There’s much hay being made among fans of David Foster Wallace recently about the announcement that a film about Wallace is on the horizon. Titled The End of the Tour, the movie will be based on David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed favorably here. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg will star as Wallace and Lipsky.
I have pretty negative feelings about the idea of this film but haven’t been able to sort out exactly why. I can’t really object on the basis of the actors. I think I’ve seen Segel in one or two things and found him at worst unobjectionable; I’ve read that he’s actually done some good, sincere work, and he’s a better pick to play Wallace than droves and droves of people might have been. It’s not as if the producers cast Jack Black or the guy who famously screwed a pie in a couple of movies. Eisenberg I guess I know from The Social Network, but let’s face it — my undies are not in any sort of wad over the portrayal of Lipsky here.
I thought briefly along with Edwin Turner at Biblioklept that the movie would be a “crass cash grab,” but I’m no longer convinced, having read an argument on the wallace-l listserve to the effect that not much money would really have been in play here for Lipsky or the estate. And anyway, Lipsky I took from the beginning to have good intentions. He generously swapped a few emails with me at the time of his book’s publication, and I felt very much as if his heart was in the right place. He was at least as much a fan of Wallace’s as I was, and he was gracious and even sweet. I’m willing enough to grant that even if he made some cash by selling the rights to the book, his main motivation was to tell the story to a broader audience.
Questions of audience are probably what my negative feelings mostly come down to. My introduction to Wallace’s work came during Christmas of 1997, when I was given Infinite Jest as a gift while in college. I holed up and read the book over the course of the break, doing little else. It was an audacious, difficult book, one of the first things I remember recognizing on my own as a good book. Sure, I had read lots of classics and had jumped on the various bandwagons that young people jump on (Salinger so gets me!), but most of what I had read had been filtered to me as something I ought to read. I knew in advance that they were great books. I was given Infinite Jest explicitly because it wasn’t by a dead guy or considered (yet) a work of classic literature, and I blundered into recognizing greatness in it. So in a way, it was a validation of my ability to see a thing as a thing of quality. When I learned later that there was a community of readers devoted to Wallace’s work — that he was considered among these apparently smart people at least to be a writer with important things to say in artful ways — I felt further validated.
To write about discovering things relatively early (albeit after all the hype that I had somehow missed) is kind of dangerous ground for me. I’m vehemently anti being-a-hipster. I dislike the posture of it, the attitude that liking things before anybody else did is a thing that confers any sort of merit. Yet here I am patting myself on the back for feeling glad that I was able to recognize value in Wallace’s work before he was very far into the recent mainstream. Maybe I’m a loser hipster after all, at least in this one little part of my life. In any case, what I’m getting around to is that an affinity for Wallace’s work is something that I’ve always felt as if I had somehow earned. I did the work and recognized the quality of his writing and joined the little club of people who had done the same, and I suppose I came over time to feel as if I had some kind of stake in Wallace’s legacy.
So I guess a lot of my angst about the movie stems from my love of Infinite Jest and a selfish feeling that this sort of creation story around the phenomenon of the book can’t really belong to people who haven’t cultivated a basically emotional appreciation over time for Wallace’s work. I read Infinite Jest so many times, studied it, wrote about it. I felt a kinship with Wallace (even though doing that is stupid). It’s a very personal book to me. I also managed to take his death super personally (stupid or not). Of course then I read Lipsky’s story about the tour and later read D.T. Max’s biography and thought of them both as gifts. Wallace’s legacy was growing more and more mainstream, and it seemed a little weird. More and more people were reading the books rather than just carrying them around or using them as doorstops. I actually sort of loved the early post-mortem mainstreaming of Wallace. The Infinite Summer project was a wonderful thing, for example, and I was pulling for John Krasinski’s adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. So I don’t think it’s that I really object to broader exposure of Wallace’s work (maybe I’m not a hipster after all!). But still there’s something about this film that doesn’t feel quite right to me.
Part of it I suppose is that I’m struggling to understand how the story could possibly be of any interest to anybody who doesn’t know Wallace’s work well, who hasn’t read Lipsky’s book out of a real sense of yearning to know the story behind the creation of Infinite Jest. In other words, it’s not just my selfish feeling that prospective moviegoers are not entitled to the story but genuine incredulity that most moviegoers would be inclined to receive it. Why make the movie, then? Or, if you’re going to make it, how are you going to manufacture an audience for it? Well I suppose you’re going to go dirty with it, or sensationalize things in it. Or maybe you make it a movie loosely based on Lipsky’s book and Wallace’s life, but in that making you lose a lot of the nuance. You write a bullshitty movie about mental illness or you write some kind of bro flick that squeezes the humanity and intelligence out of the conversations Lipsky gave us in his book. Or you write a story that’s not about Wallace at all, that’s about his name and his tour but that mythologizes him for better or for worse but that doesn’t actually portray him (in which case why pick over the corpse?). I suppose I’d be happy enough to see the movie as a documentary, but there just seems so much opportunity to get a biopic wrong, and I can’t figure that Wallace is well enough known that he merits a mainstream biopic, which fact all but necessitates fictionalizing the story and telling the wrong mythology (I know, I know, there’s no right mythology). So then it begins to feel like a movie that rides whatever wave Wallace’s recent broader fame has created without actually having much of a chance at doing Wallace any justice.
Putting aside my personal hangups, there’s the fact that part of the point of Infinite Jest is that too-easy consumption can have bad consequences. So here we have a movie starring mainstream actors that many people who’ve never read a word of Wallace’s will spend a couple of hours staring passively at, and in the story, the main characters will talk about heady issues surrounding a book in which people who did pretty much exactly this type of passive consumption had their brains fried. It could practically be a blurb from James O. Incandenza’s filmography (just add maxillofacial pain). Maybe it’s a brilliant concept after all.
I also have anxiety about actually watching the movie, which I will almost certainly do in spite of my reservations. Once years ago, I went and saw a friend perform in a play. I had known him first as a friend and only later as an actor, so that when I saw him on the stage, he wasn’t the character but was my friend pretending to be a character. It was very strange, and I couldn’t distance myself enough from my knowing him as a person to decide whether his performance was good or not. Was he playing the part well or badly? If I thought he was doing well, was I biased? If I thought he was doing badly, was it simply because he seemed so different from the person I knew and because I somehow felt almost as if he was lying to me? Watching The End of the Tour will likely have a similar effect on me. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll love it even if it’s very good, and if it’s very bad, I won’t know whether to trust my judgment of it or not, since maybe I’ll think it’s bad thanks purely to all the angst I’m feeling about its existence in the first place. For me, then, the movie is almost a guaranteed failure.
Since the movie seems destined to be made whether I wring my hands or not, I’m going to try hard to root for it. I hope it shows some of the good and some of the bad in Wallace. I hope it shows his intelligence and humanity. If it shows him being a pig sometimes (as it probably rightfully should), I hope it shows some moral conflict over it, as a big part of what’s so valuable to me in Wallace’s work is how it grapples with wanting to do the right thing but doing the wrong thing anyway (because sometimes you just can’t help it) and hating yourself for it.
Just about in the middle of Lipsky’s book (page 163 if you have it handy), he quotes Wallace on Pauline Kael on the movie Scrooged:
And Pauline Kael has this great thesis about, what’s terribly pernicious about a lot of movies, is that they make the bad guys wholly unlike you. They turn them into cartoons. That you can feel superior to. Instead of making you realize that there’s part of the villain in all of us. You know?
I think one of my biggest fears is that the movie will strip out what’s so enriching about the dialogue Lipsky shared with us and give us instead a road trip movie or a feel-good movie, that it will make Wallace too much the villain or too much the saint, just a character with Wallace’s name and history, that it will wind up a real travesty of a cartoon. I really hope it manages not to do that, though I have a lot of trouble imagining it can avoid it.
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.
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.
I. The Problem
I lost my copy of J R. It is in my house somewhere, but I cannot find it. Here is what happened.
After my last post, my wife and I went on vacation to the panhandle of Florida. We drive from Virginia, so it takes us a few days to wind our way through the South. We are off of the interstate much of the way, sailing along the back roads of rural Alabama and Florida. The dried up farms and abandoned curio shops and collapsing porches make you feel like you are in Night of the Hunter. Though I brought J R to read at the beach, the first several weeks of dedicated reading and writing made me want to take a break. One of my favorite bookstores is in a neighboring town from where we vacation, so I decided to buy a few new things to read for the week and enjoy myself. I read Satantango by László Krasznahorkai and began Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, with which I very quickly fell in love.
My first mistake was taking a break from J R. Though I’ve read J R before, it is not the kind of novel that allows for easy returns after time away. It is difficult to rejoin the choir mid-song. My second mistake was taking up a novel like Life and Fate, which is over 800 pages long and contains so many characters that it requires a seven page appendix of names to keep them straight. Add to this the fact that the novel is really good and completely engrossing, and it was almost inevitable that I would fall victim to my own bad decisions.
The Wednesday after my wife and I returned home from the beach, we closed on the purchase of our first house. In the days leading up to the closing, we were frantically packing and dealing with the last minute problems of home ownership. It was a thrilling, though exhausting, time, but it led to a third problem. When I returned home from work, I didn’t have time to read in the evenings like I usually do. I am not a reader that can read small snatches here and there. I require a few hours at a time to sink into a novel and splash about. It wasn’t possible for me to spend the time I usually take each night to read Life and Fate and J R. I didn’t read all week, falling even farther behind in my J R duties and at the same time, completely losing the thread of Life and Fate. So at this point I have two novels–one of which I love and have a duty to write about and another that I am really enjoying–that I have completely lost the thread of, hanging from my neck like stones.
So then we moved and spent hours carrying boxes and filling boxes and stacking and unstacking boxes and somewhere along the way I lost J R. I have no idea where it is. I’ve looked through every box I own and it is nowhere to be found. I spent over a week looking for it in the new house and when I finally confessed that is was lost, my wife was nice enough to purchase a new copy for me on her Kindle (we live in a rural area and I cannot easily buy a new physical copy).
And so after nearly a month of not reading, I tried to pick J R up again on an e-reader and learned that it is not the right book to read as your first e-book. While its undivided ribbon of text seems like it would be a perfect fit for the electronic age, it is really difficult to keep track of where I am. I don’t mean that I forget what page I am on–the machine keeps track of that for me–but that I have no sense of where I am in the book. With my physical copy, I am able to flip back and forth and find what I am looking for almost instantly because I remember where it was on a page and how far along I was. The machine has a search function, which works wonders when I want to search for a certain term, but for finding something I have a general recollection about, it doesn’t quite work. And so, not only have I lost J R, but I am not lost in J R.
I do not want to give the impression that I am leveling some dust-covered lament against technology. E-readers, like books, are tools to deliver a reading experience. They are different experiences, just as a paperback differs from a hardback, but they are only tools. For me, I think it is maybe the wrong tool for this book.
II. Worry and Shame
In the end, though, my inability to keep up with reading the novel has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with me. J R is one of my favorite books, but I was lazy and got away from it and my mind moved on. I intend to finish it again and write more, but I fear I’ve lost the spark. I read and comprehend and enjoy, but the part of me that had something to say a month ago, has fallen silent. I am not a book blogger and though I read a great deal, I rarely discuss what I’ve read with anyone or write about what I’ve read. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say of any importance at all. Perhaps I am trying to hide that lack of something to say behind a series of comic excuses. The beach, the closing, the move, losing the book, the e-reader–none of them are really stopping me from sitting down in the evening and reading and thinking and writing. The only thing stopping me is the empty sound of wind blowing through my brain when I look at the pixels spread out before me.
And then comes the shame. Getting interrupted while reading a book and being unable to jump back in is something that happens to everyone. When it happens to me, I begin to feel guilty that I have this book that I bought and haven’t finished. I want to find something new to read, something that I have that sudden flush of curiosity and excitement about, but the unfinished book sits there on a nightstand, half-alive, like a reproach to my profligate ways. So then I spend hours and days that I could be reading—could have been reading—my unfinished book, looking for a new book to read and I am unable to even do that. Each book that I could pick up just reminds me of another book I haven’t read that I should read first. Suddenly there are too many options and I am stymied and spend hours sitting in the semi-dark, calling out for my mother. It really is a terrible scene. Having finished J R before, I don’t have the same welling of shame for not finishing it, but I have agreed to blog about it and I’m not doing that now, and that failure is public. Again, to the semi-dark to call out for my mother.
III. The Art of Failure
My failures as a reader remind me of the failures of the artist in J R. Unfinished novels sitting in a squalid apartments. Composers composing for money. Painters selling blood for paint. J R is the only artist who is thriving. Normally, we don’t think of financial transactions and the accumulation of capital as an art form, but the way that J R practices his trade, they become an art.
Think of the tropes of the Romantic Artist: living in poverty, pursuing an absurd and unattainable goal with unstoppable passion, creating an masterpiece through genius and willpower. These indicators of Artistness all apply to J R. He is poor. He wears the same worn clothes all the time. His mother works long hours and is never home. His father is completely absent. Bast is the son of a famous composer, but has so far failed to succeed. Gibbs has worked on his novel for years and been unable to finish. Yet, J R, a 12 year old child, through nothing more than his inability to understand that what he wants is impossible, creates an empire out of junk and trash and that which the adult world has cast-off. He follows his muse despite being told by his friend and by his teachers that his object is unattainable or not worth his time. Like an artist, the world that J R creates revolves around him even though he is invisible to most of those involved. Gaddis created J R, but his characters don’t see him. It is the same with J R and his empire.
Why does J R succeed where Bast, Gibbs, and I fail? We failures waste our time thinking about how we would like to write a great novel or compose a great symphony or read all of the great novels in the world, time that is wasted, time that should be spent writing and composing and reading. J R is not bound by such worry. He does not contemplate his failure. He only moves forward, unafraid of seeming foolish or seeing what he wants left in ruins. Or worse, incomplete.
So, we’re well into the book now, significantly past the halfway point, and chances are that if you’ve put in the time and effort to get this far, you won’t be turning back. I am curious whether anybody else is finding the length of the book, and especially of some passages, to be taxing.
I find that the portions of the book that take place in boardrooms and offices or on the phone between people situated in these locales get old pretty quickly. Gaddis really beats the horse to death and back again. I don’t know how many pages of this stuff we get, but it takes only a couple of good long scenes of this sort of satire for me to get the point. Yet he keeps hitting us with it at great length, and I can tell you (having finished the book a bit early the other night) that it doesn’t really let up. So why does he do it?
Well, maybe it’s a matter of pacing, for the other thing he really rams down our throats is the anger and bitterness that Gibbs and Eigen express as they try to make it through their grubby workaday lives while abandoning (or being abandoned by) the writerly pursuits they think are worthwhile. If he didn’t give us a comic (if infuriating) break from these sections, we’d all pull a Schramm.
And then of course there’s poor Bast, stuck between the two godawful types of scene.
It’s at about this point in the book that I tend to become almost overcome with despair, for though it is the kind of book that leaves you clutching your belly with laughter, it’s also a ghastly work of hopelessness. Take for example this forecast from page 359:
See he worked here [says Norman Angel] for a while just before I came, just real brilliant but, I don’t know but just to give you an idea, one time when we’d all three had lunch and he’d taken a few drinks a bum came up to us on the street with his hand out and the wind blowing his torn coat, a whole wreck of a man that couldn’t hardly see us anyway, but Jack all of a sudden reached out and gave him a dollar and that really, well you know a long time after that I said something about it once to Stella and all she said was she said he did it because what he saw coming toward him was himself.
What an outlook for poor Gibbs, and it doesn’t seem at all off the mark.
This is a book about art and artists. If what Gibbs and Eigen and Schramm and Schepperman and Bast have experienced is what artists have to look forward to, well, it’s little wonder that Gaddis wrote such a bitter second novel. The reception of his first novel was very much, after all, like the reception of Eigen’s first important but little-read novel.
Jonathan Franzen got not much farther than our current milestone in J R before he famously gave up on the book, a fact he mentions in an essay titled “Mr. Difficult.” It’s worth a read, particularly if you’re wondering whether you can see your way to the end of this book (and even if — maybe especially if — like me, you wouldn’t spit on Franzen if he were on fire unless you spat high-octane gasoline). The problem with Franzen’s critique is that he didn’t finish the damn book. That’s not to say that the book turns around to end with a Puckish intervention and weddings all around. But writing a long essay criticizing a book you haven’t finished is irresponsible if nothing else.
Which brings me back to the curiosity I mentioned up there above the fold. How’re you holding up? Do you think you can manage 265 more pages of bitterness and anger? Does the humor make it all worthwhile? Or does Gaddis go on too long and too repetitively? Is the book striking you so far as more a comic novel or a tragic one, or something else altogether? If you’re reading it as a comic novel, is the comedy itself a worthwhile endeavor? And what exactly does it mean to be worthwhile?
A quick program interruption here to announce Infinite Boston, in which a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work shares photos of some of the real life places in Boston that we find referenced (some modified, some not) in Infinite Jest. So far, he’s covered the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House, Comm. Ave., the Green Line’s T-Stop, Enfield Tennis Academy, and several other spots. If you played along with Infinite Summer a few years ago or are just a fan of Wallace’s work, it’s definitely worth a look.