Saturday, March 24, 2007

BIG BOOKS, FEW BLOGS

It seems that undertaking to read rather lengthy books -- David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day -- serves to cut-down on my interest in day-to-day occasions for commentary. If it weren't for my idea of cataloguing albums of four different years month by month I'd have nothing to write about. This situation is exacerbated by a recently begun "book" (ok, so far it's more like a 1/4 of a chapter) on TP's output that, if I manage to stay on point, could be the project to overcome my critical-academic writing block. Too soon to tell.

I'm halfway through Infinite Jest and, since I'm also reading TP and thinking about his work and writing about V., a point of comparison with Pynchon occurs to me. Pynchon is a nerd who, thanks to the '60s and drugs and cool friends like Richard Fariña and living in Mexico, etc., became cool -- of course, the child being father to the man, much of his nerdiness remained in play, but it got channeled into this incredible prose writer. Kind of like Proust -- sure, he was a dilettante and a dandy and a neurotic but somehow he managed to put those qualities, generally drawbacks, at the service of fascinating prose and the story of how a dilettante became the great novelist of the era.

I'm less convinced that DFW has converted his nerdiness into the stuff of greatness. The guy is a nerd with a vengeance. From now on when I hear the phrase "Revenge of the Nerds" I'm going to think of David Foster Wallace. Particularly as they say that writing well is the best revenge. There's segment after segment (and the novel is really a collection of segments) that reads to me like revenge-via-verbiage.

DFW's a cool nerd, but that doesn't help. He reminds me of guys I knew in HS who would get stoned and do calculus problems. The nerdiness is only intensified by the substances. What this means in effect is that there's no process of selection and discernment going on. His sense of detail reminds me of a scene in Wonder Boys where a student tries to caution her teacher, a respected writer, about his endless opus, mentioning how the characters' dental records and the horses' genealogies might be overdoing it. I think DFW was the model for that aspect of the character.

The point of Infinite Jest seems to be to go on ad infinitum. If a scene can last for 5 pages, why not let it last for 10? Why not footnote every drug reference with complete pharmacological details? Why not obsess about competitive tennis in every possible permutation of nerdy obsessed athlete psychology? Oh, so that might be a bit elitist? I mean, how relevant do we find competitive tennis? So let's find something more accessible. What about AA meetings? Let's render the varieties of substance abuse in all their variegated detail ... and then return to it again. Then more tennis. Then more recovering addicts. Ever wonder how many kinds of physical disfigurement there are? Betcha I can use them all in a paragraph, or six.

And then there's the anal retentive complexity of the sentences and vocabulary, usually an end in itself, but occasionally a cop-out, as when a new AA recruit delivers an appalling tale of how she delivered a stillborn partial child while smoking crack. Well, that tale might be unbearable if she were allowed to tell it herself, so our narrator chooses to render it in his usual zonked-out but oh so articulate and hyper-verbal manner, so instead of an instant of abyss-like bathos and pathos (which we're told it was for all her listeners) it becomes a kind of voyeuristic "take" on human misery and stupidity, a bit too calculated in its effects. When Pynchon does this sort of thing, it quickly moves toward camp, sometimes chilling camp, but, though I detect some camp here, what comes across more tellingly in DFW's performance is the dressing-up for literary effect.

What DFW is incredibly good at is rendering what I can only call the "processed speak" of our time. The way information access permits everyone to speak like walking 'droids with media-ized prose instantly beamed into their brains. And the relentless language of diagnosis -- whether physical, mental, political, economic, you name it -- as the means by which we understand that we don't understand what's wrong. He can also render demotic speech remarkably well, when he chooses to. And he's also got down that flinty mastery of the non sequiturs of conversation -- especially deliberate non sequiturs between people who are dodging each other as in two brothers, Orin and Hal, on the phone -- that I associate with DeLillo. DFW, though, is rarely as funny (to me) as DeLillo and forget even getting close to TP.

TP tests limits too, but they're imaginative limits. In Pynchon, the detail with which unbelievable or highly fanciful things happen is unparalleled. And the tendency to make a literal fact become a metaphor or to let a metaphor take on a life of its own can make TP frustrating for those who want to know what's "really" happening, but otherwise you can just go along for the wild ride. DFW's imagination, having set up the basic scenario of the world of his novel, seems to be bent on simply replicating endless riffs on that scenario. I've read about 520 pages and I can't say the story is going forward, nor that any of the characters will surprise me. If there is a story unfolding (occasionally we're teased with the notion of one, sorta), it's seemingly more important to impede it with more segments than it is to tell it.

Remember in Ulysses when Bloom goes to the sink and turns the tap and the question is posed, Did it flow? And the answer gives us the specifics on where the water comes from. Or when the question is posed, what did Bloom, water-lover, admire about water? And the answer takes over a page of dense prose to render all the loveable qualities of water. That's what huge sections of this novel read like. Though rarely do I find myself admiring the prose the way I love the sound of that water passage in Joyce.

Oh well. As Beckett always sez: I can't go on I'll go on.

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