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Difficulty

I keep my eye on tweets mentioning Gravity’s Rainbow and today saw one asking if GR was readable and worth it. The person also asked if his followers had read Infinite Jest, and which of the two books was better. Well, that judgment is awfully hard to make, but it sent me off to think about which was more difficult, since I tend to think Pynchon’s book is a lot harder to read than Wallace’s and so in some ways is less pleasurable and by extension not as good.

As evidence of GR‘s difficulty, I cite the fact that I read IJ for the first time in a 10-day marathon of 15-hour days over a Christmas holiday while in college. I pretty much couldn’t put the book down. As further evidence, I cite the probably half dozen times I read the first half dozen pages of GR before putting it aside. I believe I once read significantly more of the book but put it down again.

So, why was GR so much harder a book for me than IJ was? Part of it has to do, I suppose, with the fact that Pynchon writes about a lot of more or less factual things, and when confronted with so much real-world information that I didn’t know, or knew only very shallowly, I felt stupid and inadequate and didn’t want to feel that way anymore, so I quit. Wallace, on the other hand, writes less with history in mind and about experiences that aren’t so terribly different from my own. I never attended a tennis academy, but I have been a young man in locker rooms, and I’ve been to summer camps and eaten in cafeterias. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a halfway house, but the experiences as Wallace presents them are very human experiences, whereas Pynchon so often writes at a greater distance from the people whose trials he’s documenting, and with a much greater emphasis (generally) on the technology and the argot of the fields and histories he writes about.

But there’s something else, too. (Well, there’s lots else, but one something else I’ll write about for now.) For all the guff Wallace took about writing a too-long book, being self-indulgent with the end notes,  needing an editor, etc., it occurred to me tonight that IJ is actually very user friendly in a way that certain important books we’ve read here (or may yet read here) are not.

It all starts with Ulysses, of course. Joyce gave us pretty much unfettered access to the inside of Leopold Bloom’s head and wrote often without much in the way of transition or explicit stage direction. It’s really hard to get oriented within the book, and by the time you settle in to the style of one episode, Joyce goes off and changes the game on you by writing in another mode altogether. In 1973 and 1975 we got Gravity’s Rainbow and Gaddis’s JR. Gaddis too puts you inside the heads of his characters with precious little in the way of landmarks to help you navigate the prose. Written almost wholly in unattributed dialogue, JR requires that you learn how to read it before you can really begin to understand what it’s even saying. It’s fun, but capital-D Difficult. Pynchon’s not as freewheeling as Gaddis, since Pynchon at least breaks his book down into sections and provides exposition. But he also makes those crazy leaps. Miss a “. . . .” in the text as he jumps from one time or place to another and you’ll find yourself suddenly lost. Wait, when the fuck did I start reading about dodo birds? I thought this was a story about Hansel and Gretel.

Infinite Jest covers a lot of people over a period of time that’s kind of hard to pin down as you’re reading. Like Pynchon, Wallace provides landmarks in the form of clear section breaks. But unlike Pynchon, he tends to stay within the boundaries of a defined section. If he’s writing about Mario, you don’t suddenly find an unmarked leap over to Marathe and Steeply at another time and place within the same section. Further, Wallace conveniently puts a lot of the extra, technical, information in end notes. He’s been accused, on the basis of the 100 pages of notes, of being antagonistic to the reader, but it occurs to me that maybe putting the tangential information in end notes is his attempt at something like mercy. Where his forebears just dump the info on you inline, Wallace gives you a little break, slows down the information intake just a touch.

It’s as if Joyce came to the conclusion that he could lay on his readers everything in a character’s head and the postmodernists extended that idea, trying to give their readers not just the contents of their characters’ heads but everything under the sun and doing so in a way that sort of mimicked the awful burden of information-influx after the rise of radio and television and billboards. Wallace, then, says “too much,” or, if not “too much,” something like “slow down; let’s take this in pieces.”

And for me, I think that’s part of what makes Infinite Jest a much easier book than Gravity’s Rainbow. For all the information Wallace’s book contains, its information flow is more modulated than these earlier books, and it’s a relief. One reads that Wallace was also a proponent of a new sincerity, that he rejected the postmodern tendency toward irony as ultimately a non-productive (if not outright toxic) mode to write in. It’s interesting to me to suggest, then, that he sought to throttle information overload as he hoped to throttle irony, that he was pulling back from his smirking, hyper-intelligent forebears in a couple of ways, an après-garde all his own.

  1. DCN
    March 8, 2012 at 12:45 am | #1

    A few related, but maybe not wholly on point thoughts:

    1. Joyce and Wallace are interested in the inner workings of the individual mind, but it seems to me that they are interested in the inner workings in different ways. Joyce is showing you that mind without comment and Wallace is trying to understand how that mind works (or more specifically, why it doesn’t work). I think of Joyce as opening a skull and letting me see what is running through the characters mind and Wallace as plugging me directly into that mind-experience.

    Gaddis in JR seems to be giving us less people’s minds and more people’s voices. Like Joyce and Wallace, we get a torrent of information, but there is a veil there between us and the characters in JR that is not present in Ulysses or IJ–people don’t always say what they mean or think and they are always talking to each other, which means we get the misunderstandings and the duplicity and the presentation of self. It is like Gaddis picked up the social husk that Joyce wriggled out of (so that he could give us the pure, unadulterated inner-self) and paraded it around for us.

    2. Like you, I read IJ in a flash, but took a could of tries to get into Gravity’s Rainbow. Part of that was timing–I read IJ during Christmas break during law school, I tried reading Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time while working full time after college. Even so, I would agree that Gravity’s Rainbow is more difficult, for the reasons you mention (that it is more recognizable to us–though I have had some really gross candy), but also because I think on a base-structural level, Gravity’s Rainbow resists the expectations that we have for novels much more than IJ, Ulysses or even JR do.

    If JR had chapter breaks, it wouldn’t be that difficult. IJ is daunting in its scope and at times in its language, but it is as you point out, very NOW, very recognizable to anyone reading it. While Gravity’s Rainbow is set in the recent past, it defies our expectations on what a “WWII Novel” is and should be. We don’t get a lot of “Saving Private Ryan” here.

    One of the hardest things I think the first time reading Gravity’s Rainbow is catching hold of a character to attach ourselves to. In IJ, you care about Hal and Gately right from the outset. In Ulysses, you are with Stephen or Bloom almost the whole time. Consider: we are a fifth of the way through Gravity’s Rainbow, and the “main” character, Slothrop, has hardly been on the stage. When he has been, it is been a brief scene about his family history, or a surreal racist fantasy or he eats disgusting candy, and that’s kind of it. That was what threw me the first time. I didn’t really know what to grasp as important–but that was because I was trying to read it like I read everything else. It wasn’t until I just read it and didn’t worry about getting everything or the meaning that it clicked with me.

    (I think one thing that also makes both books difficult and is also part of what makes Twin Peaks such a strange thing is the extreme mix of very DARK and very SILLY with very little in between. Shifting rapidly between Blicero and gross candy is hard for the brain to do.)

    3. Also, I think because of Wallace’s nature, he wants us to understand and is moving in a logical fashion toward a goal. He maybe doesn’t know what the end point will be, but he is trying to work everything out and once you lock in with his prose, he is explaining and exploring, and where there is difficulty, it comes from an almost physical place–from getting exhausted with his extensive exploration of how thought works.

    Pynchon, for all of his scientific background, is moving on a much more intuitive level. Gravity’s Rainbow is working on a sub-conscious level, working in the way that poetry works. And certainly, great swaths of Gravity’s Rainbow are among the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, but what makes them so beautiful is their mystery and their resistance to stabilize into just one meaning or direction. IJ is beautiful too, but in a different way. My love for that novel comes less from the beauty of the prose and more from the warm humanity that radiates from it, and from all of Wallace’s work.

    [I said other things, but deleted them because it was far too much]

    • March 8, 2012 at 9:19 am | #2

      Some really excellent points here!

      It’s been years since I read JR, and I think you’re right about voices, but I also harbor the (perhaps mistaken impression) that a lot of it is Gibbs sort of muttering to himself, which I associate more with inner monologue than speech. That said, you’re right that it’s much more a book concerned with voices (that infernal radio…). I don’t think I agree that chapter breaks would have necessarily made a big difference with how easily JR goes down. The streamlike structure of the book sort of defies the use of chapters, and so artificial chapter breaks would have been meaningless. That is, part of what makes chapters useful is that they provide meaningful division, but meaningful division maybe doesn’t make sense within the frenetic world of JR. I guess chapters would have helped compartmentalize things, but again, that would sort of have defeated the purpose. And for me, it wasn’t the lack of episodic compartmentalization so much as the whirlwind of voices and lack of exposition that made JR challenging to begin with (you get maybe a third of the way through and you’ve mastered how to read it and can just hum along and enjoy the thing).

      I think you also have a good point about latching onto a character. One thing I’m finding on this reread of GR is that where I had first thought there wasn’t much emotion or much in the way of a terribly sympathetic character in the book, I’m finding that there are a few moments of real humanity (usually insecurity or vulnerability) that hadn’t resonated with me as strongly during my first read.

      The interesting thing about Pynchon’s prose is that I don’t think I’d call him a pure stylist or anything. At times it’s plenty sloppy or ho-hum or tickish, while at times it is lovely. Wallace too is often enough more or less utilitarian, and I agree that he’s often missing the poetry you mention, but one thing he does do is to mimic the internal stream of thought in the way his prose is structured (this is probably more evident in some of the more recent short fiction than in IJ). In this way, I’ve always thought he owed a much greater debt to Gaddis than to Pynchon, though he’s more frequently mentioned in reviews alongside the latter.

      • DCN
        March 8, 2012 at 10:18 am | #3

        As to JR, I agree with you 100%. I was only suggesting that chapter breaks would perhaps make it “easier” to a first time reader to make it through, not that chapter breaks would be a good thing (nor am I suggesting that making it easier is a good thing). I completely agree that they would work against the very most central elements of the novel. The endless rush of words disconnected from anything is what makes the novel what it is and what makes it so great to read. (And it has been a few years since I read it as well, so I could be forgetting.)

        I do find Wallace’s prose beautiful, just not in the same overtly poetic way that Pynchon’s is beautiful. Pynchon is closer to Nabokov in many ways–straight lyrical beauty. What I find appealing in Wallace’s prose is its clarity and hypnotic qualities. Wallace reminds me of (the English translations of) Bolano and Marias–prose that does not at first leap up and say LOOK AT ME, but which sucks you in slowly and is perhaps hard to later explain exactly what you love about it. Marias especially reminds me of Wallace (though I certainly doubt either is/was an influence on the other). He has the same precise, ceaseless exploration of minds working.

        The point being: If you love Wallace and haven’t read Marias, Good News! You should read Marias.

        I never answered the ultimate question: I think Gravity’s Rainbow is better, but that is partly because I don’t think IJ is Wallace’s best work. I think the stories in Oblivion are greater.

  2. DCN
    March 8, 2012 at 1:06 am | #4

    I tell you what I do find difficult: William Vollmann’s “Argall” and “Fathers and Crows.” I couldn’t finish either–not because I wasn’t interested, but I just never could find my spot in them. I’d love to someday though. I’ve enjoyed other things of his that I’ve read.

    Novels like that, if you are reading them alone and have no one to discuss them with and are working and can only read an hour or so a night, it becomes really difficult to finish.

    • March 8, 2012 at 9:21 am | #5

      I consistently have trouble with Vollmann. I’ve started several of his novels and don’t think I’ve finished a single one of them (got close with You Bright and Risen Angels). I started the Rainbow stories and didn’t finish. I find what I’ve read of his journalism (mostly just what he’s published in Harper’s in recent years) to be kind of meandering and purposeless, though not without appeal. I can’t seem to find my spot in his work either.

      • DCN
        March 8, 2012 at 10:22 am | #6

        I would enjoy doing a group read like this for a Vollmann novel, because I think talking about the book would be a good motivation to keep going and would help find that spot, but I think part of the problem is that Vollmann doesn’t have a Gravity’s Rainbow or an IJ or a Ulysses or a Moby-Dick. He doesn’t have that one novel that is his calling card. Rather, he’s build his reputation on writing dozens of IJs and Ulyssesses, so there is no obvious “You At Least Have To Read This One” book.

        That said, I am still interested in his work, or at least interested in getting to know his work.

  3. March 8, 2012 at 8:24 am | #7

    I couldn’t agree more, Daryl. IJ is hard in the way a 1,000 (or 1,079) piece puzzle is hard. There’s lots of blue sky pieces that could be anything at the beginning. And even by the end the puzzle may be missing a piece or two (end metaphor). With Gravity’s Rainbow, there are sections that are very straightforward and, yes, fun, funny and enjoyable. But there are time when I can’t believable this book was written during my lifetime because the language seems so…colloquial? And not even in a slang way, more like am I’m not really sure what’s happening here, even when I read it three times. And yes those … really do make a difference.
    I will admit that your comments about not getting past the first few pages made me think the book was capital D difficult, which I don’t really–I was pleasantly surprised at how readable much of it is. It doesn’t have the warmth of IJ (which is strange to say about a book about drug addicts and a dystopian United States). But it feels like IJ sparkles with life, while GR is, by design, hidden under a blackout curtain.
    The good thing about GR is that now, by Section 2, I’m invested in some of these characters. I may not know what’s going on and I may not like them all, but I’m really curious about what will happen to them. And that alone will keep me from stopping!

  4. Carol
    March 8, 2012 at 10:39 am | #8

    I am enjoying all of the comments here, thank you! I also am struck that I am lost in the language of a book that takes place 40 years after Ulysses, and where I have a much better understanding of the history and culture. I can’t say that my empathy for the characters is a problem, and I am interested enough in them to keep going, but what makes GR less than a compelling read for me so far is the humor. I just do not get it as much as I did in Ulysses and IJ, and The Pale King too. From Leopold Bloom’s fantasy trial to the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad to the IRS agents stuck in the elevator, I laughed out loud throughout those books. I am hoping to see more of Prentice, who seems to hold out hope for some hilarity.

  5. March 11, 2012 at 1:21 am | #9

    In terms of structure, too, remember that Ulysses is set meandering through one day. IJ is a complex mathematical puzzle that has clear signposts even as the map is folded back on itself and read from the middle. GR so far seems to just wander. Of course there must be a purpose, but I haven’t seen it yet and feel absolutely adrift in language that, as others have mentioned here, is not particularly warm, that ventures from melancholy to slapstick, and that seems way more than 40 years distant.

    Doesn’t help that I’m way behind in the reading or that I’m still really creeped out by how compellingly human Pynchon wrote Blicero. Wallace did not write nuance into Lenz.

  6. March 12, 2012 at 9:59 am | #10

    Perhaps this is restating what others have said above, but I came to this late as I’ve been doing some last-minute catching up:

    Definitions of modernism and post-modernism aside, my feeling is that Ulysses, and to a lesser extent, Gravity’s Rainbow are foremost experimental novels, which I do not claim with any academic authority (as I have none), but I feel that with both of these novels, much of the heavy lifting the reader is doing is in trying to figure out what the author is doing in any one section, whether it involve the perspective of the stream-of-consciousness narrative, the period fictional style being parodied, or intimate knowledge of the source materials. While one can certainly read both of these novels and understand the narrative thrust by skimming the surface, one would also be constantly reminded on a nearly sentence-by-sentence basis that there’s much they are not “getting.” There is the gnawing feeling at times that what you are really reading is Joyce’s or Pynchon’s unmediated thoughts, much of which is sui generis.

    In Infinite Jest, on the other hand, Wallace has constructed a novel that’s experimenting with the form and style of the novel but in the guise of a mass-market thriller. I know that a lot of readers first encountered IJ around the age of 20, as I did myself, and were quickly succumbed by the short character-based sections building up the larger narrative, something that was engrained in me by whipping through the pop tomes of Stephen King and Tom Clancy in my adolescence. As others have said above, with Wallace you are almost certain at all times what is going on, but it is only as the novel progresses that you realize that the structure is fractured ambiguously and that the form itself is thematically significant. And while one also gets the gnawing feeling that what you are really reading is Wallace’s unmediated thoughts, somehow Wallace himself has done the heavy lifting to give you purchase on his cognitive process. This is what Franzen was getting at to some degree in Mr. Difficult, but Wallace proved his thesis simply by writing Infinite Jest.

  1. March 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm | #1

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