Early Summer Reading

The first book worth mentioning, when it comes to my early summer reading, is Keith Richards’s Life, with its oft-amusing portraits of life as a Rolling Stone and Richards’s striking common-man writing voice. In the book there are some truly great stories – especially the excellent set-piece that serves as the opening chapter and reminds me in this way of the way the opening set-piece of Don DeLillo’s Underworld works – but ultimately I would have to admit that the book became a bit of a slog for me to get through in that I found myself very much able to put it down and return to it later. That’s not much of a critique, in that there’s nothing wrong with putting a book down, but Richards at times went over the top in his self-estimation of certain things – his drug intake, his ability to drive brilliantly at night, his excitement about playing with Jamaican musicians – so that he could become hard to take after a while. I’d recommend it to others, especially for the unbelievably conflicted feelings he has toward Mick Jagger (it’s not all negative, as the press about the book seemed to emphasize). Those parts are just plain fascinating – has anyone known such a complicated love/hate relationship? Life is not a must read, but it certainly has its moments. Great for the beach.

The next book worth mentioning is a novel by Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed. You may have come across Ferris before: he’s a young writer and his previous novel – Then We Came to the End – was something of a commercial and critical success, with plenty of positive reviews and placement on lots of Top Ten Novels of the Year lists. Perhaps you recall it: Ferris used the first-person plural to situate his story of workplace ennui, set in an ad agency in Chicago as the Internet boom came to an end. I remember reading Then We Came to the End and finding it funny at first in its satire of American boom ideology, but as I kept reading I found it less funny than clever, and by the end I was kind of tired of its cleverness and hoped it would start to add up to something more. I didn’t really think it ever did, though I also thought that it was pretty good for a first novel – to be fair to Ferris.

I began The Unnamed this winter when my kids were taking ski lessons. I became enamored of it because I found the plot conceit rather engaging. Tim is a highly successful attorney, married with a daughter, who is undergoing an affliction that is unknown to mankind: a compulsion to set out walking, walking for hours and hours until he collapses from exhaustion. This compulsion has returned – which means that he has had it before, which he did, and then it passed. But it has returned now with a vengeance. At any moment – at home, at work, anywhere – Tim’s body starts to walk. No doctor knows what is going on; his case is even profiled in The New England Journal of Medicine. Irregardless of the impact on her own work and well-being, his wife Jane is loyal to Tim, driving to find him at night, collecting him from wherever he has collapsed. His daughter Becka is rather estranged from him, but not so much because of the compulsion but because Tim is so driven to succeed at work that he tends to ignore his daughter and is unable to make any emotional connection to her.

As my kids skied, I would read snippets of the novel and savor Ferris’s writing and Tim’s problems. However, because of the time constraints of the Spring semester, I decided to call a halt to my reading of the book and to wait until the summer to return to it. When I did, I became fully engrossed rather quickly and ate it up like a fresh key lime pie. The compulsion – it’s hard to call it an illness because it’s never made clear exactly what it is (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.) – ruins Tim’s career and devastates his family and the novel, on one level, dramatizes that destruction and the broad pain it causes all of the individuals in the family. On another level, the novel offers a portrait of the love affair between Tim and Jane – her loyalty to him that eventually leads to her own destruction and his loyalty to her, which is of a much more complicated sort. That element of the novel is rather brutal in its portrayal. Add to this the portrayal of Becka and the damage that Tim’s dedication to work, and then the recurrence of the compulsion, have wrought on her. The novel, in short, is hard work, at least in terms of its emotional pull on the reader.

Ferris has some strong gifts as a writer and he has come up with something strikingly original in his story. There are echoes here of the type of story that focuses on cancer and what it does to individuals and families, and much of the emotional vibe of the book is one of grieving, of something lost. There were times when I turned to my wife and said, “This part must be a dream sequence because there’s no way it could have gotten this bad, there’s just no way.” But there was. It’s terribly sad. But the novel isn’t perfect, nor fully satisfying. For all the things that Ferris can do, he hasn’t yet mastered the skill of making us feel fully invested in his characters. The story is compelling more than the characters themselves are. I wanted Jane and Becka both to be more fully developed characters. But still, overall, I’d recommend the novel, in part – I suppose – because I’d love to have someone to talk about it with!

The other book I’ve been reading, slowly, lovingly, joyously, is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love Wallace’s nonfiction; I’ve read some of his fiction and like it fine, but I am one of the people who believe that his true gift – his best genre – was the essay. A few years ago I read Consider the Lobster and was stunned by it. The intellectual reach, the deeply held belief in the power and beauty of language, the fellowship he felt toward other people – these were so clearly on the page, in my mind. The essays were beautifully written and they were on topics that at first blush seemed to be rather banal: an awards show for porn stars, a lobsterfest in Maine, a new edition of a dictionary. Irregardless of the topic, though, Wallace invested himself intellectually and aesthetically in the task at hand. He took it seriously and compelled us to do so as well. Those banal occasions for writing became transmuted into something beautiful, something touching, and something important. They became occasions for ideas.

That, in fact, is what I love in his essays. They so clearly serve as testaments to a mind at work, at play, engaged in the act of thinking. The word “act” is crucial, I think, when describing Wallace’s nonfiction. His writing style – discursive, with plenty of footnotes that allow us to meander into side issues for a bit and then to return to the main issue at hand, and playful, with a mixture of the vernacular and the technical that is comfortably familiar while at the same time keeping us on our toes as thinkers – actually allows us to see him thinking. It’s as if he’s working out his ideas in the moment, in the text itself as we read it. But in his best pieces, of course, he’s worked it out in advance and is instead allowing (or possibly forcing) us to join him in the act of thinking. So the reading becomes the similarly active as an intellectual process. Wallace crafts his essays – they read as fully accomplished wholes – but he structures them in such a way as to let us see his mind at play and therefore also to let us play with what he is presenting to us. It’s heady stuff, in the best way possible.

His essays are things to savor. His piece on David Lynch is such good fun that it’s almost impossible to put down. His essay on playing tennis as a teen and the combination of physical and intellectual activity in the playing is a wonderful testament to what it can mean to “get lost” in the moment of play (again, physically and intellectually). The last piece I read, just the other day, on professional tennis was especially striking. Wallace focused his attention on a rather unknown player, Michael Joyce. In doing so, Wallace was able to note how much better Joyce was than anyone Wallace had ever played or seen in person. Joyce became the embodiment of how much better professional athletes are in their sport than the rest of us. At the same time, Joyce was nowhere near the best in his sport, which demonstrated just how amazing the best players actually are. Indeed, Wallace speaks so glowingly of Joyce that I felt compelled to look him up.

It turns out Joyce’s ranking peaked soon after Wallace’s essay was originally published in Esquire. He never won any tournament of real significance and never was actually that successful as a professional athlete, at least not how success tends to be defined in our present culture. And yet. And yet Joyce won over $750,000 playing tennis. And in fact he still occasionally plays, and is certainly involved in professional tennis – as a hitting partner and occasional coach. He has made a living out of something he loves to do, something that he excels at, something that he is better than almost anyone else at doing. No one really knew who Joyce was when this essay came out, and no one really knows him now. But Wallace, in this essay, was able to make clear that Joyce was actually special and worthy of our attention and our thought. And the essay itself is as well, as again Wallace uses Joyce to think not only about Joyce and what he represents but also about tennis itself, about the place of sports in our culture, about our values. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read in a while.

I haven’t finished the collection yet, I think because I don’t want to because then what will I read? I still have the piece on cruises and the piece on the state fair and I don’t want it to end. Great books can be that way. You finish and you feel flushed and aflame and want more, but it’s gone and there isn’t more.It’s true that I can always read This is Water again, Wallace’s great graduation speech at Kenyon in 2005. And if you haven’t read it yet, you’ve made a mistake, even if unknowingly. Do so, do it now. Here’s a link to it so that you can read it online: because it’s now copyrighted, this site had to take the piece down, but it’s cached and so available, and this reads not so much like a perfectly finished text but more like a transcript, which is part of its charm in this form. This is Water, like Wallace’s essays in his collections, is a powerful evocation of Wallace’s compassion, of his desire and his ability to think beyond himself. It’s also a powerful evocation of Wallace’s basic goodness. He must have been an interesting man to know. And as I write this, I realize that one of the reasons I don’t want to finish reading his essays is because I know there will be no more new ones. He’s dead and his writing is gone. Yes, we have The Pale King, and I recently received it from my wife as a present and I hope to read it later this summer. But there won’t be any new pieces and I suppose that’s something I want to put off dealing with.

Keith Richards lived. Wallace didn’t. It’s not ironic, but it’s a brutal reality. I like the Rolling Stones, but Wallace sets my mind aflame and makes me want to be better than I am. I guess I don’t want to stop wanting that.

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