Guests, Guides

Nick Douglas: Skim is for Wimps

07.21.09 | 22 Comments

Nick Douglas is the editor of “Twitter Wit,” a collection of witty tweets coming out on August 25. In 2006, he was the founding editor of Valleywag.com. He’s probably writing a screenplay.

I finished about two-thirds of the books assigned me in my three years as an English major. The department head was right to ask me, when I first switched from political science, “Do you read quickly?” I don’t, and I’d like to blame that on my inability to skim. The less I like a passage, the more I claw at it, wasting my time, because I can’t understand that a published work of prose may still contain unnecessary digressions. And so I’ll often grind to a halt. I’m glad for this flaw in my reading habits, because skimming Infinite Jest is stupid.

Someone saw me struggling over one dull page of IJ this week, the description of Enfield MA and its institutions (tax-paying and -exempt), and recommended I skim it. She hasn’t, of course, read her copy of the book.

Because if she had, she’d know that skimmers miss out. Had I skimmed the Wardine and yrstruly sections, would I still have understood that Poor Tony stole the artificial heart that Steeply-as-Helen wrote about? Had I skimmed endnote 24 — well, I’m sure I’m not alone in reading 24 with alacrity, then re-reading each synopsis as I caught references, and soon probably going back to read the whole list in case I’ve missed something.

Because like Eggers said in his foreword, this book is an exercise for the mind, and Wallace gives us the chance to piece things together before he explicitly synthesizes. He leaves some aspects of the world of O.N.A.N. foggy, so that we must pull a Supreme-Court-Justice-building-the-right-to-privacy-piecemeal-from-the-Bill-of-Rights maneuver to understand that our nation has dug a giant pit in the Northeast and flings its garbage there through the upper atmosphere, and maybe later we’ll be sure whether these catapulted garbage vessels are, once launched, self-propelling, or whether they’re shot out with sufficient force to arc across the continent into Hamster Country.

Why anyone would want to read this book without the satisfying click (not steady, but in waves, like the click-clack-click of Joelle’s internal monologue, the disappointment at page 223 quickly counteracted by the deductive satisfaction of the next sixteen pages) is beyond me.

Those digressions that don’t serve the plot (or at least provide a satisfying coincidence that may or may not serve the plot, such as Gately’s role in a separatist’s death or Steeply’s putative puff piece on Poor Tony’s heart-snatchery) serve the theme. Since most of these thematic moments are so subtle, I’m sure we’re particularly required to remember the ones Wallace mentions twice, just as the Biblical God repeats his most important commands three times. So we should definitely remember Hal’s rhetorical flourish at the end of his comparison of Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues.” I’m not sure if we’re meant to agree with the teacher who downgraded the paper to a B/B+, or if the only point of that part of the chapter heading is to tell the reader, “Hey moron, pay attention to this part, okay?”

Which he says so lovingly (and it’s been almost a quarter of the book since he said it last), while warming us up for the meet against Port Washington: “It all tends to get complicated, and probably not all that interesting – unless you play.”

Which he hits us with again at the end of that section, sneering at the Port Washington parents who wear “the high white socks and tucked-in shirts of people who do not really play.” Almost makes me regret not marking up my book with a pen, lest I embarrass myself with a copy of Infinite Jest sitting on the shelf in good condition like a backslider’s Bible.

The ill-earned ending to Hal’s essay, the part to which we morons must pay attention, posits that the culture’s next great hero will be passive. And how chilling is that? We’ve now spent three hundred pages biting our lips over the impending death of Hal’s communicative abilities, and our curiosity over the titular Infinite Jest has for the last few dozen of those pages only been answered with clues about its origin and content, but clearly we’re waiting to see how many people Wallace is going to mow down with Chekhov’s gun.

Hal, don’t tell us we need a passive hero, don’t jinx yourself in a grade school essay, don’t go catatonic on us! Don’t end up like the frozen attentive faces in videophone dioramas or Kate Gompert in the doctor’s office or the zombie that John Wayne resembles to Schacht or the Basilisked statues of your father’s victims-by-film! Keep your face moving, and I’ll keep reading every single page, like Bastian keeping Atreyu alive and saving Fantasia from the Nothing.

Except, like, smarter.