When I was in college a novelist I admired made an appearance at my school and I was asked to introduce him. I walked to the podium in front of a large student crowd and gave a brief summary of the author’s recurring themes. Then I sat down and the author came out and told everyone I was an idiot. Not in those words, exactly, but he claimed, with more than a little disdain, that all the things I had said were in his books were products of my limited imagination, and he got a few good laughs at my expense. Of course I was mortified, not only because there were any number of totally crushable English majors in the audience who now had reason to doubt my critical acumen, but also because I was right. Everything I said about his work was absolutely true. I couldn’t figure out why he would deny it.9
Fifteen years later I was on tour promoting my own novel and sat for an interview with Janet Taylor, an extremely intelligent and thoughtful host for Oregon Public Radio. For the first ten minutes she asked interesting questions and I gave more or less coherent answers. And then Janet said something like this:
“In your novel, the character of Justin Finn, the child Davis Moore clones from his daughter’s unknown killer so that Moore may one day see what the fiend looks like, is an obvious Christ figure. And as such I find it interesting that you chose to give Justin’s mother the name Martha. Of course it would have been very obvious and over-the-top if you named her Mary. But in the Bible—as you are obviously aware, Kevin, but I’ll explain for our listeners—Martha of Bethany was a frequent host to Jesus and the disciples. And while Martha rushed around cleaning the house and preparing food and washing feet and so forth, her sister Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him teach. Finally Jesus had to call out, ‘Martha, stop what you are doing and come sit next to your sister. These other things you are doing are not important. The only important thing is what I have to say.’ And in Cast of Shadows, Martha Finn, like Martha of Bethany, is so worried about being a good mother to Justin, about caring for him and watching out for him, that she never sees who he really is or understands what he is trying to tell her.”
It was brilliant. It was sophisticated. It was meaningful. And I wish I had known what she was talking about.10
But here’s the important thing: Janet was right! Her analysis was terrific. And if we had never met she would always believe that the name Martha Finn was a deliberate and clever allusion to the biblical Martha of Bethany and not the result of that character having been named on the day Martha Stewart was indicted for securities fraud. I’m not a radical relativist when it comes to critical theory but that observation made the book better for Janet, and a writer has to recognize that each person who reads his novel reads a different book. Readers bring their intellect to the page just as the author does and each reader brings different knowledge and experience and history and bias. Each reader understands the book a bit differently. Each reader asks the novel different questions, and as a result each reader gets different answers, which explains why you are crazy for Confederacy of Dunces and your otherwise extremely intelligent attorney wife thinks you’re an idiot for laughing at it.
Earlier this week Jason Kottke made this important point about Infinite Jest: You’re never going to get half of what Wallace intended the first time you read it, so don’t sweat it. I’ll add a corollary to that: A lot of what you do get, isn’t anything that even occurred to Wallace in the first place. Don’t sweat that either.
We have a tendency to think of novels, especially novels we admire, as being like timepieces with every moving part dropped in its place with expert precision. I suppose writers would like people to think that sometimes, but even the most brilliant novels are far messier than that. Writing a novel is less like watchmaking and more like baking a cake without a recipe. Or an oven. Or a pan.
I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come because even after only 100 pages Infinite Jest is almost the perfect novel for this discussion, but think of the reader and author as partners. Wallace has constructed this novel with a lot of care and left pieces of the puzzle in ingenious (and unexpected) places and there is great conspiratorial pleasure in finding those clues where others might miss them. But the reader brings his own ingenuity to the project as well and in the many places where Wallace has left gaps, the reader will fill them in herself. Often brilliantly.
In fact (and I say this in a whisper because it’s the dirty secret of writing fiction) the author is counting on you for it.