Loyal as a book
I explained to a friend what I considered were the qualities of the greatest authors, of which I started with the following:
The author makes you want to give up writing.
There are a million better writers than me. Some of these writers I could give some fair competition to. But among the million are a few who would make these good and great writers pause and consider a new vocation. My two earliest encounters of the most intimidating fiction came from Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov. Their writing is to everyone’s else’s what Plato’s philosophy is to the rest of philosophical endeavor.
To add David Foster Wallace to a category including Proust and Nabokov is apt given my Plato analogy. Philosophy since the fourth century B.C.E. has been called a footnote to Plato. A distinctive feature of Wallace’s work is the footnote (or endnote). Infinite Jest has 388 endnotes covering 96 pages. I first encountered footnotes in a work of literature reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. They elucidate some elements of the poem but, in toto, they could be considered an elaborate joke. Look at this erudition, Eliot seems to say, but you won’t find the meaning of the poem here. The next time I saw footnotes, in Samuel Beckett’s Watt, clearly were satirizing Eliot’s use of them. The bulk of Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a commentary to a 999-line poem. Indeed, Wallace’s footnotes in any of his works have Watt and Pale Fire as literary ancestors.
I read approximately 80 pages of Infinite Jest but circumstances forestalled any chance for sustained reading. So dense a novel needs long sustained readings, especially at the start, maybe 60 to a 100 pages. Take big chunks out of the book, as I had for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. However, I could barely read ten pages an hour and had little time available when I was teaching. Nothing kills a difficult reading venture than staying away from the book for two or three days. When I retired from teaching and had infinite time, I couldn’t make a commitment of a month or more to the novel. Nor did I want to reread the first 80 pages, which was necessary as I had forgotten most of the content.
Not finishing Infinite Jest should have prevented me from buying his first novel, The Broom of the System. I started it but gave up quickly. It wasn’t as interesting as the second novel. I wanted to read it, but, now, I rarely read books over three hundred pages while having completed a slew under one hundred pages.
Perhaps because I couldn’t finish Infinite Jest, I read as much of his other works as I could. His story collections:
The Girl with Curious Hair
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
And essay collections:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Consider the Lobster
And a wonderful commencement speech:
This is Water
The commencement speech is exactly the opposite of the kind we got from Joe Paterno at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium in June, 1973. Joe was chosen because he had turned down an offer to leave Penn State and coach the New York Jets or New England Patriots. Here, the Happy Valley narrative went, was an example of a man of principles. Now it appears that he should have taken the pro football coaching job and gotten as far away from Jerry Sandusky as he could.
The heart of David Foster Wallace’s speech comes from two successive passages:
1. “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.
2. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
His speech is paean to a liberal arts education.
His two books of essays inform the reader superlatively about the sport of tennis, the American political campaign, sea cruises, talk-radio, state fairs, and literature. The title essay of "A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again" made a practical impact on me. I had been reluctant to take ocean liner cruise for years. Now, Wallace cemented the everyday horror of the experience. Primarily, I didn't enjoy being with many people, let allone 5000 of them. Eating and recreating with them, perhaps a small group, but amidst thousands of others. It seemed the ships on the Celebrity and Disney Cruises are too big, as if you wouldn’t recognize you’re on a boat (and you only would when circumstances went horribly wrong). The first section of the essay includes the cultural vulgarity one shouldn’t have to pay to be around: a 13-year old with a toupee; fluorescent luggage, sunglasses, and pince nez; projectile vomit inside a glass elevator; and elevator reggae music.
Wallace’s style may be the most intense I’ve encountered. Proust can tie you into a mental bow with a two-page sentence; Nabokov pins you to the ground with his impeccable style and mastery of language. Yet, the scope of Wallace’s imaginatively innovative universe is daunting. Can any human being take in as much as he did? Critic David Lipsky said that Wallace’s “was the one voice I absolutely trusted to make sense of the outside world to me.” Another quality of the greatest writers.
Eventually, I want to return to Infinite Jest. Put aside the hundreds of books I own and haven’t read and spend two or three months with it. (I plan the same for two Nabokov novels: Ada* and The Gift.) And eventually I will feel compelled to obtain Wallace’s incomplete third novel, The Pale King. It’s only 500 pages, although it appears the book, if finished, could have been 1500 pages. Then, again, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to collect a dozen or so books from the greatest of the great authors and strictly read, and reread, only them for the rest of my life.
*I finally finished Ada. One of the most pleasurable reads I have had.