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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.

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