“[I]n the world of letters, it is hard to imagine a more seismic change than this one.” The New York Times announces that its longtime book critic Michiko Kakutani is stepping down after nearly four decades of reviews.
The Times also offers a roundup of her greatest hits, including writeups of Beloved, Infinite Jest, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Bill Clinton’s memoir My Life:
The book, which weighs in at more than 950 pages, is sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull — the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history.
This announcement was followed by the great news that repeat Year in Reading alumna Parul Sehgal will join Jennifer Senior and Dwight Garner as a Times book critic, leaving her position as senior editor of the NYT Book Review. Congratulations, Parul!
During college, two of my English-majoring friends had a running argument, years long, about whether “Pale Fire,” the 999-line poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, is good or not. The poem is attributed to the fictional writer John Shade, and the rest of the novel takes the form of an unhinged and digressive commentary on it by Shade’s neighbor. There’s no doubt about the quality of the commentary (as commentary, as opposed to a satire of one), nor about the quality of novel, but what of the poem? Usually, fictional works of art are framed as clearly good or bad by the larger works they are within, but occasionally their status is more interestingly ambiguous.
Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson, a Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver. (Many of its jokes are of this sort.) It is admirably quiet and prosaic, refreshingly so in a time when it can feel like 50 percent of films include the computer generated destruction of a metropolis. It is also remarkably thought provoking, raising questions about why people write poetry, whether they need readers, and who merits the label “poet.” More than any other, however, the film left me with the question of whether it — and Jarmusch — thinks Paterson’s poetry is any good.
Paterson writes, if the week we see is typical, about a poem a day. We witness him thinking through the first lines over breakfast and his walk to work, then writing in his “secret notebook” (as his wife calls it) as he waits to set out on his first route of the day, on his lunch break, and at his basement desk at home. Certainly the film seems to celebrate his words: paired with Driver’s voiceover, they are inscribed on the screen, both as they are being drafted and in apparently finished form. Yet Paterson is uninterested in showing his poetry to anyone. His wife seems to have read, or heard, a few of them, and constantly hectors him to make copies and share them with the world, but he is clearly reluctant to do so.
The counterpoint of Paterson’s wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), suggests all the more that the film thinks Paterson’s poetry is good. She flits from daydream to daydream about how she will become famous — for her cupcakes, or as a Nashville singer with her newly bought guitar — and the film gently mocks these dreams, as well as her many design projects around the house. Yet no such mockery is pointed toward Paterson’s work.
Films can make any poem seem greater than it is, and of much deeper significance — or go too far in such a direction, turning it into overwrought bombast, as Dead Poet’s Society did for Walt Whitman and, more recently, Interstellar for Dylan Thomas. Despite this, Paterson’s poetry still seems, at best, merely mediocre. It is styled after that of William Carlos Williams, son of Paterson, N.J., and hero of both Driver’s character and the film. Williams is repeatedly discussed, Paterson recites “This Is Just to Say” at his wife’s request, and his book Paterson is obviously visible on the main character’s shelf (along with other collections of poetry and Infinite Jest, a book I cannot imagine Driver’s character reading, which Jarmusch also visually fetishized, more convincingly, in Only Lovers Left Alive). Unlike Williams’s poetry, however, Paterson’s seemed to me unnecessarily baggy, occasionally finding a good line or two, but only after far too much preamble, not just conversational, but plain in its diction and rhythm to the point of banality.
I was surprised to learn, then, that Paterson’s lines were in fact written, some especially for the film (others have appeared elsewhere), by the poet Ron Padgett, an award-winning member of the New York School (itself name-checked, via Frank O’Hara, in the film). Unless Jarmusch means to insult his friend, this makes me think he means to present the poems as good. Otherwise, why not write them himself? Poetry of Williams’s sort is not hard to write, only hard to write well. Did Padgett, in the poems written for the film, take on the persona of a lesser talent? The film features one other poem, written by a 10-year-old girl with whom Paterson falls into conversation. This one was actually written by Jarmusch, and the film presents it as no worse than Paterson’s (that is Padgett’s) work: Driver’s character seems genuinely moved by it, and he recites its opening lines to his wife later that night. Does Jarmusch intend to lower Paterson’s status, or to elevate the young girl?
Paterson exists thought-provokingly, though I am not sure fully purposefully, in the space created by the ambiguity of whether Paterson’s poetry is any good. If it were clearly bad, then the film would become cruel. If it were clearly good, then the film would become something else, a hackneyed gem-in-the-rough story. Twice in the film, Paterson is presented with the opportunity to call himself a poet. Neither time does he. He is interested in poetry, likes poetry, but he doesn’t even admit he writes it, neither to the young girl, nor to a Japanese poet on pilgrimage to the hometown of William Carlos Williams. Where Williams was a doctor, Paterson is a bus driver and thinks of himself merely as that. Unlike Williams, he writes only for himself.
Near the end of the film, Paterson’s notebook is destroyed (a move so heavily telegraphed that this really isn’t a spoiler). His wife is devastated by the loss — clearly she daydreams about his future fame as well — but Paterson’s own reaction is opaque. He says almost nothing: is he in shock or remarkably stoic? Does he not especially care, or perhaps even feel a little relieved? We briefly wonder if he will stop writing or, alternatively, now write to publish, his juvenilia swept away. Instead, he simply returns to his routine, it seems: his poems, it is suggested, are for him, and him alone. They help him find meaning in his otherwise routine life, and that’s enough — anything else would be too much, too grandiose, too, well, poetic, for his merely prosaic existence.
As the year winds down, it’s a great opportunity for readers to catch up on some of the most-read pieces from The Millions during the year. We’ll divide the most popular posts on The Millions into two categories, beginning with the 20 most popular pieces published on the site in 2016.
2. An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70: Christian Kriticos brought our attention to the 70th anniversary of a watershed moment in 20th-century journalism, the New Yorker’s devotion of an entire issue to John Hersey’s powerful recounting of what happened in Hiroshima on the day the bomb fell. “In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that ‘Hiroshima’ is as relevant as ever.”
3. Dear Any Soldier: Vonnegut during Wartime: Odie Lindsey penned a powerful reflection on discovering fiction — becoming a reader in a war zone — through a box of Kurt Vonnegut novels shipped in an “Any Soldier” care package to Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
4. Are you a planner or a pantser? Akilesh Ayyar broke down the two ways to write a novel: plot it all out meticulously or fly by the seat of your pants. Virginia Woolf? Planner. Mark Twain? Pantser. Vladimir Nabokov? Planner. James Joyce? Pantser of course.
5. In July, the literary set was buzzing about (and rolling their eyes over) The New York Times T Magazine’s publication of a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer. Our own Jacob Lambert then uncovered Portman’s correspondence with none other than Cormac McCarthy.
6. Somehow, your typical summer escapist reading didn’t feel right for 2016. Our own Claire Cameron took stock of things – and some great new books on offer – and crafted A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery. (Spoiler alert: this list works any time of year, as it turns out.)
7. Attention all poetry haters: Our own Nick Ripatrazone made this list just for you.
8. Ernest Hemingway: Middlebrow Revolutionary: Our own Michael Bourne penned a compelling and provocative reconsideration of Papa Hemingway that feels even more relevant today. “Like many men who pride themselves on their toughness and self-reliance, Hemingway was almost comically insecure and prone to betray anyone who had the effrontery to do him a favor.”
9. Infinite Jest in the Age of Addiction: We continue to plumb the depths of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. In July, Mike Broida wrote about Wallace’s masterpiece as a “grand overture on humans and addiction.”
10. The Private Library: What Books Reveal About Their Readers: As Millions readers surely know, there is little more illuminating about a person than that person’s library. With that in mind, Andrew Pippos looked for treasures in the libraries of history’s greatest literary minds, from Gustave Flaubert to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Flannery O’Connor.
11. Only partway done as I compile this list, our star-studded Year in Reading has been a big hit across the internet.
12. In February, Gerald Howard, vice president and executive editor of Doubleday, took us into the halls and history of New York publishing. In this clubby world, much has changed since Alfred Knopf published Thomas Mann. But there are constants: ego, insecurity, irrational exuberance…
13. An Essential Human Respect: Reading Walt Whitman During Troubled Times: E. Thomas Finan’s piece is one I have returned to more than once since we published it in September. “Rather than succumbing to self-righteous demonization, Whitman illustrated the power of a human empathy that transcends ideological bellicosity.”
14. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Amateur Auction Theorist: In this curious bit of history, Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan relate how Goethe invented a new kind of auction to avoid being swindled by his publisher. Alas, Goethe’s agent had other plans.
15. You can call yourself a planner or a pantser (see above), but the fact remains that there is no handbook for being a writer. In June, Marcia DeSanctis tried to make sense of the unbounded but messy life of the writer.
16. Books Should Send Us Into Therapy: On The Paradox of Bibliotherapy: Books are often recommended for therapeutic purposes: Read this book and it will help you solve this problem. In November, James McWilliams argued that instead, “We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.”
17. Do you notice what characters are wearing in novels? Do you notice how often authors get this wrong? Rosa Lyster does.
18. Look, it probably wasn’t you who wiped boogers on Jacob Lambert’s library book, but we can’t be sure, right? Just read this.
19. “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it,” writes Drew Nellins Smith. And yet authors keep churning out sex scenes.
20. I’ll be de’ed. In What the Deuce: The Curse Words of Charles Dickens, Brian Kozlowski instructs on how the giant of the Victorian era was able to channel his more impolitic urges with a clever — and uniquely Dickensian — array of invented epithets.
Next we’ll look at a number of older pieces that Millions readers return to again and again. This list of top “evergreens” comprises pieces that went up before 2016 but continued to find new readers.
1. Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions: Our own Kevin Hartnett polled the experts to discover the best on offer from the prolific 19th century master.
2. The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball: Lawrence Tabak’s lovely longform on the basketball variant that was once an Iowa obsession.
3. Readers of Laurent Binet’s HHhH have been turning up to read the story of the section he excised from the novel as well as the missing pages themselves, which we published exclusively.
4. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater: Readers also returned to Kevin Hartnett’s Russian lit throwdown, for which he asked eight scholars and avid lay readers to present their cases for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as the king of Russian literature.
5. Shakespeare’s Greatest Play? 5 Experts Share Their Opinions: Yet another of Hartnett’s roundtables asked five experts to name the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays.
6. A Year in Reading 2015: 2015’s series stayed popular in 2016.
7. Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica: It’s a brave new world for writers on the make. Matthew Morgan tried his hand in the weird, wild world of self-published erotica and in the process introduced us to “shape-shifter sex creatures that could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales” and other oddities.
8. How To Introduce an Author: We’ve all seen them — awkward, long-winded, irrelevant. Bad author introductions mar readings every day in this great country of ours. For four years now, would be emcees have been turning to Janet Potter’s guide on how to not screw up the reading before it even starts.
9. We Cast The Goldfinch Movie so Hollywood Doesn’t Have To: Word of a film adaptation gave us all the excuse we needed to keep talking about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Our own Janet Potter and Edan Lepucki saved everyone a lot of trouble and went ahead and put together a cast for the movie.
10. Sam Anderson and David Rees decided, for science, to do a deep dive on Dan Brown’s thriller Inferno. The result was Dumbest Thing Ever: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno and some of the funniest marginalia you’ll ever read.
“This will be very hard for you.”
— Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel)
Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304.
One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) alike.
I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem’s intimidating size, it should be fun.
I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle.
There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do.
I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century.
So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity.
This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem’s generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled.
One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment.
Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well.
I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day.
I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed.
This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money).
Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings.
There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another.
This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history.
One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell.
Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” — one in which everything has been preordained.
There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche’s myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope.
If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever.
I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache.
While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience.
The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong.
I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages.
The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough.
For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675.
There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory.
It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all.
I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward.
Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands.
I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness.
Moore, you sadist.
I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem’s strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital.
These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground.
So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea — al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse — I moved on.
Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end.
Moore, you genius.
A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness.
It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries.
Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page.
I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment.
I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad.
It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis.
I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost.
In a sense, all of us.
My wrists stop aching.
After twenty years, David Foster Wallace’s grand overture on humans and addiction, Infinite Jest, has only become more powerful. Since its publication, the world has moved past the events and years of the novel’s shaky mid-2000s dystopian world. But the most addictive force in Infinite Jest is a seemingly innocuous videotape referred to simply as “the entertainment.” Television holds the strongest allure and danger to Wallace’s many characters. It was an adversarial and endlessly interesting fixture in American life for Wallace, one that he wrote on at length in his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” “Television, from the surface on down, is about desire,” he writes. “Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.”
At the core of Infinite Jest is a story about addiction and the different ways that people find themselves hooked. Wallace’s key argument is that to be human and alive is to be addicted to something, and the real power comes in choosing to what you might find yourself beholden. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned college graduates that, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s addicts are largely centered around Boston, on a hilltop near Brighton that separates an elite tennis academy run by a family shaken by a suicide and a halfway house filled with a picaresque crew of recovering drug and alcohol addicts. What brings them all together is that mysterious videotape, “the entertainment,” a piece of media at once so literally captivating that it causes certain death. The viewer cannot look away and will forgo the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy for the sake of watching.
The worship is more multifaceted than just television and narcotics. The young boys at Enfield Tennis Academy worship the perfection of their tennis games and the rising of their rank, a task replete with ritual, superstition, and devotion. Yet some of the boys also use tennis to avoid family angst, failure, or personal faults, and in that way too the uncanny need to play tennis begins to resemble other addictions in the novel. The halfway house residents are addicted to cannabinoids and alcohol and cocaine and opioids and murdering small animals. The most dedicated of them, such as the halfway house staff member and partial-protagonist, Don Gately, have exchanged the worship of painkillers for the worship of A.A. itself.
Television, much like “the entertainment,” is its own form of worship. It’s the desire to be seen, the desire to be a voyeur. It’s the desire to be approved of and to feel communal. Yet our concept of television has rapidly changed since 1990s, when television was still considered the “boob tube,” a uniformly low art that was acknowledged as an aesthetic horror driven by shows like Cheers or The Price is Right. No one would confuse them for art. Now, we have entered — or passed through — television’s Golden Age, and the duplicity and seduction of the media have become hidden behind good storytelling, compelling acting, and excellent cinematography. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and more have changed TV from a knuckle-dragging affair into something sophisticated and worthwhile.
Many of the shows that have marked the Golden Age of television first aired around 2000, right at the start of the current opioid epidemic — a spooky correlation, if not a scientific one. Since 1999, opioid overdoses in the United States have quadrupled as a result of increased prescriptions, heavy marketing from big pharmaceutical firms, and a cultural familiarity and acceptance with seemingly casual drug use. In the new century, our nationwide desire to be tuned out, euphoric, and entertained seems to go beyond both medium and function. While many of those who find themselves worshiping television are unaware of the effects of something like “the entertainment,” perhaps no character is more aware of his addiction than Don Gately, an addict recovering from his own enthrallment to Demerol and Talwin, who would find himself at home in the America of today.
Fall 2015 brought a sobering study: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans had started to increase, bucking other demographical and historical trends. The cause behind this grand uptick in fatalities was largely attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, which has become brutal and rife in America’s small, postindustrial towns and regions like New England and the Midwest. Heroin and its potent synthetic successor Fentanyl seem destined to find people, particularly those whose circumstances leave them unable to realize traditional markers of personal success in America. To be rural and “working class” is to live in an economy and culture that is increasingly focused on technically skilled and urbanized workers. To be left behind by your country, as one might feel in rural New Hampshire, is to open the door to something sinister but palliative: opioids. Opioids activate the reward centers of our brains. They give pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. They provide momentary fulfillment and satisfaction with one’s life. Tolerance to prescriptions leads to cheaper, easier-to-get opioids, namely heroin and synthetic versions thereof. The how of these addictions is relatively simple, with doctors trained to relieve pain and large pharmaceutical companies pushing their products heavily to their masses, but the why feels more elusive.
Infinite Jest is set roughly in the mid 2000s, right into the thick of a prescription drug epidemic. Despite it being a novel inherently farcical and dystopian, Wallace’s troupe of addicts have only become more commonplace. It’s no mistake that in Infinite Jest two agents from rival governments, in fear and admiration of the power of the entertainment, discuss the seminal experiment of Rat Park: a foundational 1970s study of drug addiction that showed that rats when given a rich, fulfilling environment tended to avoid readily-available, opiate-laced water, but when faced with a stark and denuded cage, the rats found themselves hopelessly hooked on the same opiates. The denuded cage for a person can take a variety of forms: economic stagnation, faltering relationships, lack of enrichment or challenge in one’s life.
The question for Wallace then is what exactly does it mean far a person to be in that cage? Early on in the novel, one character struggles with an infestation of cockroaches before coming up with a rather brutal solution:
The yellow tile floor of the bathroom is sometimes a little obstacle course of glasses with huge roaches dying inside, stoically, just sitting there, the glasses gradually steaming up with roach-dioxide. The whole thing makes Orin sick. Now he figures the hotter the show’s water, the less chance any small armored vehicle is going to feel like coming out of the drain while he’s in there.
This is perhaps the most heartbreaking image of addiction, not just of being imprisoned and slowly dying, but also being unconscionably trapped behind an invisible force field. It’s to not realize that you are dying only that it is happening slowly, and to know yourself as the most disgusting, and hated of creatures.
While narcotics might present the most desperate and fanatical way to dismiss the denuded cage, there’s a more salubrious method among American households. As Wallace argues in “E Unibus Pluram,” television offers a perfect release. Instead of testing the parameters of one’s crappy cage, TV offers escape: perfect families, perfect bodies, perfect jobs, and challenges that are deemed perfectly manageable by the implicit promise that the characters — and thereby the show — will triumph through to the next season. Now, in this Golden Age, the families are more real, the plot lines more complex: we feel smart, sophisticated, involved. If early TV was the heroin, now we have the Fentanyl. While watching Breaking Bad you “get” that Walter White is an antihero. In The Wire, you “get” the comparisons between drug dealers and the police as factions of equal merit. These things are like delicious breadcrumbs of self-confidence, completing little puzzles for our neurological reward centers. Make no mistake that each of these crumbs was laid down by an intentional hand, drawing us further and further in. Now, in this Golden Age, TV has snuggled up close to the critics that once derided it as stupid and trivial. TV as art makes Wallace’s original statement in “E Unibus Pluram” ring just as true:
Television culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. TV, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism TV requires of Audience in or to be psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.
Could one imagine that the new season of House of Cards, inspired third-hand by Richard III, could be considered low-quality in The New York Times or any other critical venue that once trashed television as cheap and vapid?
From the easy access of cheap, reliable, and deeply enthralling television, comes the very Wallacean term: “binge-watch.” The concept of consuming television in large swaths as if it were another narcotic like alcohol or cocaine or Oxycontin has a self-imposed irony to it. In Infinite Jest, one of the characters has an eerily prescient and predictive moment that anticipates the addictive, binge-watching nature of online video streaming:
What if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non-‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt
If I call the six hours I spent watching the old seasons of Parks And Recreation “binge-watching,” then I am doubly insulated by, first, acknowledging upfront the gluttony of it, and, second, by the irony of calling it a binge in the first place. If I jokingly pretend I’m binging on television, then it’s ironic because watching television is better than knocking back a case of beer, right? Yet television, like narcotics, has a certain intentionality behind it, as Wallace lays bare in “E Unibus Pluram”: “Because of the economies of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidizer entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field test in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible.” Wallace’s conclusion is as true as ever, but due to the allure of the Internet as the new “low” art, filled by Youtube, Reddit, viral videos, and vociferous memes dominating the sort of repetitive desire that an American Gladiators marathon used to hold, TV had to change its tactics. Ultimately, the new strategy for capturing their viewers, to convince them of their true desire to watch more and more, was a sea change towards quality entertainment, turning TVs strongest critics into its greatest allies. After all, it is hard to feel poorly about spending a Saturday watching an entire season of The Wire, when its creator, David Simon, won a McArthur “genius” Grant
As a novel, Infinite Jest is intended as a loop. Once you finish the last page, the story pushes you to return to page one in order to put all the clues together and understand what you’ve read, over and over again. The final “joke” of Infinite Jest is that the book is intended to be almost as endless and mirthful as the addictions it depicts. To miss the desperate worshipping hidden beneath the strange, erudite, belly-deep joy of Infinite Jest is to fall prey to its pleasure. The ease of access to satisfaction in the Digital Age, from smart phone to Oxycontin, is perhaps even easier and more gratuitous than Wallace envisioned twenty years ago. The desire for distraction and appeasement has rushed up to meet this pleasure in all its forms, in these new ways to worship that shield the reality of disenfranchisement or pain. To have looked into the abyss of addiction, as Wallace does in Infinite Jest, is to see all of life’s worst parts washed away by a torrent of pleasure. But what if the pleasure took too strong a hold? What if, in the end, you could not look away?
For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation.
We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper.
The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work?
Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency.
TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day?
CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one’s own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as “politics” was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History.
Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from “information,” and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated “tone.” So when you ask about “the editing process,” and speak of “drafting/editing” — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to “polish the verbal surface,” as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.)
TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they’re completely separate.
CO: The difference is crucial: it’s between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the “plot” of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making.
TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction.
CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it’s the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer’s initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what’s called “creative nonfiction,” despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can’t change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the “personal” essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker.
TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a “great American novel” in today’s literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community?
CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that “what it might take” still isn’t clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can’t, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it.
TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone?
CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one’s fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I’ve learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer!
TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie?
CO: Either-or has never been storytelling’s only available way; from early on, there has always been that “middle ground.” Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author’s reflecting voice; it might be called the “intelligence” of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer’s mind exposed. The “fractured” novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith’s NW and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you’ve considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again.
CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn’t with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace’s most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will “shift the direction of postmodern fiction” is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again.
TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose?
CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of “staying power.” Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don’t doubt that I will be among them.
TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there’s still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking?
CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader’s comfort, and that feeling at home with its “rules” increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce’s Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot’s The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of “rules” means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn’t that for sermons and tracts?
TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience…
CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American “experience,” if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers’] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.)
As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol’s quip: “They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us.” And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are.
TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being “haunted” by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it’s appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?”
CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we’ve had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Every writer needs to have an address.” Harold Bloom: “The anxiety of influence.” Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term “haunted” confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn’t make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It’s a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone’s own home address.
TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you’re developing or the work you’ve done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence?
CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a “career,” a schemer’s word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of “I never heard of her before.” As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Are you working on anything now that you’re hoping to release?
CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can’t be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
It isn’t hard to see the appeal of tennis to the writer. It’s a solitary endeavor (singles at least) in which success rests on personal agency. There’s the aesthetic aspect — the spectacle at its highest level of lithe athleticism and impudent finesse. And it does convenient duty as literary device; an arena for mano-a-mano character study and conflict in which how one plays offers a window into personality. This is how tennis is characteristically treated in literature. In The Information, Martin Amis, devout hacker himself, pits rivalrous writers against one another inside the lines — the supple but showy virtuosity of Richard Tull versus the point-grubbing retrieving of Gwynn Barry. It’s also the premise of perhaps the finest work on the subject, Levels of the Game, in which John McPhee freights a play-by-play of the 1968 U.S. Open semi-final between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner with an examination of the nation’s sociopolitical fault lines, as crystallized by the players’ contrasting styles. Besides Amis, literary fans include Vladimir Nabokov (almost as adroit with racket as butterfly net), Anne Lamott, ardent Federerphile, J.M. Coetzee, Ellen Gilchrist, Abraham Verghese, and dedicated court cruiser Geoff Dyer.
All of this to say that David Foster Wallace has good company in being seduced by tennis. But he is perhaps the only author of serious literary repute to have himself wielded a racket in semi-serious competition. Back when he looked upon reading novels chiefly as a fun way to ingest facts, Wallace was, in his own words, “a near great junior tennis player,” with a dour, attritional style that took him, at 14, to 17th in the U.S. Tennis Association’s Midwestern rankings for his age bracket. Here, he stalled out amid delayed puberty and salubrious country club courts that quashed his competitive advantage: a mastery of the elements on the wind-strafed municipal courts on which lowlier tournaments are typically contested. But tennis remained a lifelong passion; a personal touchstone that, most prominently among the references to it in his fiction, supplied a backdrop for Infinite Jest. It was a topic he also returned to repeatedly in his non-fiction. Across his career, it was perhaps “his most consistent theme at the surface level,” notes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his introduction to String Theory, the new collection of Wallace’s essays on tennis issued by the Library of America.
Wallace knew his Levels of the Game — a marked-up copy is among the personal effects in his archive at the University of Texas at Austin — and he’s known to have esteemed McPhee as a writer. But his approach to the sport is altogether more technical, not to mention rambunctious and free-wheeling. These proclivities are evident from the title of String Theory’s strongest piece, published in 1996 in Esquire, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness.” And they are on display in that essay’s opening, which, as Sullivan notes, emulates McPhee’s limpid first lines in Levels — “Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air…” — but layers on the “thick” description:
When Michael Joyce of Los Angeles serves, when he tosses the ball and his face rises to track it, it looks like he’s smiling, but he’s not really smiling — his face’s circumoral muscles are straining with the rest of his body to reach the top of the ball at the top of the toss’s rise.
Joyce is not a member of the game’s elite a la Ashe en route to the U.S. Open title, but “the 79th best tennis player on planet earth” toiling in the pre-tournament qualifying rounds of U.S. Open warm-up event, the Canadian Open. Like McPhee, Wallace is interested in those levels of the game, but, more literally, as in the mountains beyond mountains of tennis’s pecking order. The ex-junior standout Wallace remains an avid player. He packs his racket for Montreal, fancying he can hold his own on the practice court with some “hot young U.S pros,” then documents his “awe and sad surprise” at beholding Joyce in action:
“This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something like 90% of the time.”
The difference of degree is such that it is a difference of kind. “I do not play and never have played the same game as these low-ranked pros.”
Still, even this altitudinous level is a foothill compared to the game’s summit. Wallace documents the small deficits that add up to a gulf between Joyce (who made it to the second round of the main draw in Montreal and topped out as world number 62 a few months later) and then-top-ranked male Andre Agassi — the fleetness of foot that is a half-step slower, the timing a hair off, the kink in his backhand versus Agassi’s fluid stroke.
Wallace’s deploys his full shot-making repertoire throughout the piece. The expression of forbearance Joyce wears waiting out the tantrum of a player he is soundly beating reminds him of “Vegas dealers…when a gambler they’re cleaning out is rude or abusive.” He discerns an “abacus of sweat” on another player’s brow and evokes the odd grace of tennis’s rites: “ball-boys move for the ball and reconfigure complexly…” He’s particularly inspired on the idiosyncrasies of former great players — “the odd Tourettic way [Vitas] Gerulaitis used to whip his head from side to side while bouncing the ball before his toss…,” and the resemblance of John McEnroe, at serve, to “a figure on an Egyptian frieze” (anyone doubting the acuity of these observations can verify them here and here). He’s also satirical; mock-swooning over Joyce — “you can just tell by looking at him out there that he’s totally likeable and cool” — and almost epigrammatic: “the realities of the men’s professional tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughter house does to a well-presented cut of sirloin.” But, finally, he is exercised by the grandeur and “grotesquery” of Joyce:
…[T]he radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be. It’s allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain of exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure.
The collection’s best-known piece “Federer Both Flesh and Not” (published in 2006 in The New York Times) opens with Wallace’s fanboy rapture at various sublime passages of play (“Federer Moments”) conjured by the Swiss maestro, and then considers the disruptive effect of the equipment arms race widely held to have reduced tennis to brutal slugfest. How then to explain the black swan of Roger Federer — his sovereignty atop modern muscular tennis with a supposedly atavistic game founded on elegance and artistry? Foremost among the capabilities conferred by larger, lighter rackets is the ability to whip them though the air more vigorously to impart ball-blurring spin, notes Wallace. This permits superior power — by lacing the ball with vicious topspin so it describes a sharper parabola over the net, players can strike the ball harder while landing it within the lines. But there are other dividends: the ability to find oblique angles — previously only possible at net — from the baseline. Federer, trafficking in power, spin, and angle, is tapping the full arsenal of possibilities opened up by advances in racket technology. He is a one-man insurgency, revolutionizing the sport “from within the modern game…showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh.”
Stated thus, it sounds like a narrowly technical essay. But Wallace is collecting string for a wider point about the transfiguring effect of outsize achievement in any realm. Browsing Wimbledon’s junior tournament he observes a “variegated ballet…[d]rop shots and mixed spins, off-speed serves, gambits planned three points ahead.”
“Genius is not replicable,” he concludes. “Inspiration, though, is contagious and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
In Federer himself, Wallace seems less interested. Throughout this collection he gravitates to more relatable figures — the also-ran Joyce and, in the book’s most poignant essay, “the first real child star in women’s tennis,” Tracy Austin. Wallace’s review of Austin’s Beyond Center Court: My Story appears at first blush a mismatch as he skewers the fluffy inanities of a standard-issue, ghost-written ex-athlete’s autobiography. But he’s driving toward something deeper. Austin was U.S. Open champion at 16, world number one at 17, then her body rebelled. Chronically injured, she effectively retired at 21 before attempting a comeback five years later that ended before it began after a van broadsided her car smashing her knee.
“The facts of Tracy Austin’s life and its trajectory are almost classically tragic,” writes Wallace.
[Her] most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success turned out to be also her flaw and bane…The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art…was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit…
This was a sports autobiography that, because of the “transcendently interesting…career” of its subject, could have lived up to its dust jacket billing, delivering a “truly inspirational” tale about adversity and the human spirit. But Wallace delves beyond the book’s platitudes — what if Austin’s anodyne account penetrates to the “essence” of great athletes; how they can “simply and superbly act” in the clutch?
What if, when Tracy Austin writes that after her 1989 car crash, ‘I quickly accepted that there was nothing I could do about it,’ the statement is not only true but exhaustively descriptive of the entire acceptance process she went through? Is someone stupid or shallow because she can say to herself that there’s nothing she can do about something bad and so she’d better accept it, and thereupon simply accept it with no more interior struggle? Or is that person maybe somehow natively wise and profound…?
“[T]he only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce very good prose memoir,” he concludes.
This was not a problem with the thought-addled Wallace. He doesn’t wear a game face in these pieces. The sense one gets reading them is of a discovery process, the author stumbling sentence-by-sentence toward understanding — a task to which he wholly devotes his profane, fucked-up, intellectually omnivorous self.
A collection of discretely commissioned pieces for assorted magazines marshalled over 15 years might feel disjointed. But String Theory is remarkable for its cohesiveness and seamlessness with the preoccupations of Wallace’s fiction. The idea of submission to boredom as a portal to enlightenment is a keynote of Wallace’s final, uncompleted work The Pale King, his biographer D.T. Max has written. Prefiguring this by more than a decade, in the first piece in this collection from 1991, Wallace writes of the benediction he and his playing partner experience following a particularly grueling on-court workout and the impulse behind his native love for tennis:
We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing…a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.
Wallace played the game with all of his person. The same intellectually questing, sensorily hungry spirit is present in his writing about it. The result is a terrific book about a human activity and life outside the lines that trammel it.
Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.
Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.
In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.
Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:
If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.
If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:
And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.
Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:
And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.
There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.
Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”
In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.
If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:
And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.
Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!
February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, ” the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years,” the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover.
The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh’s cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace’s editor, to get his thoughts.
The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today’s readers?
Michael Pietsch: I’m astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page.
The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can.
TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision?
MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity.
I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art.
MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.