An early end to my Infinite Summer
After I flooded the bathroom at the Hay-Adams Hotel, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I would never finish reading Infinite Jest. I understand now. This book I've wanted to read for years does not want to be read by me.
Back in May, I enthusiastically hopped on the Infinite Summer bus and dove into David Foster Wallace's hefty tome for the severalth time. Cool, smart people discussing the magnum opus of a brilliant author at a super-doable pace of 75 pgs/week. What's not to love? I ordered a shiny new copy and enthusiastically posted here on BoxOcto:
Am I a huge bifocula for being really excited about this? I don't care. I think when I get to the final page of this extraordinary book, I'm going to be a better reader, a better writer, and I will have settled into a strong habit of crawling into bed at a reasonable hour with a good book.
By the end of July, about 400 pgs in (not even approaching halfway home), I'd remembered all the reasons why I keep picking this book up...and putting it down. I love the writing; I hate the book. And then I hate myself. Why why why can't I be cool enough and smart enough to see the Magic Eye puzzle? I was immensely relieved to see this incredibly brave post from Avery Edison on the Infinite Summer site, expressing exactly the way I felt about my IJ experience thus far...
I resent that I’m having to work this hard, that I feel like I’m indulging the author. I resent having to read enormous blocks of text, with no paragraph breaks, for pages and pages at a time. I resent the endnotes that (more often than not) only serve to either waste my time or confuse me even further. I resent that I’m continually reaching supposed milestones (”just make it to page 100!” “get to 200!” “300 is where you get rewarded for all your effort!”)...
Which brings me to the Hay-Adams.
In Washington DC on business a few weeks ago, I stayed at the la-dee-da digs where the Obama family stayed while waiting to move into the White House, which is visible from many of the Hay-Adams' immaculately appointed suites. The front desk clerk had a florid European accent. The orchids by the elevator were real. I checked. There was no coffee maker in the bathroom.
And no bathtub.
I was surprised -- and disappointed, actually; a long, hot bath is always part of my ritual when I stay at a swanky hotel. The elegant bathroom was equipped with an elaborate shower. Lovely architectural features. Multiple water features. It seemed odd that there was no ledge or barrier between the shower floor and general bathroom floor, but the floor was very beautiful, and I did see a portal for water to drain at one end. I considered calling down to the front desk for advice, but I wasn't about to admit to the continental clerk that I wasn't up to the bathroom fixtures of my betters. C'mon. This was the Hay-Adams, so it must be wonderful, right? To my tiny mind, it might seem like water spraying onto a pristinely flat marble floor would tend to run all over the place, but clearly, this was a high-end head of state shower, the special design of which I was too pedestrian to comprehend. Clearly, this was how the intelligentsia and power brokers were showering while I bubble-bathed like a soccer mom in the suburbs.
In LA, luxury has a wonderfully old-school seediness. In NY, it's about money money chic. In DC, luxury feels intelligent. Venerable. They don't cater to commoners like me. This was a shower where duchesses rinsed away polo pony dust and congressmen seduced ivy league idealists. This was going to be the most amazing shower ever!
It took me ten minutes to figure out how to turn the snazzy water features on -- and another five minutes to get them turned off. By that time, the entire bathroom was flooded. Soapy water turned the plush area rugs to marshland and seeped out into the pile carpet of the entryway. I seized a complementary bathrobe and shoved it against the bottom of the door. Still naked, on hands and knees, I frantically pawed fluffy towels from the ornate cabinet, mopping and sopping, wringing water into the toilet.
What made me think I was good enough to be in this hotel, in this town, in this business--
There was a knock at the door, and a voice called, "Turn down service?"
Shit. "Just a second..."
"Would you like warm towels, ma'am?"
First impulse: hide the mess. Not even possible. Second impulse: my writer mind crowded with plausible scenarios in which a brilliant but eccentric author purposely creates a giant pile of sodden terry cloth and Velour heaped in a corner by a useless drain. You know -- like art! My mother mind had already moved to methods whereby I could clean and dry the towels before checkout time the next morning. Or I could just be honest and ask the housekeeper for help.
I pulled on PJ pants and a tee-shirt, shame-faced, prepping my profuse apology. But when I opened the door, the housekeeper said, "You got water on the floor, didn't you?"
"Yes. I did. I'm so sorry..."
"Happens all the time in this room," she said, pulling a stack of towels from her cart. "That shower is actually for handicapped people."
She wouldn't let me help clean up, but we chatted pleasantly. (Her son is getting married this month in Managua. The girl is extraordinarily beautiful, and her son is blind. A nice love story.) She left a few extra chocolates on my desk.
When I crawled into the perfectly turned-down bed that night, I took up my sky blue copy of Infinite Jest, as I have every night since the first week of June, but I couldn't bring myself to open it. I was stricken with the ridiculousness of my continuing battle to force-feed myself this book that simply was not designed for me. I'd assumed I didn't get it because I'm not smart/cool enough, when the truth is, there's nothing to get. I can't hear what this book is saying because it has nothing to say to me. It was intended for someone else.
Infinite Jest is like the New Testament book of Revelations. People have raised up an entire mythology around that book and endowed it with all sorts of meaning it never had. It was intended for a small, specific audience -- seven specific churches at a specific moment in history -- and only those few could truly understand its message. But it was so beautifully written, all those wonderfully cryptic predictions and wildly creative images. It took on a life of its own. First came the true believers, then the curious scholars, then the agenda-mongers, and then the flood of those who ably regurgitate the religion but are secretly baffled by the book itself. They loudly pledge their allegiance because they desperately fear being "left behind."
I'll never turn the final page of Infinite Jest, but looking back at my June post, I feel better about the time I invested.
Am I a better reader? Yes. Because after choking on that giant horse pill for two months, I was hungry for fiction. As soon as I got back from DC, I pulled the shortest novel from my TBR pile -- Thornton Wilder's slim but eloquent The Bridge of San Louis Rey -- and sank into a warm bubble bath with it. Now that is luxury. I read that and the next three shortest novels on my pile in quick succession and loved them. I've been on a classic fiction binge ever since.
Am I a better writer? Yes. Because I explored something that challenged my brain, and that's always good. I've also been sternly reminded of the toxicity of pretense and envy. When I finished Wilder's Bridge of SL, I realized it was every bit as convoluted and plot-wandering as IJ. But it worked for me because Wilder wanted to crawl in the tub with me and whisper in my ear. I know this sounds blousey, but I felt loved by that book -- and I felt jilted and scorned by Infinite Jest. Maybe that was DFW's intention: to let Me the Reader know how suburban and bovine and not in with the in crowd I am. If so, he succeeded. Brilliantly. But I'm not sure how much joy he took from that before he hanged himself, and I take absolutely no joy in knowing he came to that sad end.
"I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers," said DFW, "this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader."
I find that statement incredibly sad coming from someone who had a chance to make a life and living writing anything he wanted to write. A desperate desire to please is just as inwardly corrosive as hostility, and neither springs from the gratitude or eyes-wide-openness required to make a peaceful, joyous life in this industry.
I guess I have a different relationship with the nebulous entity that is The Readership. We take turns being the blind man and the beautiful girl, but there's mutual love married with occasional heartbreak, elegantly complicated with the handicap of being human.