Saturday, October 20, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

I read most of Infinite Jest, that thousand-page behemoth of footnotes and furrowed brows, in the better part of a long weekend, lying prone on my double bed, barely moving as I powered through the thick prose. I wrote about that experience, the unbearable weight of taking on this job - reading - and having it transform into this transcendental meditation on addiction, family, and loss. I was brain-sick, absolutely pinned to the wall with loneliness and quasi-depression and the disgusting realization that I wasn't really a kid anymore, but I was too stupid and weird to be an adult. Infnite Jest was the underscore of this, and reading it clarified my idea that maybe I had to figure some of my shit out in order to survive.

That reading experience, like all our life-moments that blindside us on some otherwise normal long weekend, was a bummer and a blessing. I haven't really been the same since I read that book, but it didn't change me or ruin me or anything. It just sort of...shifted me a little, the way really good and really demanding writing always does. I feel for book critics, who could live a thousand lives in the pages of the books they read for work. By the time they retire, they must feel ancient. The ground under their feet might become unstable. I mean, how could you not surrender parts of yourself, in the face of books like Infinite Jest or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,or Motherless Brooklyn? Or Blood Meridien, when death, hilarious, comes riding straight at you?

No wonder Michiko Kakutani is tough. You'd have to be tough, in the face of writing like that. And you'd come to expect nothing less.

When I started reading The Pale King, it was the summer of 2011 and I was bonkers with stress: quitting my job, changes in the family, and a certain uncertainty about taking on another Big Fucking DFW Book. The Pale King isn't for wimps - almost 600 pages of disjointed and unfinished writing (he was still working on it when he hung himself, and his editor cobbled together some semblance of a story out of an inheritance of writing that ranged from mostly-finished chapters to scrambled notes), but it hangs together in an odd, slightly beautiful way.

I finished the book in the fall of 2012. I read in bed, in the bathtub, on the bus, in line at the movies, on the floor. I had to restart twice, in order to give Wallace's writing the attention it deserves, and I will likely read it again, now that I know what I'm in for, so I can surrender to it more fully.

The book is a look at boredom: how we as humans avoid and succumb to it, and what it does to us when we're held under its current. Do we change? Do we grow? It's a bit meta, as some of the driest chapters are designed to mimic the type of boring-ass stuff the characters would come up against (the book is set in and around the IRS, so it's got the full cast of pencil-necked, pocket-protected characters). But it also has great swathes of crazy glorious writing: backstory that makes little sense, like the boy who wants to kiss every part of his body - yes, including his anus and the top of his own head - but treat the reader to a glimpse at what Wallace thinks might happen when we come out the other side. When we focus, and get past the shitty boredom and the distractions, and we laser-beam in on what we're doing, what can we become?

Let's be real: I have no idea if what was published as The Pale King would have been at all like what Wallace would have eventually presented to his editor. This book is interesting and challenging, but knowing that your own name is on the spine of Infinite Jest would create a lump in the throat of even the sanest and more confident writers. Wallace, despite his genius, struggled. I don't know if the editor's thesis statement for the book would have exactly followed Wallace's, so what we're left is the ghost of a novel. There's an eerieness inherent in reading unfinished work, and this book is no exception.

I haven't picked up D.T. Max's biography of Wallace just yet, and I'm not sure if I will. I don't necessarily need to know him better to know that what I've read has changed me. Mary Karr, in her excellent memoir Lit, recalls Wallace as a weirdo, a man who got her name tattooed on his arm before they had even kissed, but reading that felt invasive, like I had run into him at an AA meeting and couldn't stop staring.

I loved reading his essays about  growing up in the Midwest, when the earth is so flat that it warps your mind a little. I want more of that. More crazy, demanding, alienating writing about what it means to become a person in this time and place. Not a second-hand story about a man who used to be here.