I suppose I was about 14 when my father began talking in earnest to me about Ulysses. His stories were mostly about Joyce himself, and how he would write letters to his sister (he was in Italy) and asked her to visit a particular street, and count the steps between this and that, for the detail of the city that we was writing about. He also talked about how it was all at once an allegory, a modern retelling of an ancient Greek classic, a book full of jokes delivered in a dry Irish manner, as well as obscure references. He explained how it was a book that was banned at one point, and the silliness of that decision, since the book could barely be read at all without a guidebook. That it was an experimental novel, and that no modern writer had attempted anything quite like it until that point, and that the man was clearly a genius.
All of this intrigued me – at this point Ulysses would have been about the 20th important book that he introduced me to – and I made a weak attempt at reading it. I gave up pretty quickly, and didn’t return for another serious attempt until I was 18, and that time I made it through, although missing a great deal along the way. Two years later I used Gilbert’s guide, and finally read the book with an understanding worthy of what the author put into it.
In 1996 my father was nearing the end of his life. Sadly, I still relied on him to qualify and recommend books to read. Not that I was reading all that much then, since I was twisted up a bit in various relationships with women, and working a bit harder than I should have. Since my father was literally sick and tired, I don’t think he much noticed the arrival of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If he had, and had the energy to approach it, I think I would have gotten a letter about the book – similar that it is to Ulysses in certain ways. (This is what I love about this particular blog. Responses are not allowed. So whoever you are, anonymous, pissed-off reader who loves to argue about every damned thing you read – you can’t respond to my opinion — painful, huh?)
It’s certainly experimental, and in my opinion, the work of genius – but why is the writing good, really? Well, one of the things I admire about good writing is economy. Not that you would call the entire novel here in question “economical”, but listen to this:
“Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsor across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon.”
One sentence and what do we get? Time, place, a sense of stiffness and propriety.Without paying very close attention to the reality before you, there is no way to come up with “spidered light.” What does it say about the observer if faces resolve into place? Something, I would wager.
Like Ulysses, this epic (one might say exhausting) work is rife with obscure references – mostly of our own time and place, and like Ulysses, a wicked sense of humor pervades. Because I wasn’t born before 1930, I suppose I didn’t see quite the amount of humor that my father found in Ulysses, but I find myself laughing out loud while reading Infinite Jest. I will admit that there are passages that I succumb to and (god forbid) skip forward through, but all in all, this book is very much worth the work.
I share the general consensus that Wallace’s suicide was a terrible waste, but hey, leaving something like this behind is a hell of lot more than most of us will contribute, even as we push through to the natural end.
Read this. I think you will be better for it.