Bedside Manner: Chasing the 'Infinite' Dragon
What do you read next when you really, really loved what you last read?
By Sarah Smith,
9:03PM, Mon. Oct. 17, 2011
With books like Infinite Jest, you will almost always have some marginal opinion about them before you begin reading. I first encountered it during a writerly vetting process at some cocktail party, in which serious readers test each others' mettle by listing the books they've conquered, with bonus points for difficulty and relative obscurity.
Infinite Jest always came up in those conversations as something of a contemporary analog to Ulysses (which I still haven't bested), and I was always a little defiant about having not read it since I'm so cranky about footnotes. This didn't stop me from buying a copy years ago because long, tricky books also give off an aspirational glow that I'm easily swayed by.
I'm really not sure why I read it this summer except that for long stretches many of my friends were off traveling and the ones still in town had relinquished all activities until further notice save drinking G&Ts in backyard swimming pools. And even though my schooling is over, I haven't yet been able to wash away the self-improvement aura of summer; having a full-time job has done little to disabuse me of the notion that I should return in September with a new haircut, crisp notebooks, newfound romantic confidence, and an effortless comprehension of every film in the Criterion Collection. One summer, I really did try to watch every film in the Criterion Collection, but there were too many sad black-and-whites about French orphans to wade through. Checking off a Great Novel from the to-read list seemed a slightly more realistic goal, so with fellow proofer Monica as a guide, I gamely set off with my Post-it flags, although I was a little intimidated by the widely acknowledged fact that the book really doesn't pick up until page 250. (Mon, thanks for the hint.)
What struck me as I toted around this fraying, increasingly dirty and Post-it-befouled book is how large a life it has socially. There are many, many great novels with their own fan clubs (among them Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping and Roberto Bolaño's 2666; I'm sorry to cajole you parenthetically, but you really should try them), but not many novels that actually invite conversation. So many times when I ran into somebody with Infinite Jest under my arm, they stopped me to ask, “Where are you in the book? What just happened?” as if the book were something currently of interest in my life rather than a mere diversion.
Many readers find the idea of a book not taking off until the second act a demanding and not entirely fair condition of a megalomaniacal author, but those doorstopper novels most often contain a promise from the writer: if you trust them to take their time, they will in turn tell you absolutely everything they have come to understand that is worth passing on. Seen from this angle, the exercise is generous rather than cheeky. So there's a 12-page footnote cataloging the entirely fictionalized filmography of one of the principal characters; so what? So new characters are introduced even once the page count hits 800; so what? So whole passages are written in dense Boston junkie argot from the POV of a character named only “yrs truly”; so fucking what? Enormity of experience makes up for perversity of structure, even though I'm still cranky about footnotes.
In the chasing that high, I tried other big, hunky novels, none of which, you'll notice, appear here: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom I read in one weekend and really enjoyed, although Jonno, here's a hint: Constantly drawing your readers' attention to the fact that a surfeit of freedom, like, burdens you, man was a little heavy-handed. I even tried my hand at William Gaddis' The Recognitions, which garners extra difficulty and obscurity points – for good reason, it turns out. David Foster Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System is here, though: In it, you can see Wallace working out some of the conceits that will be better used in Infinite Jest, including the charting of an alternate timeline and the presence of a fictionalized disaster, but it's really more of a warm-up than a chaser.
William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, though, makes for a nice sidecar when issues of irony and faith are in play, and Wallace Shawn's Essays attempt a bit of the same, but in much less embroidered prose. Robert Coover's exceptionally weird The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) accomplishes some of what Wallace seemed to be after regarding mystery and scale, but on an entirely different order. The book is tiny, purporting to describe ten grand hotels based on the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, including the Grand Hotel Bald Cockatoo and the Grand Hotel Sequestered Bower. It would be a stretch to call each entry a narrative. They read like suggestions from an otherworldly travel agent, as in the introduction to The Grand Hotel Forgotten Game: “Unlike many of the other grand hotels, the Grand Hotel Forgotten Game is as easy to find as closing one's eyes and opening them again. The front desk, however, is deeply concealed within a labyrinth of movable panels of wood and glass, and is shifted about from hour to hour, making checking into the hotel the first game one is obliged to play here, though by no means the most difficult.”
Hmm. Sounds a bit like a certain labyrinthine reading experience I've been trying to duplicate.