Pay Attention!

You can’t devour it in a single sitting. You can try, but sooner or later your eyes will sting, your stomach will grumble, your body will crave sleep, your bladder will threaten to burst. You can try, but sooner or later you’ll need to get up and go places — to work, to the shops — or you’ll need to take a breather and listen to music or watch television, or you’ll need to make, change, or keep your plans to meet up with others, friends, colleagues, in the world beyond the novel’s pages. Infinite Jest, as a physical object, is so constituted as to compete for your attention with the demands of the body you inhabit and the stimuli of the world you occupy. Moreover, it competes with those things so strongly, and over such a length of time, that what it ends up calling to your attention is just how completely your attention is at the mercy of phenomena beyond your conscious control. At the core of Infinite Jest, then, is an issue that David Foster Wallace took, here and elsewhere, as the preeminent problem of human experience: what he calls in his recently-published posthumous novel, The Pale King, “the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.”

The Ian Potter Museum of Art website has just published a transcript of a public lecture I gave at the museum last week. The lecture attempts to connect Adam Kalkin’s latest art installation, Tennis Academy, to its source of inspiration: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Nabokov’s Nasty Tricks

Of the hundred or so titles recently reissued as Popular Penguins, the most taboo and thus the most notorious is arguably Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was controversial from the moment Nabokov first tried to commit it to print. Although he completed the novel in 1953, publishers refused to go near something so deliberately provocative until a Parisian press ordered a small run in 1955; and yet, even then, another three years passed before it was at last made available in Nabokov’s adopted homeland of America. It is true, of course, that the controversy subsided with the passage of time — but it has not disappeared entirely, as I learned earlier this year when I picked up Lolita in the Popular Penguins edition and felt the sting of its notoriety first-hand.

My short essay on the disparity between popular perceptions of Lolita and its aesthetic complexities appears in the latest issue of Philament.

Faulkner’s Structural Imagery

Returning to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for last week’s reading group, I was struck by this passage in Darl’s eighth monologue (page 89 in the Vintage Classics edition) which appears just as Anse, Cash, Jewel, and Darl first attempt to raise and bear Addie Bundren’s coffin:

We lower it carefully down the steps. We move, balancing it as though it were something infinitely precious, our faces averted, breathing through our teeth to keep our nostrils closed. We go down the path, toward the slope.

“We better wait,” Cash says. “I tell you it ain’t balanced now. We’ll need another hand on that hill.”

“Then turn loose,” Jewel says. He will not stop. Cash begins to fall behind, hobbling to keep up, breathing harshly; then he is distanced and Jewel carries the entire front end alone, so that, tilting as the path begins to slant, it begins to rush away from me and slip down the air like a sled upon invisible snow, smoothly evacuating atmosphere in which the sense of it is still shaped.

Although Faulkner claimed to have hammered out As I Lay Dying in a single six-week burst of creativity, examinations of the original manuscript have since put the lie to that story. In our group discussion, then, one of the questions raised was whether the novel as published also undermines Faulkner’s claim insofar as its evident complexities and nuances make a six-week creation implausible. I pointed to the above passage as one nuance that seems to me to show enough self-reflexivity on Faulkner’s part — enough consciousness of what his novel was doing as he went about piecing it together — for the novel to then display some self-awareness, via imagery, of its own structure. Continue reading

Dear Jane…

Jane Sullivan is a professional novelist whose weekly column, ‘Turning Pages,’ is a fixture of the weekend literary supplements in Australia’s Fairfax broadsheets, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. What usually makes ‘Turning Pages’ stand out from the more news-oriented literary coverage that surrounds it is the spirit of contemplation in which it is written. Sullivan rarely takes as her subject the new releases of the week just gone and rarely exhorts her readers to immediately make a beeline for whichever book has recently won her over. Instead, she uses ‘Turning Pages’ as a space in which to think out loud about literary issues of a less transient nature, to meditate on the difficulties and the triumphs of literary creativity in a voice of exacting calm and serenity.

This week, however, Sullivan’s column is one of the more incredible things I have ever encountered in a literary supplement — incredible in the sense that I find it literally beyond credibility. Equal parts infantile and insidious, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone who even aspires to being a novelist could have ever written it in the hope or the expectation that it would be taken seriously. Earlier this month, Alan Gribben, “a well-meaning professor of English at an Alabama university,” announced his intention to publish a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout with the word “slave.” Since then, Sullivan writes in this week’s ‘Turning Pages,’ “[t]he media and blogosphere have erupted with comments, almost all negative. How dare anyone, even an eminent Twain scholar such as Professor Alan Gribben, monkey about with Huck Finn?” Continue reading

A New Year’s Eve Addendum

I’m a longtime fan of the fiction podcast presented monthly by The New Yorker. In each podcast, Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, asks writers who have recently published fiction in the magazine to select a short story from the magazine’s archives and to read it aloud and consider their reasons for admiring it. Not every podcast is a gem, of course, but more often than not the stories are great, the readings are exceptional, and the discussions are quietly appreciative in a way that I think is all too rare in contemporary literary discourse. Among my favourites: Louise Erdrich reading Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides reading Harold Brodkey, Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn, T.C. Boyle reading Tobias Wolff, Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud, and Richard Ford reading John Cheever.

This month, though, the podcast has completely outdone itself with Cynthia Ozick offering a beautiful reading and impassioned discussion of Steven Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV.’ The story must be one of the best ever to appear in The New Yorker, and Ozick’s vocalisation of it perfectly conveys the otherworldliness of its metafictional monomania. But what really sets this podcast apart from the others is the discussion between Ozick and Deborah Triesman before and after the reading. Triesman usually remains aloof or politely inquisitive, offering very little of her own thoughts on a given story while prompting the writer in the studio to disclose theirs in detail. This time, however, she lays out her own views on the story alongside Ozick’s views, revealing, to my surprise, a palpable appreciation of the story that matches Ozick’s appreciation of it even as she challenges Ozick on points of literary interpretation. Their discussion won’t revolutionise current thinking on Millhauser’s work, of course, but it’s still great to be able to hear such careful and intelligent readers give serious consideration to a fiction that — despite the faux whimsy of its premise — wants and deserves to be taken seriously.