I recall going to see The Sheltering Sky, which was based on the novel by Paul Bowles, at a theater on 34th Street in New York. I found the film a little dull, frankly — like the book itself, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. But there’s a scene at the end where Debra Winger’s in a bar and Paul Bowles himself appears before her and asks her, “Are you lost?” And somehow the fact of the author himself showing up in the film, the presence of the man through whom the story had actually flowed, reduced me to tears. And not just a little wet-eyed sniffle, but true and gut-wrenching bawling. My embarrassed boyfriend supported me for the entire walk to Paddy Reilley’s, a bar on 2nd Avenue which held a variety of liquids he hoped one of which would calm me down. I did eventually, reluctantly, still unable to explain what had hit me. I’d had a similar weeping fit sitting crumpled in a chair outside Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. I don’t know what it was, exactly, that got to me — all those writers! who mean so much! right here! — but I know it hit me hard. I once told someone it felt like God was pressing his thumb right down on my skull.
It’s true that while I’ve enjoyed Infinite Jest very much, this summer has been rough going for me in ways that have tested my focus and resolve on several fronts, and it’s confirmed for me that I’m not really cut out for this Guide business. I’m fascinated by other people’s analysis but I’m not much of an analyzer myself, and I’m sorry if you’ve rolled your eyes more than once reading what I’ve had to offer. I’m a fan of this book, but sometimes fans can’t always summon the kind of commentary that the object of their, uh, fandom (that’s a word, right?) . . . oh, you know what I mean.
The last and maybe only big book I had trouble shutting up about in a way that compares to how many people feel about IJ — the book I bought for friends who I’m sure never read it, and which I have no doubt would have spawned a hideous number of mailing lists had the Internet existed when it was published in 1982 — was James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. A 560-page long poem, is what it is, and it changed my life.
I don’t think there are a lot of parallels between Sandover and IJ, though like many IJ fans, I’ve read Sandover multiple times, and soon as I’ve finished the last page I loop right back to page one and let the momentum carry me through the beginning all over again. Like IJ, Sandover has actual literary critics who appreciate its many levels of intricate discourse (I just made that up! “Levels of intricate discourse”! Jesus, I’m tired), but in Sandover‘s case, the more literary readers view the “fans” as uncritical knuckle-draggers who believe in astrology and collect commemorative shot glasses. IJ‘s community doesn’t seem to fall apart along those lines, and for that I’m grateful. Either that or Matthew’s done a hell of a job of deleting the withering comments before I’ve ever seen them.
See, this is another mark of a terrible critic — I’m making this whole thing about me.
As we lead up to the first anniversary of DFW’s death (this Saturday), just the thought of that event starts to choke me up. I get a tinge of that God-thumb-skull feeling, frankly, which is no good in public. I try to let it ride. Breathe and keep reading. These last 200 pages are turning into exactly the kind of steep-grade toboggan ride I’ve been hoping for, and I’m so grateful I stuck it out. Thanks, you guys. Thanks Matthew, thanks Kevin and Avery, thanks and thanks again to Michael Pietsch, and to all the guest commenters. Almost done. Almost ready to start again.