“The wonderful things in life are the things you do, not the things you have.”
We are kicking off a brand new course series and inviting participants from all over the world to climb some of the most challenging literary mountains on the planet.
Climbing the highest peaks on the planet is the ultimate physical accomplishment. Nearly everyone has daydreamed of some great feat: climbing the highest mountains, visiting remote but beautiful places across the globe, making a great discovery that betters many lives, solving a difficult problem in math or physics, playing the whole Beethoven Sonata cycle or some other Herculean feat of musical prowess, and yes, reading and understanding great but very difficult books.
Our group of expeditionary adventurers will attempt, over approximately a twelve-month course, to scale six mountains of literature, each with a unique difficulty to overcome and a treasure to be found upon completion. Aided by guides, both digital and human, and working together to overcome challenges presented by the material, we will become not only better readers, but more alive to the potential locked within our minds. For many of us reading is as important as breath. The specific books chosen for this course exist in the rare air at the height of literary achievement. All six novels fall into the modern and post-modern realm of literary criticism. This is the era beyond realism where the questions that wake us in the middle of the night linger and play. The discipline involved to simply read the words is only the first step. Every book stands alone as a work of art, and art only lives when the audience gets involved with the artist in the creative process.
“We’re not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader’s own life ‘outside’ the story changes the story.”
–David Foster Wallace
Reading these books involves bringing your life experience and learning to the encounter, regardless of what disciplines you trained in. Supplemental materials focused on modern and postmodern theory will increase our ability to scale these unconventional vanguards of literary excellence. These are not light entertainments for a day at the beach. They are the products of minds that wrestle with the big questions of existence and the problems of living in a world of infinite, instantly available information. They aspire to show the breadth and depth of a world where manipulation, media, and group psychology blur the lines between thinking and knowing. They afford us the opportunity to create order out of chaos by seeing beyond the words on the printed page and into the consciousness of the creator.
“Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music (oh yes), like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.”
— Roberto Bolaño, 2666
As to the mountain metaphor, our first step will be to get to base camp, that is to read that first difficult but amazing book and get in the rare air where the truly adventurous meet in what they quickly learn will be a test not just of their individual capacities but of the whole unit functioning together to bring everyone to the top of the highest peak. From base camp to the summit – here is an overview of the climb.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
“How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”
This huge tour-de-force by a master scrivener begins with a college admissions interview that goes terrifically off the rails. A cast of hundreds, multiple locations, and strange juxtapositions populate the thousand-plus pages of Wallace’s last completed novel-length work. Come along as we prepare to climb some of literary fiction’s tallest peaks.
Here at base camp we will:
- Explore the four distinct plot threads in Wallace’s work (Tennis Academy hijinks, International Terrorist Plot, Life at a Drug Rehabilitation Center, and the mysterious and deadly independent film at the heart of it all).
- Discuss a collective of post-modern themes (addiction and recovery, security and freedom, free will and responsibility, the nature and role of art in society, and the ecstasy and agony of familial relationships).
- Discover literary allusions from Homer’s “Odyssey” to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
- Map Wallace’s craft as found in the novel’s unique, genre-bending structure. Among the postmodern literary explorations awaiting us, the following:
- Intertextuality in a metafictional narrative
- A pastiche of maximalism, irony, and paranoia
- A world of fragmented hyperreality set in an age of digital ascension and corporate subsidization
- Perhaps the most extensive and important use of endnotes ever attempted in literary fiction
This encyclopedic riff on what we might ironically call our ‘popular culture and the entertainment based, consumer driven society’ serves up its treasures with Wallace’s unique humor intertwined with a mastery of the use of language, in defiance of Shakespeare’s adage that ‘brevity is the soul of wit.’
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
“Now,” said Neville, “my tree flowers. My heart rises. All oppression is relieved. All impediment is removed. the reign of chaos is over. He has imposed order. Knives cut again.”
Great literature is replete with contrasts. Tone and Mood, Character and Setting, and nearly all successful use of analogy and metaphor employ this device. A well-stocked library and a well-read mind also reflect the technique of juxtaposition of two differing elements in such a way as to stimulate interest, ideas, and understanding, avoiding the concretization that may result from a fixed and singular approach. By way of extreme contrast to the wide-ranging, free flowing ideation of “Infinite Jest,” our first ascent rides on the genius of modernist, stream-of-consciousness narrative presented by Virginia Woolf.
Like Wallace, Woolf took her own life after reaching the apex of her art. The body of work she left behind allows us to inhabit a mind uniquely shaped to understand the deeper nature of our species. This nature, told through the never-still inner voice that fills both our waking and sleeping hours, divines “The Waves” as an omnipresent narrative metaphor unlike any other novel Woolf attempted.
Like Hamlet in the extreme, all six of the speaking characters in the novel use soliloquy to articulate their innermost selves. So complete is Woolf’s use of the form that on a quick read, the six voices blend into one central consciousness, the exploration of which seemed to be the author’s purpose in this highly experimental work.
Woolf hooks the reader through the use of a powerful metaphor, that of ocean waves at sunrise, beginning far out to sea and running to the shore, where they break in a moment of existential fulfillment. This poetic image, reflected in the language, a poetic-prose, represents the lives of the characters, and indeed, of all living things.
There are no boundaries to mark the beginning of one monologue and the start of the next. The plot is loose, hanging together on the tragedy of a seventh character whose death halfway through forms the basis of much reflection on the part of the survivors.
Themes of consciousness, identity, self and others, and the unity of collective thought all travel the depths of this relatively short, compared to “Infinite Jest,” novel.
A close reader meets six distinctive personalities as they navigate the journey from early childhood to full adult life, bound by tragedy and the world they inhabit, yet each enjoying or suffering an independent existence.
Woolf, who was a contemporary of Joyce, leads us up the mountain toward the summit in a novel whose contrasts with “Infinite Jest” might merit a wholly separate course of study.
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
“Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of …recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it and or listen to it and, it shouldn’t be sinful to want to have created beauty?”
By this point in our climb to the top, we are comfortably able to read closely, to discern plot, character, theme, and allusion, to identify and discuss genre elements, and to have formed ideas of taste, both ours and that of the world at large. Here, as the slope grows ever steeper, we are invested in our quest and nearing the point of no return. To complete this phase, we look to a well-known, but seldom-read writer.
William Gaddis described his first novel, “The Recognitions,” as “not reader-friendly.” Like Wallace, he went on to say that he believes “the reader gets satisfaction out of … collaborating with the author.”
Drawing on Faust for his master plot, Gaddis brings much of early Christian thought onto the pages of a novel set in early-mid 20th C. New York City. Condensed from the 480,000 word original manuscript, the printed book nears 1000 pages, with dozens of characters, each of whom has a story independent of the central plot.
Themes of the search for identity, creating an authentic life, and finding meaning in a world of such vast, differing, and shifting values play out in the life of the central character, Wyatt Gwyon, progeny of a Calvinist minister from the backwoods of New England.
In addition to Faust, Gaddis attributed much of his inspiration for the novel, and indeed the source of the title, to Sir James Frazer’s masterwork on mythology, “The Golden Bough,” a work that we will take with us as a guide to the difficulties of collaborating with our author at this stage of our climb.
CROSSING THE ICE FIELD
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
“[S]he is also a dweller, down inside the little city, coming awake in the very late night, blinking up in painful daylight, waiting for the annihilation, the blows from the sky, the terribly tense with the waiting, unable to name whatever it is approaching, knowing – too awful to say – it is herself, her Central Asian giantess self, that is the Nameless Thing she fears….”
At base camp we encountered multiple plots, a large cast, post-modern themes and structure in preparation for our ascent.
The first climb took us deep into the collective consciousness as a reflexive creation of individual minds organized around culture, environment, and society.
Using the metaphor of the parabolic flight of a V-2 rocket, launched from the mainland of Europe and aimed at the heart of London during WWII, Pynchon takes readers down a rabbit hole that repeatedly traverses the boundary between the scientific and metaphysical.
Any discussion of this novel will lead to deeper exploration of post-modernism, existential meaning, nihilism, and nearly all of the darkness and depravity to be found in human behavior. If the World Wars were truly the ones to end all war, Pynchon’s dark mirror, reflecting nearly 500 characters and an enigmatic conclusion that often leads readers back to the book’s beginning for a second read, reminds us why literature and art may be the saving grace of humankind. The lessons of our darker nature, in the hands of a skilled artist, become instructive and useful, if at the same time shocking and evocative of how far we have come in our mastery of natural forces, and how far we have to go in mastering our individual natures.
2666 by Roberto Bolano
“On the subject of art, a politician with power is like a colossal pheasant, able to crush mountains with little hops, whereas a politician without power is only like a village priest, an ordinary-sized pheasant.”
We are almost home. Fifth stage, third ascent, “2666,” Roberto Bolano’s posthumously published masterpiece, earned the New York Time’s distinction of being the best novel of the first ten years of this century.
Here literature takes a central role as the novel, originally considered to be published as five separate works, organizes around the search for a missing poet by a collective of critics who have made the study of his work the central purpose of their lives.
The search leads them to the fictional city of Santa Teresa, on the US/Mexico border, where a grim series of murders of more than 500 young women over the period of a decade, presents the actual reality of Ciudad Juarez, upon which Bolano based much of the story.
Bolano was first and foremost a poet, and his writing about the darkest of subjects, including the horrors of the Russian march across Germany at the end of WWII, the Holocaust, the crime scenes in present day Mexico, and the scandalous hidden life of the central figure in the story, sings off every page. This book, widely acclaimed and the winner of numerous literary awards, unifies all that we have explored thus far on our journey into a singular work that is the epitome of a reader’s novel. Important themes on art, reading, political and personal power, identity, and redemption play out across a landscape that looks apocalyptic from above, but up close, we see it filled with grim, grasping life in all its wondrous beauty and perpetual terror.
In one scene, Bolano waxes brilliantly on the decline of reading, comparing the reading habits of a bookish young pharmacist in the following:
“Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who … clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecouchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Here, Bolano shares with us the reason we undertook this quest. Here is the thing that will spur us on to the highest peak.
REACHING THE SUMMIT
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
“Life, he himself once said (his biografiend, in fact, kills him verysoon, if yet not, after) is a wake, livit or krikit, and on the bunk of our bread-winning lies the cropse of our seedfather, a phrase which the establisher of the world by law might pretinately write across the chestfront of all manorwombanborn.”
Every element in every book read to this point has prepared us to enter the dreamscape of what many have called the most difficult English language book ever written.
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant. And that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” — James Joyce on Finnegans Wake
Crafted with the attention to detail of a woodcarver recreating the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling on a wood panel the size of a shoebox lid, Joyce’s masterpiece drew comparisons to Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer. It’s allusions cover the whole spectrum of Western and Mideastern mythology. It’s themes are hidden in an elaborate lexicon of puns, and portmanteau constructions that Joyce organized into a complete glossary of thousands of new words solely for the purpose of writing this, his final novel.
By the time we reach this stage of our journey, we have read and come to a deeper understanding of five books that inhabit the rarest air of the literary canon of our time. Guided by Joseph Campbell’s annotations, in his book A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, we now plant our flag atop the summit of the literary Everest.