On difficult fiction

So, this is the summer of Infinite Jest. For those of you unfamiliar with the whole Infinite Summer blog phenomenon, a whole bunch of bloggers (and humble mortals) are reading the monumental novel this summer and writing about it. Some of my favorite bloggers are writing about it at A Supposedly Fun Blog, and I've also been reading along at Infinite Zombies and Infinite Tasks.

As I've mentioned in some past post or another, Infinite Jest happens to be my all-time favorite novel. I know that's the kind of thing that's likely to induce eye-rolling when one hears it, but it happens that I actually love a gigantic and confounding novel with a deep and fervent love. (This seems to be a pretty widespread feeling among people who love the book, perhaps in keeping with all cults and fandoms and such.) And I get strangely defensive in a confusing and almost adolescent way when people don't seem to like it, or (*gasp*) claim that their dislike is because the novel is in some way to blame. When Avery Edison admitted to disliking the book, I was strangely disgruntled (considering that I didn't actually write the thing), and I was genuinely relieved and gratified when she changed her opinion.

I am having a slightly more definable objection to Ezra Klein's criticism of the book at A Supposedly Fun Blog. He writes:
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.
Later, in a follow-up comment, he says:
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.

Now, as it happens, I decided to tackle Ulysses this summer as part of a (seemingly defunct) Facebook book club. I've made it just past page 300, and I've only just now gotten to the point where I've experienced any kind of genuine enjoyment. Most of the time I've been gritting my teeth and resenting the pointless obscurity and endless allusions. And this is apparently the greatest novel of the 20th century! Joyce seems wholly unconcerned with the time demands of the novel's audience, and must certainly have known when he wrote it that most readers would be too unfamiliar with Irish history, Catholicism and Dublin geography to know what the hell was going on most of the time.

Now, frankly, when it comes to Ulysses I have a sneaking suspicion that there's a naked emperor strolling around. But part of my reaction stems from my preferring to read Absolute Sandman III instead of slogging through Leopold Bloom's stream of consciousness. That latter isn't Joyce's fault. Klein may prefer to write his blog posts and what have you, but his lack of investment in Infinite Jest isn't the novel's fault. He could just as easily lob exactly the same criticism at Gravity's Rainbow (which, full disclosure, I have tried and failed to read three times -- curse you, Pynchon!) or Underworld (which sits on my shelf, haunting me) or Cryptonomicon (which I also loved). Either one accepts that some books are "difficult" and may require more attention and effort than we are inclined to give, or one contents one's self with other pursuits.


  1. If he were objecting that he did not, in fact, enjoy the pages of the book, that's fine; some people don't. but to say he likes it but, hey, it just doesn't seem worth it on some cosmic scale of book-worthiness just translates to me as "I do not in fact enjoy reading books; I only do it when there's something to be gained out of it."

    his calling out of the AA storyline as being somehow more worthy of his time just compounds this impression for me. what does he need, someone threatening to test him on it?

  2. Screw Joyce. And modernism in fiction. No fun at all.

  3. Hear, hear, Elizabeth! Another recruit for the Trollope Society.

  4. And of course the unpublished Chiliad by Simon Otius at unhappened [dot] com.