A Supposedly Fun Blog

August 11, 2009

Not As Fun As I’d Supposed

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 4:14 am

By Ezra Klein

Infinite Summer correctly calls us out for not posting lately. So here’s my post: This was supposed to be fun. It’s right there in the name of the blog. But I’m not having much fun. I’m somewhat past page 500 now — 538, actually, and if I were DFW I’d have put that in a footnote even though that would have annoyed you — and am enjoying the book more than when I was at 400, and more than I was at 300, and more than when I was at 200. It’s getting better, richer, deeper. I care more for the characters. I’ve come to anticipate Don Gately’s every appearance, and I really love the perspective on Alcoholics Anonymous and the sensations of addiction.

But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David. Things are happening, which is a distinct improvement on things not happening. But the things that are happening aren’t really happening in the confines of a discernible plot. Rather, they are happening in the service of beginning to bring together a discernible plot. That’s fine on page 200. We’re on page 500. When I was a teenager, I remember reading Maxim’s interviews with actresses and supermodels of various kinds. A standard question for them was “can ‘it’ ever go on too long” As you might have guessed, “it” meant sex. And the answer was often “yes.” That’s sort of how I feel about IJ at this point. Enjoying the journey is important, but the reason people don’t always take the scenic route is that it takes too damn long.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not DFW I’m mad. It’s me. It’s not that I don’t want to finish Infinite Jest. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest. It’s that I don’t have time for Infinite Jest. But this is not a book that takes the opportunity cost of the reader seriously. In my other life, I write 15 blog posts a day and a weekly interview column and a twice-monthly food column. I need to read books on the Federal Reserve and papers about obesity and CBO scores. I don’t want to be the sort of person who doesn’t have the time to read a long and serious and difficult novel. But I am that sort of person. And it is not as if Infinite Jest richly rewards every sentence read or page finishing. It is not taut and there is little forward motion. I can’t shake the feeling that DFW is wasting a lot of my time. But at this point, I can’t tell which bits are actually unnecessary, and which just feel that way.

Will I give up? Probably not. I’ve sunk too much into this book. I have too much nagging anxiety over the fate of Hal Incandenza. I haven’t heard from Orin in awhile, and I want to know Gately’s role. But I’ve not been convinced that Infinite Jest is a truly great book. It is brilliant, but it is self-indulgent and petulant and difficult in the way brilliant people often are. It seems seduced by its own intelligence and talent, and feels to me like it’s reliant on readers who want to be the sort of people who have read Infinite Jest more than readers who want to keep reading Infinite Jest and so simply continue until it’s done. That, after all, is why we’re in this book group: Because it’s a book that people legendarily don’t finish. At page 538, I understand full well why people don’t finish it. Without Infinite Summer, there is no way I’d finish Infinite Jest. But I am not without Infinite Summer, and I will persevere.

How are the rest of you doing?

27 Comments »

  1. Hah hah, made you post.

    Comment by Matthew Baldwin — August 11, 2009 @ 4:20 am | Reply

  2. Don’t hope that everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. IJ really is about the journey more than the destination.

    Comment by Nick — August 11, 2009 @ 7:58 am | Reply

    • Ezra,

      Ridiculously, I am always somehow disappointed when people don’t like what I like, especially if I really like it, as with IJ. I initially want to marshal all my arguments about how said person should revise their viewpoint so that they can be just like me and love what I love, that they have missed something crucial and I will explain it to them. Ha! I suppose the psychology of this is fairly obvious. I struggled with IJ, certainly, but not surprisingly it was the struggle that I ended up enjoying (and just wait ’til you get to the end). I find this to be true of most of the art/writing that I enjoy–there is the initial struggle, sometimes bafflement, and then the work becomes this amazing presence in my life, seemingly ever after. I wonder if it just doesn’t come down to aesthetics and brain chemistry. That in a sense we are hardwired to appreciate certain things and not others. I literally hung on Hal’s every word. I couldn’t get enough of Hal and Pemulis. Gately, too, and of course Mario and JVD and JOI. IJ, for me, had this incredible intimacy that I’d never experienced before in a work of art. And that was the thing for me and IJ, this feat that DFW accomplishes. Amazing, nothing else has quite worked like this. It was almost uncanny, but then I myself was a big jock as a kid, followed tennis, devoured Thomas Harris novels, work with drug addiction, etc, so, my hardwiring is like synced up. I suspect that DFW’s IJ terrain is not your terrain and it never will be. Which is just how it is, though kind of a bummer for you. But you still will have accomplished reading this important book, which I think is valuable whether you like it or not.

      brent

      Comment by brent jenkins — September 7, 2009 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  3. [...] 11, 2009 by Daryl Houston Ezra Klein over at A Supposedly Fun Blog had this to say of this week’s milestone: But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing [...]

    Pingback by Ezra Klein and Too Little Fun « Infinite Zombies — August 11, 2009 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  4. “I don’t want to be the sort of person who doesn’t have the time to read a long and serious and difficult novel. But I am that sort of person.”

    This is a key observation. I know about a gazillion people who would say this about themselves. We all have these incredibly important jobs that are incredibly stressful and time-consuming. But there’s a lot more to life than your job. Do you want to look back in however many years and realize that you’re no greater and no less than the sum total of 15 blog posts a day and a stack of papers about obesity and CBO scores? More so than what you eat, you are what you spend your time on.

    (Note that I’m not criticizing Ezra — these are the exact same questions I grapple with, daily. In other words I can Identify.)

    Comment by infinitedetox — August 11, 2009 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  5. I think that the “self-indulgent” and “petulant” criticisms are almost wholly wrong, but apart from that:

    I suspect that in some ways the infinite summer format may encourage abandoning the book — when I first read IJ, I had the typical difficulty getting through the first ~200 pages … and then tore through the remainder in maybe two weeks. It absolutely felt ‘taut’ and there seemed to be plenty of forward motion, but at a slower pace, I could easily imagine abandoning it. Subsequent readings allow for a more attentive/measured examination.

    Comment by the teeth — August 11, 2009 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

  6. Infinitedetox: I think my problem, though, is that I would prefer to be about my 15 posts a day and my stack of papers and my CBO scores. They justify my attention in a way that most of Infinite Jest — the exception being the A.A. storyline and the insights on addiction — simply does not.

    I don’t think that’s a particularly popular opinion around these parts, but there’s this implicit claim around IJ that it’s somehow “worth it.” In the intro to my version, Eggers talks about how it makes you a better person. But I’m not seeing it. I have those feelings about Grapes of Wrath, or to be more contemporary about it, The Wire. There is fiction and literature and art that repays your investment a thousand-fold. But IJ isn’t there for me, at least not yet. And the reason I get frustrated with how much of the book seems unnecessary is because time genuinely is precious, and one of the responsibilities of the writer — of any writer — is to take seriously the time demands of the audience. At this point, I want to finish IJ more because I want to have finished IJ than because I want to finish IJ. And that’s even though I’m quite enjoying it! I’m just not enjoying it, or taking enough from it, to justify what it’s asking of me.

    One of the Infinite Zombie folks wrote a nice rebuttal to me on this, and I certainly don’t claim it as anything but my experience. But as a writer, this idea that the onus should be on the reader strikes me as very strange. And the fact that IJ is this book that goes legendarily unfinished strikes me as a profound criticism of the book, not of the readers. Maybe at the end of all this I’ll agree with those who think there’s not a word out of place. But it’s hard for me, at this point, to imagine thinking that.

    Comment by ezraklein — August 11, 2009 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

    • E.K.: I’m truly glad to hear that what you’re doing with your life is what you’d prefer to be about. I suspect that for a lot of people this isn’t the case, even if it can be hard to admit this to ourselves.

      And you know, I’m even happier to hear that you’re going to stick with IJ even though you’d rather not at this point. Not because I think your opinion of it is going to change, but because there’s something worthwhile and even honorable, if I can get away with saying that, about engaging with art that you’re not pre-disposed to like to begin with. I got into a little of the reasoning behind this in my pseudoranty response to Infinite Summer’s Avery Edison’s admission of a problem similar to yours.

      When it comes down to it, wanting to be the type of person who’s read Infinite Jest is akin to Don Gately wanting to be the type of person who can pray to a Higher Power. Just going through the motions may seem empty and purely performative at first, but maybe by the end of it you’ll walk away with something important that you didn’t have before, whatever that may be.

      Comment by infinitedetox — August 11, 2009 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  7. I think a lot of what Ezra says about IJ could be said about most “difficult” fiction. As luck would have it, I’m trying to read “Ulysses” this summer. (With a new baby at home. It’s going… inconsistently.) And, while some of the prose is absolutely gorgeous, I just simply cannot spend the time to look up every frigging allusion and reference and hint and mention. Add in the stream-of-consciousness style (which, for the record, I loathe) and the myriad demands of my day, and I’m just not “enjoying” it the way I would wish, particularly about such a great (or “the” great) novel.

    On the other hand, I love IJ with a genuine, almost embarrassing love. (True, the bits that make me love it like I do haven’t yet happened, I don’t think, where you’re at.) However, I was simply enjoying the experience of reading the book from the beginning in a way that you don’t seem to be. While I feel IJ has made me a vastly better person (and, as maddening as this must be to hear, it is MUCH better the second time around), not every person will feel this way. This is true about any great piece of art. Some people will weep with the transcendent beauty of something hanging in the Met while hundreds of people walk on by.

    Part of the mess of being human, I suspect.

    Comment by Dan Summers — August 11, 2009 @ 6:56 pm | Reply

  8. Great post Ezra–the one that has made the most sense.

    Comment by Chris Dornan — August 11, 2009 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  9. Reading Ezra’s recent posting as well as the comments above ( which I think are all apt) puts me in mind of the whole debate over the symphonies of Mahler in the post war (WWII) period. Mahler’s work was widely considered interminable, repetitious, indulgent, amorphous, neurotic and abusive of any normal orchestration guidelines. It took a few visionary interpreters like Leonard Bernstein and the critic William Malloch on Pacifica Radio in the mid 60s to guide us through a sonic universe that spun on the precipice between profundity and banality.
    I think that Wallace works the same terrain in the novel, taking it beyond even where modernism dared, butting up against the very idea of what a symphony/novel is. And yet somehow creates it anew.
    you either get it or you don’t and if you don’t you have to exit the hall because you will only hear/see the dissonance. My own take on it is that like Mahler’s symphonies which are now the very embodiment of fin-de- siecle angst and Euroculture and staples of the orchestral repertoire,, Wallace is building a new way of looking at the novel as he undermines its fundamental narrative, even in the terms of post modernism.

    Maybe we need more time and distance to see him as a new classicist, which is what I think he is.

    Comment by john bailey — August 11, 2009 @ 10:21 pm | Reply

  10. What would it mean to be a ‘new classicist?’ Just curious. And I personally don’t think Wallace is quite THAT inventive/visionary, at least in terms of ‘reinventing the form of the novel’ kind of things. Large chunks of IJ read fairly straightforwardly, I thought.

    Comment by Ryan — August 12, 2009 @ 2:00 am | Reply

  11. Yeah. One of the odd things about criticizing Infinite Jest is that you’re caught up in this argument were Wallace is either history’s greatest genius or a complete fraud. But I’m somewhere in the middle. I think he’s a tremendous talent, and the book has moments of startling brilliance and undeniable innovation, but it doesn’t always justify the work it requires. maybe the most surprising thing to me has been that I’ve not found it hard to get through at all. I’ve had little trouble keeping to the schedule and, aside from a weak passage here or there, have found the whole thing quite accessible. It’s possible, of course, that I’m not blown away by it because, on some fundamental level, I don’t understand it, and I should just exit the auditorium. But I think it’s also possible that it’s a grand project with soaring virtues and deep flaws.

    I loved all the comments from Infinite Detox, as I love his blog. The thing is, though, that it’s not that I don’t like the book. It’s more that I’m not sure it’s “worth it.” What’s worth it for me is this weird sense of community, and this desire to do something outside my normal routine. But on a more prosaic level, there’s a cost-benefit to reading IJ, just like there’s a cost-benefit to doing anything else. For some people it equals out. For some, it doesn’t. For some, it would if the book were 800 pages, and it highlighted its brilliance rather than using its brilliance to justify excessive length and detail. But if Wallace had another 1,000-pager that people said was superb, there’s no way I’d be going from this to that. That’s not a statement against the book, per se, but a comment on what I’m getting out of an experience that I am, on the whole, enjoying.

    Last thing: some blogger somewhere, I think in response to one of the Infinite Summer bloggers, sharply noted the irony that IJ was all about choosing to live life the hard way rather than just pursuing diversion at any cost. The implication was that reading IJ was the hard thing. But that strikes me as weird. Reading this book is easy. It’s pleasure. It’s diversion. It’s not Infinite Jest the tape, but it’s Infinite Jest, the beloved fiction book and current internet fad. If reading this wonderfully written journey through a brilliant man’s imagination is the hardest part of your day, you’re having pretty good days!

    Comment by ezraklein — August 12, 2009 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  12. it’s reliant on readers who want to be the sort of people who have read Infinite Jest more than readers who want to keep reading Infinite Jest and so simply continue until it’s done

    I think and have always thought that IJ is a worthwhile but ultimately deeply flawed novel, although not for the same reasons you do. I think that it’s very honest for you to share your negative feelings about some aspects of the book and reading it. And I respect every reason that you give for those feelings. But when you dip close to a kind of meta-argument that attacks the motives for reading something, I sets off alarm bells that I have been conditioned to hear from long experience. When you have dedicated your adult life to reading, and reading fiction, you become very sensitive to any kind of questioning of the motives for reading something or saying you like it. Because you hear, all the time, that you can’t possibly like X book, and you must only be saying you do out of pretension, or “to be known as someone who read X.” It grates. I am happy to hear anyone say that they don’t like any given novel. I just want to reserve the right to like such a novel and not be told I’m doing so for the wrong reasons. Sorry to be sensitive, and you’ve mostly avoided doing that, I think. It’s a sore subject.

    Incidentally, I think you may be overestimating IJ’s critical reputation by quite a bit.

    Comment by Freddie — August 13, 2009 @ 3:08 am | Reply

    • Yes, Freddie correctly hints at Ezra posing false extremes in order to feel comfortable falling in the middle. There is no argument about DFW being “either history’s greatest genius or a complete fraud.” This fraud comment is a total red herring. Even folks who don’t get through IJ are unlikely to say he’s a fraud; if they do, who could be bothered to pay attention to them? And it doesn’t take reading IJ to see that he was a genius – plenty of the essays and interviews demonstrate that. The question instead is, What is the ultimate significance of his genius? And on this question, there is worthy debate to be had, so long as it is informed debate.

      If someone says a book or author undergoing high-level critical scrutiny is not (or may not be) “worth reading,” it is tantamount to saying “I don’t feel interested/qualified in pursuing the question of their significance.” Which is fine. All the remainder of their comments can be put in a box labeled “My Feelings,” which are perhaps of interest to their friends and relatives, at best.

      Comment by infinitetasks — August 13, 2009 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

    • Reading the Bookworm interview with DFW from around the time of publication (http://web.archive.org/web/20040606041906/www.andbutso.com/~mark/bookworm96/), it is clear that he really struggled to make IJ an enjoyable reader experience. However, technocrats such as our beloved Ezra (with a clear sense of purpose in their lives) tend to value time in terms of marginal utility and will always take issue with a novel that primarily deals with existential angst (beware of intentional fallacies!) in an essentially materialist society they tirelessly strive to improve, whereas people who dedicate their adult life to reading fiction are genuinely interested not only in what authors describe but also how this is done and this is where IJ excels; making it a confluential masterpiece in its own right. It takes time and devotion to become a deeper reader (IJ is undoubtedly better the 2nd time) and not everyone consider this worthwile (as in show – in fiction – vs. tell – in non-fiction), which is fine. A suggestion: try picking up the pieces of shattered glass that make up the novel and create your own vision of the society the sum of its parts reflects. If you can find the time, that is…

      Comment by funkyfoe — August 13, 2009 @ 9:14 pm | Reply

  13. I remember it pretty well: The first time I read IJ, and got to FN 216, I laughed my ass off.

    One of these days, I’m going to try Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Comment by John O — August 14, 2009 @ 12:37 am | Reply

    • Good luck, John. I’ve tried and failed with Gravity’s Rainbow three times. For some reason, I found V. much more enjoyable.

      Comment by Dan Summers — August 14, 2009 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

      • I find that liking V. is not an accurate predictor of whether you’ll like G.R., or vice versa, but people who like the Crying of Lot 49 like G.R.

        Comment by Freddie — August 14, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

  14. I’ve been reading “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and I noticed in the acknowledgments that DFW mentions his sister, whom he calls “Amy (“Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here, Exactly?”) Wallace Havens.” I find it interesting to consider the question of just how deliberately DFW tried to make it hard on the reader. I can’t speak for the worth of the experience to others, but I can say that this book has been intensely thought provoking, as an experience and as a meta-experience. And I still can’t get my head around the ubiquity of suicide in the book, and to this day I am haunted by wondering just what was wrong with this man and what I could have said to him to make him stay around.

    Comment by Ralph — August 14, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

    • I firmly believe DFW’s backtracking and recurrent jokes on Reader-Annoyance are trademark self-conscious reactions to the dauntingly complex drafts he evidently tried to distill into a more accessible and enjoyable reader experience.

      And let me reassure you Ralph, after trying to quit a dirty drug which prevented severe depression over 22 years only to find that the drug does not help anymore when the depression returns with a vengeance, it is unlikely that special something you’d have said or done could have made him stay around. At that regrettable moment in time, he just could not bear life-with-an-exploding-head any longer. R.I.P. Dave

      Comment by funkyfoe — August 14, 2009 @ 11:00 pm | Reply

  15. Ezra,
    I have a real hard time relating to your post. I am digging it all. Like, a lot. Understood, your real busy and all but… DFW is “wasting a lot of your time”? My experience is that I’m savoring every page and footnote. The bummer is that when this mental Hot Fudge Sunday is over, there aint gonna be no more. Ever.

    Comment by Jimbo — August 16, 2009 @ 9:51 am | Reply

    • Jimbo, I’m on my third time through IJ and it’s great. I’ve also read a number of theses at the Howling Fantods site (haven’t busted out for the books on DFW and IJ yet though). All I can say is that from my perspective, the end of the book is not the end of the story.

      Comment by mitchcalderwood — August 16, 2009 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

      • Funny, since it was published and I was first was turned on to IJ, I’m about 100 pages from finishing my third read, and I’m oddly and creepily convinced I’ll have it all figured out if I just keep reading it over and over again.

        That’s not good for me, but is a pretty compelling example of the power of art.

        Comment by John O — January 17, 2010 @ 12:54 am

  16. Since I stumbled on this blog, I’ve taken to picking up IJ and just opening it to random pages and starting in just for the fun of it.

    Lots of people have noted this, but DFW’s suicide really does alter the experience of reading it (or parts of it, in my case) again.

    I’m starting to think of it as highly autobiographical, with heavy doses of the author’s imagination included. All the things that Wallace loved and hated and found interesting (considering his body of work) are awfully deeply explored; his wonkish love of math and formal logic, tennis, pharmacology, the intersection of meta-viewing and culture, and of course depression and *gulp* suicide, wrapped in this wildly complex and funny and smart monstrosity of a book. I see a lot of Wallace (in suicidal retrospect) in Gately, Kate Gompert, Hal, and Mario, who is not getting enough play on this blog, IMO. Mario being perhaps the novel’s one pure soul, the simple-is-better, trusting, unconditionally loving part of DFW, DFW knowing if he could just see the world more like Mario…

    Sometimes I wonder if he just sat down and decided to give us the most thorough peek into a person’s own personal mind I can ever recall reading, and damn the torpedos and people who find it to be “work.” I look into my own mind, and I, too, find it infinitely jestful, and trying to pour everything bouncing around in there into a book would require a thousand pages, at least. And probably a lot of endnotes.

    The man had an bizarrely large, completely functional empathy gland, that much is clear, to at least one rapt reader.

    Comment by John O — August 16, 2009 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  17. Not reading the footnotes might be contributing to your having trouble discerning a plot. But the book isn’t really primarily about tight plotting. DFW isn’t trying to do a Moby-Dick-length version of Michael Connelly.

    Comment by jmb — August 23, 2009 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  18. We are trying to make a funny song/music video for fun and obviously to post on BlackStar69 </a

    Comment by john — April 6, 2010 @ 7:35 am | Reply


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