What’s the most difficult book you’ve ever read? I asked this on Facebook and Twitter the other day, just out of curiosity, and got a surprising range of answers. Everything from The God Delusion to A New Earth, from All the King’s Men to The Apocalypse Ocean. The strange thing is that none of the answers were the ones I was expecting. No one said Finnegan’s Wake, for example. Probably because no sane person has ever finished Finnegan’s Wake.
My personal answer is Gravity’s Rainbow by Pynchon, which I say out loud in front of people only with the caveat that I didn’t finish it. I came so close, got about three quarters of the way through, but still that unfinished motherfucker sits on my shelf, bookmark mocking me. Qualifying the question, instead, with “what’s the most difficult book you’ve ever finished?” my answer would then be Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It’s one of those books that most non-literature-obsessed humans haven’t read, and when you come across one of these fellow freaks in conversation you eye each other up with an odd mix of trepidation and mutual respect. “Well done,” we say. “Impressive,” we say. “What did you think of Wallace’s use of postmodern blah blah blah bullshit lit-major big-dick-contest nonsense?” we say, if we’re feeling particularly snooty that day.
I kid, I kid. Sort of. Not really.
It’s a fucking fantastic book, though, in all honesty. If you’re in the mood for a weird, funny read crafted by a ninja wordsmith, that may make you want to drink heavily and chain smoke, definitely give it a shot. It has page-long sentences which are, despite their unwieldy appearance, grammatically perfect. And two hundred pages of endnotes. I will say this: it’s the only book that I’ve ever read that took me a month to get through. And I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in two days. It’s a great book, and I love Wallace’s work (The Broom of the System and Oblivion are my other favorites, and his nonfiction stuff is mind-blowing), but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for this.
Yes, it’s twenty minutes long and has no video, but just listen to it. Seriously. Point and click. It’s for your own good. For your enrichment. Because I love you. And because everything I’m about to say makes no fucking sense if you don’t just click on the link! Click it!
Wasn’t that great?
I don’t remember why I first watched this thing. I know it was sometime in February, so maybe someone posted the link for his birthday or something. But I’ve listened to it every day since. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it speaks to me. Just one of those things, I guess. Perhaps it’s the speech I should have heard at eighteen or twenty-one, and am just now identifying with. (Thanks, Generation Y, for the extended adolescence. Grr.) As a point of interest, I actually had two separate professors tell me things from this speech in college. Things that I could’ve used to my advantage if I’d known what they were or what they were for. Sam Scoville, who is a badass (seriously, the man can tell you why everything you just said was etymologically wrong before you even make it to the next sentence – amazing), told me that story about the fish, in his own very weird way, trying to make a point about perspective and word choice and intention. And Ann Turkle, a wonderful grandmotherly crazy poet, would red ink my stories with “Pay attention!” and “This person isn’t paying attention either!” which, eventually, taught me how to focus, and how to make characters focus so none of us have to suffer through my saying things twice.
I went to my own college commencement. There was, in fact, a speech. But I don’t remember who gave it or what it was about. I’m sure it was lovely. I went to a small, private liberal arts school in North Carolina. I paid too much, sure, but I earned those pieces of paper, by god. They should give you vellum instead of paper if you pay more than a certain amount per semester, shouldn’t they? Seems appropriate. And a fat lot of good those sheets of should-be-vellum are doing me now, out here, in the wilderness. That’s bloody frustrating. But I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. And if I ever get to own a bookstore I’ll have some little bit of literary credibility. And a wall to hang those things up on, finally. Having a degree is pretty much just paying a lot of money to have the right to say you know your shit. It’s a license to use the shorthand. I point to the piece of paper, you know I know my shit. And you say, “Gee, that’s an expensive school. They should have printed that on vellum. Tell me about Shakespeare.” And then my head explodes.
Anyway. Wallace says that it’s a tired cliché, that thing about one’s liberal arts education being just “teaching one how to think.” I’ve said that thing a thousand times. Not just about a liberal arts degree, but about college in general. Mostly because the state of our public school system is an abomination and we should all either be ashamed or be trying to fix it. And I guess I never really thought about why that cliché was wrong, even though the evidence is all around me. Everywhere there are people with college degrees who don’t know how to think for themselves but are experts at regurgitation. Who are still complete morons, who just go through the motions of living, who will die happy never knowing that they’ve missed out on anything. And I don’t mean that in a Zen, “be here now” kind of way (but that stuff is true, too – life is fucking short, guys). What I mean to say is that so many people go to college because that’s just the next thing you’re supposed to do. Finish high school, finish college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have some larvae, retire, die. That’s the list, right? There might be some smaller sub-goals in there. Buy a car or three. Raise some grandbabies. Whatever. But there are cultural expectations, and if you don’t do one, or you do them out of order, maybe, it somehow gives people grounds to think that they can say you’ve failed in some way.
Which I suppose goes to what he says about having the freedom and wherewithal to choose what to worship. Those cultural expectations are the mass-delusion distillation of that idea, in a way. This is the list of things you’re supposed to do, so that you can have this group of specific things or accomplishments, so that we can measure you against other people, rank you, size you up. On a purely material level, it kind of reminds me of what Palahniuk said in Fight Club, that bit about “You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis.” Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my stuff. But I don’t have a lot of it. And I don’t need more more more. I own exactly one pair of jeans and I saved up to buy good ones so they’ll last me for a really long time. My own monetary frivolity tends more toward the irresistible “feed my brain” impulse. I love books. I love everything about them. That’s what I blow my money on. Having them around makes me feel physically more comfortable and talking about them is when I am my most confident. I’m passionate about literature and that’s got to count for something. But I do come out feeling somewhat one-dimensional. I should probably go ahead and start that therapy sometime soon, hmm? But how is that passion for intellectual engagement different from worshipping my own intellect? Or the intellect of others? What’s the difference between passion and worship? Or obsession? Intention, I think, is the key. Being deliberate. Paying attention.
I also think that what Wallace says about arrogance versus a healthy self-centeredness is really important. You are, in fact, the center of your universe. There’s no other way to be. It’s “Joe Fish doesn’t know he’s wet” all over again. The point being not to revel in the fact that you’re the center of everything but, instead, to be aware that your perspective is singular and make room for others’ perspectives and ideas in your worldview. This is an interesting point, coming from an artist. Because a writer’s perspective is only one way to look at their work, one that no reader can truly ever understand completely. It can make the writer self-obsessed or ignorant (or, worse, blasé) about where the audience is coming from. Another facet to this idea of self-centeredness, one that doesn’t actually come from this speech, is the generation gap problem. Infinite Jest was published in 1996, at the heart of the indie arts boom, before everything got so watered down and variegated by the internet. After the big system lost its grip, but before the niche arts culture we have now. Think Ani DiFranco or Kevin Smith. Back then, indie was a very punk thing to be and the term lent a sort of artistic credence. Anything corporate was automatically deemed soulless and fake, and that starving artist pain was a mark of truth, of reality, of approachability. Fast forward a bit, and look at what we’re dealing with now, at the product of this cultural schema: cynicism seems more “real” than genuine enthusiasm. We enjoy things “ironically,” a term which gives me the creeping horrors because of its widespread misuse. You don’t mean “irony,” guys, you mean “sarcasm.” Buy a fucking dictionary. (And while you’re at it, look up “literally,” and for the love of all things holy start using it correctly.) How did we get here? To this point where honest appreciation or enjoyment, or even simple optimism, is so often seen as a kind of doe-eyed stupidity? What’s with all the agro? When did we get so hard? So cold? And why does everything have to have a label? Can’t you just like a thing without knowing ahead of time if it fits into your pre-programmed list of acceptable interests?
One last thing (damn, this post got really long and ranty, didn’t it?). Wallace makes an excellent point about suicide. I have mixed feelings about suicide. It’s tremendously selfish, true, but I think it’s sometimes warranted, and should be seen as a right we all have. A legitimate option, rather than unmitigated cowardice. That self-centered thing again. What’s really poignant, though, about his discussion of it, is that he killed himself in 2008. Oddly, he talks about the instance of suicide by firearm in America, and he chose to take his own life by hanging himself. Not many people hang themselves. It makes a very particular statement, I think. But that might just be my lit-major reflex twitching, looking for cultural meaning where there is none. I could make some broad, sweeping statements about the mental health care system, but it’s probably better to look at each suicide on a case-by-case basis. Wallace was medicated for years, went off his meds for health reasons, and when he tried to go back on them they had stopped working. Happens all the time. Because as much as we try to help people, the brain is still largely a mystery. We’re shooting in the dark with a lot of these medications. Sad but true. But you’ve got to ask yourself, is it better to be dead? Or to be the walking dead? If something is pointless, you should stop doing it, right? Why should living be any different? Oh, that sounds so morose. So maudlin. Knowing that he killed himself does put a particular spin on this speech, though, doesn’t it? Odd, that. Teach me how to live, dead man. But I try not to judge writers by their deaths because, weirdly, that can so quickly become a slippery slope. (How often did Virginia Woolf write about water? Just for example.) His work is rich and dense and hilarious and visceral. That’s more important than how he died.
What’s the takeaway here? I don’t know. I’ve made this speech into a sort of mantra lately. Be aware. Be deliberate. Be precise. And if you’re going to give life advice, be real. Be blunt. Cut out all the “banal platitudes,” and tell people what they really need to hear. “Everything’s going to be ok” could very well end up being bullshit. I get so tired of all this new age-y, crystal-munching, “if you just put your energy out into the universe you’ll manifest your intentions” crap. I’m all about a good pep talk, and about keeping yourself on an even keel through positivity and trying not to dwell on the negative. But you’ve got to put in the work, too. You can’t just think about good stuff and expect good stuff to happen to you. Your results are only as good as your efforts, always. That’s the entire length and breadth of my inspirational commencement speech, should I ever be asked to give one: Find something you love and strive to be really good at it. Never do a half-assed job. Be kind. Be open to new ideas. Pay attention.