I’ve seen/heard/osmotically absorbed a decent amount of press for the new film The End of the Tour, about the end (duh) of David Foster Wallace’s press tour (duh) for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest. If you’re not familiar with Wallace, first off do yourself a favor and read his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a.k.a. “Shipping Out.” Harper’s thought, correctly, that it would make a good article if they sent this acerbically funny, intensely intelligent, awkward writer on a giant cruise so he could record his observations about the human race in that context. See also a similar effort in “Consider the Lobster,” about the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace has a few books of essays and short stories out there, and one big novel, Infinite Jest. He unfortunately committed suicide in 2008.
Every single piece of press I’ve seen regarding this film talks about the monumental task of reading Infinite Jest, as if it were some given that a large percentage of the population would be lucky to open the book and recognize the words written in it as English. I’ve read Infinite Jest. I love it. It is long, and it has footnotes. Lots of footnotes. But it is a delightful, inventive book, and we do ourselves a disservice by pretending it’s something that most of us couldn’t pick up and enjoy (after properly stretching–seriously, it is a large book). It’s not Ulysses (at least I think it’s not; that one’s still on my to-read list). It’s not The Crying of Lot 49, or Gravity’s Rainbow. It is not the Benjy chapter of The Sound and the Fury. It’s a contemporary narrative with three storylines which begin to reveal their connections to the reader as they progress. And it’s hilarious. It contains one of the funniest scenes in any medium I can think of. But for whatever reason, the press and our culture have decided that this is A Difficult Book, and proceed accordingly, leaving those who aren’t familiar to assume this is correct. It becomes a meme in the proper sense of that word.
I can readily remember this phenomenon happening one other time, recently. It became customary to say that Inception was this dense, impossible-to-follow blow-your-mind movie.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like it. I like all Nolan’s stuff. But it’s just an action movie about people dreaming dreams in dreams. It’s an original blockbuster. It might not hold your hand like, I don’t know, Transformers or whatever–does one need hand-holding to be yelled at by CGI? Anyway. It’s not a slow meditation on the nature of human existence. It’s a summer tentpole with one of the world’s biggest movie stars having a dream in a van, and in that dream he’s dreaming about…skiing? It’s been a while.
MY POINT, and thank you for hanging in there, is not about short attention spans or dumb entertainment or ‘member the good old days when people had face to face conversations or whatever Andy Rooney used to talk about. My point is that we, you, I, whoever, we can read a long book. We can talk about something more complicated than last night’s Real Housewives. We don’t need to let “them” tell us what we can and can’t fathom. Because remember, as Patton Oswalt rightly said, “There is no ‘them.'”
And why does this matter? Because when I watch political debates (any of them, this is bipartisan) all I hear are soundbites meant for a public that doesn’t read long books and doesn’t understand the movies it watches because that’s who the candidates have been led to believe we are. Prove them wrong.
Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he’s an actor and writer.