Sunday, March 11, 2012

Although "Completism and Infinite Jest" Sounds Like a Decent Thesis

In the same day, I finished episode number 45 of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and page 981 (the last page before ~100 pages of footnotes, which I also read (except for the one about Pemulis's calculus equation, no, sorry, but no)) of Infinite Jest. Marathons, both, and now completed. And not entirely dissimilar, for what it's worth; interesting to consume in tandem. There's a little sadness in my heart for both completions. I'll never watch any Monty Python sketches for the first time again, which is a little sad. And I'm finished with a Big Literary Project - certainly the biggest and most difficult single book I've ever read - which, while frustrating, had moments of great transcendence that I'm sorry to let go of.

My mom asked me if it was good, if I enjoyed it, and I said that I couldn't really answer that. I told Matt that I enjoyed it immensely on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, because the writing is so utterly unlike anything else in its virtuosity. So enjoyable to read Wallace doing that work - like watching Baryshnikov dance, I told Mom. But on the whole, it was a slog, and I won't pretend that it wasn't. I'm not smart enough as to have picked up everything that went on, and I think ultimately I am not smart enough not to be frustrated by the lack of conclusion in the book. I think Wallace had a real intention and purpose in beginning and ending thoroughly in medias res, without starting a story or ending it in a way that makes linear or traditional narrative sense. But I like to read, and I do not like to be a literary critic, and I wanted a conclusion.

See here for some reactions of readers upon reaching the end of Infinite Jest. I identify most strongly with "Ongoing"'s two sentences. I also listened to this half-hour interview with Wallace, done in 1996, about the book, and felt on the whole much more settled about having read it, less of a love-hate rage, after hearing his nice measured articulate voice and foul mouth. Despite the business about having actually structured the book mathematically, to which my reaction was "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" However, smart as he is (and popular as he apparently is), I found the interviewer intolerable to listen to, and I don't know how he got into radio.

Next on my list is Then We Came to the End, which was a seriously hot book a couple of years ago and which I'm just now getting around to. 50 pages in it's pretty good and lots of fun, and maybe I'm seeing phantoms, but I see some annoying Wallace influence in it - the sort of bunch-of-random-sentences-squashed-into-one-paragraph thing, which I am not really in love with as a style. I thought it would be a relief to read something NOT written by someone brilliant beyond the ordinary realm (sorry, Joshua Ferris, but I hope you know what I mean), and it is, but Edna O'Brien is next, and then Meghan Daum. I'm tired of dudes.

As for my own work, a couple of lovely people got back to me about the Greenland book, and their feedback was helpful. One reader had this very interesting approach to certain aspects of the story, one that I never, ever would have thought of, not if you'd given me a hundred years to sort through potential reader reactions. I wish I could be more specific. Take my word that I was flummoxed and amused.

Also, I think I'm finally ready to stop fucking around and revise the horror book. I bought a red pen especially, and more than one person has agreed to read it. This process is so frustrating, y'all: writing, then revising, then reader one (Matt), then more revising, then additional readers, then hounding them all for feedback, then MORE revising, and then putting together the materials to begin hounding agents/editors, which I'm not even ready to do yet. I find myself wondering (wistfully) how people even wrote good books before the present day, when it was all typewriters and garrets and letters by post.

I read a book last fall that was set in the early 19th century in Britain wherein the main character wrote and then sold an adventure novel. It was all so simple. She wrote it, longhand, exactly as she intended to write it, and when finished, read it through once without doing much of anything to it. Her local bookshop-owner read it, loved it, and sent it to a publisher-friend. With some mild edits, it was printed and published and she received a draft for a few hundred pounds in the mail. *snap* Like that. Now I'm all wrapped up with revisions and platforms and the rules for writing a winning synopsis, and ensuring that I get enough reader feedback to make sense out of my draft, and serious novelists taking four years to write a book, and blaaaaaaaah. Can't it be more simple than this without questioning oneself? Or is it actually better this way, with more committee action and extroversion?

I wanted to write a post relating the experience of reading all six books of the original Dune saga to reading Infinite Jest, but this post just didn't turn out that way. Maybe another time. For those of you who know what's involved: yes, I really did read them all, every page. And it taught me an excellent lesson about being a completist, namely that being a completist just is NOT worth the trouble for certain aspects of life. Which is part of why I may not ever read The Pale King.


Anonymous said...

Dune is a strange one for me. I love the first book with a white-hot intensity but could not make it through the sequels. And that was before his son started writing them for him.

The best quote I ever heard about Infinite Jest was a friend who said, "If DFW had been standing there when I finished that book I would have given him a huge bear hug and then punched him in the face."

Katharine Coldiron said...

I might've reversed the order of those actions.

If I'd had any sense, I would have stopped after book 2. I was just hoping and hoping a character as compelling as Paul Atreides would appear again.

Anonymous said...

When he turned into a sandworm I was like, "Oh, okay, time for me to move on."

By the way, I read most blogs in Google Reader. Have you ever considered adding an RSS feed to the site?

Katharine Coldiron said...

No...I read all my blogs in Reader, too, and I have added them all the old-fashioned way. You can add me by clicking Subscribe in Reader and typing I could make it easier on you, I suppose, but then how am I to know that you really like my blog? :)