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A Few More Intros and a Plug

I wrote intros for new contributors Matt Bucher and Matt Kish and promptly realized that several who had written for 2666 had never gotten formal introductions. Then another blogger signed up. I hate to lump these together, but I also hate to bombard you with a bunch of short individual intro posts on the eve of the kickoff, a day on which I imagine several posts about the book itself will land. So with apologies to the contributors I may be giving short shrift here, please allow me to introduce the other zombies.

Jeff Anderson is a writer and copy editor; he’s also a quilter, an incessant reader, a sometime musical ambassador to Cuba, and a member of that very exclusive elite: the 150 Jeopardy! contestants who lost to Ken Jennings. Although he wrote about Infinite Jest at his own blog, he started writing for Infinite Zombies as we plunged into 2666, about which he wrote this memorable and defining and pitch-perfect haiku:

I was just thinking,
“You know what else this book needs?
Prison rape with blades”!

Jeff lives in Los Angeles with his husband.

Paul Debraski is a librarian in New Jersey.  But he does not relish your silence…speak out about what you love.  Paul loves his wife and two awesome kids.  Pictures of said kids are littered about the internet but can be seen by following specified links on his blog I Just Read About That, where you’ll find more thoughts about Moby-Dick and all manner of other big books. Paul has been a frequent commenter here at IZ, but this will be his first time blogging here (if you haven’t read his summaries of 2666 at his blog, run — don’t walk — go to take them in).

Joan Sberro has been a part of the Infinite Summer series of readings from the beginning but made her debut as a blogger right here at Infinite Zombies, cutting her teeth, so to speak, by writing a number of posts pertinent to Dracula. Although she was visible in the comments for 2666, she didn’t blog much about it, but she’s enthusiastic about Moby-Dick. And, having swum with the pink porpoises in the Amazon and walked under the great squid model every day on her way to work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, how could she not be enthusiastic about this sea-faring book? Joan now lives in Orlando and plays Wagner at high volume for her retired greyhounds.

Well, and then there’s me. Just because I’m organizing this thing doesn’t mean anybody knows who I am. I’m Daryl L. L. Houston, and I happened into administering this site after signing up as a “maybe” blogger for Infinite Jest last summer. I wound up writing obsessively and, it sometimes must have seemed, near-daily, and I guess I ran everybody else off. I’m squatting still. A computer programmer and sysadmin by trade, I’m a student at heart. Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorites, though I’ve enjoyed it largely in a vacuum and so am excited to see what emerges from the discussion here. I live in Knoxville with my wife and two kids.

And now for the plug. When contemplating a post the other night, I wanted to count occurrences of a particular family of words in the first week’s section of reading. Not wanting to reread the whole section and tally the words manually, I fetched the text for free from Project Gutenberg and wrote some code to count the words for me. That effort blossomed into a little project to make it so that I could do the same for any word, and then I decided it might be neat to make it available to any other nuts who’d be interested in that sort of analysis. It makes for a fun few minutes of poking around in the text, in any case. So, for fellow-nuts, I hereby plug Moby-Diction.

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Welcome Matt Kish

In the very heart of Moby-Dick, Melville dedicates three chapters to artistic representations of whales, with decreasing levels of scorn for the accuracy thereof. He rates them “monstrous,” “less erroneous,” and “true” and then holds forth briefly on artifacts of scrimshaw and the like created by people who actually hunted whales rather than merely painting them based on hearsay.

There is, of course, another type of art — art that is willfully not realistically representative but that nevertheless evokes, expands, and delights. It is this variety of art that Matt Kish creates. Quick to shrug off the title “artist,” Matt has nevertheless begun to accrue a sort of niche fame for his current ongoing project, in which he creates a piece of art a day by illustrating an excerpt from a page a day of Moby-Dick. As he meekly put it in his first blog post about the project on August 6, 2009:

Because I honestly consider Moby-Dick to be the greatest novel ever written, I am now going to create one illustration for every single one of the 552 pages in the Signet Classic paperback edition. I’l try to do one a day, but we’ll see.

A few days later, he landed his first brief interview. By December, he had landed another interview and been invited to be a guest illustrator at quotizzle.com, and he closed the year on the news that one of his illustrations had been the inspiration for a poem at The Storialist. So far this year, he has been interviewed for a couple of German web sites, had his portrait painted by another interviewer (!), and begun making standing-room-only appearances to display his work in Ohio and New York. He fits this all in, of course, around a day job and a schedule of creating a piece of art a day, some of it meticulously detailed and clearly a labor of love and time.

When I found his site a few weeks ago, I immediately flipped back through all the pieces he had done to date, and I’ve been keeping up with great interest ever since. You can imagine how thrilled I was when he agreed to write for Infinite Zombies. Please do yourself a favor and check out his site. I think the perspective he brings — not only that of a great admirer of Melville’s book but that of someone who has paid particular detailed, visual attention to it — will be a great addition to the discussion.

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Perspective

It must have been Christmas of 1998 that I got my hands on Infinite Jest. It was late in my college career, and I had been steeped for a few years in reading dead old white guys. By this time, I suppose I had more or less committed to studying Milton and the dramatists of the 17th century. When I opened my Christmas gift from my sister, I saw a big big book with blue sky and clouds on the cover and a picture of a scruffy, sort of pursed-lipped, bandanaed guy on the back. My sister told me that she figured I had read plenty of dead guys and it was time I read some guys who were still living (now, just a few months shy of the anniversary of Wallace’s death, boy does that sting). She later confessed to me that she had bought it for herself but couldn’t get into it and figured it might be up my alley. After all, it seemed to be about tennis, and I had been an avid if mostly ungifted tennis player in high school.

I read the book in ten days over Christmas break, growing bedsore as I turned page after page after page. It was just that compelling, a fact that becomes significant as you wind your way deeper and deeper into the book and its central theme of addiction (the back cover of the book mentions addiction, so let’s don’t count that as a spoiler). For the decade-plus that I’ve lived with this book, I’ve continued to be hit by how the cycles and rationalizations of addiction and need described in Infinite Jest bear on my own life. Certain early sections capital-R Resonate with me — even though I don’t feel sufficiently entitled or tried-by-fire enough to feel such resonance — as has much of Wallace’s work since Infinite Jest. It’s been long enough since I’ve read all the way through to the end that I wonder if there might not be later sections that strike more of a chord with me now than when I was younger.

When I read Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I thought there was just a real earnestness about the work. Much of it I’m sure I didn’t get. Good lord, I can’t say that I identified with all of the hideous men. Yet in many of them, there’s a kernel of unvarnished, private truth, things one thinks and hates himself for thinking and doesn’t necessarily say aloud (even within what counts as “aloud” in his own head). I could recognize little bits of myself in little bits of plenty of Wallace’s writing, and I figured he was really honest at his best. And that was something I appreciated.

I got drunk once after reading BIWHM and wrote Wallace a very short note thanking him for being honest. I didn’t expect a reply, but I sort of wanted one. I hoped that by being direct and brief and by not fawning, I would entice him to open up a to-be-canonized correspondence with me wherein he gave me insight into what scraps of fiction I would one day send his way for critique, and of course it would all be memorialized not only because of his benevolence in mentoring me but because of my own meteoric rise to acclaim in literary fiction and my own earnestness and erudition and sort of rebellious approach to letters. Of course I didn’t really really expect a reply. And I didn’t get one at first. But six months later, he wrote me a post-card. He didn’t invite me to lay my head in the lap of his excellence, but by golly it was a connection, and one he really didn’t have to bother to make. His bothering to write me back made me a fan not just of the work or the author as author but of the man as a person, however little evidence of his goodness as a person I had. To learn after his death that he responded in similar fashion to many many people only made me admire him more.

So, this is the perspective from which I write. I’m a big fan of Wallace’s work. I’m not a scholar by any means, and much (most) of what may pass for scholarship (if anything does) in the posts I’ll write owes a big debt to my experiences on the wallace-l email discussion list, of which I’ve been a mostly quiet member for six or seven years now. I still mourn Wallace’s recent death with real sadness approaching the sort that one typically reserves for close friends or family. I find it easy to forgive whatever’s bad or inexplicably difficult within his work because of how good the really good is. This is not to say that I’m a lock-stepping flag-waver for Wallace’s work. A lot of it seems almost impenetrable or just weird or even boring. But when he’s good, I think he’s just about beyond compare.

I started rereading Infinite Jest a month or two after Wallace’s death but stopped less than 100 pages in, maybe because something else came up, maybe because it was just a little too soon yet (I’m not sure which; I’m not trying to be dramatic). Now I’m feeling really up for it again. I lose track of how many times I’ve started reading the book. It’s a half dozen easily. I’ve finished it either two or three times, making this either my third or fourth full reading. I can hardly wait to dive in. Aw, heck: I’m 70 pages in already; I can hardly wait to keep going.

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