Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Infinite Summer: A Year Later, or Postscript, or Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

It's been a long time since I marathoned my way through a book, but I've just crossed the finish line that is David Lipsky's five-day transcription of his 1996 Infinite Jest book-tour road trip with David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Couldn't put the book down, save to solve a few crossword puzzles and write a brief blog/tweet about a particular line of his that resonated w/r/t the other stuff I do on this site (re: criticism). At the best moments, Lipsky vanished from the book--his stuff is very much showmanship, because, as he himself points out, it's not about him--and it felt like actually being on the other end of a conversation with Wallace. Which is all the more simultaneously uplifting and depressing, since of course Wallace--after a long battle with depression--took his own life on September 12, 2008, so I'll never be having a conversation like that with him.

But the great thing about books--words, really--is that they live on, even if our ability to grok them fundamentally shifts. And what's key for me about reading is something Wallace touches on very early in his interview:

 There's a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us. There's maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about. But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell "Another sensibility like mine exists." Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader might feel less lonely.
And his point proves itself, so far as I'm concerned. Fiction, when it's done properly, is an active conversation between the writer and the reader, and as I've posited before, doesn't really exist without both people, the one laying down symbols, and the other translating them, working together to create a unique experience for each participant. In this sense, it's totally unlike film, which is processed and edited to within an inch of its life to provoke a universal experience, or theater, which is looser and liver, but still designed with a specific and unavoidable goal of repetition (of that experience, from night to night, which is why I think I tend to love the work of the New York Neo-Futurists--who break that mold--so much). But back to Wallace: reading even this years-old interview opens up a connection between his worldview and mine, and in this case, helps me to realize something fairly obvious but also extremely reassuring: that I am not the only person to think this way. (And no, not in a paranoid "everyone's out to get you" way or a smug "I'm better than everyone else" way, but more in a "These insecurities that I don't feel comfortable sharing have now been aired by someone else" psychotherapy sort of way.)

In this particular section of the interview, Wallace is talking about his dislike of "really really shitty avant-garde" stuff, which is "coy and hard for its own sake," and yeah, I can see that in my own fiction. What I want to be writing is what Wallace describes as "stuff that's about what it feels like to live" and not stuff that's "a relief from what it feels like to live." And it's great to hear that Wallace came to some of the same conclusions I reached (at the same time, too): "When I was twenty-two or twenty-three, I pretty much thought every sentence that came off my pen was great. And couldn't stand the idea that it wasn't." Except that because he'd soon publish A Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair and then check himself into a rehabilitation center, I can skip straight to the wisdom of his/my future self, his insights into letting it be about the work itself, not about the perceptions or the outside stuff about it:
I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn't mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something.
Wallace would speak about stuff like this later on, most notably in his commencement speech at Kenyon University in 2005 (anthologized by Dave Eggers in the "Best Nonessential Reading" series, and later turned into a book-Zen pamphlet, This Is Water), which spoke about how the real importance of college wasn't necessarily in the over-learning of classes, but in the education of empathy, in the ability to find and truly connect to the bigger and more important things of your life, as in What Are You Really All About? But it's crucial stuff, at least for me, this avoidance of distraction and nitty-gritty focus on Excuses Aside, Why Are You Not Doing What You Really Want? And but then suddenly realizing that you're living a life of fear, in which you've convinced yourself you want other, safer things, and prescribed yourself routines and safety nets as a way of masking the possibility of an unhappiness that lurks and wears the mask of dissatisfaction, if you should slow down enough to really consider it.
That the fear is the basic condition, and there are all kinds of reasons for why we're so afraid. But the fact of the matter is, is that, is that the job that we're here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we're not terrified all the time. And not in a position of using all kinds of different things, and using people to keep that kind of terror at bay... Well for me, as an American male, the face I'd put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing's enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough.
No wonder people choose the complete Entertainment of Infinite Jest, eh? Or perpetually assault themselves with the temporarily filling emptiness of television and film. But a novel, in my posited case in that it exists as an active conversation, isn't a dead-end loop. It's a propellant, something that pushes the engaged reader to actually pursue the things they wanted to do, mainly by reminding them that there are things they want to do and that there are reasonable ways in which to achieve those ends. (Small caveat: television and film can do this, too, but they require the participant to choose to get a whole lot more active--the irony is that their ease of viewing actually requires a lot more effort of thought if you want to get something permanent out of it.)

I don't want to leave off with such heavy stuff, though, so I'll end with a post-script/blog-confession: I rather enjoy his insight into his own shyness and relationships with women. I don't think I share all of his hang-ups--partly because I haven't had to deal with his success--but I get a kick out such human observations as "Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move." DFW, you will be missed.


isaac butler said...

Good stuff, Aaron! I think how repulsed I was by Lipsky himself kinda got in the way of my completely enjoying this book. There's basically two book shere... one is a compendium of stuff that David Foster Wallace said in unedited form. That book is awesome. The other book is about a jealous, fame-obsessed young novelist trying to trick the biggest novelist of that particular year into admitting to a history of drug use, suicide attempts and stays in halfway houses. That second book made my skin crawl. I sorta felt like if Lipsky tried to get DFW to confess to enjoying being famous one more time, I was going to track him down and punch him in the nose.

Aaron Riccio said...

Now that this post has appeared, I can add this terrific link to the conversation:


Laura Miller and Garth Risk Hallberg agree with you, and the descriptively gifted Sam Anderson moderates the gap between them and the others rather well. I was also off-put by the Lipsky Agenda, including the rub-off fame he gets for publishing this NOW, and yet also willing to forgive, because when he wasn't pushing an agenda or attempting to show that he was as smart or smarter than the deer-in-spotlights DFW, he managed to deliver that unedited one-on-one that, for me, was a truly inspiring fly-on-the-wall moment, and one which I hope graduate programs will excerpt quotes from as a way of reminding their students what it's all about. Because there's great stuff in there about the arrogant folly of the young writer, but also about the importance of sticking to your interests and defending them ARTISTICALLY (I love his reminder that surrealism--especially vis-a-vis David Lynch--is 99.9% realism).