Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My 4th Failure to Read David Foster Wallace


I just put down A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again--a book of David Foster Wallace's essays--and after an exhausting process, I only managed to read two of these brain-beasts. I feel somewhat defeated, but more wistful that for the fourth time, I am unable to finish one of his books.

A brief timeline of my relationship with the work of David Foster Wallace:

2007, Summer - Colleen from ultimate frisbee recommends me Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (the latter of which I attempted first, since it was on Time "Top 100 Novels written in the English Language") (oh, and she lent me her copy. I lost it, then borrowed one from the library). I am fascinated and excited because Colleen frames this recommendation as something I'll really connect with, based presumably on what she sees is some sort of similarity between myself and DFW either linguistically or thematically.

That summer I plug away at Infinite Jest, but I am unable to even breach the third chapter. DFW's gymnastic juggling of the mundane IS something that appeals to me, but his grammar is too mathematically complex, his attention to detail too limitless and exhausting. I don't really remember being able to get past the Tennis agency meeting without going crazy. They say (correctly) that Infinite Jest is not about tennis, but HOW CAN THAT POSSIBLY BE?? It'd be like aliens coming to Earth and zooming in digitally on a dog's nose with a telescopic lens that can magnify it thousands of times, and after exploring the cell-membrane topography of a dog's nose for 5 hours--try to tell the more ADHD crew-members that Earth is not about dogs' noses!

2008, Autumn- DFW dies. I read about it on Patton Oswalt's website, and he shares a link to a commencement speech DFW had given to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. I read the speech, and my life will never be the same. Oliver Wendel Holmes says, "A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions". Well DFW's speech had articulated all of the feelings I had held about the world, and arranged them in thought form. I was instantaneously a more effective thinker, and I was in love. Swept off my feet by a modern philosopher who was able to arrange my own notions in a fully relatable way. And I was heartbroken, because he had just hanged himself.

There's something obviously inconsistent with the words in his speech and the very concept of despair (let alone suicide). I won't expand on this here, but it's thrillingly scary to re-read his speech, weaving in the context of the author's pending suicide. It's like relistening to "Come As You Are" shortly after Kurt Cobain's suicide. What? He swore that he didn't have a gun!

2009, (Summer) - I go to the library and borrow Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. I am excited as all get-out to read it, for a number of reasons. 1) I generally prefer nonfiction writing, so I ought to click with this better than his 9000 page Infinite Jest 2) The very concept of abstracting mathematical principles into philosophy appeals to me [comparing math and philosophy ought to make each one more relevant] 3) A literary look at mathematics (especially when intended for the non-math scholar) should perhaps get some blood flowing to my dormant-since-birth numb3rs hemisphere.

So I read the introduction, and DFW explains that this examination is meant to be readable by the lay-thinker (huzzah!) and that endless footnoting will be provided as training wheels for anybody who needs to slow it down and catch up with the back-knowledge required to grasp the concepts. I have to say, this is one time where (unlike with Infinite Jest) I truly can't blame my failure to get past the fourth chapter on my ADHD. Because, my attention span is modeled after a bicycle chain, and if I can get snagged by the cogs of interest, I'm generally on-track for a balanced attention budget.

The problem with being unable to follow Everything and More is not pathological in nature, and the interest/willingness was there in greater strength than just about any purely intellectual endeavor I can recall.

The problem is that I am simply not intelligent enough.

Same reason I (while solid) will never be great at chess. I'm outstanding at processing small, linear nuggets of logic or strategy, especially any form of psychology is involved. This is why I can beat every "casual" chess player I meet even though I play just as "rarely" [noted, I got it] as they. But any time I play a "Chess Player", I inevitably get outmaneuvered, simply because I can't handle as many data strings as they.

Okay so I reluctantly succumbed to the beautiful but incomprehensible spiral shape that is Everything and More, I think I retired somewhere around chapter four or five. I was disappointed that I had failed to achieve intercourse with one of the great minds that even my other biggest heroes worshipped (you should have seen me when I met Patton Oswalt). I figured, "Okay, I blew it with the non-fiction, let's gear-down back to fiction with his college philosophy paper-turned published novel, The Broom of the System.

2009, (Autumn) - The Broom of the System sucks. I can't say whether or not it really sucks, mostly that was just me throwing a tantrum. Truth is, it's pretty easy to read, but the story (about a girl whose grandma gets lost at her senior citizen's home) is a combination of things a) I don't really care about b) that are so opposite in scope to Everything and More's goals c) I'm disillusioned. I quit the book a third of the way through, telling people, "I just can't get into his fiction". (Read: I just don't want to get into his fiction badly enough, but I'm upset because I literally CAN'T get into his nonfiction).

2010, (Today) - A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. This is a collection of essays he's done, which seems perfect for me. Non-fiction, journalist/memoir style essays from fancy magazines. Take a look at these essay titles:
"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" (Harper's, 1992, under the title "Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes")
"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993)
"Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" (Harper's, 1994, under the title "Ticket to the Fair")
"Greatly Exaggerated" (Harvard Book Review, 1992)
"David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Premiere, 1996)
"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" (Esquire, 1996, under the title "The String Theory")
"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (Harper's, 1996, under the title "Shipping Out")
Okay so needless to say, I was excited because I'd be getting reasonable doses of DFW's worldview, personal history, opinions on media, sports, etc... How could I go wrong?

I muscled through the first essay, an interesting retrospective about using his tendencies as an over-analytical math nerd to over-come the jocks at highschool tennis. Despite using the chaotic nature of Illinois wind to his advantage, he actually got swept up by a tornado for a few seconds. It seems like the perfect essay for me, and almost was, if for no other reason than I sorta managed to trudge through the circular prose, convoluted grammar calisthenics, and vocabulary that made my 710 SAT verbal score seem like the back of a Crayola carton. Getting to the end, I felt like Ladanian Tomlinson chopping his feet after contact, just moving that pile across the end zone. Victorious but warranting a booth review.

I started the second essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", excited that it was about mass-media theory and the psychology thereof. I thought, I'm gonna read the shit out of this essay. After braving incredibly challenging syntax that's clearly suited for a NASA manual, I had to quit six pages in and felt as if I had been trying to run through two feet of un-packed snow.

I skipped to the next essay "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All", which was about covering a state fair for Harpers, and I won't bore you with the details about how I couldn't finish it.

Desperate, I skipped to the last, essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again", which is probably his most famous essay after "Consider the Lobster" (which is found in a book of the same name). I said, "I don't give a shit, I will read every last word of this..."

..And I did, successfully. And I loved it. But it took me a week and a half to read this ONE ESSAY (to thorough comprehension), and doing so felt like what I imagine it would feel like to actually sleep with Beyonce Knoles: Cautiously grateful for the opportunity, but so over-whelmed by intimidation and the pointless challenge of making it worth everyone's while for showing up, that it'd be effectively unenjoyable as anything more than a tentative bragging right.

Now I'm clearing the mental palate by reading some Dan Brown (The Lost Symbol). Now HERE's an accessible guy. Three or four pages per chapter, nice large print. Masons. Take me away for a mysterious adventure! Maybe DFW and I weren't meant to be. I'll always have Kenyon College! (Of course, the one thing he did that was specifically written for college kids)...

I couldn't even finish a book of his magazine articles... there's no way Beyonce is going to keep me on full-time. All I really got was to say I've been there. To regular folks looking to challenge yourselves intellectially via DFW, all I have to say is you better get your game-face on, dude.

1 comment:

Greg said...

"The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head."

Thank you for reminding me of that piece, which I haven't read since long before I knew what to do with it.