Serious Fiction’s Purpose

Quote

‘DFW: I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.’

From the Dalkey Archive interview with David Foster Wallace.

It is worth reading the whole interview for DFW’s trenchant diagnosis not only of his own weaknesses as a writer, but those at the centre of American, and to a lesser extent English language culture, that its lack of seriousness stems from a need to be liked: “like me because I’m clever” or the lesser (very English) “like me because I’m funny”.

‘I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.’

‘For our generation, the entire world seems to present itself as “familiar,” but since that’s of course an illusion in terms of anything really important about people, maybe any “realistic” fiction’s job is opposite what it used to be—no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most “familiarity” is meditated and delusive.’

There’s so much good in this interview. I might have to explore DFW’s work again, to look beyond the irritating humour. The essays, maybe, or that last unfinished work?

‘DFW: Well, but metafiction is more valuable than that. It helps reveal fiction as a meditated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. ‘

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami

Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90’s polemics on campus rape.

I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.

Infinite Jest and Pale King

In the end, it was Bibilioklept’s comment, “The fight scene at the halfway house. That’s all I’m saying…”,  that drew me back to Infinite Jest, with renewed enthusiasm. I reread the chapter introducing Madame Psychosis, this time finding it irresistible.

On the DFW theme, Biblioklept’s review of Pale King concludes, “… it is [still] a marvel of heart and intellect.”

Morgan Meis considers Pale King and concludes:

Looking at it this way, you could also call The Pale King David Foster Wallace’s version of an 11th step. According to the literature of AA, the 11th step is when members of AA “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” The earlier steps in the 12-step tradition are largely about clearing away the bondage of self, learning to reintegrate oneself into the “stream of life.” The 11th step is about formalizing that process into a daily practice. It is, in DFW’s language, about creating habits for simple attention, awareness. It is about finding ways to worship.

The article above links to a powerful piece on DFW that I had not read before.

Infinite Jest Stalled

My request for Infinite Jest cheerleaders brought forth Isabella and Frances, who both urged me to read on, but suggested a break may be advisable. On completing Jaron Lanier’s provocative You Are Not a Gadget, I eyed David Foster Wallace’s slab of postmodernism, and reverted to my bookshelves in search of a volume more fitting to my appetite today. Infinite Jest might be this summer’s book for the beach. For now Walter Benjamin’s Early Writings 1910-1917 is exerting a strong pull.

Two Hundred Pages Into Infinite Jest

Artfully constructed sentences soon become unremarkable in Infinite Jest; the use of language is exquisite. I find myself rereading paragraphs with wonder. After twice reading an eight-page footnote, ‘James O. Incandenza: A Filmography’, the footnotes began to seem a rewarding construction, and not annoying. Thirty pages in, I hit a chapter written entirely in vernacular, “Wardine say her momma aint treat her right”. Normally a block, I survived a device I always find condescending.

David Foster Wallace writes characters that rise up from the pages. The chapter where we meet marijuana addict Erdedy awaiting a woman who is due to bring him some ‘unusually good marijuana’ is an outstanding study of addiction, hilarious and disturbing.

Two hundred pages in though and I am seeking distraction, began reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Perhaps I haven’t read enough to care yet, but I am not feeling forward propulsion. Have you read Infinite Jest? Is it sufficiently rewarding, not just a well-written and clever book? Any cheer-leaders out there?