Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The class not taken (The Big Nowhere)

Earlier this year, I ran across a treasure online: a syllabus. It’s for English 102 - Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction, from the fall 1994 semester at Illinois State University. That would have been my junior year of college, and by that point I was way too far along in my English major (and my efforts to graduate in four years with the exact minimum number of credit hours required for my B.A.) to be taking intro level classes. In fact, in keeping with my essential English-majorness, A.P. English was one of the only two A.P classes I took in high school, which placed me out of intro level composition classes altogether (although I still took one my freshman year because the subject matter interested me). Nevertheless, had I been enrolled at ISU, I might have been very tempted to take ENG102, as well.

Did I mention the professor for the class was David Foster Wallace?

I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually know who David Foster Wallace was back in 1994, unless I heard someone else mention him in passing. In hindsight, as someone who’s now an unapologetically devoted fan of Wallace’s work as well as a nursemaid to disappointment that I’ll never meet the man face-to-face (not that I realistically ever would have even if he hadn’t ended his own life at 46), it’s easy enough to stake a retroactive claim to one of the seats in the classroom where English 102 met. If there’s a shred of evidence I can use to back up the assertion that I (meaning the spring-of-94 me, scheduling my upcoming fall semester) might have tried to sign up for the course, it’s once again the subject matter of the syllabus. In my actual freshman year, it was fairy tales and folklore. In my hypothetical alternate universe junior year at Illinois State, it was popular commercial fiction.

If you haven’t clicked on the link above yet, I will give you the basics: Wallace assigned eight novels via his syllabus, and not only are they almost exclusively from the latter half of the twentieth century (with the borderline exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) but they are page-turners and pot-boilers, not canonized serious-works-of-art. (Unless you count the Pulitzer Prize as a canonization of art, in which case, Lonesome Dove is on the list to check that box.) I love mainstream books best enjoyed as paperbacks, and I love discussing pop culture, so clearly this syllabus is right up my alley. Plus, in keeping with my general amiable laziness, in 1994 I would have already read at least a third of the assignments. In addition to C.S. Lewis (whom I read in fifth grade), Wallace included Stephen King’s Carrie and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the lambs, both of which I devoured in high school.

Wallace implies in his syllabus notes (and the author of the Open Culture article about the syllabus points out, as well) that it’s actually harder to perform critical analysis on popular commercial fiction, because of the tightly symbiotic relationship between serious art and critical analysis. Serious artists attempt to illuminate human existence, personal morality and the shortcomings of society, and therefore analyzing their work is a matter of determining a given author’s specific takes on those broad themes. Writers of best-sellers just want to tell a gripping story and could care less if they end up with any Christian symbolism or political philosophy embedded therein, but nonetheless its unfairly dismissive to simply call it trash with no redeeming value. All stories have ideas in them, even if those ideas aren’t always the ones officially sanctioned as significant and worthy. Deprived of the standard toolbox of tips and tricks for writing a college English paper, I reckon it would be interesting to perform the analysis on some unlikely candidates. (Yes, well, I would think that, wouldn’t I?)

Anyway, as soon as I saw the syllabus article the notions of pop novels and academic pursuits were immediately incorporated into my nascent plans for SUMMER SCHOOL, and I figured I might as well add to my reading list the few books that I hadn’t previously engaged with. James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere was one, Jackie Collins’s Rock Star was another, and I figured Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove could be the third, time permitting. (It may not, since August is just the day after tomorrow already, but I’ve been noticing lately a striking preponderance of cowboy entertainments in front of my eyes and in my thoughts, and I’m going to have to spend some time breaking that all down here sooner or later, so I’m sure Lonesome Dove will get its turn one way or another.)

Right, so I read The Big Nowhere, and after all that set-up are you ready for a five-page, double-spaced essay examination of the recurring motif of double identities? Just kidding. It was an interesting experience reading Ellroy (who really is quite good) and at the same time trying to imagine how DFW would read Ellroy (because their styles really could not be more different), but it became much more dark and bitter (spoilers a’comin’) once I got to Danny Upshaw’s suicide, which doesn’t so much directly echo Wallace’s own in the circumstances of the act itself (Upshaw kills himself in a moment of profound panic as his life is on the brink of suddenly and violently unraveling, whereas Wallace presumably thought things through for a long time as he struggled with side-effects from antidepressants and then loss of effectiveness of antidepressants) but does call both to mind. The passage immediately leading up to Upshaw’s self-destruction is more freewheeling and stream-of-consciousness than most of the rest of The Big Nowhere, which of course gives it the approximate feel of any number of moments from Infinite Jest. And ultimately, the root cause of Upshaw’s desperate surrender is his homosexuality, which is anathema to his chosen profession as a Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy in 1950, a dilemma with which he has struggled all his life. As tragic as it is, Upshaw’s suicide almost seems like an inescapable outcome of his constant suffering. I think that conclusion could apply to Wallace as well.

I mentioned that The Big Nowhere was demanding and challenging, by which of course I mean it’s fairly dark and depressing (in almost every facet of the story, not just Upshaw’s cut-short thread through the plot) but I’m glad I took it on and I’d put it forward as worth a look for anyone, even if it isn’t assigned reading.

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