The Class of Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is sitting on my coffee table, all one-million-zillion pages of it. Even though I have the paperback, it’s an impressive brick of a novel. I decided to read it this summer as a change from digging through my ever-growing collection of Angela Carter, and that book I will never admit to reading if you run into me on the street. Jest has been on the shelf, gathering dust with a depressingly large number of other titles I was interested in or thought I had to read to absurdly defend my position among the academic elite.

I opened it. I read five pages. That was one intense meeting. I needed a drink. I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again.

So, you know, I felt the opposite of this hallucinating kid.

My to-be brother in law is eighteen, dropped out of high school and passed his GED, applied to work at a pizza joint, and lives in one of the more economically depressed areas of the country. The Rust Belt, so titled for the gloomy and often dying or dead factories that are no longer employing, no longer running, many of the jobs made obsolete by machines or sent overseas where the same labor is cheaper because people cost less.

I’m from the North-West suburbs of Chicago. Hilary Clinton went to my high school, and there is still a picture of her in one of the hallways. Recently, I was told that a tour bus from Japan came through and took pictures of her portrait. In many imperceptible ways, my high school is a landmark, and there is something unspoken about how its graduates should be landmarks as well; we are capable of great things, we Harry Potters, we Voldemorts.

Most of the people in my graduating class went on to college. If someone did not, it was not spoken of, or maybe whispered about behind our hands. We do not take the ASVAB (indeed, I did not even know what that was until a few months ago) whereas where my fiancé is from, it is taken during school hours, along with the ACT.

When asked, my to-be brother in law, Jeromy, says his favorite book is Infinite Jest.

He was told that some of the most elitist ivory-towered academics get a little queasy at the thought of wading through it and simply choose not to. This surprised him.

“What?” he said. “Reading is easy.”

Why, even this near-sighted dog can read.

The more I think about this, the more I try to extract, perhaps superficially, some meaning from our different backgrounds and the different expectations imposed on us when it comes to literature, I come back to a silly assignment I perform for my composition class: I stand in front of them and ask them to assume anything about me. Guess what my natural hair color is, my religious affiliation, my orientation, my politics, my taste in music, my dietary restrictions, what pets I have and what television show I secretly love.

They usually guess pretty accurately. And why wouldn’t they? I follow a set and typical path, one not so different from the one they were born to. I am a mirror image of their own histories, and this is not to say that blah blah, diversity is lacking on campus, but rather that I am from the same cultural class as they are. I have a learned manner of speech not unlike, though sometimes a parody of, the anchor and weathermen. I value education and I value culture because it was cultivated in me to do so. And still, even though I should know better, I am pleasantly and ignorantly surprised when my expectations of others are turned upside down and shaken for their lunch money.

Now I will make an assumption: there is a difference in the way Jeromy and I approach literature. When I ask my college freshmen what books they enjoy? None, they say. Or something that was clearly assigned to them in school (Romeo and Juliet, or the Great Gatsby). Reading is something we did because we were told to do it, because our parents saw our inevitable college dream as both attainable and obvious, so long as we did the required homework.

And it’s not true, either. I peeked out from behind my father when he purchased me The Odyssey and The Illiad when I was eight, because I had found a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and was completely devastated if I didn’t get to read every book on gods and goddesses ever produced. My father was so proud. “It’s for her,” he told the clerk, pointing at me. He hadn’t read it; else he probably would have protested at all the weird kinkery that the Greek gods got up to.

Lots of nude spearing. And flowers.

Even then, however, I realized there was a correlation between reading and praise. It was enough that I could say I read it, though. Not too many people actually wanted to talk about it outside of the classroom, and even then it was somewhat of a chore. If I collected enough titles, I was smart. I had invisible but in some ways, strangely visible value. It was in my off the cuff references, the sly jokes I could make that, even if you didn’t understand them, you knew I was speaking a language that had significance.

Another assumption: my to-be brother in law had a sub-par education compared to mine (although, considering how wealthy my suburb is, this is not an assumption, but mere economics). His approach to literature is, perhaps, more genuine, detached from the expected opening line I heard when my parents introduced me as a child to their friends and colleagues – “You know she reads at a high school level? She’s so smart!” – instead, for him it is not only an escape, but an introduction and intense deconstruction to something larger than himself and his agriculture.

When my fiancé and I went to pick up his books from his father’s home, his father eyed the boxes and said “you actually read all of those?” I was surprised – all my parents do is read – but I shouldn’t have been. There is a discrepancy between our classes, one that has differences of time, how education is valued, and how reading is valued.

But reading is amazing, we say! It is almost sacred! It must be revered because it is the highest form of art!

Why do we feel that way? I know I do because it was kindly beaten into me to love it, love it, love it. Yet my fiancé reads obnoxiously, and the same love wasn’t schooled into him through years of systematic praise.

I actually have no idea what Jeromy’s reading experience is like. I do know that I read the books I really truly love – Clive Barker, for example – in my apartment under the covers, yet in coffee shops I’ll pop out a Norton Anthology and hold it up to my face like a second thick skin. I don’t find reading easy, not anymore, if I ever did. Instead, it is something I have to keep up with; I have to read and understand the right things and articulate them later or risk being a charlatan.  It’s an identity, one I am terrified of losing, and one that perhaps hides me, categorizes me, disfigures me and yet how magnificently I profit from the disfigurement. It is a hole I have dug with my own fingers.

I’m working on my PhD, so it’s not too hard to assume that not only have I read Infinite Jest, but I’ve probably written a dreary seminar paper about DFW and post-post-post-po-pomodernism at some point. And when people see Jeromy, I guarantee no one thinks he’s read any book beyond the sparknotes summary, if he even bothered going that far. My voice has more value, especially in academia, because I have access to the terminology, and I know (don’t test me on this) what multimodal and modernism vs. postmodernism means. I can speak of these things over a Bordeoux glass (not to be confused with Bourdieu – aren’t I witty?) and know exactly why Cabernet Sauvignon should be served in it.

It goes without saying, I hope, that I am rather ashamed about that – not that I haven’t read Jest, but rather that there is a decent chance we won’t hear Jeromy’s voice. I guarantee he’ll have better insights  than I would, as I’d just bemoan those footnotes I’ve heard so much about and excuse myself from the conversation.

The Puppy Chews Its Paws

Discussion of the Best American anthologies has been all over our blog recently, and my guess is that it has appeared on many other sites, too. Sometimes it gets ripped for being generally terrible, such as Adam Gopnik’s selections for Best American Essays 2008, and other times the collection is generally considered solid. Rarely does anyone come flat out and say the collection is brilliant and breathtaking and all inclusive. How could it? Even when limited by the series editor, the guest editor has his or her own preferences for what constitutes good fiction (or poems or essays). Perhaps this is a tad unfair, but his name is on the cover and spine, in clear and large font, so the selections in this year’s Best American Stories are the Best American Stories According to Richard Russo.

What we know about any guest editor’s criteria comes from not only the writer’s work, but also from what the writer states in the anthology’s introduction. As I said two weeks ago, I was looking forward to reading Richard Russo’s introduction. I don’t know Richard Russo, but I like “him” as I perceive him from his essays, stories, and novels: a guy quick with laughter who is unpretentious and thoughtful. This might be a construct, of course, and if we learned anything over the last decade or so, public figures and celebrities construct a careful persona through a range of media outlets and services to make us believe they are Just Like Us. Naturally this tends not to be true.

So despite my personal groundless feelings on Richard Russo as a writer and all around good guy, I found his introduction to the Best American Short Stories 2010 to be lazy and frustrating. The introduction is built upon an anecdote of Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting Southern Illinois University in the early 1980’s. Meeting with students and faculty, Singer is asked “What is the purpose of literature?” and he says “To entertain and instruct.” Russo tells this story with more humor and skill then I’m bringing to it right now, but the core concept—to entertain and instruct—is the foundation for his introduction and, presumably, his selections for this anthology.

Russo writes:

“I’ll leave the defining of those two crucial terms to others”

Um—why? Aren’t you the guest editor who selected these stories? Wouldn’t this be interesting to discuss? Leaving this to others could be, I suppose, sly and funny, in the way that Singer’s pronouncement is sly and funny. It also seems reductive and simplistic. Compare this to the second paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s introduction to Best American Essays 2007:

“The truth is that just about every important word on the cover of The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of—and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.”

Now, that’s an introduction. Not just filler for the front of the book, but an essay worth reading for its own merits, one that forces the “others” to think.

The word that Russo uses that troubles me is “entertain.” Why does this word bother me? Because words aren’t static, and meanings and usage change with time; in the here and now, entertain is a word that strikes me as passive and submissive, a word for people wearing 3-D glasses, arms folded across their chest, waiting for It to appear and be … well, funny like a clown. One definition of entertain is “to keep and hold in the mind” but another definition (yes, definitions depend on the dictionary you use—see how word choice matters?) gives us this: to hold the attention of with something amusing or diverting.

Hmmm. Well, puppies are amusing.

Entertaining me with your writing often leads to the things that have troubled me, thus far, in BASS 2010: stories that aren’t so much wrecked by their endings, but take narrative turns that are both expected and perfectly average. There is a revelation at the end that feels cinematic. To be fair, I’ve only read a portion of the stories in BASS, and none of them are bad. None of them are great or “best” either, though Charles Baxter’s “The Cousins” is pretty friggin’ awesome. It also is the only story, so far, that has avoided this movie-reel moment at the end of the story.

What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is “occupying the attention and efforts” of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy. This is a reading experience that doesn’t allow the reader to sit back and wait for the puppy to chew its tail and flop around on its oversized paws.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with entertaining stories. I suppose there is nothing wrong with the growing defense of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and the genre of pulp fictions that are getting more and more cache from other writers and academia, and that we can make “good writing” about vampires or werewolves or zombies, because those are fun, even for us literary dorks. I suppose that it’s okay that we are reading rather than watching television. I suppose.

But that feels like an awfully low standard for what is christened Best in any given year (or decade or century or whatnot). Perhaps it’s easier to just say that the Best American series is consumerist and designed to sell, as indicated in part by the name recognition of the recent guest editor, and just go ahead and accept that the stories they select are “entertaining” and leave it at that.

Or we can hope for more. Take for example the prize winner from the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 anthology, “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen,” by Graham Joyce. Unequivocally, this is one of the best stories I have read in years. To say that it’s about a British soldier’s experiences in Iraq during the first Gulf War doesn’t tell you much, but I would fail miserably if I tried to sum up Joyce’s brilliant and – here it is – engaging story. It’s a story that you can’t quite unwrap: you have to reread it and even then I’m not sure you can fully say exactly what it is that lingers. It’s the kind of story that occupies your attention and efforts for days, which is what the truly best short stories will always achieve.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review

Nobody's Fooling The Editor

The newest additions to the Best American series Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, Best American (fill in the blank here) – hit bookstores tomorrow.  Richard Russo is this year’s editor for BASS.  In 2006, David Foster Wallace was the guest editor for BAE (um: Best American Essays, but, you knew that already …) and emphasized in his introduction that he was the Decider, not an editor, as Robert Atwan, the series editor, actually forward David all the essays he could select.  It was a fascinating essay – what essays by Wallace aren’t? – in part because Wallace figured that most people don’t read the introductions at all, and if they do, they read the introduction after they’ve read some, if not all, of the anthologized work.

This puzzled me.  My first thought was “Really?  Doesn’t everyone read the introduction first?  Isn’t that why it’s called an “introduction” and appears before all the collected stuff?”  I tend to think in a linear fashion about these things, much to the amusement, delight, and teasing of my friends.  But when I was an undergraduate and first introduced to the Best American series, still struggling with the idea of what makes literature “good”, the introduction was insight into what was chosen, why it was chosen, and what the anthology, on the whole, aimed to achieve.  I still find the introductions to be a fascinating look into what engages the guest editor, often a writer I admire, and one that has achieved great success over many years of hard work.

Here’s hoping Russo’s introduction is as delightful as his novels.

In the back of the Best Ams’, you’ll find each writer’s comments on her/his story (except for William Trevor, who never comments), a list of magazines that submitted work to Best American for consideration, and a list of the 100 Distinguished or Notable pieces in each given anthology.  From The Missouri Review:

Andrew Cohen, “Television Days,” Vol 32.4 (essay)

Cheryl Strayed, “Munro County,” Vol 32.4 (essay)

Deborah Thompson, “What’s the Matter with Houdini,” Vol 32.1 (essay)

Elise Juska, “The Way I Saw The World Then,” Vol 32.4 (story)

Eleanor Lerman, “Persistent Views of the Unknown,” Vol 32.3 (story)

All wonderful pieces you should read (re-read?).  And, of course, a big thanks to these wonderful authors for giving us the opportunity to publish their work.  We were delighted to do so!  Also, friend of TMR and weekly blogger, Michael Kardos, was also shortlisted for his terrific story “Metamorphosis”, which originally appeared in Prairie Schooner.  Congrats!

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review