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.
As early as page 45, we see a reference to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles, who was responsible for things like the notion of the four elements and the idea that sight was the product of beams of light streaming out of our eyes. He also happened to basically go crazy and fling himself to his death in a volcano if the legends are to be believed. And he wrote about combatting forces Love and Strife, which basically battled to bring about mixtures of the four elements to form things in the world, many of which were strange and short-lived, but some of which were good combinations and stuck around to become things like human beings. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article here, though I confirmed some of it by skimming bits and pieces of The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, available here.
The first mention of Empedocles in J R falls from the mouth of Jack Gibbs, who goes on as follows (ellipses both mine and Gaddis’s):
— I think it’s a fragment from the second generation of his cosmogony, maybe even the first . . .
— When limbs and parts of bodies were wandering around everywhere separately heads without necks, arms without shoulders, unattached eyes looking for foreheads . . .
— Never read it? In the second generation these parts are joining up by chance, form creatures with countless hands, faces looking in different directions . . .
This is in the midst of the chaos surrounding Bast’s televised lesson on Mozart, and that word chaos is really the crux of J R, both its content and its form. In fact, even earlier in the book, way back on pages 20 and 21, we have this from Gibbs:
Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
He goes on to try to define for his class the term “entropy,” which of course has a meaning specific to thermodynamics but also pertains to measurements of both disorder and loss of information in a transmitted message, both of which escalate to the point of hysteria in the book. (Curiously, the more fragmented information Gaddis flings at you in the mounting maelstrom, the more certain bits of the plot begin to come together in spite of it all.)
I’m reading ahead a bit and am going to go ahead and quote ahead a little, but not in a spoily way. On page 403, Gibbs again:
. . . read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on . . .
And on 406:
. . . looks like the God damned dawn of the world in here necks without heads arms seeking shoulders, only God damned person live here’s Empedocles . . .
And again on 407:
— Point God damned point only audience sit through it’s Empedocles, shambling creatures with countless hands eyes wandering around looking for a God damned forehead parts joining up all wrong make a hell of a musical just telling Bast . . .
So, love and strife, chaos molded into a sort of order from a stew of disparate parts, and that cacophony of voices that we as readers begin over time to assemble into something meaningful. It’s neat how all of this comes together, and it makes me think that while I had previously figured a reading of the myths that informed Wagner’s Ring might be central to an even cursory understanding of J R, maybe it’s more important to go back to some of the old Greek philosophers.
–Like a novelist? Only problem is a novelist has to understand women.
–Apparently not, from all the…turned full to share her smile he found it gone, only her eyes wide through the lenses. –What’s the matter.
–I wish you hadn’t said that, she said looking away as quickly.
Does William Gaddis understand women? Are the women in J R living characters drawn with the same depth as the male characters or are they caricatures and plot devices for the men in the novel? The first difficulty we face in answering this question is the fact that the novel is completely devoid of psychological interior. Gaddis reveals nothing of the characters’ interior lives; readers must discern each person’s character exclusively through their words, and the few actions that other characters may remark on. In a comic novel such as J R, without an indication of what is happening inside a character’s mind, it can be difficult to create a fully rounded, complex character. Yet, because Gaddis is a capable artist, many of the characters in the novel transcend the sea of talk and become fully fleshed and alive. We believe Gibbs’s rage and Bast’s failure and J R’s naïve ambition. They are not just targets for Gaddis’s spleen, but are human and demand our sympathy, or at least our understanding. Is Gaddis able to bring any of the women in the novel to life in the same way?
As I mentioned previously, Amy Joubert exists at the center of J R’s many noisy worlds. She teaches at J R’s school and is the daughter of the head of Typhon International. She is acquainted, by my reckoning, with most of the novel’s major characters. When she isn’t present, other characters often refer to her, and to her breasts in particular. Much like J R himself, Amy Joubert is a character around which many of the novel’s characters revolve.
In the scene where she wakes to find her husband and child gone, Amy Joubert becomes real. Prior to this moment, she has simply served as a component of Gaddis’s savage commentary on the ruination wrought by money. With her championing of “buying a share in America” and pushing the students toward an understanding of America a nothing more than a collection of corporations, Amy Joubert has been heretofore a two-dimensional parody; someone to be made fun of. And yet, in a span of two pages, in one of the novel’s few extended scenes of narration, Gaddis suddenly brings her to life. We see her broken marriage. We learn about her worry that her husband will take their son to Geneva. The feeling of sadness and loneliness when she wakes and they are gone is overwhelming. When she reads the goodbye note from her son three times in the taxi, we can feel her heartbreak and loss.
Previously, her size of Mrs. Joubert’s breasts has been something of a running joke. Mrs. DiCephalis accuses her husband of sabotaging her tele-class so that the men could stare at Amy Joubert, calling her “Miss Moneybags” with the “bazooms.” Principal Whiteback, among others, makes oblique references to her body. Yet, when she rides the elevator up to the Typhon International offices that morning, it is through the nameless young man with the open shirt that all of these people staring at her suddenly become extremely threatening.
In the short transitional moments of narration, Gaddis changes from the direct and ultra-realistic mode of the dialogue to a languid and poetic style. He deploys this style for nearly a page, the longest use of it to this point in the novel, to describe the elevator ride and this technique lends the scene a dreamy and surreal feel. A young man, with a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, gets on and stares at Mrs. Joubert’s chest for two floors, then gets off and pushes all of the buttons so the elevator will stop on every floor. She gets off and tries another elevator, only to end up on the elevator with the youth again, after he sticks his hand in and stops the doors from closing. She tries not to look at his sweaty chest, but he puts his arm by her waist and asks –You like to give head?
Gaddis initially lures us into seeing Amy Joubert through a very male point-of-view. At first, we see her in these broad, comic terms—peppy pro-corporations teacher, hot young woman that all the men want gawk at and talk about. Between the serious critiques of capitalism and art and education, the humor related to Amy Joubert seems light. But in that scene, he turns it on us. Suddenly, the woman we’ve thought of as less than a real person becomes a wounded human with unhappiness that we can understand. We become uncomfortably aware that what had prior seemed like nothing more serious than common male comic bravado about her body is something that is terribly uncomfortable for her; something she has to deal with on a daily basis in a world where she probably gets called “little lady.”
It is interesting that Gaddis has to change his technique here to make this point. This scene is not one that Amy Joubert could describe in a passage of dialogue. Though she talks to Beaton about her worries about her son, she isn’t going to tell him that she reread the boy’s letter several times in the taxi. She isn’t going to tell someone about the man in the elevator, and even if she did, it wouldn’t have the same power to unsettle as Gaddis’s own narration. By departing from the novel’s primary style for that scene, it is clear that Gaddis wants to make us feel sympathy for Amy Joubert and to share in the discomfort that she feels. It is in this moment that he makes us reconsider what we’ve seen, and perhaps chuckled at, previously.
The creeping creepiness of the obsession with women’s body parts is underscored by the novel’s repeated references to women’s body parts. On a couple of occasions, someone remarks on J R’s catalogs, which contain adult advertisements, and J R responds –What. That tit? (J R, being who he is, seems to care little for the flesh on display.) When the children are on their class trip to Manhattan and Edward Bast accidentally leads them past several adult movie houses, the students marvel at the parade of nudity around them. At first, Gaddis presents these moments in a humorous light. While everything everyone in the novel says is a critique of itself, these moments start off seeming lighter—closer to sitcom style humor than a serious criticism of misogyny and the objectification of women.
What makes this work so well, for me, is that many of the criticisms of the novel are easy for me to avoid feeling implicated in. I am not the director of a corporation. I am not on a school committee that values the budget over the students. I am not an artist allowing my work to be ruined by money. Yet, I am a man and I do laugh at these jokes. Gaddis draws me in and when he changes the perspective and suddenly shows me Amy in the elevator with the sweating, bare-chested man, I am implicated. After the terrifying elevator ride, Gaddis casts the characters’ obsession with Amy Joubert’s body in a new light. He casts that new light on me as well.
But what of the other women in the novel? Do the Bast Sisters rise above their dotty misunderstandings? Does Mrs. DiCephalis rise above her nagging and complaining? Does Stella Angel becomes something more than just Norman’s wife and Thomas’s daughter? Did Gaddis breathe the breath of life into them as well?
Hi everyone, I’m Paul Debraski. You may know me from previous blogging exploits like Infinite Summer, Moby Dick, Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. I used to read big books like this back in college but I had kind of gotten away from them post college. But I’m back and happily in the midst of big, complicated books. I’m unofficially posting here (Daryl says it’s okay). I was really hoping to have more time to write my own posts and maybe even contribute here. But man, time is fleeting.
So, here’s a few thoughts that I’ve been pondering while reading the book.
When you first start to read this book, you slowly get used to the idea that there is a ton of noise and you have to pick out the important parts. Of course, how are you supposed to know what is important? I mean, I knew (from reading this before) that the book was about money and stocks, so I focused on the details of that. And yet, as I get twenty page after a conversation I realize that some little blow off detail was actually really important too.
Surely not everything is important here. (Can we assume that the porn jokes are just jokes and aren’t going to “mean” something in 100 pages?) But what about that water leak? Is that going to be significant, or was it just a way to get the kids out of the board room. (Of course, something bad is bound to happen with Monty’s speech, right? And yet, as far as chronological time, the section ends with the night ending, so did Monty even give the speech?
It would all be so frustrating if it weren’t so enjoyable to read.
So, if you like, I’m posting along at my blog. Although as I found out, I got a pretty big detail wrong last week (which I have since corrected). http://ijustreadaboutthat.wordpress.com/category/occupygaddis/