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Straw Poll

I started reading next week’s assignment last night and found myself coming back again and again to the question of why we read the super-hard books like Ulysses. I had Gaddis’s JR in mind as well, thanks to some comments on my post of yesterday about composition (and some notes I took for next week’s reading about mechanization, which was a concern of Gaddis’s). Both books proved challenges for me to get into. Gaddis’s book I actually made it through on my first attempt, but it took me about 1/3 of the book’s (long) length to figure out how to orient myself within the text. It’s the kind of book you have to learn to read as you’re reading it. I think Ulysses is the same sort of book, and I find that (so far) I’m having an easier time the further in I get. I’m getting oriented at last. (Which doesn’t mean I necessarily like what I’m reading, though episode ten is probably my favorite so far.) But back to my question.

Why do we read these things? I understand why we read something like Moby-Dick. For all its bad rap, it is not an especially difficult book. It’s ambitious and encyclopedic, sure, but the act of reading it isn’t terribly challenging. It is written in a familiar mode according (mostly) to rules and boundaries that make it simple enough to follow. If Moby-Dick is a hard book, it is hard by virtue of its content rather than of its form. Ulysses and JR are hard by virtue of their form more than their content (though they’re also so full of everything in more concrete ways than the way in which Moby-Dick is full of everything in the sort of philosophical abstract). Reading these books is like trying to pat your tummy and rub your head at the same time (without the sustained giggling).

So why do it? My theory is that writerly types are the most interested in these books. Maybe that’s true of most books, but I suspect it’s true more of these really technically hard books than of others. We read them to crack them open and try to understand why what works in them works (and why what doesn’t doesn’t). That theory is the basis of the straw poll I advertise in this post’s title.

Do you have an abortive novel stuck in a drawer somewhere, some poems on an editor’s desk awaiting a rejection slip? Do you count yourself a writerly type or more a readerly type? Is it a meaningful difference? Do you think that writerly types are likely to be more drawn to these really formally hard books than other readers are?

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Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Of Katherine Hepburn’s death, Zadie Smith wrote the following:

Two days ago she died, aged ninety-six. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but I was, and when I found out, I wept, and felt ridiculous for weeping. How can someone you have never met make you cry?

I’m not the first to express a similar sentiment about the death of David Foster Wallace. There’s a crucial difference, however. His death, for those of us well outside of his intimate circle, was a very big surprise indeed. Still — Smith gets this part just right — to have felt so ragged after his death felt strange. I felt somehow orphaned.

Intimacy is concentric, and fortunately for those of us stuck in orbit on the outer rings surrounding the bright light that was David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky was admitted to a nearer circle during the final week of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Or, I should say, he was admitted to one slightly more interior circle and seems to have worked his way yet closer. And he recorded it all.

Just out from Broadway Books, Lipsky’s chronicling of a handful of days on the road with Dave (I’m going to call him Dave sometimes from here on out, because it makes me feel better and because the book made me think of him as Dave) might have been a savage, painful read. I expected as much, imagining myself with a box of tissue in a dimly lit room trying once again to work out how a guy like Dave could be gone and what the ramifications of that were for a know-nothing yutz of a no-talent hack like me.

With one minor exception in part of the afterword, Lipsky has avoided the maudlin, and instead of finding myself wallowing in the book and the sadness that attends the realization that its subject is no longer with us, I found it invigorating and validating and playful and fun and mostly delightful.

Lipsky gives us something of a soft landing in the preface, which provides just a teensy bit of background information before setting us gently on our way. The afterword he places curiously before the main body of the text, but even this turns out to be a considerate gesture, for Lipsky wants to leave us with the words of the living Wallace rather than sending us home from the journey with a meditation on his death. Read the afterword when you will, Lipsky advises us, at some break of your own choosing within the text.

I, being sort of rigidly conformist in some ways, chose to read the afterword last, and even that turned out to be an ok decision. For though there was that one crushing moment in the middle of the afterword, Lipsky leaves us with two wonderful things. First, he has given us a picture of Dave as a real live human being (with flaws, yes, but with many personalizing charms as well), which sister Amy had written that she hoped might happen. And second, looking back to a conversation about books as a way of seeking refuge from loneliness, Lipsky closes by saying this lovely thing about his road trip with Dave: “I’d tell him it reminded me of what life was like, instead of being a relief from it, and I’d say it made me feel much less lonely to read.”

This sort of escape from the loneliness of the inner self was, of course, one of Wallace’s projects. Late in the road trip, Dave says, of the particular edge good fiction has over other art forms:

And the big thing, the big thing seems to be, sort of leapin’ over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience. And setting up, I think, a kind of intimate conversation between two consciences.

I am in here.

I’ve listened to many interviews and readings Dave gave, and so I have something of an idea of what he must have been like to listen to. Yet in interviews and readings, people tend to speak in different registers than in everyday life. (I’m reminded of the distinction Dave makes in the grammar essay between time and place for saying “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” and “goddamn bear!”) One of the great pleasures of Lipsky’s book for me was his emphasis on Dave’s midwesternisms. They reminded me always that Dave was, mostly (especially after the first day or so of the trip), just a guy having a conversation. Taken in hand with the audio I had previously heard of Dave, they made Lipsky’s transcription seem real and alive. I felt as if I could hear Dave himself speaking the words. It was kind of Lipsky to have emphasized this for us.

Some have complained that Lipsky himself was too present in the text, that he peeks in with a too-high frequency with brief bracketed interpolations. I found the interjections helpful and well-meaning where others have found them self-serving and annoying.

The deeper into the book I got, the more pages I dog-eared, so that by the end, I figured I might as well just enlist the help of a strong friend and fold the corner of the whole book down on itself. The two men talk about movies, parties, fame, loneliness, the genesis of Infinite Jest, and much more, and it’s all riveting.

Lipsky’s book is a real gift. He brings us maybe one concentric ring closer to a sort of intimacy with Wallace, who sought in his work to learn how to leap over (and outward from) the walls of the self in which he was (we are) imprisoned. While Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself can’t help but remind us of Wallace’s death, it is most concerned with a pivotal point in his life, and it was — contra my fears — a real joy to read. Gaudeamus igitur.

Blithering Idiots

October 24, 2009 3 comments

I’ve read a couple of posts expressing frustration with how the menfolk in Dracula handle Mina after they resolve to take care of Dracula themselves. It’s absurd, really, another of those “what were you thinking?” things not, in ways, terribly unlike what we saw from Harker in the book’s opening and from Seward and Van Helsing when handling Lucy’s case. Reading what amounts to banishment of Mina from the inner circle (and straight to bed) specifically calls to mind the repeated mishandling of Lucy’s case. Whether the men’s view of the women would be viewed as sexist in today’s world or not, you’d think they’d have learned not to stick the desirable girl alone in her room with a vampire aprowl.

Even granting the differences in society and decorum over the last hundred years, it all begins to feel a bit heavy handed, doesn’t it? The cultural reference that came to mind for me as the incompetence built and built was the Keystone Cops. It began to occur to me that when behavior persists in seeming absurd, perhaps it is done for a good reason. Perhaps, that is, Stoker aimed not merely to write a story in which the men grossly mishandled the situation at hand, but that he sought to do so in such a way that the mishandling became parodic or satirical. Well, when writers do this, they tend to be writing about things external to the story. Take Swift, for example, to whom I’ve suggested Stoker may owe a hat tip. The petty Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian politicians had specific referents external to Gulliver’s story, after all.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know enough about Irish history to say anything with much authority about it. But the notes to my edition suggest that Stoker treats of the landlord conflict in Ireland that persisted through the 19th century. And that conflict could be expressed simplistically as the removal of autonomy from one people by another that thinks that, by virtue of its place in society, it is somehow entitled to or well-equipped to control the other. Or: A bunch of rich white dudes telling other people at a societal disadvantage (e.g. women) where to go and what to do.

Of course, with respect to the landlord conflict, it’s easy to see the aristocratic blood-sucking Dracula as representative of the landlords and his poor victims as the poor people they mistreated. But what about these other gentlemen? The notes to my edition point I think too enthusiastically to certain things that suggest that both Harker and Van Helsing are Dracula’s doppelgangers (think, for example, of the mirror scene early in the book, in which Harker looks in the mirror expecting to see Dracula but sees only himself). I’m really not at all convinced that the twinhood is all that pronounced. Still, for the sake of providing a more complex allegory, it’s not unreasonable for Stoker to have given both his good guys and his bad guy characteristics or behaviors resonant with those of the Irish landlords.

Again, I don’t know the history well enough to make any bold assertions about Stoker’s attempt to write an allegory about the landlord conflict, but I did get the sense as I moved forward in the story that the men’s behavior was too idiotic to be taken entirely at face value. I’m inclined to give Stoker some credit for trying to say something in artful or nuanced ways rather than simply writing him off as a ham-handed chronicler of the society of his day. Is that fair or is it over-permissive, I wonder?

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Infinite Downshift – Infinite Jest to Dracula is like shifting from 5th to 1st at 75 mph without double-clutching

October 5, 2009 2 comments

Fellow Infinite-Zombie Daryl L.L. Houston sez “One of the things I’ll be looking for in the book is style vs. story.”

Infinite Jest to Dracula.  Style vs. story.  That’s some heavy lifting.

While I wouldn’t be too quick to relegate Dracula to the polite charms of the quasi-epistolary novel – and I don’t think Daryl is either – Stoker’s book is hardly the juggling act that Jest was.  Three – five major plot lines vs. one, maybe two.  A cast of some two dozen characters versus Dracula’s seven or eight.  And a post-modern/pre-apocalypse/fin-de-siecle author who set out to tell a story AND confound the mechanics of the modern novel in Wallace versus a guy who wanted to tell a good story in Stoker.  In short, it’s hard not to get caught up in a struggle of style v. story.

fussy chairsHowever, if I put myself in the fussy, uncomfortable, distinctly not-sensual seat of the Victorian reader, however, the style begins to make much more sense.  The epistolary novel – or a letter within standard novels –  has always been an ideal vehicle to expose a story through deliberate brush strokes, keeping both writer and recipient in the dark about the true nature of things.

And if, as Beresford asserts in his Demons to Dracula, Stoker’s story represented to first widely circulated telling of a story that combined folk tales from Eastern Europe, his audience wouldn’t have been as inculcated with the whole Vampire Thing as we are.  So the novel might end up reading like some sort of gothic horror strip tease, where one gruesome, erotic layer is removed at a time. Only instead of knowing what we, the collective Modern Reader, are going to see next, every letter exposes something new, thrilling and a tiny bit naughty.

“We are not amused,” Queen Victoria might have said of Stoker’s book.  “But We are intrigued and not a little titillated.”

About the Post Title: So I got caught up with 3 back episodes of “Top Gear” the weekend to clear off the DVR.  Sue me.

Poetry

September 8, 2009 7 comments

As a number of people have already said, the last couple of hundred pages of Infinite Jest tend to be kind of a downhill sprint. I was by no means among the first participating in Infinite Summer to find myself in the 800s and unable to stop myself at the spoiler lines. As hard as it’s sometimes been to avoid spoilers (accidental ones, at least), having read the book a number of times before, it’s especially hard during this last leg of the book. So I keep finding myself false-starting on posts this week and will probably do the same next week. Things I want to say reach too far into the future for me to be able to chisel much out of them just yet.

So for tonight, a diversion. I’ve flirted with poetry for years. For decades, I guess, if you count a thing I wrote in elementary school that rhymed “butterfly” and “flutterfly.” I wrote the usual dark angsty suicidal type stuff in high school and early college, and then I began to think more seriously about poetry midway through college. It became for me less about expression and feelings than about structure and playing with formalism and convention, about hewing something out of the raw material of language. That’s not to say I was any great talent at it, but I did pursue the interest and even got a minor in poetry writing. In the decade-plus since I graduated college, I’ve written only a little bit, and rather poorly. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a sheaf of works in progress, but it’s not a serious pursuit by any stretch of the imagination. Even more rarely, I’ll slingshot something (usually something old and fairly polished) out to a journal, so far with no luck (but with so little invested, it’s hard to feel too bad about it).

Of course I read a lot of poetry throughout school as well, though I’ve forgotten most of it by now. A few years ago, I sold most of my poetry books to clear space on my shelves prior to a move. Gone are my Auden, my Yeats, my Larkin, my Stevens, my Creeley. Gone is even good old accessible Billy Collins. And William Carlos Williams. Lord, I almost forgot him, though he was one of my early and enduring favorites, whose quest for an appropriate but elusive American poetic foot informed my own such ill-fated quest. Ah, and Wordsworth, of whom my early imitations constituted something rather more like battery than flattery. They’re all gone. Remaining are a collection of Wilbur (whom I dislike), another of Pinsky, and a few anthologies, mostly Norton. There’s an Andrew Hudgins book and a couple of Robert Wrigley books. These two gentlemen I won’t do without. I have a slim volume of Donald Hall’s that I used to own in hardback but sold and then bought again in paperback a few years later when I had a change of heart. The collected work of my mentor throughout college, and then a book of a colleague of his. A few other scattered things, like a long one by Derek Walcott that I’ve never yet managed to read, though it sits waiting in my bedside table. Then there are the back issues of Poetry magazine, I don’t know how many years’ worth.

So there I go namedropping, right? Well I don’t really mean to, because the sort of sad thing I’m coming around to is that I don’t often really enjoy reading poetry. It’s the prose and the letters in Poetry that I most enjoy these days, finding typically one or two poems over the course of two or three months that really stand out to me. And part of why I sold my various collected and selected volumes was because I rarely went to them and, when I did, I found so very little that I really enjoyed. The Wilbur and Pinsky I kept because they’re signed and not because the work is especially meaningful to me. Yet something in me still craves poetry. Again and again I go back to it, hoping to find something electrifying. But so much of it just falls flat for me.

I spent some melancholy time this week leafing through my few volumes with the idea of posting an excerpt in memoriam (even my Tennyson I sold back) of a certain author the anniversary of whose death is looming. But I couldn’t find anything I liked, or I couldn’t bear to wade through all the insufferable stuff in order to get to some decent nugget. Occasionally when I’m experiencing this sort of dread of poetry, I try to make a point of reading more carefully, of putting more into the reading in hopes of getting more out. There’s not usually a payoff. And I’m not blaming the poets, mind you — clearly the work is deemed by some body of people to be worth ink and paper. I think I’m just not a good reader. Which invites the pretty bitter supposition that if one isn’t a good reader of poetry, he surely can’t be that good a writer of it, which goes hand in hand with those flurries of rejection slips from various publications when I experience a little spurt of poetic allegiance.

What I’m ultimately sort of coming around to is that I think I’ve been a fairly conscientious reader during Infinite Summer. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I’ve been a great critic or have cut new ground or anything, but I’ve put a lot in, and I’ve gotten a whole lot out. So why the blind spot with poetry, I wonder, when something in me really does want to get a lot out of it?

In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.” At the end of the story, the second speaker is talking again about the obvious and borrows from an Ashberry poem (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — another poem I can’t bring myself to read in its entirety) to cut kind of a beautiful figure:

“You asked me once how poems informed me… Remember? Remember the ocean? Our dawn ocean, that we loved? We loved it because it was like us, Faye. That ocean was obvious. We were looking at something obvious, the whole time… Oceans are only oceans when they move… Waves are what keep oceans from just being very big puddles. Oceans are just their waves. And every wave in the ocean is finally going to meet what it moves toward, and break. The whole thing we looked at, the whole time you asked, was obvious. It was obvious and a poem because it was us. See things like that, Faye. Your own face, moving into expression. A wave, breaking on a rock, giving up its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. See?”

It’s the last lovely bit about the wave that Wallace borrows pretty much verbatim (with acknowledgment) from Ashberry. And the thing for me is that it’s entirely palatable and meaningful to me when Wallace gives it to me like this, but when it’s buried in the middle of a bunch of stuff that looks like a poem but reads like a stylized inner-monologue, I just can’t grab onto it. I can’t hang on for the ride.

How about you? Do you read poetry? What do you like? Have you found any little poetry references in Infinite Jest? There’s at least a Larkin reference; Auden is fairly promiment in The Broom of the System; and Wallace wrote a prose poem or two. Should Matthew over at Infinite Summer consider adding some poetry to the mix for the ongoing reading program he’s proposed? If so, do you have any recommendations? Can you name a poet (or particular poem) that really takes your face off (and explain why)?

I Know a Good Book When I Want to Write One

September 6, 2009 8 comments

I wonder how many readers are also closet would-be writers? Are there people who love to read the sort of stuff I love to read who don’t also secretly wish they could write the sort of stuff I love to read? One yardstick I use for measuring the goodness of a book is whether or not it makes me want to turn right around and write one of my own (or pick back up one of the several lapsed projects I’ve started over the past decade). Infinite Jest is definitely one of those books. The Time of Our Singing was one. East of Eden was one. Things by Pynchon, for example, though I tend to think of them as good medicine — meaning I often don’t enjoy them a whole lot while I’m reading them, but afterward I’m glad I did it — don’t make me want to write.

The thing about Wallace is that he writes about stuff in ways that I can identify with in a voice that’s comfortable and familiar. He writes in ways that reach out to me, and I find myself thinking “well I could do that, because it’s familiar and I understand it.” But his writing is so obsessive and thorough and good that I know I could never do quite what he does. So I figure that any time I try to write after reading his work, I’ll wind up writing all these logjam sentences full of stuff about disconnection and sadness and beautiful precision that’ll wind up sounding just like a 17-year-old trying to imitate Wallace. I’m thinking of a lack of depth and maturity and originality.

When I finish a book like Infinite Jest, which I did last night (complete with a reread of the first 17 pages) I want to go create something of my own; I feel like I could pour out 10,000 words of something OK in an evening that the next evening upon a reread would turn out to be depressingly bad, or at least unartfully derivative. So among the many paradoxes or double-binds that Wallace presents me with is one more personal than most, in which his excellence simultaneously makes me want both right away and never ever to try to write a word of fiction again.

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