Life can sometimes surprise you
Hence, in order to realise that inherent and untainted happiness, which indeed he daily experiences when the mind is subdued in deep sleep, it is essential that he should know himself. For obtaining such knowledge, the question ‘Who am I?’ in quest of the Self is the best means.
—Sri Ramana Maharshi
The hype about the power of the Vitamix blender?
Is not hype.
Some article titles are simultaneously hilarious and unnerving if you come across them a mere few hours after finishing House of Leaves
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59
Yeah, I know. I'm not sure what possessed me to write this up, really. We've had 22 years of literary reviews and irritated takes and responses and re-responses since Infinite Jest's splashdown. There's not much left unsaid, certainly nothing I can say that won't invite armchair psychoanalysis.
I started feeling the weight of all that before I was even halfway through the book. I've been reading for forty years and never seen anyone give this much of a damn about whatever book I was in the middle of. People asked me why I was reading it, a question I've never been asked before. I got eyerolls and smirks.
It became a sort of self-conscious reflex, watching for the drive-by comment or look whenever I sat down to read it in my office or at my kids' afterschool activities. I learned that Infinite Jest isn't just a book, and hasn't been for a long time now. It's become an opportunity for judgment the way Twitter and Facebook are now, a focal point for egos and frustrations and resentments and hurt.
These are the straits you may have to navigate, if you decide that you're curious enough to read it: On the left is a response spectrum that runs from LOL-hipster-affectation to what I can only term a bone-deep resentment of the book's very existence. On the right is this guy:
Oh, that guy. The world's female English-speaking population is littered with stories of ex-boyfriends who thumped down this literary doorstop and actually said "You need to read this if you want to understand me." Which, first, ladies, I'm sorry about all the bad oral sex. But good on you for leaving. Hal Incandenza is my generation's Holden Caulfield, a beautiful and tragic character who maybe never had a chance, but also a pretty good dipstick for measuring dipsticks.
And so the book is tainted by what I think of as the Boston Red Sox Effect, wherein the thing itself might well be pretty great, but enough of the fans are just so damned insufferable that few right-thinking people outside of New England would be caught dead in a cap, much less a jersey.
Those insufferables account for probably half of the hatred. The other half looks to be a simple formula: Readers will put in the work for a difficult book, and they will put in the work for a long book, but if you give them both and they don't feel like you rewarded them enough for the effort, they will hate you for it. Not just the book. You.
And Infinite Jest is long. And it ain't Finnegans Wake, but Infinite Jest is difficult. So, reading it, most of what I felt was a mix of a sometimes dogged determination, an abiding fondness for the love and pain and empathy underpinning what David Foster Wallace built, and a cringing sympathy for the cultural quagmire his biggest work has gotten schlorped down into.
Or, at least, that's where I ended up. Starting out, I was unsure if I'd finish. The first 200 pages are, frankly, kind of a slog. There's beautiful writing and well-drawn characters and wit and insight, but you're scaling a wall of text, text that often offers only outcroppings of minutiae and tedium, and you have no idea what this book even is or where it's going. Are the plot lines going to converge? What is the point of this? What the hell with the endnotes, man?
But as I read those 200 pages, I could hear Wallace encouraging me to hang in. There's a point to all this, he seemed to say. You're going to need to, as Tom Waits once said about his music, let it chase you around a few times. I hung in and read those 200 pages mostly on faith. And that's when it started to open up.
The turning point for me was a chapter that could and probably should be published as a standalone essay. It's a rundown of the things you learn when spending time in a sober living facility or treatment center. And it's sad and beautiful and funny. Here's a bit:
That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned about what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.
That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.
That was when it started to click for me, why he was telling parallel stories about privileged athletes and blownout addicts and a home video that kills people, stories that were clearly connected but never seemed to come together. It was where I found the book's heart.
I wish you could meet Johnny. Johnny's a hell of a guy. He's a kind man and a talented man, a man who has gone through some stuff and is now determined to be more, to be good. There's a decent chance he'll become a household name one day. But if you ever do meet him, Johnny will tell you that Infinite Jest is the reason he got sober before his life got intractably kertwanged. So Johnny's one of a very few with whom I've found I can really talk about it, who sees it less as a literary moment or reason for GRAR than the outflooding of love and sadness and worry and illness and absurdity that it is.
Because, look: There is not a more honest, thorough, and thoughtful portrait of what it is to be addicted to something and to try to recover from that addiction anywhere in storytelling that I'm aware of. Nothing more keenly but lovingly focused on what it's like to try to become more whole by repeatedly slamming your face against your own precious intelligence until both eyes blacken and your nose is pulped. That stuff bulges from the seams of this book, and it's only half the picture.
The rest is, in a word, entertainment. Entertainment as analgesic then anaesthetic then addiction. How we've come to depend on it the way some people depend on hydrocodone or at-least-daily orgasms or ecstatic revival experiences. How it's affecting our minds and time and relationships. How we're killing ourselves with it.
To that end, he deliberately builds everything in the book—its structures, its narratives, its displaced jumps through time, even and perhaps especially its ending—to withhold those things we instinctively crave from stories. He seems almost taunting at times. I'd find myself preparing giddily for dramatic scenes he'd spent chapters building to, only to be dragged around them to witness the quiet aftermath. I'd get really excited for what had to be an inevitable and beautiful romance, only to be given reasons why it shouldn't happen.
And I would get angry. And I would argue with the book for not giving me the thing that I wanted. And the book would ask me why it should. And I would try to compare what the book gave me to what I demanded. And I always found that what the book gave me was more honest, more true, and certainly more profound than the momentary change of my emotions I was chasing.
And then the ending came. And I will not spoil the ending. But it came, and it went, and I was looking at the first page of the endnotes nearly telling the book out loud that it couldn't fucking end there, I need to know, and I turned back to read the first chapter again, and then I understood, and the brilliance of that abrupt stop's timing just about floored me.
But I'm still pissed off about it.
It isn't for everyone. I get the hatred. Hell, I get the feeling that some of its fans hate it. It starves you of most of what you want, and kind of does a neener-neener dance about it. It is gavaged full of moments and insights that should be on posters and in pamphlets in every 12-step meeting room on the planet, but then wraps those gems in layers of dense and confusing and sometimes deliberately tedious story pacing. Points ground down to microscopic precision. Sentences you can't hear the echo from the far side of. Paragraphs that chew up pages.
It is, in short, a fucker. But it's a brilliant fucker. It's built in ways nobody dreamed of making a book before. The experience of reading it was for me what any recovering addict will tell you they went through, once they started Doing the Work. A period of drudgery undertaken on faith, an a-ha moment, a honeymoon, a more laborious but joyful plunge into continuing on and mining the depths even when the pink clouds dissipate, and a journey whose one consistent theme is that you'll never be given what you want, because what you want isn't good enough, what you want is about your feelings. And your feelings don't matter. Your feelings are at the whims of tides and currents. Acceptance of and presence in the facts of the moment are, by contrast, a filigree you can set a house on.
I love this book in the way I love my life. That love is occasionally studded with warm feelings of happiness and ecstasy, but the love itself is not a feeling. It is a promise to roll up my sleeves and get to work. It is a lifetime of care. So I am left with what I need. Things to think about, people to care about, and a well of gratitude that I was alive to witness it.
It’s been two years since we brought him home all riddled with worms and bugbites. Two years of stepping on metal pencil eraser housings, of LEGO blocks chewed to Dali-esque dimensions. Two years of him giving a piece of his mind to, well, whatever it is past the northwest corner of the fence.
Two years of gazing longingly at dogwoods, yearning for a love that can never be.
Two years of perfecting his are-you-going-to-eat-that Oliver Twist face.
Two years of jockeying for couch position with the kids. And mostly winning.
Two years of mirroring my own distrust of authority with more forthrightness and courage than I ever showed.
Happy Gotcha Day, boogs. Please stay off the dining room table.
Every now and then my to-do list on my desk pad accidentally becomes a morning meditation.
This is one of those intersections of art and engineering that never fail to delight me. The sheer scale of effort required to manually code individual sound instructions to get around the hardware’s technical limitations is insane to me. That’s a labor of love. And the end result is often beautiful enough to stand on its own as ambient music.
Took me awhile after leaving the place, but I finally got it done. Some of it was foot dragging, some of it was technical hurdles, but after a couple weeks of farting around and sending support emails, I've finally purged my Twitter history.
But, you ask, what will we do without your archive of shitposts? To this I say, if you love something, let it go.
I’ve covered the whys of my leaving before, and mostly inertia kept me from sweeping up after I left. Jack doubling down on the “we should let Nazis and other abusers have their say about whether people are people” horse hockey finally got me fired up to finish the job. Plus I’m not sad about erasing all evidence of my previous shitposting.
Part of me really is sorry to do it. Twitter circa 2008 was a delight. It was a kitchen conversation the whole world was invited to. The whole world showed up, sat at the table or hunkered down on the floor by the lazy Susan cabinet in the corner, and we all got to know each other. We gave each other a window into our lives. We made jokes. Dear god, did we go overboard with that part.
But, if you followed the right people, there was love in that room. This isn't nostalgia. If you've been around that long, go use advanced search and look at your timeline from 10 years ago. It's a different place. A place that brought daily delight.
So I'm not angry. I'm sad. I'm sad to see yet another bunch of ostensibly well-meaning white men with money fuck things up for everyone. I'm sorry that that kitchen conversation devolved into becoming, as one friend so perfectly put it, the paper bag that we all scream into now.
My Facebook's gone, my Metafilter account's gone, and my toots are all purged (well, all but 175 that appear to be unfindable even from my archive). And I feel better now. More at peace. Less distracted from the people around me that need me now, today.
I made countless friends through those venues. Friends on nearly every continent. Friends who I’ve laughed and grieved with. Friends who have met me in, God, four countries outside of this one. I am sorry to shut the door on these places. But I'm not sorry to embrace what has come next. The next right thing. The next person who needs me. The next quiet moment, the next gift of boredom. Let us give thanks for having nothing to entertain us.
(Oh, for the record, I used TweetEraser to do the deed. No recurring monthly fee, no auto-posting to your timeline, and they patiently helped my dumb ass through multiple failed attempts when I didn't read the directions closely enough.)
Update: Scratch that. Now it’s 194 tweets. What the hell, Twitter.
This baby’s got range. Early on in the video you’ll see that it shoots both London AND France.
Stay for the sweet-ass clubhouse landing.
It was on sale
Me ten minutes ago: “Nothing could possibly make me pay for CBS All Access. They’re insane. Nothing. Never. Welp, time to check my RSS fee—“
Me now: “WILL IT HAVE RIKER SMARM IN IT, I DEMAND TO KNOW”
Facebook didn’t intend for any of this to happen. It just wanted to connect people. But there is a thread running from Perkins’ death to religious violence in Myanmar and the company’s half-assed attempts at combating fake news. Facebook really is evil. Not on purpose. In the banal kind of way.
Facebook is just like Nazi Germany. No, really.
One idle five minute swing through the house looking for something to read and evidently now I’m working on a credit hour or two.
I’ve stumbled into a practice of literary disorientation so I’m thinking Weird Book then Dead Girl Book then Kid Book then Book With Insufferable Fanbase. I may get that last one knocked out first, though. If you have to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.
In the depressions that always followed his taking of alcohol, narcotics, and women, Constant pined for just one thing—a single message that was sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it humbly between two points.
—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan
I was a teenager when Norm, our younger springer spaniel, attacked my dad. He had undiagnosed rage disorder and bit my dad on the face while they were snuggling in his chair. Dad threw Norm in the back yard and mom took dad to the hospital. I had to stay behind and listen to Norm, now returned to himself and confused about his banishment, cry to be let in.
He hadn't howled like this before. This was a wholly new sound, different from the sounds of pain and stress and alert that normally came out of him. Listening to it was almost unbearable.
I sat in the upstairs hall and wept. Our older springer Malley padded up close, sniffed me twice, and nudged me. I tried to shoo her away. She normally listened to that, but that night she stayed, and she nosed my hands away from my face again and again until I let them fall. She kissed me and she lay down next to me and did not leave my side until dad came home. We put Norm down the next day.
He used to try to talk. If you were sitting in a chair and reading or watching TV, he would come and sit right in front of you, face like a forlorn Stan Laurel, and wait for you to notice him. If you ignored him, he would scoot a half-step back, sit back down, and huff once. If you continued to ignore him, he'd try to talk.
This was not a bark or a whine. He would open his mouth and start modulating his voice in a constant up-and-down rurring sound that approximated the rise and fall and cadence of human speech. I've never heard a dog do that before or since.
That was one of the things I missed most when we put him down. He was one of us. He wanted to be near us, to share body warmth with us, to be comforted and told that he was good, that we saw him there, that we hadn't forgotten our boy. He was also weird as hell, and I identified with that.
The gist of this article is mostly reasonable. Which makes the clickbait nature of its headline and framing even more tiresome in contrast. Even Norm didn't clown that hard to get our attention. He just tried to talk to us.
That clowning drowns out some of the piece's more disturbing points, like that 40% of women dog owners get more emotional support from their dogs than from their husbands. That's a parasitism that's far more worthy of scrutiny than the question of whether my Mugsy understands selflessness and altruism.
Indeed, there's a case to be made that we're all emotional parasites. That we need affirmation, that we need security both physical and emotional, that we need to feel needed and valued. That others are mostly a means to those ends.
The question of whether dogs love us or merely need us only stops with their species if you don't understand the implications of what you're asking. Pointing out that they train us just like we do them opens us up to much broader and more interesting discussions about the nature of our thinking and feeling existence than a lazy and predictable "everything you know is BACKKERDS" hot take, if we’re listening.
It’s a perfect microcosm of everything I’ve come to hate about the internet I used to love. A big opportunity for meaningful discussion torpedoed by the symbiosis of market considerations, short attention spans, and the need for an outrage platform.
Right now the San Diego Union-Tribune is basking in a viral Twitter fight that raised their ad revenue for a minute. Right now Twitter is screaming DOG HATER about an article they didn't read. Both of them sacrificed something to get what they wanted.
The whole thing makes me tired all over. So tonight I will scoop my little bearded boy up in my arms and carry him up to bed (note: that fucker’s spoilt), and I will ponder for the 500th time as we plod past the stained glass window just what all this says about what it is to have feelings.
It is rare to encounter a writer who’s delighted my whole family. Rarer still to come across one who leads me closer to who I want to be.
Kelly Barnhill does both.