Off the Road

Life is too short for crappy books. I’ve tried to impress that notion on friends, acquaintances and co-workers who would tell me that they were reading [x] but not enjoying it. Now, I don’t mean that a good book is one that panders, just that a reader should have some degree of joy or curiosity about a book.

A few years back, one of my co-workers told me he was struggling with Infinite Jest. I asked him if he felt he was getting something out of it. I knew he was very into tennis, and thought that aspect of the book would at least have captured his interest. “Not really,” he told me. “I’m 400 pages in and bored shitless. I get the corporate sponsorship joke, and that addicts have tough lives, but does this get any better?”

“Depends on what you mean by better.”

“Do you ever find out what’s on the videotape that amuses people to death?”

“. . . No. Infinite Jest is actually a thousand-page novel about boredom. That’s the joke.” In my opinion.

He put it down and went on to something else.

Which brings me to On the Road.

I first tried to read Kerouac’s novel in the summer of 1991. I was staying at a college pal’s family’s farmhouse in Athol, MA, and there was a limited selection of books at hand, one of which was an old mass market paperback of On the Road. Back at Hampshire, it was praised by plenty of people I didn’t like and whose taste I didn’t trust, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

The characters, I recall, didn’t demonstrate much character and the writing itself was plain and uncompelling. Thirty-five pages in, I was bored shitless and put the book aside. Instead I read Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens, which I picked up on a visit to my girlfriend in Worcester.

Twenty years later, I found myself willing to try Kerouac again. At a book party in February, I met the writer Fred Kaplan and his wife, writer and NPR/WNYC host Brooke Gladstone. I’d enjoyed Mr. Kaplan’s writing on Slate for years now (mainly covering the Defense Dept. beat), and mentioned that to him. He told me a little about the book he’s working on and, two G&Ts into the evening, I decided ot tell him that I had yet to read his book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

I know authors don’t like to hear about how people haven’t read their books, but I told him that I’d been interested in the book for a while and promised to get it for my Kindle the next day. He was amiable about it. Certainly moreso than Greill Marcus, who once lectured me about the content of Lipstick Traces after I told him that I had only read about 100 pages of it.

Anyway, I did download 1959 from Amazon and read it over the next week. Weirdly, the Kindle format of 1959 puts an extra line-break after every paragraph, so the entire work looks like it’s composed of aphorisms. I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the voice that I find in nonfiction work by, say, Clive James or Ron Rosenbaum, whose book party we were attending that evening. (Speaking of which, buy Ron’s new book! It’s the bomb! Also, he owes me money!) Still, I found it pretty informative, the thesis largely holds up, and Kaplan’s love of jazz shows up strongly in his chapters on Miles Davis (Kind of Blue), Dave Brubeck (Time Out) and Ornette Coleman (Shape of Jazz to Come).

The sections on Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity case for Howl (tried pre-1959, but setting a precedent that would enable that year’s rulings to overturn federal obscenity laws) made me curious again about Keroac and On the Road. I thought, “It’s been 20 years since I tried it. Maybe it was the mass market paperback’s typesetting. Maybe it was my philistinism. Maybe it’s one of those works that will resonate for me now, one of those books you grow into. Maybe its time-capsule distance from me will prove of interest.”

I bought it for my Kindle, and gave it another shot. This time, I made it a quarter of the way through before surrendering.

I was expecting some sort of lyricism that would show Kerouac’s aesthetic competition with Ginsberg, or a benzedrine-fueled madness that reflected Burroughs’ influence on him, or maybe some of the sheer poetic-mystic beauty of the idler’s life that Henry Miller was so good at in Tropic of Cancer, which I thought was the obvious precursor for On the Road.

Instead, I still found the events uninteresting, the language flat, the characters (still) not having have much by way of character, and no serious observations about America or its crippled, postwar ideals. I’m still incredulous that this book was a monster hit for half a century. I know the Eisenhower years were boring, but was this really such a great alternative?

So I acknowledged that slogging along through a book I didn’t like was reinforcing the crap mood I’ve been in lately, and yesterday I picked up Arcadia, the Tom Stoppard play that I’m seeing this week on Broadway (provided there are no safety violations in the big finale with the multiple Septimus Hodges getting launched by catapult over the audience). According to The List That Knows More Than I Do, it’ll be the fifth time I’ve read Arcadia, but the language is so gorgeous, the ideas so artfully integrated into the stories, the plot and staging so ingenious, that I don’t mind returning to that well.

Moral: go back to the first sentence of this post.

David 0-fer Wallace?

It’s time for this week’s literary 0-fer! After laughing hysterically at the trailer for his biopic a week or so back, I realized that I’ve never read anything by . . . Truman Capote!

(Why did I find the trailer so funny? Because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head is larger than Truman Capote’s entire body! I’m sure he nailed Capote’s voice perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny to see him try to play Capote. It just seemed like a comedy skit, sort of like the first time you heard Mike Tyson’s voice come out of Mike Tyson’s mouth.)

I just downloaded a sample of In Cold Blood to my Kindle, so maybe I’ll give him a try sometime.

But the literary figure I thought I’d ramble about this week is author and recent suicide David Foster Wallace, who’s the subject of a long-ass profile (that I haven’t read: 0-ferriffic!) in the new New Yorker.

I read Infinite Jest when it came out around 1995/6, back when I was still interested in the “encyclopedic novel,” as I misunderstood it from my college years. This thousand-page novel centers around an eponymous movie so entertaining that anyone who views it has no interest in doing anything but viewing it over and over. The irony is that I found the book so unentertaining that I had no interest in reading any of Wallace’s fiction again.

That said, I did enjoy some of his non-fiction, but his footnoting and other attempts at hypertextual digressions wearied me. It felt as if he really needed an editor, but was stuck with enablers who believed they were publishing genius. They must’ve felt like “the footnoting thing” was Wallace’s brand or something.

Then the roof caved in when the smartest person I know told me, “I don’t think Wallace is as smart as he thinks he is.”

I’m sure there are people who got a lot out of his books, and some, like Will Leitch in this Deadspin post, seem to hold Wallace’s literary torments in adoration:

I have never been happier to reside in the Blissful Mediocre. DFW was so good that it wasn’t enough to say something no one had said before; he forced himself to try to invent an entirely new way of saying it. That’s the type of thing that will drive a man mad. It’s hard enough to even make sense, let alone try to change the fashion in which humans communicate, avoid saying something any other person has ever said and the way they said it. Christ. It makes my brain bleed just thinking about it. David Foster Wallace was the guy from Pi, only with words instead of numbers. (Though he was into numbers too.)

On the other side, we get this post by Michael Blowhard that places Wallace within the milieu of contemporary academia, and posits that he may’ve been better off if he got out into the world. And maybe trying to invent a new way of conveying human experience isn’t the best use of one’s time; write something with real characters and a plot!

Interesting to learn that DFW was also a proponent of the supposed virtues of hyper self-awareness. Hey, I was once a grad student, and I remember toying with that idea too. (Why are so many bright people with a certain kind of lib-arts education so convinced that hyper-critical mirror-gazing is a worthwhile thing to spend time doing?) Although I’m generally a cheery soul, during my time in grad school even I started having anxiety attacks. I took them as a sign that maybe the time had come to ditch the showing-off-and-hiding-away-in-grad-school thing and move along into real life.

Somewhere in the middle, we get Ron Rosenbaum, who mentioned Wallace in his new Slate piece about three new novels that he adores. You’ve heard me ramble about how little interest I have in contemporary fiction, so I was glad to get some recommendations (the new Bernie Gunther novel was already on my wish list), although I’m still thinking of applying Zeke’s 3- to 5-year delay on novels, to let any hype subside.

About Infinite Jest, Ron writes:

It’s a book whose repertoire of derivative, post-Pynchon, oh-so-tiring tricks made me furious. They diminished DFW. They made it seem that the less talented among the literati had convinced him that fiction was a higher form than the transcendent reinvention of nonfiction he was engaged in, convinced him that he should channel his far-superior talents into an exhausting performance in an exhausted form (the postmodern novel) that was an all-too-sterile strain at profundity that — despite its title — contained not one laugh. This, in contrast to the effortless inimitable joyful comedy of his nonfiction, which surpassed in pleasure (and profundity) many of his contemporaries’ novels.

I should note that Ron’s 3 book recommendations — The Silver Swan, A Quiet Flame, and Year of the Dog — are all detective novels, which circles back to Michael Blowhard’s point that you can do an awful lot of good writing in the ghetto of “genre fiction.” As long as they’re not bullshit “deconstructions” of detective novels, a la that awful Paul Auster book, City of Glass.

Anyway, Wallace wasn’t an 0-fer, but he’s a writer I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have started reading if his career began now.

What It Is: 9/15/08

What I’m reading: The Long Goodbye, which I haven’t read since 1992. I gotta read more of Chandler’s stuff. For some reason, 9 of his novels are available for the Kindle. So . . . any suggestions? (Also, The Last Musketeer, by Jason, and still with Montaigne’s essays. . .)

What I’m listening to: Beck’s Modern Guilt. And REM’s “Ignoreland,” which shuffled up recently on my iPod and will probably be in heavy rotation through the election.

What I’m watching: Your mom. There. I’ve said it. (Amy had a pretty busy week, so we didn’t get around to finishing up the last season of The Wire. Two episodes left!)

What I’m drinking: Red Stripe! Hooray beer!

What Rufus is up to: Accidentally showing up at a greyhound meet & greet! The admin of the Greyhound Friends NJ list dropped our e-mail by accident, so we didn’t know that our local pet store was hosting an event on Saturday. Coincidentally, we took Rufus up there to buy his pet food (we could’ve done it without him, but he loves going to the store), and discovered 4 or 5 greyhounds & owners in the parking-lot. Rufus, of course, was very happy to make some new friends.

Where I’m going: To the GFNJ Annual Fall Picnic/Greyhound Planet Day on Sunday in Bridgewater, NJ! My pal/co-worker Jason & his wife are picking up their grey at the picnic, so we’ll find out if their girl gets along with Rufus before we set up a playdate.

What I’m happy about: Having a quiet weekend, between pretty busy weeks.

What I’m sad about: David Foster Wallace’s suicide, even though I hadn’t read a book of his in around 10 years. (I suppose this title is a bit ironic now.) Here’s a terrific appreciation of/meditation on DFW by David Gates. Gates & I talked about Wallace in our first conversation, c. 1996, when I called him through the Newsweek switchboard because I was bored at my office and thought maybe he’d be around and willing to shoot the breeze. He was. (UPDATE: Gates suggests I/we read Laura Miller’s DFW piece on Salon.) (UPDATE 2: Michael Bierut has a good post on DFW viewed through a design/marketing lens.)

What I’m pondering: How SiteMeter made so many poor decisions when it “upgraded” this weekend.

Chronicle of a Death Footnoted

Condolences to the family of David Foster Wallace, after DFW hanged himself on Friday.

My brother-in-law’s sister killed herself last week, so I’ve spent a bunch of time in the last few days thinking about the frame of mind someone has to be in to commit that act and leave family/friends to pick up the pieces.