Monday, March 30, 2009

The Physics of Reading Big, Long, Thick Novels

D.T. Max's essay "The Unfinished," on the late David Foster Wallace, engaged me intermittently. More for Wallace's Penguin editor's comments on "the physics of reading" than for his fiction; the magazine excerpt from his unfinished "The Pale King" bored me even over its short span from a long, if half-constructed, heavily buttressed, solidly suspended bridge to-- nowhere?

I've been asked by more than one fellow booklover if I'd picked up "Infinite Jest." No, and I explain that as I get older, my leisure time for "fun" reading seems too brief for so many paeans to prolixity. I have finished Wallace's two essay collections; I reviewed "Consider the Lobster" on Amazon years ago. However, his fiction, much as I admire maximalist heirs to Joyce, Cervantes, or Sterne, simply does not appeal to me. I never made it through any big work by Pynchon except "Vineland," and that I recall more for a couple of scenes-- the journey in Californian hills on a dreamlike superhighway, a San Diegan campus riot-- than its plot. Which may be that reclusive man's point.

Same goes for my recollections of most of DeLillo's "Underworld," even though I only reviewed that last year. As for William Vollman, yes, I contributed a very long response to "Europe Central" on Amazon too, but again that work worked better for its integration of historical set pieces like the tank battle of Kursk or its evocation of a Russian winter as the Nazis were surrounded than for its strong characterization or emotional resonance. Like myself, these fact-hoarding writers tend to thrive in their book-lined lairs, introverts and-- if Wallace proves fatal examplar-- probably severe depressants too. They can't wait to pack their prose with incidents gleaned from chroniclers, and can't learn to stop packing and, well, stop.

Why? Listen to Wallace as Gerald Howard at Penguin edited his first novel, "The Broom of the System." The hallmarks in the late '80s were already polished: snarky wit, endless references, relentless cleverness, even if Wallace's moral compassion and frustrated flailings towards social meaning and spiritual fulfillment would, for author and content, filter in only with later publications and more heartache before the depression consumed him and killed him off, born a year younger than I am.

In a letter to Howard, Wallace had promised to be “neurotic and obsessive” but “not too intransigent or defensive.” But they disagreed on how “Broom” should end. Howard felt that the text called for some sort of resolution; Wallace did not think so. Howard urged him to keep in mind “the physics of reading”—- or, as Wallace came to understand the phrase, “a whole set of readers’ values and tolerances and capacities and patience-levels to take into account when the gritty business of writing stuff for others to read is undertaken.” In other words, a reader who got through a long novel like “Broom” deserved a satisfying ending. Wallace was not so confident a writer as to simply ignore Howard’s suggestion; as he wrote to Howard, he didn’t want his novel to be like “Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’ . . . Ayn Rand or late Günter Grass, or Pynchon at his rare worst”—- books that gave pleasure only to their authors. Yet when he tried to write a proper conclusion, “in which geriatrics emerge, revelations revelationize, things are cleared up,” the words felt wrong to him. “I am young and confused and obsessed with certain problems that I think right now distill the experience of being human,” he wrote to Howard. Reality was fragmented, and so his book must be, too. In the end, he broke the novel off midsentence: “I’m a man of my”

Endings can prove surprising. I recall Michel Faber's marvelously engrossing triple-decker homage to the Victorians, "The Crimson Petal and the White," with its sudden stop; "Laura Warholic" for all its heft too halted rather preciptiously. I'm re-reading another massive novel now by the author of "Laura," Alexander Theroux's "Darconville's Cat." It's one that Wallace might have enjoyed or been irritated by as a 1981 predecessor. Theroux has acknowledged his younger peer as another heir to the prolix tradition in a March 2008 interview in "Bookslut" with Sean P. Carroll.

Theroux also was interviewed by Anthony Miller for the now-defunct L.A. City Beat ("The Satirical Intellectual") when "Laura" appeared. Theroux defends this genre well, and while his 1987 "An Adultery" followed successfully (I think-- I have since then re-read this along with "Darconville's Cat," two decades later!) a slightly more straightforward path, "Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual" which appeared in late 2007 and which I reviewed (and I recommend it as one of my better critiques!) on Amazon and linked right here for you, certainly veers with a vengeance to the vitriolic vamping of all things 'Murican and dumbed down. Colin Marshall provides his radio interview with this dauntingly learned author from this same period, by way of Linguistic Revenge"-- a primer on the man and his works. Theroux laments his neglect.

Satire's where less popular critics of our popular culture thrive. In these margins, perhaps unless promoted and feted enough, jeremiads may be doomed like Theroux to languish. Few buy Alexander, many pluck brother Paul, which probably irks rival sibling. I think in "LW" there's a glancing aside (blow?) to a PT bestseller! Still, when you get to rank ahead of "Henry David" let alone "Paul" in the catalogue, this may be a bit of alphabetical consolation.

For Wallace, down there at the end of the shelf of contemporary fiction's heavy hitters, he may be remembered more for his giant tomes than his suppler essays. (Although those recondite footnotes became a quirk and a tic that may have hobbled him. I asked an expert on T.S. Eliot the semester I arrived at UCLA if the endnotes to "The Waste Land" were part of the poem proper, or separate. He could not answer me.)

Even if I have no desire to read Wallace, I do acknowledge his attempt to find meaning in the boredom, the accumulation of data, the overload of information. If I could insert a Wallacian footnote, it'd be now. Max notes: "On another draft sheet, Wallace typed a possible epigraph for the book from “Borges and I,” a prose poem by Frank Bidart: “We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.”" I can relate, facing a future of courses in a can that I will "facilitate" rather than teach, their content as freeze-dried and pre-fab as any fast-food fare. Am I worthy of my occupation if I heat Campbell's and by adding salt and pepper call myself a sous-chef as I set the bowl in front of the customer?

Back to lit-crit, the calling for which I was trained, alas, if not now truly employed at. For me, "The Pale King" set at the IRS has promise; yet, predictably, even the snippet I perused in "The New Yorker" turned dull before its few pages ended. Talk about the risks of a truly realistic novel. How do you dramatize the dull?

Ask those writers who've tried themselves. Spending years or decades on their novels. We read them, and we share their creation. Lifelike because, as with "Eumaeus" and "Oxen in the Sun" and especially "Ithaca," those rhetorical deliveries in "Ulysses" replicate our own daily existence. It's not all fireworks and rants and palaver every Bloomsday.

It's irritating to listen to Theroux lament his need for a genius grant, but Joyce did the same in scurrying after patrons who'd relieve him of Berlitz tutoring. Or, Freshman Comp today. Any autodidactic talent, neglected or at least semi-published on an irregular basis, tapping away hours a day nights on end shares Joyce and Theroux's frustration. Alexander whines that for his last novel he made less than if he'd flipped at Burger King. Joyce registered similar vexation; his brother, on the other hand, helped him out! Anyway, as an academic technically who finds my own criticisms little discussed at least in earshot or eyecheck, I understand Theroux breaking into another outburst of "the ever-popular tortured artist syndrome." (As one who lists among unpublished mss. "A Grammar of Rock," he'd recognize this citation.)

Authors of these novels that gobble up decades of labor-- less rewarded than Wallace with his dream-job at a college I longed to attend in a town I loved where he hanged himself-- elicit our patience. They may reward us intermittently; we may feel locked in a lab cage under their fluorescent-lit experiment, their calorie-byte diet. Yet, we may ingest intellectual nourishment that may be released like a slow-timed pill as we plod through the closely-printed pages, wisdom trickling into our bloodstream and rising into our consciousness gradually, even indetectably.

Theroux, Joyce, Georges Perec (yeah, I need to try "Life: A User's Manual" again; I did like "W" a lot, although that was but a nibble to devour; I also should trip up with Julio Cortázar's "Hopscotch"), DeLillo, Pynchon: these authors dare to take on the world in all its enormity and try to stuff it between eight or nine hundred densely arranged pages. When people look for airline or beach reading, isn't it curious how they may grab a book just as long, but far less weighty? Why not take on the long, big, thick novel that has at least at last high fiber, something to chew on? They may take so long to finish that when you do, you're ready to start all over. They refresh your appetite by feeding it. In our quick-fix, short attention span consumption of data, we need to return to slow food, slow reading, and slow wit.

Photo: And this is a far shorter text! What would Harvard philosophy doctoral dropout Wallace have footnoted here? Still stuck in a brown paper cave? Reading Plato's "Symposium" and "Phaedrus." The drinking, I hope, follows, unless the bag's a sign of imbibing pre-seminar.

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