Tuesday, November 29, 2011

1,079 Pages, in Paperback

Let's get the adjectives out of the way first: sweeping, confounding, maddening, enormous, sad, absurd, unparalleled, astonishing, preposterous, cringe-inducing, inspiring, awesome, phat, brilliant, mind-boggling, unique, over-the-top, fucking amazing.

Infinite Jest, at 1,079 pages in the Little Brown paperback edition, the one with the inexplicable blue sky cover (overall a rather insipid cover that in no way grabs your attention or does justice to the novel it embraces) is the longest novel I've ever read. Reading it spanned summer 2011 and went deep into the fall, from early June to late November.

I read the endnotes. Everyone who cares pretty much already knows there are a lot of
endnotes. 388 over ninety-six pages. There will always be debates about DFW's endnotes and footnotes. How many graduate school dissertations will be written on David Foster Wallace's use of footnotes? Scores. But there's no debate here. The endnotes for Infinite Jest should not be skipped. Read every one.

Confession: it took me a long time to really get into it, I had to struggle through at least two hundred pages. I couldn't keep track of the characters. The narrative thread was a jumpy melange of absurdity and surreal realism that was often confusing and sometimes confounding. The completely weird  and disparate parallel 'stories' - the elite tennis academy with its twisted creepy family founders, the desperate interns of Ennet House (note: not "the Ennet House"), and the downright bizarre Quebecois wheelchair terrorists - were all off-putting in various ways. But I persevered.

The momentum really shifted when I got to the Eschaton part (page 319). Nearly synchronous with reaching the section that introduced Eschaton, I read in the New York Times that a band named the Decemberists had re-created the Eschaton scene for their "Calamity Song" video. I'd never heard of the group before but I found the song compelling, and the visual depiction of the teenage tennis players in their mundane tennis court environment somehow helped bring Infinite Jest into focus, made it suddenly tangible and truthful in a way I hadn't grasped before.

From that point on, I read it in great chunks, awed and completely taken with it. Not quite lethally, of course, (heh heh heh), but absorbed and convinced of its genius. The rhythm became more apparent, the characters became familiar, the weird tics and quirks and opaqueness were no longer bothersome but became endearing. And the writing was just plain extraordinary. Not that a single quote or passage from the 1,079 pages might possibly be representative or somehow indicative of the prose in any adequate way, BUT - how about this description of the Charles River?

"The Charles rolling away far below the windowless bathroom is vividly blue, more mildly blue on top from fresh rainwater that had made purple rings appear and widen, a deeper Magic Marker-type blue below the dilute layer, gulls stamped to the cleared sky, motionless as kites." pg 237

What about the professional building "... the one with bricks the color of Thousand Island dressing"? (pg 252) Or "...a sky the color of dirty glass."? (pg 621)  Or "...the hot slack facial intensity of a sleeping baby."? (pg 925)

Like The Pale King, wherein is an abundance of stupefyingly good sentences and paragraphs, the prose of Infinite Jest at times soars and roars and stuns.

And then there's the vocabulary (list of words I didn't know the meaning of coming soon).

Friday, November 18, 2011

J. Michael Lennon on Why Mailer Matters

J. Michael Lennon, he of long friendship with Norman Mailer and now a Mailer scholar and biographer, gave an address to the Norman Mailer Society on November 10, 2011 entitled "Why Mailer Matters: Three Reasons." The address is short, some 900 words, and brisk in the characteristically sharp and clean prose that Lennon writes.

One of Lennon's provocative assertions is that Mailer's "... actual novelistic achievements, while brilliant, sit in the second row behind his successes in the polemical essay and several kinds of nonfiction narrative  ...". Would Mailer himself agree with that? I think of Peter Matthiessen who has said that he thinks of himself as a novelist (Far Tortuga) first and foremost. How did Mailer view himself? Lennon will no doubt engage this topic in considerably more depth in his forthcoming massive Mailer biography.

The name that comes to mind when considering who else might have made it into Lennon's assertion that:
"Mailer was the most important public intellectual in the American literary world for over 30 years, and along with other figures such as William Buckley, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag, helped establish the creative writer as important a commentator as politicians, pundits and professors." ? How about Allen Ginsberg?

Mailer, Ginsberg, Burroughs, 1983
photo by Jerry Aronson

Mailer, Ginsberg and Ashly Montagu
on the John Crosby Show, late 50s?