the technical features of JOI’s films with what they communicated across his career.
Every time I read the filmography, I spot some new fun detail I had either overlooked or forgotten or just not given enough thought to on previous reads.This time it was the appearance of C.N. (presumably Charles Nelson) Reilly as a narrator in a couple of the early, sign-interpreted documentaries. The idea of CNR as a narrator on a documentary (even a whimsically titled, nontechnical one) is kind of a laugh, and then the idea of someone trying to interpret his self-interrupting, story-nesting style for the deaf is even more comical. Maybe he’d stick a bit closer to the cards in a documentary, though. But it’s also worth noting that CNR was basically ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, crossing stage, film, and TV shows in the form of game shows, talk show appearances, and television series, so that it’s hardly inconceivable that an aging CNR would dip his wick into the documentary wax late in life (and yet no less the funnier). This inter-”text”-uality all seems kind of relevant to the sort of things Wallace was considering in “E Unibus Pluram,” which of course informs a lot of IJ.
I also love how you can see little sub-plots within the filmography if you pay attention to the names. For example, P.A. Heaven becomes Paul Anthony and then goes back to using initials, and one wonders why. And Soma Richardson-Levy apparently marries an O-Byrne and later a Chawaf (also credited within the filmography) and just keeps collecting hyphenated suffixes to her name. Then of course there’s the interplay of the films with things happening in JOI’s life and at ETA.
Now moving away from the end notes for a bit, I’ll note that I like how Wallace is already setting us up for things to come with little one-off references to things like the O.S.U.O.S, cartridges (note 18, page 58), DMZ/M.P. (note 8), DuPlessis, experialism, and annular hyperfloration cycles. These things are easy to read past but all become pretty important later, so it’s neat on a reread to see where he’s left these little breadcrumbs.
It’d be just short of criminal not to at least mention the face in the floor dream even if I don’t say much about it. I love that whole passage, and the way he just slips the face in there is horrifying and I suppose embodies the thing we’ve read before about how the thing that’s great about Lynch’s surrealistic horror is that almost everything has to seem normal for the really bad thing to be really bad.
I haven’t even touched on Schtitt and Mario or on similarities between some of the things we learn about Erdeddy and Gompert, but I’m really just out of wind, and so, I imagine, are you. I feel like the filmography tends to get short shrift, so maybe I’ve corrected that some (however clumsily and single-purposedly) and others can fill in the other huge gaps I’ve left.
A couple of years ago, I got a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel and burned through the first 100 or 200 pages of it before some shiny object distracted me and I put the book down. I had considered starting up a group read here sometime to force myself to pick the book back up and finish it. In fact, it was included among options for future reads on a poll I posted after the Gravity’s Rainbow read. Well, Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading has scheduled a group read on the coattails of Gaddis’s J R. If you’re game, you can see the (I think) ambitious schedule here. Although I doubt I’ll have it in me to write much about the book, I hope at least to read along.
In progress on the wallace-l mailing list is a reread of Infinite Jest. This reread is part of why I won’t be putting as much time as I’d like into The Tunnel. I haven’t reread IJ since Infinite Summer a few years ago, and I had been wanting to. When D.T. Max’s biography came out, it made me really want to dig back into Wallace’s book again. And then the wallace-l reread was proposed and I was hooked. You can get a peek at the schedule here. I’ll be introducing the second chunk on the mailing list in a couple of days. It won’t be a group read proper here at IZ, so if you want to play, I encourage you to subscribe to the mailing list, where you’ll get a broader and smarter range of opinions and interpretations than mine anyway.
I hate that these reads are happening at the same time, as the result’ll be that I’ll do kind of half-assed reads of both. I’ve been through IJ enough times that I can afford to half-ass it, but The Tunnel‘s a different story. Still, I can’t resist trying to keep up with IJ too.
An entry posted here in this blog in error. Pardon me. Perhaps someone should disable me here so that it does happen again.
Over the weekend, I read D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. If you’re reading this, it seems vanishingly unlikely that you haven’t first heard about the biography elsewhere. So in a way, I feel silly even mentioning it because my doing so seems a little bit like cheering for a game that’s already over. All the people whose opinions people want to hear have already spoken up. But it’s a book about stuff that’s important to me, so I also feel weird just not saying anything at all.
I had written a long rambly thing connecting my affinity with Wallace’s work when I first encountered it in the form of Infinite Jest 15 years ago to an affinity that Holden Caulfield expresses for Thomas Hardy and Ring Lardner. It was self-indulgent and stupid and all a round-about way of saying that Wallace’s work has been a major influence on the way I read, write, think (and think about thinking), and live.
Unsatisfied with the long preface I had written for what would be a very brief review of Max’s book, I put it aside and thought about abandoning it. But then a few comments about the book landed on the wallace-l email list, one of which curtly described the book as “thin.” A follow-up comment expanded by saying that the biography gave us little that we didn’t already pretty much know from Wallace’s own words in his books and interviews.
Well, this is partially true. But I think it also misses the point. You can’t exactly pry secrets from a ghost, and there’s something grave-robberish about digging for too much grit from family and friends for whom Wallace’s death is still no doubt a bit of a wound. Although Max does give a fair amount of background about Wallace’s early struggles both personal and authorial, it tapers off substantially as we move to Wallace’s years post-Infinite Jest. If you’re hoping to read Wallace’s suicide note or to learn lots of new information about the circumstances of his last decline and death, you’ll be disappointed; there’s very little substantially new information here about his last days beyond what came out in a couple of long articles shortly after Wallace’s death.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a book more about drawing broad lines between things that happened in Wallace’s life and things that appeared in his writing than about divulging every nasty or saintly thing he ever did. Although the author of the “thin” comment seems to have wanted the latter, I’m grateful that Max gave us the former. I feel like it helped me to better understand Wallace’s Gately-ish transformation as both he and his work matured, which made me feel good about where Wallace had been headed, if also really sad about where he wound up.
I think a book divulging many more details of Wallace’s life would have been simply sordid. And a book doing much more in the way of line-drawing and analysis would have been tiresome and speculative. What Max gives us instead is a book that provides a comfortable balance of detail and analysis. It’s a sympathetic and gentle book in the way that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was, and like Lipsky’s book, I think Max’s is a sort of gift.