After years of taunting me from a bookshelf close to my desk, I’ve finally faced up to the portrait of Robert Musil spread across the two spines that hold together The Man Without Qualities. The decision to read this modernist masterwork started out as a reluctant acceptance of a self-imposed challenge. I mean, who really wants to read over 1,000 pages about Austrian-Hungarian aristocrats trying to invent ideas about how to maintain power structures that have already crumbled? Yet Musil, who started the book in 1921 and worked on it until his death in 1942, wastes no time establishing a scope of ideas that are prescient and read as if written today, fully-realized observations of how commerce and industry render us anonymous cogs in a great global machine that chips away at the individual. Here are two gems to whet your appetite: “A world of qualities without a man has arisen, of experiences without the person who experiences them, and it almost looks as though ideally private experience is a thing of the past;” “Democracy means, expressed most succinctly: Do whatever is happening!”
I don’t like toting around big books though, so when on the move my reads were physically lighter but just as memorable. Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is like a translation of itself, stories told and retold across eras between Northern California and rural France, hauntingly delicate like whispers not meant to be heard. The Bay Area is also a character in McTeague. Frank Norris’s tale of a boarding house dentist has all the qualities of any good story — faith in the future, betrayal, soured romance, comic relief — not to mention a Death Valley showdown that makes for one of those pitch-perfect endings. All writers should aim to wrap up their stories with such precision.
And though I read it early this year, and reviewed it here, I keep thinking about Geoff Dyers’s Zona, erudite, intimate, and humorous, I wish more books about other works of art were so assured and capable.
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Well, Wyatt Mason beat me to it. Over at his blog, Sentences, the Harper’s critic has registered a couple of cavils with D.T. Max’s powerful, fascinating New Yorker article on David Foster Wallace, “The Unfinished.” First, Mason suggests, Max makes his case for The Broom of the System at the expense of what may be a better book, Girl With Curious Hair. Second, Max might have profitably spent more time on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, and the nonfiction. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to find Mason anticipating, more eloquently, my own response to “The Unfinished”; I find him to be our most astute critic of Wallace (by which I mean, of course, the one whose thinking most resembles mine).It’s important to note, as Mason does, that these are minor quibbles, mere footnotes to Max’s achievement. (In my case, think of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy pontificating from the front row.) But they also betoken the immense, almost maternal protectiveness some readers feel toward Wallace’s reputation. We feel about Infinite Jest as William H. Gass does about Finnegans Wake: “Not to have been… influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time.” Our underlying anxiety is that the Kakutanis of the world will deprive our grandchildren of the beautiful thing we ourselves have been blessed to witness. And so, with an eye toward posterity – toward those who have not yet experienced Wallace’s writing first-hand – I humbly submit three additional footnotes to “The Unfinished.”1) It seems to me that there’s an assumption in certain passages of the article that writing fiction posed a “risk to [Wallace’s] mental health,” without sufficient evidence to discount the possibility that the causal arrow might have pointed the other way. In general, Max exhibits an admirable tact on the subject of Wallace’s depression and addictions; he wants to extend to the author the dignity that is his due. It seems important, therefore, that we not turn “The Unfinished” into an explanation of Wallace’s suicide. In particular – for the sake of reading the forthcoming The Pale King with a clear head – one wouldn’t want to succumb to the temptation to say that this last novel pushed Wallace over the edge. Writing is a form of daily frustration; it can also be, as Max shows, a source of daily grace.2) Because “The Unfinished” suggests that Wallace “began to develop a taste for journalism” in the wake of the publication of Infinite Jest, rather than in the early 1990s, it skirts a more thorough examination of the relationship between Wallace’s fiction and his nonfiction.3) Perhaps most significantly, Max summarizes a bit too approvingly Wallace’s sense that he had never “hit his target.” Indeed, Wallace’s attempt to do so becomes the narrative hinge of the article. But many who have read Infinite Jest will feel differently.On the subject of his own creations, the novelist is, at best, an unreliable witness. As Robert Musil writes in that other unfinished monument, The Man Without Qualities:He loves creation as long as he is creating it, but his love turns away from the finished portions. For the artist must also love what is most hateful in order to shape it, but what he has already shaped, even if it is good, cools him off; it becomes so bereft of love that he hardly still understands himself in it, and the moment when his love returns to delight in what it has done are rare and unpredictable.It is seemly for an artist to never be satisfied with past achievements, as Wallace no doubt knew, but it’s readers who get the final word. As time passes, Infinite Jest looks closer to Wallace’s stated target – “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” – than any other English-language novel of its era. I felt this way before Wallace’s death, and I still do.(P.S.: You got me, Andrew.)Bonus link: Sam Anderson’s take on “The Unfinished,” from New York Magazine