Tuesday, January 29, 2013

David Foster Wallace slams his junk on the counter

David Foster Wallace slams his junk on the counter. All of it. FWOP! The beautiful, the damaged, the cerebral, the interconnected, the difficult, the long-winded, the mind-blowing, the annotated. Here, take this, all of it, and have at it.

Wallace's second novel, "Infinite Jest," is more than 1,000 pages. It's a difficult book that's been critically heralded as genius by almost all counts, if sprawling, daunting and labyrinthine. That's not what young novelists are supposed to do. When you are 34 years old, building a literary reputation, you aren't supposed to slam down a confusing doorstop of a tome that might alienate readers who want an easy beach read.

When I walk into a bookstore, I know that I don't want to read most of the books in the joint. Not even close. I'm looking for books that speak to me about life, art, storytelling, philosophy, the Universe; that open my mind to possibilities; that connect things in ways I haven't considered. I'm learning over time what books those might be, what authors write the kind of books I want to read. I've known Wallace through his essays and shorter pieces. He is one of those writers.

But I have shied away from "Infinite Jest." With a book that size that is known as a tough read, I figured I might balk. Start and stop and figure I'll get back to it. But I didn't want to. I wanted to have at it. Eat the elephant, one bite at a time, but with the attention it deserves. I love that DFW was willing to slam his junk--his genius, his hang-ups, his shortcomings--and say, here.

In a commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace posited that the goal of an education was to learn, "How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out."

That's a cat I want to hang with, one that has something to say to me. If you don't know much about Wallace or "Infinite Jest," I recommend reading Dave Eggers' foreword to the book.

I want to hear what Wallace has to say in his art, in his biggest, most brilliant book. So I've enlisted help. Myself included, we have 12 adventurers who are going to follow Wallace on his infinite quest. Strength in numbers. Many minds to help navigate the maze. We light our torches and begin the journey on Feb. 15. Holler if you'd like to join the expedition.

Wallace hung himself when he was 46. He suffered from depression and was on and off his meds toward the end of his life. The New Yorker has a great article on the chronology of his life and his struggles. There are geniuses/artists it seems, who aren't right for our times. Maybe for any times. The tragedy of it, we are left with a limited number of ways to honor, appreciate, indulge what he left behind. But one of those ways, part of his legacy is Infinite.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Art is singing on the railroad tracks

Art is singing on the railroad tracks, even when you hear the train coming. Metaphorically speaking, mind you, I'm not advocating train track art.

I've been listening to Tom Waits a lot lately, saw this photo and said right off, that's what art is. That's the attempt. When it's so important, where you have to do it, you have to create music, painting, writing, whatever, whatever the risk.

The New York Times Magazine ran a feature on George Saunders and his new book of short stories. Reading the article made me ashamed not to have read Saunders. But I'm remedying that. And have since found out he'll be reading at Politics and Prose in D.C., on Jan. 14.

Saunders further sold me with a newly written preface to his first book, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." He flashes back to his life as a technical writer and a new father during the time he scratched out the time to write the stories. It's both his commitment to make it happen and his way of talking about the author creating art once they've stopped trying to imitate the writers they are influenced by:

The work he does there is not the work of his masters. It is less. It is more modest; it is messier. It is small and minor.

But at least it’s his.

He sent the trained dog that is his talent off in search of a fat glorious pheasant, and it brought back the lower half of a Barbie doll.

So be it.

So be it. It's like fishing and pulling up a boot. Saunders's story of writing his first book helps keep the (this) writer's dream alive a lit longer. He's singing on the railroad tracks. George Saunders, Tom Waits and the lower halves of Barbie dolls. Amen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"And miles to go before I sleep"

Robert Frost and I don't talk much. He's a bit old school and rhymey for my taste. A funny thing though, when a poet reaches out of your memory, out of your subconscious, to chat.

I've had Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" in my head for a number of months now. Particularly the last stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I hear Frost speaking in the deep, Southern drawl or Mr. Chew, our 10th grade English teacher at St. James. Mr. Chew was also our cross country coach, who got us out running through the woods, usually before they were snowy, and there wasn't much stopping going on.

Frost's narrator stops to chill, take in a scene, a moment, where most folks en route keep cranking. But there was something more going on. Maybe Frost-the-narrator (FTN) is tired, fed up with work, with bills, with all the shit he's got to do. The moment of hesitation presents something else. Dude, fu** it, what if I just chill here and take this in. For good?

The temptation is there, "the woods are lovely, dark and deep." But FTN doesn't give himself more than the passing thought. Nah, man, "I've got promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep." I got shit to do.

Let's face it, we've got days, maybe weeks-months-years where the temptation of the snowy woods is there. It's funny though, how often I hear Mr. Chew as FTN, out of the blue with those last three lines, "But I've got promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep."

So this fall and winter, I've had Frost and Chew speaking up from memory, from subconscious, saying hey. And then on New Year's Day, as we're taking out Christmas decorations down, Robin pulls down a blackboard she writes a new seasonal message on every couple months. She wipes the old "Merry Christmas" off. She says:

What if I put the first verse of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," on the board?

I've never mentioned Frost, or Mr. Chew, or that poem to her. Voices, speaking from the past. Our past, for us to hear. If we listen.

That would be cool, hon.

So I leave you with Frost's whole poem. You can say it out loud, in a deep Southern drawl if you want.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.  

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Proof by lamp, proof by stumble

A-stumble back from a bar, watching my feet to see if they make a straight line.

A lamp lit in a window is proof of another life. Someone else's existence.

Feet stretched onto a stool, the glow of a television. Maybe she's watching Seinfeld reruns. Or some law/cop drama. Maybe she got some shitty news. A break up. A lump. Maybe there's a stack of bills next to her chair and not enough to cover them.

Maybe she's just stumbled home a few minutes before me, unexcited by hook-up prospects, and she's just nuked some mac and cheese or pizza that lived in the fridge. Maybe her beer buzz has her contemplating trips to the mountains where dudes will be hotter and smarter and pizza will taste better at altitude with legs sore from hiking.

Or maybe she sits on her couch, scribbling in a notebook about the guy that just wandered by her window, on the street at closing time; proof of another life, proof against the one a.m. existential aloneness.

Proof by a lamp lit in a house. Proof by the stumble of a passer-by.