The Book List: Reading Difficult Fiction

Lengthy works of literature can be intimidating to approach. One reason might be fear: for students not majoring in the humanities (e.g., your humble columnist), the difficult thematic and plot complexity of long classics may seem daunting. Who are we biology majors to claim we know anything about interpreting Tolstoy and Joyce? 

I could be wrong about this , but I believe that difficult literature is worthwhile for anyone to read. I’ve found that immersing myself in a deep fictional narrative is a lot like reading good poetry—it leads to a feeling of wonder that goes beyond my ability to interpret the precise meaning. Literature can inspire readers to reconsider their emotional preconceptions and perspective in ways that nonfiction writing cannot. As I’ve challenged myself to read more demanding books, I’ve come to appreciate the experience of implicit meaning, and even the feeling of confusion, that accompanies the unfolding story. I believe that these experiences are valuable, as they point to the intricacies of a beautiful, evil, joyful, sorrowful, definite, unreliable, multifarious world. 

In this week’s Book List, we’ll take on two major novels of the late 20th century, which have both gained a pop-culture reputation as being impossible to read: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” 

I picked these works over older classics for several reasons: (1) they are thematically related (“Gravity’s Rainbow” is one of the numerous literary classics referenced in “Infinite Jest”) and thus make good reading partners, (2) both were hailed as innovations in narrative style and complexity when they were published, and (3) both speak to problems of postmodern uncertainty which have become highly relevant in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Note that these are novels meant for adults. They both contain explicit themes, including sex, addiction, abuse, and adult language. “Gravity’s Rainbow” was written, among other purposes, as a satirical challenge to pornography censorship. Readers should work to develop an individual philosophy of appropriateness for novels like these, based on the artistic value of the work and their sensibilities.

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Infinite Jest

Author: David Foster Wallace

Available in Kresge: No

In One Sentence: An intensely funny, virtuosic exhibition of observational humor and wide-ranging perspective, with an underlying commentary on the absurd conditions of modern life.

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Clocking in at more than half a million words and following a non-chronological, non-linear, multi-perspective, multi-narrative storyline with dozens of literary allusions, “Infinite Jest” immediately developed a reputation for Gordian complexity when it was published in 1996. (This was partially the publisher’s fault: “Infinite Jest” was marketed heavily as an American “Ulysses,” an ad campaign which stuck a little too well.) However, the language of the book is extremely easy to follow—Wallace is a master of conversational English, and the plot develops through the sort of offhand observations that you might expect to hear from a funny, observant friend walking down the street.

The basic premise is this: it’s Massachusetts, sometime in the early 21st century, and corporatism has taken over America—even the calendar years are named after sponsoring brands. The geopolitical situation has devolved into populism. A charismatic former TV star is president, and has dumped all of the United States’ toxic environmental waste into a southern region of Canada. Meanwhile, a young tennis star is mourning the loss of his father, a former drug addict is trying to figure out recovery, and a group of ruthless Canadian terrorists in wheelchairs--Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (an intentionally misspelled Quebecois of “The Wheelchair Assassins”) are trying to locate a film that is so funny it can kill whoever watches it (the titular “Infinite Jest”). 

“Infinite Jest” is primarily about cycles. The word “annular” repeatedly appears throughout the book, usually in a way that suggests a concept that is logically or scientifically impossible, seeming to suggest that human life is inherently lopsided or unsymmetrical. There are two groups of main characters: the students of an elite youth tennis academy, and the residents of an alcohol and drug recovery halfway house, both in metropolitan Boston. Characters are crafted as allusions to classic literary figures—Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius, Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus—but the narrative is more of a subversion of these classic stories than a tribute: Wallace has some enormous questions to ask about the sources of meaning, significance, and solemnity in a world overtaken by the absurd.

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Gravity’s Rainbow

Author: Thomas Pynchon

Available in Kresge: Yes

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In One Sentence: A mystery story set in World War 2, with a dense overlay of hallucinative, postmodern psychological musings.

It’s London, 1945. German V2 rockets are raining down on the city, enormous explosive weapons which travel at trans-sonic speed, meaning that you only hear them falling after they’ve already hit the ground. This strange horror is Pynchon’s entrance to a complex, meticulously researched narrative about Pavlovian psychology, psychosis, eroticism, and the postmodern rejection of cause and effect.

The main characters are members of the war government in London. As V2 rockets fall unchecked, bringing unannounced death to random city blocks, the government scrambles to find a way to protect the city. It is discovered by happenstance that an American intelligence officer named Slothrop seems to be able to predict where the rockets will fall. In the final two-thirds of the novel, becoming increasingly paranoid, Slothrop sets off across liberated Europe in search of a mysterious “Rocket 00000,” which he thinks holds the explanation for what is happening to his mind. Pynchon’s characterization is unusual—although critics have counted more than 400 named characters, many only appear once, while others appear only at the very beginning and the very end of the book. This feature, which might be a sign of careless editing in other works, is part of an overarching theme of collapsing storyline. The book’s plot structure has been compared to its title, a falling “rainbow” of increasing chaos. By the end of the book, narrative structure collapses altogether, similar to an exploding rocket.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” is a much darker novel than “Infinite Jest.” Pynchon doesn’t use everyday language, and isn’t in the business of making the reader chuckle at astute observations and absurd humor. Instead, “Gravity’s Rainbow” is densely verbose, especially in its first section, to the point where many readers fail to finish the first hundred pages. However, the work is considered one of the classics of the 20th century because of the remarkable way in which Pynchon manages to build an experience for the reader: this is a book which compels the reader to participate, rather than observe. The questions that the book poses are profound: What are freedom and control? Do events occur due to cause and effect, or untraceable stochasticity? What is the purpose of narrative, and do stories contain meaning?