Over summer break of my Freshman year at college, I accrued $16 in overdue fines from the local public library. The book was Stephen King’s The Stand, and I finished the damned thing, but only out of sheer doggedness. Like a great many high-schoolers, I had developed a King habit that lasted several years, taking me through close to a dozen books, each of which sprawled in its own way. Most added a dimension of breadth to their stories by threading them with King’s sense of teen Americana, laden as they were with references to several decades worth of pop music and junk food brand names.
To that cultural dimension, The Stand added duration. King’s novels have always been long by genre standards, challenging the notion that popular culture is necessarily geared for short attention spans, but every once in a while he could be counted upon to produce a bona fide tome. At more than 1,100 pages, the unedited version of The Stand remains his longest single-volume work – but only just.
I grew up in a bookish family, and had somehow absorbed the notion that it was faintly sinful to leave a book unfinished. Like an adult who overeats because he is unable to shake the childhood injunction to “clean your plate,” I was determined to finish every book I started, no matter how unsatisfying. So I ate the library fines, finished The Stand, and tacitly swore off Stephen King novels. (I do, however, stand by his short stories, which are, in their own way, classics of their era.)
The next year it was Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The year after that, I worked my way through the first half of Inifinite Jest, right up until the point at which my frustration broke. “You know,” some voice in my head whispered, “you don’t have to finish this.”
The fact of the matter, is that I hadn’t been getting much out of Verses or Jest – neither enjoyment, nor edification. There was perspective to be gained, perhaps, as there is perspective to be gained any time you read something that was constructed in a stranger’s head, but it wasn’t perspective that I particularly valued at the time. Meanwhile, there were other books demanding my attention. I’ve always been a collector of books, and I did not lack for reading options. If desperation really set in, I could always do the assigned readings for class. Thankfully, it never came to that.
So I put Inifinite Jest on a shelf. Over the course of no less than four moves, I dutifully packed and unpacked it, hardly begrudging it the space it took up. Finally, as my book collection sprawled, I decided to sell off the portion that had gone persistently unread. Every once in a while, I’ll see Infinite Jest on an acquaintance’s shelf and inquire about it. Some of them have even read it.
There are times when I still feel a twinge of guilt at having given up on Jest. It had been the subject of considerable buzz when I bought it, but there was, at the time, still room to think that might be a short-lived fad. Since then, David Foster Wallace’s reputation has only grown. He’s become one of those authors whose work the literati have read more about than have actually read. If the general consensus is to be believed, he will have enduring significance for some time to come, particularly for his novels Inifinite Jest and The Pale King.
None of which I would begrudge him. There was to Infinite Jest all of the bravado, intellect and imagination that reviewers have claimed for it. The only defense I can offer for my decision – and the admirers I’ve talked to seem to expect others to defend their disinterest – is that the time I spent reading half of Jest‘s 1000+ pages could have been spent reading two or three briefer books that held more meaning for me.
But it seems that for those who insist on the virtues of a book like Jest, the investment of time is part of the appeal. Novels can be demanding for a number of reasons, but Jest belongs to a special breed of books that demand its readers indulge in a certain degree of obsessiveness. Most readers observe the facile distinction between leisure reading and serious literature, but these books belong to yet a third category, barred to all but the most committed of readers.
One such book is Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s inscrutable, recursive book, the central action of which is something like language itself exploding. Michael Chabon, whose novels practically ring with linguistic clarity and precision, has recently written for the New York Review of Books about his thorny relationship to Joyce. As an admirer of Ulysses and Dubliners, he constantly felt the pull of Wake, but spent the better part of his life avoiding it.
Finally, he felt he could put it off no longer. “It took a year, on and off,” Chabon writes;
more on than off. I read it in beds and on beaches, on airplanes, in the orthodontist’s waiting room, on the toilet (it is a people’s almanac, a book of lists), in Berkeley and in Brooklin, Maine. I even read it, in violation of house rules against dream-contamination, at the breakfast table. Over the course of that year I acquired five copies, of varying size and vintage…
He also bought companion pieces to help him better unravel the book’s mysteries, and fended off the curiosity and repulsion of the people who inquired about the book. He describes one exchange in which
A reader steeped in the work of H.P. Lovecraft could not help observing that, to many educated people, there was something unmistakably loathsome about the Wake, a touch of Necronomicon, as though it had been bound in human hide.
The irony is delicious because it is so spot on. A year spent laboring over a novel – as a reader! – may be relatively mild in the grand scheme of available obsessions, but it is obsession nonetheless. It may be possible to finish a book like Jest or Wake without obsessing over it, but a touch of obsession is required to actually relish it.
I do not meant to say that either book is boring or overblown or in some other regard not worth the effort. Rather, my point is that they are built on the appeal of obsession. Like the Necronomicon, arcana is part of their promise. You could say that the true novel is recessed behind the expansive surface of the text, occulted in the literal sense. Discerning the outlines of that true novel requires the reader to parse the clues strewn throughout, like the meaning of Joyce’s ponderous “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnth
The key to all of this, it seems to me, is a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote“. Borges also wrote obsessive and virtually occult fiction, but was, unlike the authors so far discussed, committed to the principle of brevity. In response to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus – in many ways the forerunner of modern obsessive literature – Borges said that it was virtually perfect save that Carlyle bothered to write it at all. Borges would have written it as a faux book review, compassing the themes and thorniest ideas without making exceptional demands on his readers’ time and attention. It was a chance encounter with Borges’ Ficciones, the same year that I read The Stand, that softened my stubbornness with regard to long, obsessive works.
“Pierre Menard” is written as a posthumous evaluation of the literary work of its title character. The focus, of course, is an unfinished work comprising several chapters of Don Quixote. The conceit is that Menard did not merely copy those chapters, either by sight or memory, but rather arranged his life and experiences in order to render himself capable of writing Don Quixote extemporaneously. It is, to be sure, an odd literary experiment, but Borges’ story resonates precisely because it’s an experiment close to the heart of modern literature.
That, I would say, is very like the aspiration involved in Jest and Wake. It is not merely that the authors of each wanted to communicate ideas, themes, or feelings so complex that it could only be done over the course of 600 or 1,000 pages. Rather, the books invite the reader to inhabit the author’s subjectivity, to read the book not merely as a narrative to be grasped, but as an intent that must be exhumed from the text.
The common link between Jest and Wake, then, is authorship. They are like the culmination of the narrator’s prediction in Martin Amis’ The Information – that modern literature will increasingly choose the author as its protagonist. The obsession demanded of the reader is the characteristic obsession of the author, an obsession with the mystery of the authorship. A book like The Stand may encourage its readers to imagine what it is like to be a survivor in the plague-stricken 20th century. The literature of obsession conceals itself until the reader breaks through the threshold and imagines what it is like to have written the very book they are reading.