21 August 2007

Here, Just Read It

I'm not very good at writing book reviews. Maybe I spend too much time analyzing the theatre I see so that I want my experience of books to be no more insightful than "wow" or "that was lame." Or maybe I'm inarticulate in the face of a writer's words. Or maybe I just suck. All I'm saying is that this is going to be a lame and short post.

But now that I think of it, there are plenty of books about which I have had plenty to say. (For some reason I think of The Emperor's Children: good writing but offensively thin characters, most manipulative and unearned use of September 11th ever. I can rail against that book for pages.) But here I am wanting to say something about the book I've just finished, and I can't string two words together.

The Broom of the System is David Foster Wallace's first novel. I remember when Infinite Jest came out I read about it in Time and got a copy out of the library. And for the first time in probably five years, I'd found a book that was too hard for me to read. (nb: I was thirteen.) Since then I've met people who cite it as their favoritest book ever (hi Wil, wherever you are), and gotten a good sense of DFW as a brilliant but overwhelmingly pretentious writer. But hey, I love pretension, and I love footnotes. Infinite Jest is on that 'someday' list of books to read when I feel like lugging 1200 pages around for a while, right after Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

But after the Tonys this year (yes, that'd be early May), I was at Steven and Briel's apartment and had just finished The Intuitionist (breathtakingly good, btw - spare, beautiful, engaging, quite the must-read) and needed something good, so I had Steven raid his bookshelves for me. And I left with The Broom of the System.

I started it a few weeks later, and just finished it this weekend. Yes, I took a break for two Harry Potter books (omg awesome, btw), but that was only a week and a half, so that's about two and a half months for 460 pages. That's a long time. But it was such a good long time - I never savor books, choosing to immerse myself in their worlds in quite the devouring way (see: The Time Traveler's Wife; anything I read before I was 16), which also often leads to me not having the best memory of what I've read. (See also: The Hours, which I read in one day; and my exclamation at the movie: "She comes back!?")

[See what I'm doing here? Writing a full-length blog post about this book without, so far, having said anything at all about it?]

So I finally finished it, and I loved it, and I want to tell you about it but I really feel like I don't have the words. A plot summary would be an absolute joke (as in, ha! that's impossible and also completely beside the point), as would any thematic condensation. I have no idea what the book was about, except maybe Wittgenstein, but that's not the point, either. So what was the point? A chance for DFW to show off his smartypants? Maybe, and they are some very nice pants, but I never felt like he was trying to make me feel less smart than him, so that's not quite it. It's a rich, rambly, complicated book - sort of like Moo for self-conscious intellectuals. (Moo is another awesome book, btw.) It pretty much slips out of any reduction you try to apply, in plot, themes, goals - and that's part of what I love. This book could never be a movie or a play. It can't be summarized or condensed. It's everything it needs to be, in form and content, and if you tried to boil it down you'd lose what makes it itself. I had a writing teacher in college who cited inability to be summarized as the hallmark of a good story. Someone asks you what it's about and you fumble and try, and then say, "Here, just read it." Which is basically what I'm doing now.

All I know is that the entire time, save for time taken getting my bearings at the start and maybe two slow passages, I loved reading this book. You can tell pretty early on that resolution of plot points is not the game we're playing - the main character's finding herself unable to put the pieces together, too, at sea amidst red herrings and machinations that lead nowhere. And oh my god can DFW write - beautiful, funny, horrific, depressing, (surprisingly) romantic, he can do it all, and he does, and it's awesome. I've never faulted a writer for being pretentious as long as they're also good (and not painfully, forcefully clever) and I'm definitely not going to start now. It's rare that I read a book that I find so enjoyable, so impressively smart and well-written, so funny, so emotionally and intellectually engaging, all at once, the kind of book you can lose yourself in and still appreciate from the outside, caught up in it and seeing the incredible skill in the writing at the same time. This is one of those books. It's not perfect, but if you can forgive a very smart writer a little self-conscious indulgence in his first novel, and really, you should be able to, this is a book to read.


parabasis said...

Yeah... and it's widely considered (even by him) his weakest book.

I woud Absolutely skip his two books of essays to the top of your reading list. They're even better. Actually, fuck that, they're goddamn awesome and contain the two best essays on writing I think I've ever read.

anna said...

cool! i'm excited to read this and it's going on the goodreads list so i don't forget (as are those essay collections). you're my goodreads friend, right? it's a great site - you should use it!

and there was an hour long slate podcast discussion of the emperor's children that i thought fabulously right on. if you're still a little worked up about that book, i recommend digging up the discussion.

Aaron Riccio said...

I'd noticed that you were reading the book and thought about posting something randomly about it earlier: Broom of the System is the one DFW book I haven't read yet, but he's absolutely my ideal writer. Like Tom Robbins and Salman Rushdie (or Marquez on a good day), he's a writer whose every word brings me pleasure. I'm reading his collaborative essay right now "Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present" and as Issac mentions, his essays are pretty damn good. (He's also editing the 2007 Best Essays this year.) I keep rereading his introductory essay on "Entitlement": he wrote this right after Broom, and his prose even in grad school was phenomenal.

"The rapper (the guy in the cameo cut or Kangol hat, pricy warmup, unlaced Adidas, extra-thick gold chain or oversized medallion) offers lyrics that are spoken or bellowed in straight stressed rhymed verse, the verse's syntax and meter often tortured for rhythmic gain or the kind of limboing-for-rhyme we tend to associate with doggerel about men from Nantucket. The lyrics, nearly always self-referential, tend to be variations on about half a dozen basic themes, themes that at first listen can seem less alien or shocking than downright dull. E.g.: just how bad/cool/fresh/def the rapper and his lyrics are; just how equally un-all-these his musical rivals are; how troublesome, vacuous, and acquisitive women are; how wonderful it is to be 'paid in full' for rapping instead of stealing or dealing; how gangs are really families, and 'caine's constant bad news. And, in particular, how sex and violence and yuppie toys represent perfectly the urban black lifedrive to late-80s American glory. (This latter many old blacks despise as less dull than just a disgusting recidivism to a pre-King/Malcolm vision, like your kid pawning your Purple Heart to buy rubbers and gin."

I don't know how he manages to be so accurate, so literate, and so culturally fun at the same time.