an excerpt

Mar. 14th, 2009 09:11 pm
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[personal profile] zenithblue
...from a paper I had to write for class, about my relationship to experimental or metaphysical fiction. It was really supposed to be more narcissistic than it turned out...but I've been wanting to write about my first reading of Infinite Jest for a while now. There's nothing in this piece, yet, about the visceral feelings, about the personal feelings, about seeing my own loneliness expressed in a way I couldn't even have expressed it. But it's a start.

So of course you grow up and you must become serious, and the only thing I was serious about was reading and writing. I loved English Lit. I learned to look at language, to marvel at a well-crafted phrase, to see the crystalline beauty in detail and description. I fell into the bottomless well of Austen's perfect irony, and I loped along with the lyricism of Fitzgerald's Gatsby. Shakespeare hinted at humanity's expansiveness. Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce shattered the self and put it back together. I wasn't without solace, reading beyond the explicitly fantastic.

But all of these writers were dead, and I wanted to write in the now. I turned my eyes to the contemporaries. An early writing teacher bowed to Carver's understated aesthetic, assigned us the  generally realist Best American Short Stories series. I started tracing circles out from that, reading literary magazines, tracking down some of the often-mentioned names. Of course several stand-out gems made their way into my hands. Carver's best stuff really is that good. Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Diane Johnson, and William Trevor all write “realistic” work (though often narratively complex) that sparkles. But for each of these stand-outs, there were dozens of boring, inane, vacuous pieces I forced myself through. For a while all I read were stories of bourgeois adultery or banal coming-of-age epiphanies. I thought this was what you had to learn to be legitimate.
 
A funny thing happened: because I was looking so close to see what was interesting in these supposedly grown-up stories, I learned interesting things. A few years earlier, I wanted magic and transcendence and transfiguration. I had learned to devalue these, at least temporarily, but the silver lining was that I learned to attend better to what was really there. I learned the feel of a blind man's fingers in “Cathedral;” I learned from Lorrie Moore how the spots of blood in a baby's diaper can be both beautiful and terrible. I'd lost one kind of sight, but I'd gained another.

(Look at the flowers! They only bloom one night ever hundred years. Only you have this chance, today, here, now, to see. Look at the shiny animal eyes glinting in the dark. Look at the perfect needles jutting from every succulent. Look at the moonlight on the sand.)
 
Then I was nineteen, and spending my first summer alone, a working writer, completely alone, reading all the time, profoundly lonely, reading fiction that was “good for me,” that was prize-winning and anthologized and safe and nothing more than dust in my mouth. It was during this summer that I pulled a book randomly from the shelf at the public library knowing nothing of the hype surrounding it. It was big and heavy but the write-up on the inside page made it sound like candy, fun and funny.

“Infinite Jest is the name of a movie said to be so entertaining that anyone who watches it loses all desire to do anything but watch it. People die happily, viewing it in endless repetition.... As the novel unfolds, various individuals, organizations, and governments vie to obtain the master copy of Infinite Jest for their own ends, and the denizens of the tennis school and the halfway house are caught up in increasingly desperate efforts to control the movie—as is a cast including burglars, transvestite muggers, scam artists, medical professionals, pro football stars, bookies, drug addicts both active and recovering, film students, political assassins, and one of the most endearingly messed-up families ever captured in a novel.”
 
I hauled the thing home on my bike. I put off opening it for a few days, the size intimidating. Then I started reading. I started reading and reading and reading. Non-stop, for a week, calling in sick to work, I read. When I put it down to ease my eyes, it called me back almost immediately. It was fun. And funny. But it was not candy. Devastatingly, compellingly, this was a novel as serious and deadly as any realistic book could hope to be. The novel contained domestic dramas, infidelities, addictions and illnesses, plenty of the human foils of realistic fiction...but it also contained hordes of feral hamsters sweeping across a post-apocalyptic New England. It contained the Wheelchair Assassins, a league of deadly legless Quebecois insurgents. In its strange hyper-real world, the United States had merged with Canada and Mexico to form the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N....get it?), and the president of this dubious alliance was one Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, a microphone-swinging lounge singer with obsessive compulsive disorder. High intellectual language blurred with unfiltered adolescent slang and streetwise Boston slurs. Sentences turned backflips, starting serious, turning playful, veering back towards heartbreak, all before a period could disrupt. And there were ideas! Big ones. Ideas about ethics, isolation, addiction, philosophy, the sublime. Ghosts and footnotes both haunted the pages. The intellectual and the emotional, the ideal and the visceral, all twisted around one another in his language.
 
If I sound manic, it's because Infinite Jest was the book that made me see that literature wasn't about what was “allowed.” It was about what was risked, what was wagered, what was created. After a few years of small, domestic stories, the largeness, the generosity of the text shook me. It is not a frivolous book, but it had me laughing out loud. It is not a pretentious book, but it forced me to parse complex and bizarrely lopsided sentences. It risked frivolity, and pretension, and a thousand other things we are told in workshop not to be, in order to create something new and exuberant and utterly real.

(The oasis blossomed out from nowhere. The fountain surged upwards through the sand and air and arced with mathematical perfection. It was a figure of mystery and precision, intuition and deduction, all at once. Traveling through all that nothing, I could never have imagined such a thing.

Marco Polo will tell you that's the only way to find it. At least, that's the only way to see it: to be so lost you forget water.)
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