‘Reading,’ as describing a certain activity of eye-sliding-over-page, with eye recognizing ink blobs corresponding (by means of whatever neural calculus) either (1) to something like second-order phonemes, and therefore to certain aural centers and therefore to speech-parts of the brain, which ‘articulate’ meaning to other parts, or (2) to something like second-order morphemes, and therefore to certain visual centers, and therefore to picture-parts of the brains, which ‘project’ meanings to other parts, or (3) to some combination of (1) and (2)—well, ignore that or bracket it, because I have 1,000 words and a little over, say, ten minutes to argue for long and arduous works of literature, their import and glory—and, specifically, for the particularly long and particularly arduous recent novels of Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace.
I’m writing a thesis on Robert Musil, academically-famous and generally-publically-ignored author of the downright agonizing Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [‘The Man Without Qualities,’] and I’m debating with my adviser whether or not to include a small epilogue linking Musil-criticism to something like postmodern or D.F.W.-criticism.
In a sense, this review is proceeding ass-first, so I ought to say straight out: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2008) and Wallace Infinite Jest (Little, Brown; 1996) are among the best hopes we have for contemporary literary treatment of the big questions, meaning recapitulation of things like: incompleteness; the ‘importance’ of grand histories; the possibility of a unified subject; the reality and phantasmagoria of memory; and the sublime unit of prose. Hence Musil and Bolaño and Wallace, however different, trend in the same critical direction.
Unfortunately, both Bolaño and Wallace are dead: the former of liver disease, whose pathological relatedness to (reputed, though never proved) heroin addiction is going to infuriate tenure-clawing assistant professors in Comp. Lit. departments for about a generation, and the latter of his own hand. I’ll admit to not having read Wallace seriously until after his death, but my love for him bespeaks a convert’s zeal: I began with the non-fiction, turned to the short stories, then, during a break from thesis-writing, embarked on Infinite Jest (a friend was reading, too, and we had something like a hyper-pretentious lit.-nerd support group). In November, while dodging something I ought to have done, I read 2666, after having allowed it molder in a drawer the entirety of the summer.
I can’t make the mammothly jerkish assumption that you’ll all know what 2666 and Infinite Jest are about. Problem is, they’re both multilayered narratives, involving issues of narration (major grist for the Ph.D. and thesis mill; I’m basically writing on Musil’s narrator’s failure to narrate). But summarize I ought, and thus: 2666 includes a reclusive German writer, a reporter for a New York-based magazine, dozens of murdered women along the U.S.-Mexico border, and some attempt, in the fifth and final book (read: long, long chapter) to close the thing off, without forcing a conclusion or anything remotely like catharsis.
Infinite Jest includes about 400 pages of tennis, 300 pages of rehab stories, 100 pages of international intrigue (French-Canadian spies! In wheel chairs!), and 100 pages of ‘free, indirect’ narration focalized on bit characters (a pot addict and a heroin addict, to name two). There are also about 100 pages of footnotes.
Have I caught your attention? With any luck, the six people still reading are poised for the upshot: why any work of art so demanding, involuted, and downright vertiginous could make for a worthwhile, indeed memorable (or even indelible) personal/aesthetic/beatific experience.
Wallace gestured toward precisely this answer, in a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, and Bolaño, I would aver, tacitly supported Wallace’s claim, both in writing and in a series of hard-to-piece-together clues, concerning his life and work, and the intertwining thereof. If—their argument runs—literature is a placative medium, like lower-end television or lower-end Hollywood film, then things like realism and dirty realism (narration of events ‘as they are,’ plain and unadorned) should do just fine. But if that reasoning unsettles you: well, you’ve got the inkling upon which professors and artists have expatiated voluminously, since about the First World War. Namely, that ‘realism’ itself is an ideological construct re: the working of the world, and that, in point of fact, what is ‘real’ to one generation is no more immanent to ‘actual reality’ than, say, is Picasso’s Cubism, or Beckett’s insane minimalism, or any of a number of purportedly avant-garde art forms. Questions of ‘good literature,’ and ‘good art’ more generally, derive from the social reality undergirding these questions, and not from abstract, transhistorical notions of what art does, what sentences say, what brushstrokes mean.
People with far more knowledge of theory than I—and far greater capacity for critical discourse—will shoot 1,001 holes in the Materialism 101 PowerPoint I’ve just ripped through. Fine and dandy. But David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño each take up the problems of the previous paragraph without abandoning some relation, however tenuous, to the issue of human life at the present moment. Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon have engaged the ‘history-and-literature’ debate with postmodern élan, but I can, and have, spend long afternoons bloviating on the importance of Wallace’s and Bolaño’s humanism.
That is: 2666 and Infinite Jest are core-rendingly depressing books. I cried at the end of both, and not simply because I was exhausted, over-caffeinated, up late, and a bit worried about my own state of mind. Wallace and Bolaño tap into the twenty- and thirtysomething equivalent to first-kiss teenage goose-pimples. We are old enough to know that our pain, psychological and physical, is not unique, and our Princeton educations have done a fair job of indicating that certain—though not all—symptoms and pathologies of contemporary experience are imbricate with a pervasive boredom/anxiety dialectic. In other (realer) words: we are comfortable, aware of our comfort, yet nevertheless nostalgic for a certain never-was, the heroism and beauty and divine Truth of movements long past, hours spent before god-knows-what, the writing table or the stone slab, scribbling bravely as fire loosed overhead.
Wallace and Bolaño privilege a fundamentally heroic aspect of literature without succumbing to cloyingness, or to comedic frippery, or to the anti-romanticism of the Pynchons and Barthelmes (whose works I do admire, though less viscerally and whole-heartedly). Central to Infinite Jest and 2666 is a big justification of ‘bigness’ itself: a sally into matters metaphysical, epistemological, and narratological—among one hundred others—that acknowledges information overload and postmodernity but also the undying sadness, alienation, and brief, flickering happiness constitutive of human storytelling impulses.
Oh, bother. This isn’t a review so much as a plea. Summer is coming. Soon-to-be graduates, including yours truly, are embarking upon a socially-mandated decline into middle age (most of us with remarkable rapidity). Everyone else on campus has all the time in the world, which is no time at all. Read Bolaño and Wallace, or Vollmann or Gaddis or any of the other contemporary biggies, or learn French and read Proust, or, hell, pick up Ulysses.
What I mean to say is, read the longest damn novel you can find. Because the ‘process’ of doing so—to use D.F.W.’s language—is monadic, electric, and—just maybe—emblematic of the sweeping, centuries-old struggle to chart the course of human history.
Do that. Then read a tiny Kafka fragment, and write a 1,000-word compare-and-contrast. You have till the rest of your life to turn it in.
1)-N.B.: This is an entirely un-scientific—read: wholly literary and intuitive—understanding of the letter vis-à-vis neurological recognition thereof, but I’m not aiming for scientific rigor, rather for a somewhat more mundane and, hopefully, accessible aspect of what it means actually to read something, so ho-hum to all of you. P.S.: I totally get the ironic and/or plagiarist-pasticheur dimension of using winding and wordy footnotes to discuss David Foster Wallace; if you want to talk in person about my reasons for doing so, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll go for a coffee, because it would take a long time and a good bit of caffeine, perhaps even a cigarette, for me to explain why and how footnotes are useful in a D.F.W.-free as well as D.F.W.-ful environment; and to those not inclined to meet authors of undergraduate magazine criticism, again, ho-hum to you.
2)-Cf. D. T. Max’s dutifully-researched, if a bit facile and nostalgic, capsule of D.F.W.’s life, work, and death, “The Unfinished,” in the March 9, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.
3)-Like everyone else. But “Consider the Lobster” and the Federer piece and the title essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again are phenomenal. All are accessible online; you may have to dig around a bit, and the “Fun Thing” essay requires, I believe, a Harper’s subscription, but see what you can manage.
4)-I can’t say I’m the world’s hugest fan of Wallace’s shorter fiction. But there are those who argue for it, and vehemently. See “Good People,” accessible on The New Yorker’s website, as one example.
5)-Long story short: things came up.
6)-I’m tempted to say palimpsestual, but it sounds wrong.
7)-Benno von Archimboldi, not Robert Musil, although Musil is name-checked within the first fifty pages. Bolaño knew where to tip the hat.
8)-Yes, these exist. I’ve actually met one or two here at Princeton, and they do well in classes, for the most part, making the addiction hard to spot, though no less damaging and real.
9)-Again, all ‘meta’ references aside. I really can defend these footnotes, and I will, by gum. I had to fight tooth-and-nail with the lovely NW staff in order to include all eighteen.
10)-A former Nass editor used the phrase ‘novel-gazing’ in an lit.-crit. article, and I’ve never forgotten it.
11)-Mr. B. was a notorious liar, as regarded his ‘biography.’ Cf. Larry Rohter’s brief, horribly-titled, but informative “A Chilean Writer’s Fictions Might Include His Own Colorful Past,” New York Times, January 27, 2009, accessible online.
12)-Some of you are bound to be pissed about this. I’m not going into high-low distinctions here, but suffice it to say I love bad T.V. and bad movies in equal measure, and believe said stance to have no bearing on relative intelligence or any concomitant crap.
13)-Major literary theory word. Has quite a lot to do with proximity to unapproachable concepts, like Truth or God; so maybe just substitute ‘immediate’ and carry on, blithely.
14)-Would that these single quotes could be 48-pt. font. Any discourse on ‘actual reality’ requires something like nine volumes and a Ph.D. The phrase is going to have to stand unexplained; my apologies.
15)-I’ve stolen this anecdote from Professor G. Burnett. Thanks, Graham.
16)-You can even do DeLillo’s Underworld, which I enjoyed, or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which a few of my friends have slogged through and reported on, somewhat favorably (though mostly drool-mouthedly). I’ll admit to not having finished GR, but I will, some day.
17)-Don’t read the translations, because they’re bunk and more or less occlusive of the beauty of Proust’s prose. Granted, my French is near-shit and I’ve skimmed about twelve lines of the original, but I can tell you, from that alone, it’s a major time-waster in the English (of which I’ve read considerably more). Most of the academic world will disagree with me on the pleasurable-experience factor regarding Proust, and that’s fine. To me, the book’s importance lies more in encapsulation than in actuality—but, again, that’s a big claim, a headache-inducer, and one that could be made about many of the texts listed above.
18)-The biggest mama of them all, as far as the Anglo-American canon is concerned. Debated whether to mention it in any form, because it’s such a sui generis fish-kettle. Whatever.