Little, Brown’s The David Foster Wallace Reader is, for my money, a total Gift, an appropriate word considering that Wallace believed that all True Art takes the form of a Gift (see Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for more on that). For those unfamiliar with Wallace, the Reader will hopefully spark enough interest in his work to help some readers get over just how damned intimidating his writing can be. Judged purely from the outside, the lengthy parade (especially since his death) of critics and writers extolling Wallace’s genius plus the sheer girth of his books could easily sway casual readers away. It’s a shame, and if this Reader accomplishes anything, it would be wonderful if some new Wallace fans emerged from its publication. For Wallace fans, however, TDFWR is a chance to go back and read some of his most inventive and brilliant pieces, but more than that it’s an opportunity to reassess Wallace’s work, to judge it chronologically and thus progressively, and by doing so reacquaint one’s self to this incredible writer and thinker and person. And this is what I’d like to do now: use this beautiful new volume as a means of dissecting DFW’s entire oeuvre and trying to make some claims about his work as a whole. To wit:
STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO-BULLSHIT THESIS FOR WHOLE ARTICLE
The David Foster Wallace Reader features excerpts from all three of his novels –– The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King –– as well as a sampling of his short stories – taken from the collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion –– and his essays––taken from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster, and Both Flesh and Not –– and finally some examples of teaching materials Wallace used over his many years as a college professor at Emerson, Illinois State, and Pomona College. Viewed together, it’s impossible for me not to draw certain conclusions about the way Wallace wrote and the tools his used to meet his ends, and for me to lay all this out requires that we investigate his work through the lens of his nonfiction, at the center of which I believe we’ll find a key to Wallace’s technique and his philosophical goals, w/r/t literature and its purpose in the universe.
The argument here is going to be that David Foster Wallace not only wrote about literature, lobsters, cruises, David Lynch, Roger Federer, grammar and John McCain, but he also wrote about writing about literature, lobster, cruises, etc. In nearly every published essay, Wallace first established the parameters of his project, the limitations of his assignment and even the crass, subtextual thesis of all book reviews. He dissected the very idea of reviewing a book, or covering a festival, or interviewing a radio host. In other words, Wallace wrote metanonfiction. Moreover, Wallace’s complex mind and neurotic tendencies found their most successful (i.e. accessible and popular) outlet in nonfiction, and that although history may remember his novels and stories as his most important contributions to literature, his nonfiction is more successful in doing what he aimed to do with literature and more representative of who he was as a person and a writer.
BRIEF INTERPOLATION VIS A VIS WALLACE’S FICTION
I love Wallace’s novels and short stories. For my money, Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, one that changed my perception of what fiction can do. “Good Old Neon” and “Forever Overhead” are two of the best short stories I’ve ever read. And The Pale King, I’ll argue a little later, contained a mixture of Wallace’s nonfiction style within it, an exciting yet sad revelation considering that it’s the last of his fiction. I just wanted to make clear that I am not here to say that his fiction was difficult and therefore unredeemable. Rather, my contention here is that Wallace was not unlike an inventor who creates a new tool to assist in the creation of his latest device but whose tool sells better than his invention.
Basically, by the time of the publication of Signifying Rappers in 1989 (a book not excerpted in TDFWR), Wallace had already established certain tropes he would reuse and refine over the rest of his critical/journalistic career. Beyond mere stylistic elements, the main tropes are the way he employs an Ethical Appeal and how he becomes self-referential (a word he uses to describe rap as a whole) in the process; the other is his transparency w/r/t his approach, i.e., his seemingly involuntary tendency to tell you what he’s about to do, essay-wise. Clearly these are postmodern techniques, but when you read this prose, it doesn’t come across that way. Because without fiction’s distancing Narrator, Wallace’s voice seems simply honest and guileless and direct. He isn’t trying to trick you into buying his authority; he isn’t lying about his credentials; he isn’t lying at all. He earnestly wants you to Trust Him, and he does so by explaining exactly what he’s about to do. He just wants to be a regular guy, and if he has to destroy many conventions of nonfiction in order to do so, then so be it.
A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE OF THE WAYS IN WHICH WALLACE’S POSTMODERN TECHNIQUE WORKS DIFFERENTLY IF NOT CONVERSELY IN FICTION AND NONFICTION, WITH A FURTHER ELABORATION ON ETHICAL APPEALS
The main point here is that there is nothing implicit in a David Foster Wallace essay. Or, if anything is implicit, it’s related to Wallace’s approach, not his theses. In essay after essay, Wallace’s directness remains. Just take a look at this passage, from early on in “Authority and American Usage”:
The occasion for this article is Oxford University Press’s recent release of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a book that Oxford is marketing aggressively and that it is my assigned function to review. It turns out to be a complicated assignment. In today’s US, a typical book review is driven by market logic and implicitly casts the reader in the role of consumer. Rhetorically, its whole project is informed by a question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront: “Should you buy this book?” And because Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary belongs to a particular subgenre of a reference genre that is itself highly specialized and particular, and because at least a dozen major usage guides have been published in the last couple of years and some of them have been quite good indeed, the central unmentionable question here appends the prepositional comparative “…rather than that book?” to the main clause and so entails a discussion of whether and how ADMAU is different from other recent specialty-products of its kind.
The “question that’s too crass ever to mention upfront” is, of course, stated here upfront. Wallace established the parameters of his essay directly, explaining not just what he’s going to do but also how he’s going to do it. In fiction, this kind of technique would certainly be considered postmodern. Think for a moment of the opening sentences of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Calvino (or, to be accurate, the Narrator) instructs the reader on how to read the book and what to expect from it. An opening like this in a novel jars a reader. We’re reminded of the writer when we’re not “supposed” to be, a reason many critics are dismissive of much postmodern fiction. But apply this same technique to an essay, and you get what amounts to a super successful Ethical Appeal, a tactic I want to argue is less postmodern and more sincere.
Let’s get back to “Authority and American Usage.” In dissecting “how ADMAU is different from other specialty-products of its kind,” Wallace focuses his attention on Garner’s rhetoric. Since most usage guides are basically “preaching to the choir,” they rarely include Ethical Appeals, which for Wallace “amounts to…a complex and sophisticated ‘Trust me,'” which “requires the rhetor to convince us of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s hopes and fears.” What is Wallace doing in the block passage if not establishing those same qualities for himself? It’s the regular-guy stance, something Wallace was deliberate about evincing. In David Lipsky’s book-length interview with Wallace Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace says, “In those essays…there’s a certain persona created, that’s a little stupider and schmuckier than I am…I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much like everybody else.”
Yet Wallace was completely unlike everybody else. He was much, much smarter –– not just what he knew but how he thought –– but his prose glistens with “regular guyness:” his word choice and sentence structure, as well as his approach, which is to state everything upfront and proceed with intellectual caution. In the case of “Authority and American Usage,” he does exactly what he’s praising Garner for doing. He creates “a certain persona” that allows the reader to trust him: he asks “unmentionable” questions other reviewers would skirt; he establishes his knowledge of the genre (as in, e.g., his long footnote about being a “SNOOT”); and he tackles his subjects under the guise of being honest and direct, even about his biases.
One must admit, though, that there’s a bit of rhetorical sneakiness going on here. Wallace is brilliant in this way. He knows that he’s too smart for most readers and that this intelligence will probably alienate them from his points. But instead of dumbing down his language (who, after all, would consider Wallace’s prose to be “regular” in any sense?) or simplifying the subject, he acknowledges the inherent abstruseness or strangeness of the topic at hand. In his most famous essay, the hilarious “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he opens by questioning the entire premise of the piece and stating outright this dubiousness w/r/t the magazine he’s writing for:
A certain swanky East-Coast magazine approved of the results of sending me to a plain old simple State Fair last year to do a directionless essayish thing. So now I get offered this tropical plum assignment w/ the exact same paucity of direction or angle. But this time there’s this new feeling of pressure: total expenses for the State Fair were $27.00 excluding games of chance. This time Harper’s has shelled out over $3000 U.S. before seeing pithy sensuous description one. They keep saying––on the phone, Ship-to-Shore, very patiently––not to fret about it. They are sort of disingenuous, I believe, these magazine people. They say all they want is a sort of really big experiential postcard –– go, plow the Caribbean in style, come back, say what you’ve seen.
By setting himself up as unequipped for the task, Wallace makes each of his numerous observations all the more earnest and agenda-less. He seems like someone a bit over his head trying to do the job he was assigned. But of course we know how the scales were really tipped, as how fair is it, e.g., for someone of Wallace’s intellectual acumen to scrutinize the ad-copy of a cruise ship’s onboard publicity? Moreover, Harper’s had to know that Wallace wouldn’t exactly enjoy himself on such an excursion, since by reading anything he ever wrote one could discern at the very least what I’ll call intense neuroses just utterly emanating from his pages. Put the author of “The Depressed Person” on a 7-day cruise filled with skeetshooting and buffets and conga lines and what he calls Managed Fun? Seems like a perfect combination, right? But somehow none of these obvious motivations for the piece come across in the finished essay. Instead, Wallace’s schmucky, regular-guy rhetoric works like gangbusters and we come to Trust Him wholeheartedly throughout, despite the fact that many of his neurotic tendencies are wholly his and not “like everybody else,” as when he becomes dreadfully afraid that the head Captain is conspiring to eliminate him via the crazy suction of the toilets. He’s neurotic as hell, yet we always grant him Authority.
In his fiction, Wallace-as-Narrator is also neurotic as hell, and so are his characters. See Hal Incandenza’s ritual of sneaking off by himself through elaborate tunnels to smoke weed; or the narrator of “Good Old Neon,” who circularly explains how fraudulent he is, even when he’s admitting that he’s fraudulent; or the numerous men in the various iterations of “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” Not all of his characters are neurotic, but most of the protagonists are. Many of his character’s neuroses can be summarized by the flash fiction piece that opens BIWHM, entitled “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life:”
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
The main point of his little riff is that our desire to “be liked” often gets in the way of real human intimacy. None of the three characters have an honest interaction. All they did was “preserve good relations,” which might make a moment less anxiety-inducing but ultimately makes life pretty sad indeed.
But the neuroses on display in his stories and novels are decidedly not metafictional. There are exceptions, of course: the terminal novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” of Girl with Curious Hair takes place in an MFA writing program and parts of it “are written on the margins of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse,” a seminal work of metafiction; and “Good Old Neon” (the acronym of which would be, if we used the atomic name of neon, “G.O.Ne”) and Infinite Jest employ some autobiographical details but nothing we would go so far as to call meta. Mostly, his fiction is heady, involved, experimental, satirical, and strange –– but not meta. At least not in the same sense his nonfiction is. In fact, Wallace found metafictional techniques to be limited. In an interview with Larry McCaffery (quoted in Zadie Smith’s essay on BIWHM), he says:
Metafiction…helps reveal fiction as a mediated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. But we ended up seeing why recursion’s dangerous, and maybe why everybody wanted to keep linguistic self-consciousness out of the show. It gets empty and solipsistic real fast. It spirals on itself. By the mid-seventies, I think, everything useful about the mode had been exhausted…by the eighties, it’d become a god-awful trap.
That is, until The Pale King. (The brouhaha over the posthumous publication of this unfinished novel indicates to me what Wallace’s legacy will be. A final collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, was also published after his death, but it was met with much less fanfare.) Much of The Pale King consists of typical Wallace antics: mind-bogglingly longwinded descriptions of people’s thoughts (read neuroses); conspiratorial upper-level managers discussing their tactics; long conversations that occur with little narrative description to go alongside them; interviews with the questions redacted to Qs; elaborate investigations into boredom; characters with ambiguous motives; a suggestion of plot rather than a relation, &c. Plus it contains some representative examples of the (oft-unremarked-upon) beauty of Wallace’s prose, as in the opening (which is too long to quote here but I sincerely suggest you go check it out; it’s featured in TDFWR and it’s extraordinary). The astonishing power of this opening contains foreshadows for what’s to come, but nothing that would indicate how truly radical (for Wallace) the novel would become. In one of the excerpts from TPK featured in TDFWR, we turn to an Author’s Foreword, which begins thusly:
Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:
All of this is true. This book is really true.
Here, Wallace writes metafiction in the truest sense of the phrase: he literally steps into his own novel. Metafiction can take many forms, and many sophisticated examples don’t actually require the novelist to become a character. Awareness of the novel as a text and referenced as such is all that’s required of metafiction, but Wallace chooses to go the literal route. Of course, he can’t do so without some meta-qualifications. He insists that this is “not some abstract narrative persona,” distinguishing his meta-device from past iterations. He gets meta about his meta. What this amounts to is another kind of Ethical Appeal: he’s assuring you that he, too, is aware of the metafictional convention but that he not up to those kinds of tricks.
The opening of TPK is dense, descriptive and filled with arcane vocabulary. Its sentences are long and its purpose opaque. Whereas the Wallace-as-Narrator’s prose moves very directly from the moment it starts. The syntax is simpler, its intention clearer. This is Wallace’s nonfiction voice, which he rarely used in his fiction. Wallace believed, according to D.T. Max in his biography of Wallace, that “the novel was the big form, the one that mattered.” More than that, Wallace was an unabashed moralist with a deep interest in human relationships (or lack thereof) in contemporary living. It’s as if he didn’t attribute as much creative importance to journalistic endeavors, despite his mastery of the form. Maybe Wallace would second William H. Gass’s note about his (Gass’s) nonfiction representing a “novelist insufficiently off duty.” At the very least, he kept his voices relatively separate.
Allow me, for a brief pause, to back up that last claim, as I suspect many would disagree with the assertion. Here’s a passage taken from Infinite Jest, in which Orin Incandenza decides to make the “extremely unlikely defection from college tennis to college football:”
The real football reason, in all its inevitable real-reason banality, was that, over the course of weeks of dawns of watching the autosprinklers and the Pep Squad (which really did practice at dawn) practices, Orin had developed a horrible schoolboy-grade crush, complete with dilated pupils and weak knees, for a certain big-haired sophomore baton-twirler he watched twirl and strut from a distance through the diffracted spectrum of the plumed sprinklers, all the way across the field’s dewy turf, a twirler who’d attended a few of the All-Athletic-Team mixers Orin and his strabismic B.U. doubles partner had gone to, and who danced the same way she twirled and invoked mass Pep, which is to say in a way that seemed to turn everything solid in Orin’s body watery and distant and oddly refracted.
Though this is quintessential Wallace, doesn’t it sound a bit more like the opening passage of TPK than it does the meta section? A major development of Orin’s life is explained here in a single sentence. Wallace in fiction-mode loved these kinds of periodic probing of a character’s idiosyncrasies –– IJ is loaded with them. But the Wallace-as-Narrator in TPK uses a different (although undeniably similar) voice:
In any event, the point is that I journeyed to Peoria on whatever particular day in May from my family’s home in Philo, to which my brief return had been shall we say untriumphant, and where certain members of my family had more or less been looking at their watches impatiently the whole brief time I was home. Without mentioning or identifying anyone in particular, let’s just say that the prevailing attitude in my family tended to be “What have you done for me lately?” or, maybe better, “What have you achieved/earned/attained lately that my in some way (imaginary or not) reflect well on us and let us bask in some kind of reflected (real or not) accomplishment?” It was a bit like a for-profit company, my family, in that you were pretty much only as good as your last sales quarter. Although, you know, whatever.
(I apologize, by the way, for all the long-winded quotations, but Wallace isn’t super-conducive to brevity.) So, there is still the same “regular-guyness” with his usage of colloquialisms like “the point is,” “more or less,” “pretty much,” etc, and his final blasé conclusion: “Although, you know, whatever.” But in a deeper way, this clearly is more aligned with the above-quoted passage from “Authority and American Usage” or “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” And that’s what made TPK so special and promising and, consequently, so tragic.
CONCLUSION –– AT LONG LAST –– IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALLACE’S NONFICTION AND, PERHAPS, CONCLUDE A THING OR TWO
All of which is to say that The David Foster Wallace Reader does a fantastic job of surveying Wallace’s work, and gave this enormous fan a chance to put my complicated thoughts on DFW on paper, to stop them (the thoughts) from swimming in my head like unhappy fish in a bowl and pick them out and set them free.
To conclude: I agree with critic Michael Schmidt’s assessment of Wallace’s essays but not his novels, which Schmidt believes are “uneven.” For Schmidt, Wallace “makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction,” and his essays “entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres.” And also:
He reinvents the form from within, using its own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire.
What is this but another way of saying he that he wrote meta-nonfiction? Here’s how Wallace himself put it in Quack This Way, a book-length interview he did with Bryan A. Garner (whose usage manual was the subject of Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” essay excerpted above): “Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential.” Wallace dove inside the tropes of the essay and stretched them until they seemed new, like a restored Victorian home updated with every contemporary amenity yet remaining classic and beautiful and timeless. His greatest asset in the essays, though, wasn’t his experimentation, his rethinking of the form, but what he described to David Lipsky as his “regular-guyness.” Though he used this voice in his fiction, it is employed with much higher success in his nonfiction. But this wouldn’t have meant a damn thing if the voice didn’t lead to something extraordinary. The voice is the invitation; the actual stuff going on in the essays –– that’s the magic.
Schmidt characterizes Wallace as “a postmodernist with premodern values,” and I think this is key to his writing. Wallace was a polymath, a genius, a postmodern wizard, but at heart he was almost naïvely optimistic, almost sentimental (something particularly clear in his famous Kenyon College commencement speech from 2005, also not included in TDFWR). Wallace accomplished something many critics of postmodernism never believed was possible: he used the “tricks” and “gimmicks” of postmodern technique in the interest of human connection. He did this in his novels, too, but less successfully, maybe in part due to his tendency to “impersonate what he describes, even when the subject is debased, vulgar, boring,” as James Wood put it. But his essays were genuine attempts to work through the topic at hand, to explain his thinking process to the reader as thoroughly and truthfully as possible, with limited filters. He earned our Trust through rigorous ethos and followed through with staggering intelligence and wit. As The Pale King shows, he could have used these techniques in fiction to considerable effect, but we’ll never know where he would have gone intellectually or creatively. We only have what he left behind. And we also know that he did, at least, achieve what were to him the greatest aims of literature: to connect, to challenge, and to make us feel less alone.
It was October of 1966 and John Barth had just published Giles-Goat Boy, a 700-page postmodern comedy, and a New York Times Bestseller. Barth was starting the stories that would eventually make up Lost In The Funhouse, a seminal work of metafiction. He was teaching at the University of Buffalo and was busy putting together a week-long reading series for the following spring. He had already secured writers like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and John Hawkes – author of the spectacular surrealist Western, The Beetle Leg. The series would feature some of the most powerful literary figures of the time. But Barth was working to finish the line-up with one more writer, a man he admired and sought to befriend; he wanted to get John Updike.
“I’ve been told you don’t make public appearances, and I sympathize,” Barth wrote to Updike. Updike had won the National Book Award for The Centaur three years prior, and Rabbit, Run was only half a decade old. Updike was 34. Barth was 36. Barth wrote to Updike, “…as one who respects your work, and suspects it would sound excellent to the ear in the author’s voice, and has agreed to read something of my own to help out, and wants to meet you better anyhow than I did at the Academy last Spring, I’d be honored, and we all delighted, if you’d bend your admirable policy once and lay some of your prose on us out loud.”
Barth was genial with many alpha literary fiction writers throughout his career – eventually even men like Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie. But Barth was an alpha writer himself, in the mid-60’s, a literary artist and intellectual who was both wildly innovative and popular. Barth largely associated with other experimentalists – people like William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass – but then he was especially drawn to Updike. Updike was a realist, and this genre discrepancy served as a sort of important buffer to literary bitterness and jealousy, especially as time went on.
Other writers knew about Updike’s aversion to public speaking. Updike had only ever taught one course, in the early 1960s, at the Harvard Summer School and disliked the experience so intensely that he vowed to never do it again. Updike covered a single additional class session in the Fall of 1966 at Boston University – after John Cheever called him, too drunk to stand up – and that was his final appearance in the classroom.
Barth wrote to Updike anyway. Updike responded, “I don’t ‘read’ much, but such a generous and engaging letter from the author of Giles Goat-boy would be hard to resist. By next April I should either be insane or substantially through a novel that is presently tormenting me, so let me accept, on the assumption that I’ll be reminded as the date approaches.”
Updike went to Buffalo in 1967. Barth stood at the front of a crowded auditorium and enumerated the ways that Updike’s writing was distinctive in a time of high postmodernism and experimentation. “His materials and methods remain essentially realistic, straightforwardly if subtly representational, as opposed to the diverse anti- and irrealisms of most of his contemporaries.” Barth said, “He’s non-apocalyptic, a highly unfashionable attitude – one suspects he may not even be a nihilist.”
Barth certainly thought of himself as one of those irrealist writers he mentioned in Updike’s introduction. He had begun writing Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The book begins with a note from the author, in which Barth writes that many of these stories aren’t actually meant for the page. Barth says “Glossolia,” for example, “will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female.” Despite finally limiting some of those ambitions to the printed word, a story like, “Night-Sea Journey” – a sperm’s existential reflections on its swim to fertilize an egg – is brilliant. Stories like “Lost In The Funhouse”, “Autobiography”, and “Title” are, too. Some of the others – “Echo”, “Menelaiad”, “Anonymiad” – really stumble.
Six years after the Buffalo reading, and around the time Barth published his National Book Award-Winning trio of novellas, Chimera, Barth moved back to Baltimore to teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. He was put in charge of another speaker series. He again sought John Updike.
In October 1974, Updike wrote back and accepted that invitation. Updike then shared some unhappy news: “You and [Barth’s wife] Shelley will be sorry to hear that Mary and I seem to be undergoing that American, or is it menopausal, experience called separation. Hence the urban address below. I work, eat, sleep, and read all on the same head of a pin-sized apartment, and seem happy in a way, or at least less asthmatic.”
Barth conveyed his distress and sent his best wishes to Updike and his wife. He hoped Updike was able to write in his “diminished physical plant.”
Updike furthered the intimate tone of the exchange with his response. He wrote, “A curious bit of etiquette – having no wife to bring, might I bring someone else?… The substitute would be, I would think, a mature American female, quiet and mannerly, not apt to embarrass any proceedings. I haven’t invited any yet, just wondering, way in advance.”
Barth wrote to Updike that he would set him up in the Nichols House, which would be comfortable “with or without mature American female, whom by all means, bring.”
On Friday, April 18th, 1975, Updike arrived in Baltimore with, in his words to Barth, “A Martha Bernhard (37, une autre séparée, onetime student of Nabokov at Cornell).” Leslie Fiedler, the book critic, had a campus event that same day. The group of them went to Updike’s afternoon reading, then Fiedler’s evening lecture, then out to dinner.
The next morning, Barth and Shelley and Updike and Martha went on a literary tour of Baltimore. They visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. They went to the H.L. Mencken House. They got soft-shell crab for lunch. Then John and Martha got on a plane back to Massachusetts.
Gracious letters from both Bernhard and Updike followed. Bernhard wrote, “Dear Shelley and Jack, You were dear to let me tag along to watch John enchant your students, a pleasant occasion for me of course. Beyond that, I was moved by your graciousness and acceptance in what could have been an awkward situation. But it was charming, really, because of your gentleness. Lovely of you.” She added that the Barths were fortunate to have seen Updike in a “role he shies from but does beautifully.”
Updike, for his part, said, “Martha was greatly touched and cheered by the lack of awkwardness in an adventure, a venturing forth, that was a touch barefaced for us. You were both most kind.” Then he goes on to ask Barth if he can get him a Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt for a souvenir, “with as it happens [his] initials on it.”
Updike and Martha got married in 1977. They were married for 31 years, the rest of Updike’s life.
After Updike died, Martha told Barth in a letter that this first trip was not only the beginning of her relationship with Updike, but also the occasion on which Updike changed his mind about readings. “He took to it,” Martha wrote, “as he didn’t to teaching, and thus began a modest, but consistent, reading schedule that he truly enjoyed.”
Following the Baltimore visit, Barth and Updike’s communication continued primarily through the mail. Letters of mutually generous appreciation of each other’s work were frequent, and they sustained the friendship.
The differences between the two writers, meanwhile, grew more marked. In 1982, Updike published Rabbit Is Rich, the story of Harry Angstrom inheriting his late father’s Toyota dealership and living through prosperous days in which he worries about his wife’s drinking, his son’s hostility, and his own libido. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barth, meanwhile, published an opus of a novel called LETTERS. LETTERS is not only entirely about itself and its author, but also about Barth’s first six novels, which you need to have read in order for LETTERS to make any sense.
The critical state of their respective careers diverged. After the publication of Rabbit Is Rich, Barth wrote to Updike, “Congratulations on ‘Rabbit’ sweeping the field—and what’s more, on the book itself. Shelly has asked me, “are you envious?” And I have answered, “yes,” especially as the first negative advance reviews of my new one [The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor] trickle into the clear stream of our life like acid mine drainage.”
Updike published the well-received Witches of Eastwick. He again won the National Book Critic Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with Rabbit at Rest. Barth meanwhile published sprawling navel-gazing novels like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales – books that were increasingly long form concentrations on the mechanics of storytelling.
Barth and Updike complained to each other of certain writers’ underappreciated brilliance, and griped of others’ successes. “The Pynchon—,” Updike wrote, “I got a hundred pages into it, and wondered if the next several hundred would tell me anything I didn’t already know. He can coin wonderful phrases, and does prodigies of homework, but there isn’t a lot of flesh to nibble on. Still, I must get back to it, and then read every word of Underworld, as penance or pleasure, who knows?”
Barth grew sensitive to critics and reviews, and counter-productively more stubborn in his methods. In 2001, Barth wrote Coming Soon!!!, in which he attempts to spoof his own position in the pantheon with two protagonists: one’s a retiring novelist (quite clearly John Barth) setting out to write his final masterpiece. The other’s a young, aspiring writer (quite clearly a young John Barth) in the midst of his first novel. The two protagonists are tangled up together in a competitive literary reprisal of The Floating Opera, the writer John Barth’s first book. Despite his admirable pursuit of fun and experimentation in fiction, Barth often seemed to want to make things hard on himself. Like with a lot of artists, he tended to be his own worst enemy.
In a 2002 Salon interview, critic Leslie Feidler was asked which of postmodern writers would survive and endure. Feidler said, “I used to think Barth and Hawkes had a chance. I’m not so sure now. Barth’s most recent book was terrible. And he sorta knows it too, I had a note from him which mentioned the reviews.”
Updike wrote to Barth in November 2008. He said he had only read the first story in Barth’s new book, The Development. He wrote, “I needed to pluck up my courage to continue, especially since. I have just emerged from testing the waters of mortality in three days at Boston’s finest, MGH. Your description of the hectic banality of retirement havens almost makes mortality look good.”
Updike had just been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. Eight weeks later, on January 27th, 2009, he died.
Barth immediately wrote to Martha, and she responded, “He began writing the final verses of Endpoint in that hospital bed and continued at home where he finished before Christmas…He died eight weeks after his diagnosis, at the end of January.”
Updike had some faults – most notably a nonchalant misogyny – but there was much more that was miraculous about his writing. Rabbit, Run, in gritty lyric detail, conveys the American dream as the American nightmare in the way it renders young Harry Angstrom stumbling after happiness in a place like Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike once described his own style as “an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and he did do just that. He also published an incredible number of books – 24 novels, 16 books of nonfiction, 14 collections of short stories, and 10 books of poetry.
John Barth, too, wrote more than most readers would be likely to get through. Yet there are moments in his catalog that are wildly inventive, strange, and brilliant; the influence of certain Barth stories and novels ripple conspicuously across the works of writers like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, who went on to generate monumental influence on their own terms. Barth’s story “Lost In The Funhouse” is metafiction at its peak. Ambrose’s anxious journey through the story’s funhouse becomes a perfect metaphor for the reader’s passage through the story itself. In certain places, the plot pushes forward and the story gains momentum. In others, it gets stuck in mirrored corners. “The important thing to remember,” Barth writes, “is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement.” Barth’s embrace of this principle – as he considers funhouse architecture and simultaneously inspects the mechanics of storytelling – transforms the piece into something sinisterly buoyant and incredibly smart. The writer, narrator, and reader experience all the joys and setbacks of the journey together. The story is passionate, angsty, and a bit existentially terrifying. “For whom is the funhouse fun?” the story opens. “For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”
Barth’s early success in metafiction inspired him to continue in that vein, and it eventually led to the surge of negative criticism for the books that came later in his career. “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon,” David Foster Wallace once said in an interview. “Art’s reflection on itself is terminal.” Barth, though, kept fighting to mine life from his metafictional flights, writing longer and longer books to do it.
In their later letters, Barth continued to express admiration and respect toward Updike. Updike returned the praise, though more often with soft mentions that he hadn’t quite finished Barth’s most recent books. As was always the case, Barth took solace in the discrepancies between their respective genres, but it got more difficult for him as the state of their critical acclaim split. The thorniness of the relationship begins to show as the letters go on.
Updike never abandoned Barth, though. Updike and Barth rose as important literary figures around the same time, and largely behaved as compatriots until the very end. In the 1990s, Updike spotted a news clipping featuring Barth in which Barth had been quoted saying, “Just now, I’m completely enthralled by and engrossed in John Updike’s book. There’s a writer who’s very unlike me who I admire enormously for his productivity and his talent.” Updike underlined the passage and wrote, “I do thank you for the generous words. But I don’t think we’re very unlike. We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.”
Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. A physical exhibition on the writer John Barth will be mounted in the Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library in Fall 2015.
“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” — she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough?
Nobody said they didn’t.
With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” — not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own.
Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt.
This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering — whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain — could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books.
We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name — my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting.
Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow.
This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn — the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed.
My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit.
There was also Karenina from Idaho — a girl from Idaho! — and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors.
I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read…although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant.
One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new.
There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return.
To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know.
If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers — the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus — then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O’Rourke
As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.
Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.
Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.
I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on Amazon.com, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.
My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.
“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.
I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”
My idea when I opened an online bookstore at biblio.com was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.
But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.
One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.
I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.
But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.
In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?
And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?
Image Credit: Pexels/Stanislav Kondratiev.
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Red Lights by Georges Simenon recommended by AndrewUntil recently, I had always associated Belgian author Georges Simenon with the Inspector Maigret mysteries. Then, on the front table of my local indie book shop, I began seeing a series of seductively glossy paperback novellas from NYRB Classics, each credited simply to Simenon, each with an introduction. Move over Maigret, this was something different.In the middle of last century, Simenon wrote a number of psychological novels, what he called his romans durs (literally “hard novels”). Red Lights is a novella set in the United States, as a white-collar couple from 1950s New York City drive to Maine on the Labor Day Weekend to fetch their children from camp. The novella tracks the ensuing 24 hours with chilling acuity. The narrator is psychologically ultra-aware, digging into the mind and mental state of the husband as his life is turned upside-down. His future with his wife, his life as he’s known it – everything he’s taken for granted – is suddenly in jeopardy due to the events unfolding on the journey to Maine. An altogether different kind of mystery from the man behind Maigret.The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson recommended by GarthWhile some of the “experimental fictions” of the 1960s have gone the way of the pet rock, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates deserves a place on that decade’s honor roll, alongside Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Barth’s Funhouse. Johnson conceived of The Unfortunates as an Oulippan departure from narrative convention: a “book in a box,” whose 27 bound pamphlets may be read in any order. Together, they tell the semi-autobiographical story of an English sportswriter dispatched the the provinces to cover a soccer match. As he wanders the streets, before and after the game, the narrator finds his thoughts returning to the death of a friend who was a native of the town. The novel itself achieves a similarly bifurcated effect: while its Oulippan form is good sport, the gently melancholic stream-of-consciousness narration builds to something positively moving. Johnson himself died in 1973, at age 40. Whether due to the production expenses or to the perceived conservatism of U.S. readers, The Unfortunates wasn’t published stateside until just last year. Thanks to New Directions for this act of resurrection.Perfume by Patrick Suskind recommended by BenFrom its grotesque first pages to its orgiastic grand finale, Perfume’s narrative is bizarre, compelling and never dull. The tale of a grand guignol perfumer and his murderous quest for the ultimate fragrance, Suskind’s novel is equal parts historical novel, inquiry into the nature of evil, and meditation on smell. It may be that the written word is the only medium that can even begin to approximate our olfactory experience, and Suskind’s genius lies not so much in his brave narrative choices (multiple points of view, a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist), but in his ability to bring vivid life to the world of scent.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee recommended by MaxJohn McPhee’s incredible facility with words is evident in his ability to make seemingly any topic fascinating. McPhee has mesmerized readers with accounts of shad fishing and oranges, so it seems fitting that his the masterpiece of his prolific career takes on arguably his most boring topic of all: geology. And as if raising the stakes, he goes on at length: 660 pages. And yet Annals of the Former World, in which McPhee describes the geology of a cross-section of the U.S. and makes use of ample digression along the way, is engrossing as only McPhee’s books are. The book includes equal parts anecdote, history, and hard science, the latter delivered innocuously and effectively. Underpinning it all is McPhee’s clear joy for learning and sharing his new found knowledge.Annapurna by Maurice Herzog recommended by KevinBefore there was Into Thin Air there was Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 became the first person ever to scale a mountain higher than 8,000 meters. It was, as you’d expect, no easy feat and Annapurna is Herzog’s first person account of the expedition. How incredible was Herzog’s ascent? While today the Annapurna Circuit is the most popular Himalayan trek going, with direct flights from Kathmandu virtually to the trail head, Herzog and his team of French climbers, attended by legions of Nepali porters, had to walk for weeks to even get within range of the mountain, and once there, it took them weeks more to actually locate the peak. Herzog adopts a sly, matter-of-fact tone in the retelling, but make no mistake, he knows how to spin a good yarn and he doesn’t skimp on the final ascent, which includes all the frost bite and near death experiences we’ve come to expect from the genre. Annapurna was a sensation when it came out in 1952, eventually selling more than 11 million copies. It has fallen a little bit from view since then, but now is as good a time as any to bring it back.(See links to more Staff Picks in the sidebar.)