I always read a Tom Robbins book with a box of salt, with the full knowledge that I will not be able to read another Tom Robbins book for at least a half dozen years. I can imagine it's the same feeling people have with sky-diving ("It was exhilarating! Such an adrenaline rush! I'm never doing it again") or like my father with a box of chocolate covered cherries. My father did not like chocolate and did not have a sweet tooth, but about once every five years or so he would buy a box of those confectionery treats at the movie theater and down the entire package before the opening credits had stopped rolling. This held him for four, five, six years.
The trouble with Tom Robbins (and no one ever refers to him by his surname alone) is that he is a linguistic pyrotechnician. He dances around a dictionary like Baryshnikov, does somersaults off a thesaurus, tumbles and twirls and flips and flounces in air heavy with the long pauses of people stammering for the right word; he plucks those words off the tips of their tongues and crumbles them in his hands before throwing nothing in the air like a word-crazed magician. His writing is the equivalent of one of the longest innovative fireworks displays. But just like those fireworks, impressive as they are, after the explosions and diaphanous colors igniting the night sky, what are we left with? A loud ringing in our ears and a lot of detritus and exploded paper on the ground that someone has to clean up. There's no substance, or some substance and metaphor and symbolism buried under a slowly dissipating smoke. We feel great while it's happening, but it doesn't usually last.
This collection is even more of a fireworks display than any of his novels. With the novels we are given a continuous story, a plot, a grounding so that when Tom goes off on one of his peyote-induced tangents, we know where we can always return. In this collection of short writings, there is no grounding, only Tom Robbins in all his excess and grandiosity. It's fun, it's funny, it's intoxicating. But only in doses. Reading Tom Robbins is that moment you have when watching a Jack Black film and you begin to think how much fun it would be to hang out with him in real life; you begin to imagine that night, and you realize that no no no no no that would not be a good idea, and you are so happy there's a cathode-ray barrier between you and the frenetically self-absorbed comedian. Being forced to be feet, inches away from that hyperkinetic of a cosmic force would make you either flee in terror or punch Black in the face. Which is exactly how I feel about Tom Robbins. I love his work, his incontrovertible embrace of the absurd, his ability to weave such incongruous topics and references such as Dostoevesky, Camel cigarettes, obscenely large thumbs, and a canoe ride in Tanzania into one connecting quilt; I also sometimes want to kick him in the crotch.
Writers and readers wax poetic and obsessively about the love/hate relationship with David Foster Wallace, and it's a well-deserved ambivalence the unfortunately late writer has engendered. But Robbins should be mentioned just as often in the same context, and for the same reasons.
I'm not sure if an introductory sentence is really needed for this entry: the subtitle really speaks for itself. However, to explain, as I have a tendency to overdo, in the first David Foster Wallace themed entry, I mentioned that the piece I included on the first try at the I Write Like quiz was an excerpt from my novella "I'm Hoping This Will Work." I also mentioned that I had included the excerpt below, which, if you have read the entire entry, you will know is a total fallacy. (This wasn't deliberate, I just forgot to include it.) As such... I have included that excerpt in this entry.
This excerpt is the first page and a half of the novella. The set-up for the piece is as follows: It’s about a young man in his early twenties named Mike Higgins who is overcoming the death of his best friend, Andy, something he feels responsible for—they went out drinking one night and, on the drive home, Mike had Andy drop him off at the store near his house. Andy drives around the corner and gets in a head-on collision with a delivery truck. The structure of the novella alternates between Mike's "what-if" scenarios--if had had done this differently, then that wouldn't have happened-- and the actual narrative. Below is the first of the alternate reality "What-if" scenarios.
As always... enjoy.
I am hoping this will work, that when everything is finished, the screaming phone calls, the booze, nameless women, nightmares, my inability to read more than five pages at a time, and the blood, all that fucking blood—when my front door is closed and locked for the final time, I’ll be throwing my clothes in the back seat, driving those two blocks, one coffee in hand, another in the cup holder, driving to pick up Andy, and we’ll drive like we always talked about, to Montreal, Madagascar, cross-country, straight across that Atlantic Ocean, anywhere, really it doesn’t matter;we’re just driving, him and me, anywhere.
We’ll start at Redbones, as usual. Downstairs, just like we did. It’ll be raining (I won’t change that) as I walk down the road. I’ll get there first: Andy will be coming from work in Kenmore, and I just live down the street. Tom the Bartender will ask, “How are you, Mike? Where’s Andy?” “He’s on his way.” I’ll order a beer, and ask for a menu while I check out the girls across the room.
When Andy finally gets there we’ll do a few shots and talk about work, movies, and ideas for a summer trip: Amsterdam, Grand Canyon, Montreal. We’ll keep drinking, just like we did, and drive home. I’ll have him drop me off at the Corner Market for some milk and smokes, but I’ll tell him to wait. We’ll make that dreaded left and swerve as that fucking delivery truck takes his turn a little too wide. The car will fishtail and careen into the curb, the tire popping.
“Fuck!” Andy will yell.
“Don’t worry we’ll use a spare and keep drinking at my house.”
We’ll wake in the morning, one on each couch, boxes of crackers, empty containers of ice cream, half-empty glasses of whiskey and beer bottles scattered on the floor.
That’s what will happen, and I won’t be kneeling in my room amid a stack of books and scotch at noon, socks that haven’t been changed in three days clinging to my feet. I’ll be at work, sending him stupid forwards, making plans for later, for this weekend, or making plans with a girl that I will have met at a party.He’ll answer the phone when I call. I won’t jump at the sound of tires screeching, I won’t be afraid to leave my house and walk to the center; the walk to Davis won’t remind me of everything from that night.
It won’t remind me of anything, because nothing will have happened.
In my previous post I discussed my love/hate relationship with the work of the unfortunately late David Foster Wallace, and my analysis of how the always reliable and psychologically accurate Facebook quizzes determined he was the author I most wrote like. (I also discussed the scourge of pretentious hipsterism, an illness I used to suffer from, but with the help of Scorn-away (a new drug from Pfizer) I have been able to overcome this debilitating malady.) At the end of the post I mentioned I had written for grad school a paper on Foster Wallace's essay "The Nature of the Fun," where he discussed why he wrote. I have attached my paper below.
In Will Blythe’s collection of essays Why I Write, Blythe asked many famous and not-so-famous, or not-so-famous at the time but now very famous, writers and novelists to expound on their reasons for writing, why they hole up in rooms and attics and offices, why they shun people and society like well-read, non-contagious lepers, why, even if they are morning people, they treat themselves like they are vampires, keeping themselves locked in a room or house as if contact with the sun might disintegrate them and turn them into a gossamer skein of skin, bone, and lots and lots of caffeine. Most of those essayists told about writing to find out the truth about themselves and about the world. Tom Chiarella wrote about all the things he couldn’t do—play basketball or cook or fix machinery or build a bookcase or balance his checkbook—and, when left at the bottom of that list, writing was nowhere to be seen: he wrote because it was something he could do, something he was good at. Same with Mark Jacobson, it was something he was good at. Thom Jones writes because he wants to be Wile E. Coyote and catch that fucking roadrunner just once (and when he’s done catching that roadrunner, he probably wants to smoke up or drink with Wile E. Coyote). And Stephen Wright has been staying at the Overlook Hotel for far too long. He needs to go stay at the Ramada or Best Western: more people stay there, he’d have more human interaction.
But of all the essays that resonated with me, the one that resonates with me easily the most, especially at the point I am at right now with my novella, was David Foster Wallace’s “The Nature of the Fun”. A book- (or story) in-progress is, as Wallace wrote, “a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floors of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.”
At least Foster Wallace’s creation has a mouth right now, has arms, albeit flipper arms, but arms nonetheless. His child spits and leaks cerebro-spinal fluid because it has a mouth, it can drag itself across the floor and make noise, because it has arms and flippers. My novella, as it stands right now, has maybe an ear, or an eye, and I think there are the beginning formations of a toe or two, and every day I wake up (or after the Mets game is over) I look down at my feet or across the apartment into the dining room, or behind my laptop, and peeking over the top is this amorphous blob of pulsating cells and discolored organs. But, after I finally shake it off my leg, I start molding my lovable blob and by the end of the night I have created a face, or an arm, and the very next day I can recreate that face, and maybe form a nail for that toe that I made the night before, and I should move on to creating a face, a skeleton, but oh what an exquisite toe it is, so instead of creating a face, some legs for it to stand on, a skeletal structure in which to add adornments and decorations later, I’ll paint that toenail instead. But I must keep working, because no one wants to create just a toe.
A farmer came up to me once and said, “Here! Do you see that massive stretch of land over there?”
“The one with the giant mound of dirt that doesn’t stop as far as the eye can see?” I said. “The one with the enormous house on the hill?”
“That’s the one,” the farmer said. “And it’s yours.” He gave me a giant ring of keys and I felt like a janitor, flipping them around in my hand, one key for the tractor, another for the hay silo, yet another for the house and so on and so forth. The next day I went out and planted a flower, out of all that fertile soil and machinery and animals and time and money and land I had been given for no reason other than this farmer wanted to give me this extremely valuable gift and I just happened to walk across his determined path that afternoon, I planted a flower. After a couple of weeks a purple bulb sprouted and unfolded its pretty little fingers to the sky. But I did nothing else with the thousand acres of land, content to have grown just a flower that, after a few weeks, had its leaves fade in color and wilt and wither like human skin, until the petals fell off into the soil I had been given. And I did nothing else with the land, I just watched it grow fallow and parched and cracked, and the tractor and backhoe and rakes rusted and flaked, the handles on the shovels splintered and rotted away, filled with termites and wood fungus.
Obviously that’s an invented scenario, and probably an even more tortured metaphor, but you get the point. If someone gives you such land, such tools, such machinery, why would you stop at having just created a flower, one small piece of beauty in a massive all-encompassing dirt heap possibility? Why would you not want to create more beauty? In the story that follows me around the house, that bites at my ankle as I fill my coffee mug, that hovers over my head like a monolithic shadow as I lie down on the couch to read a book, that stands in front of me as I try to watch TV, I have created an ear, a perfectly formed ear, and then a toe, and then an exquisite toenail, and I spent about a day or two polishing the toenail, a palimpsest of a digit, erased, recreated, erased, recreated, instead of creating more body parts, but tomorrow (or when I’m finished writing this essay) I’m going to jump back in and create more of a person, try to hone my child into something presentable, something beautiful, something that would make Anne Geddes call and offer me money so that she can take my no longer hideously malformed infant and dress it into a pumpkin. And just so I can turn her disturbing, treacle-filled brain down, I will continue to mold, shape, trim, and stretch my quivering gelatinous goop of a story into something that I wouldn’t want to keep locked in the basement dungeon out of fear that it might eat the neighbors, but into something that I would want to introduce to people and show off to the world.
And why do we keep doing this, continue to write, why do I keep doing this, why did David Foster Wallace keep doing it? Because, as he said, “it’s still all a lot of fun.”
I took a quiz on Facebook recently telling you which author you wrote like. For the quiz, the participant pastes a copy of his/her work into the space provided and an algorithm analyzes the text and determines what author (of those that had been decided upon as possible outcomes by the programmers) you write like. I decided to test it out. I chose the first section of my novella "I'm Hoping This Work", from my MFA thesis I Am My Own Nemesis. (I have included that excerpt below.) The result: David Foster Wallace. Having had a love/hate relationship with the work of the unfortunately late Mr. Wallace I was a little suspicious of this comparison, so I tested another piece: the first section of a short story told in a more traditional narrative form than the novella. (The novella excerpt is admittedly told in a more stream-of-consciousness, run-on sentence style). The result: David Foster Wallace. "This can't be," I said. "There must be a glitch in the program. Let me try one of my flash fiction pieces." Copied, pasted, analyze button clicked. Result: a David Foster Wallace trifecta! I tried another. Same result. I finally received a different result when I attached the first section of yet another short story: William Gibson, and with another piece from my thesis I received JD Salinger. (Apparently I'm in good company, but it took five tries to not get David Foster Wallace. That's like trying to kiss someone four times, and each time they pass you off. The fifth time you try, they're exhausted, half-asleep or drugged up to the point where they think you're David Beckham, so they give you a go. You finally got the kiss you wanted, but only under the strictest circumstances, and only after you were the last person left and they thought you were someone else.) I resigned myself to this fate. And decided to analyze the decision to see how far off, and to see whether my initial reaction was justified. My former disdain of Foster Wallace dates back to my early-to-mid twenties. During this period I suffered from a near-fatal malady known as pretentious hipsterism. Symptoms include a disdain for anything popular and loved by the masses, regardless of the artist's former hipster credibility; an obsessive love of anything and everything espoused by Harper's magazine; an embrace of obscure films, music, and books, the more arcane and confounding the better; this aspect naturally adheres to a love of David Lynch, Thomas Pynchon, and John Cage or Einsturzende Neubauten. Those suffering from pretentious hipsterism will maintain their love of these seemingly inscrutable artworks and artists in an effort to maintain status and based on a sense of inflated self-worth and general disdain for everyone else. If they genuinely do not understand it, they will latch on to the artist-in-question for fear of being exposed and being lumped with those he/she is trying to be isolated from. The fact that other people don't understand the work is a sign of their inferiority, despite the hipster's inability to objectively justify and explain their avowed understanding of the work. Common phrases to be heard are, "I totally get what he was trying to do. Well, it's hard to explain. You just have to get it" and "Oh my god! You didn't get it? It's like" followed by an explanation peppered with other obscure references with the hope of baffling the person asking what it meant while never getting around to explaining or even answering what the person who "didn't get it" was asking. Other symptoms include unkempt appearance, flannel shirts, permanent three to four day stubble on the men, an adoption of affectations in the form of headwear (i.e. fedora, bandana, driver's cap, etc.), and a reticent air of superiority. Foster Wallace met all of these criteria and more. His work was defined by long run-on sentences, bloated, over-inflated page lengths for stories, an obsessive need for footnotes in most of his work, including fiction, an overindulgence in scientific and mathematical references (an effort to show how much he had read), and a general reputation that the more convoluted and inscrutable a work, the more he would be regarded as a genius. His most heralded work is Infinite Jest, a 1088 page novel about so many topics, the novel has its own reference set and its own cultish reading groups dedicated to it. In his author photos, Wallace wore a bandana over long scraggly hair that hung to his lower neck. He possessed permanent stubble. He also has a cult-like following and his work has routinely been referred to as erudite, inscrutable, confusing, and among the most talented writers if his generation. After hearing so much about him and the ubiquitous Infinite Jest, I decided to read some of him. I went to the library and took out his short story collection Girl With Curious Hair, and his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never do Again, an edited version of the title essay having appeared in Harper's. The short stories were okay, some being amazing, including "Everything is Green," one of the greatest examples of how power shifts being two characters in a story, sometimes without one of the characters saying a word. Some were a bit more obtuse and show-offy (e.g., "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way"). The essay collection is where I truly developed my love/hate relationship with him. In the title essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" Wallace travels aboard a Caribbean cruise and examines what life is like for seven days, what the behind-the-scenes are like, the people, his own reactions to being on the cruise and having to write about it, and his ultimate views on what supposedly being pampered and treated like luxury really is like. The essay is extremely funny, absorbing, and frustrating, just like the majority of his work, riddled with self-conscious irony and an awareness of his growing detachment from the rest of the staff. He stated in an interview (which I am still trying to find the link to) that he regretted his detached and forced ironic depiction of everyone on the cruiser and, had he not been on assignment for Harper's, he may have been able to enjoy himself, but felt he had to put on the detached ironic air for the magazine. Whether he would have voluntarily boarded a cruise liner had he not been reporting is up for debate, but pencil me as skeptical that he would have done so. However, the essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head" is where I really began to loathe Foster Wallace. Although I always acknowledged his talent, I sometimes referred to him as overrated and a pretentious ass: let me explain. In the essay he details Lynch's Lost Highway almost shot by shot, analyzing the movie to a ridiculous degree, believing the movie is a misunderstood masterpiece. I had recently seen Lost Highway and can safely say that it is, for the most part, the most ridiculous of all Lynch movies; it is routinely, and rightfully so, I believe, referred to as one of Lynch's worst movies, almost universally as panned as his Dune was, and as inscrutable as his Inland Empire. (For the record, I don't consider Inland Empire to be his worst movie, just easily the most baffling film in history; baffling isn't bad, it's exactly what it is: confusing, headache-inducing, and possibly good, but I can't be certain.) To me, for someone to be waxing poetic in masturbatory fashion about the virtues and genius of Lost Highway, was to me like saying a deep-fried Twinkie was good enough to be served at a five-star restaurant; it was like saying Michael Bolton should sing opera; that Nicholas Sparks should not only win a Nobel Prize in literature, but also the Nobel Peace Prize as well. It is, to put it simply, a fucking stupid idea. And Lost Highway is just bad. It was one of the first movies I rented and didn't finish and did not feel bad about not having finished it. I have no intention of returning to Lost Highway either to see if maybe, just maybe my previous viewpoint was wrong. It is also around the time when I began to cure myself of pretentious hipsterism. The movie wasn't misunderstood and genius because I didn't understand it. It was hard to understand because it made no sense. This began the long slog out of pretentious hipsterism. All those bands and movies and TV shows I used to rail against (mostly soft rock, anything with a popular following, and uplifting movies) I began to give a second chance. I didn't hold peoples' tastes against them; if I thought something was bad, if someone listened to latter-day Stevie Wonder or Michael Bolton or Celine Dion, I didn't hold it against them just because I didn't like it; I didn't consider that person inferior because they thought Olivia Tremor Control was weird if they had even heard of them; because they thought Aphex Twin and Autechre were inscrutable and the name of the latter was deliberately unpronounceable. (I have recently been the victim of my previous mentality, receiving the same condescending correction from someone when I mispronounced the name of Autechre, although I knew who the band was and could discuss their music. How obnoxious hipsterism is, I thought? How I hope I never treated anyone with such sneering superiority?); just because someone liked Phil Collins or read Danielle Steele or thought Tori Spelling was a good actress does not mean they were intellectually inferior to me. It just meant they had different tastes. I began seeing the talent level of bands I didn't like; could see their appeal to others and maintain my own aesthetic tastes. Because ultimately that's what tastes in music, books, and movies comes down to: aesthetics. And aesthetics aren't better or worse: they're just aesthetics. Having developed this new found acceptance, I decided to give David Foster Wallace, the king of hipster lit, another shot. And I began to like him. Not all of his work: I will probably never read Infinite Jest, but I won't hold it against him, and I won't hold it against anyone who wants to read it: it just doesn't appeal to me. And I began to realize that his essays were quite brilliant. I read some of his essays from Consider the Lobster and began reading some of his interviews. I saw at a bookstore in New York that he had written a book on infinity (Everything and More) which appealed him to me even more: he was omnivorous in his interests. I recently discussed Wallace with a professor of mine, in discussing this essay/entry I was writing, and in discussing the Facebook test I had taken. She mentioned a few of his essays from Consider the Lobster I had not read. I look forward to reading them now. In my second semester we had to read the craft book Why I Write edited by Will Blythe and write a brief essay on that book. Twenty-six writers were asked why they wrote including Norman Mailer, Pat Conroy, and David Foster Wallace. The Wallace chapter "The Nature of the Fun" really impressed me. I responded to it immediately and decided to write my essay in the same fashion Wallace did, and while trying to mimic his style in this essay, in discussing why I wrote, I probably had more fun writing than almost any other time. Wallace, stated that, a story in progress was like: "a kind of hideously damaged infant that follows the writer around, forever crawling after the writer (dragging itself across the floors of restaurants where the writer’s trying to eat, appearing at the foot of the bed first thing in the morning, etc.), hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebro-spinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer, wanting love, wanting the very thing its hideousness guarantees it’ll get: the writer’s complete attention.” And he's right. It is like that. I decided to paste the entirety of that essay in this blog, but since this entry has gone on long enough, I will paste it as another entry. Probably tomorrow. After taking the I Write Like test, I commented on the post, "I'll take that." I meant it.
Darren Cormier lives in the Boston area. He is the author of A Little Soul: 140 Twitterstories. His fiction has appeared in Opium Magazine, Meetinghouse, Amoskeag, Every Day Fiction, Raft Magazine, Arch Literary Journal, and One Forty Fiction, Ether Books, and Seedpod Publishing. Writing peeves: there should be a comma before the "and" in a set of three or more items; it is "A historic" not "AN historic"--the 'h' is pronounced; would've, could've, and should've are contractions and should never be written as "would of," "could of," or "should of"; and "ATM machine" is redundant. He also invented the giraffe.