February 22, 2018
I just hinted to my monthly email group that I might blog about what it’s like to be in the middle of reading “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, but I now see this was my topic last month, when I was on page 67. For the record, I’m on page 461 now… not amazing progress for a 1,079 page book, I’ll grant you, but this hasn’t turned into the full-time endeavor I’d envisioned. And it’s hard to zoom straight ahead on a piece of literature that constantly forces you to read footnotes, consult the dictionary, and take frequent naps. Still, I can say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before and I’m optimistic I’ll be able to offer a full review for a finished book next month!
I will say this, though. Early on I made the decision to focus on comedic elements in my writing for a reason, even though my early attempts at more dramatic and tragic themes seemed to provoke more passionate responses from people around me. (And A-plus vs A grades from my creative writing professor - Julia Alvarez!) Writing is so solitary to begin with, and I noticed when I was exploring sad topics my overall mood would accompany whatever sad tone I was trying to create. But those times I’d unexpectedly make myself laugh, even if it was due an unwitting detour on the silliest story I might dare attempt, felt like a 3am gift from the universe. Though I’m not even yet at the halfway point of “Infinite Jest”, I can easily imagine the author of this book being destined to engage in an ultimately disastrous lifelong contemplation with suicide. Even though a cutting sense of humor and overwhelming intelligence is evident throughout these amazingly precise (though long-winded) passages, there is an almost surprising lack of joy and pure silliness that maybe the author thought was beneath the promise of his abilities. I don’t know. But to be stuck in that internal world while constantly writing and revising would, I think, be a devastating burden for anyone. And I’m not trying to say my fiction should compare in any way, even microscopically, to his. But I’m glad I stuck with comedy.
In fact, when I was younger and almost illogically confident, I thought I could write a comedy about anything - even suicide. The first version of “Remembering Bobby” was written in 1989, and I honestly thought at the time I pulled it off. But then a few years later, one of my closest friends in the world - Brion Ives Hall - “eliminated his own map” (as David Foster Wallace would put it), which shocked everyone around him to their core. Eventually I found myself wanting to return to this piece, wondering how my naïve approach might look after experiencing the true shock and anguish of an unnecessary suicide on such a personal level. And lo and behold - in 2007 I rewrote the whole thing, and yes - a lot of the comedy was left out of the final version. But much of it defiantly remained. And then, years later, while editing through all my stories for michaelaba.com, this one went through another fairly intense makeover. And I now believe “Remembering Bobby”, from the “Washed Clothes” collection, may be one of my best.
For the record - the character of Bobby Donner was never meant to be a reflection of my friend, because the original story was written back when Brion was the happy, energetic and positive-thinking person we all knew. But there’s no doubt that his spirit somehow showed up in the subsequent revisions, it seems to me.
Brion also shows up on michaelaba.com in two of the songs. “All the Girls Love Brion” (Cassette Two on the Basements Page) was written back when we were co-workers at the Westin Hotel Copley Place in Boston. It was an attempt to embarrass him for being so appealing to all our female co-workers, although I end up being the one embarrassed, singing this song in a higher voice that is still sometimes hard to admit is mine. And “Song For Brion” (the 1st CD on the Songs Page) was written on the way to his memorial.
On a happier note, the great works of David Foster Wallace and the amazing memories and children of Brion Ives Hall live on. Hopefully my next blog will be more comedic in tone, although I’m not sure how possible this will be with so many pages of “Infinite Jest” still to be read. Maybe I’ll revisit my own “The Blame Game” (from the “Artists and Janitors” collection) after I’m finished. Now, that’s a funny story!