Just before hip-Hammer guy got to me, he was nudged-pulled-nudged by another. With seven rows of Lovelies and Bookluggers and Hollywood types (and yes! actual DFW fans!) sitting between us, he quickly averted his eyes & gave the microphone to the nudger. As my entire body was trembling in double-time, I wasn't sure if I was relieved or ticked. Ticked with a dash of relief. Then, disappointment. It seemed the Q/A portion of the evening was doomed to be one that DFW would laugh about with friends afterwards, seething with resentment at our petty, petty minds and our clear inability to "get" his work...or really get anything other than our own self-involved view of the world. But then, somehow, as the nudger spoke, it became clear that someone with half a brain was standing with microphone in hand! Could it be...could an actual DFW fan who has an actual brain...be poised to speak and ask the final question of the night? Yes, dear readers, yes! Nudger-puller-nudger was composed (no visible signs of shaking...thank goodness Hammer guy passed me over!) and quietly, simply asked her question: What role does Vollmann's work play in your reading life and your writing life? (And the choir swells in the background, the sopranos high, the altos low, the deep baritones booming...) If I had the physical ability and even the most tenuous shred of presence of mind remaining after thinking for a brief second I would be addressing him directly, I would have high jumped the seven rows of visitors to hug her, kiss her, hug her. A real question, that might garner a real response.
DFW: (With a look that said "Finally you twits!" and then a sort of mock-awe, humbled mumble) Well, I mean. Of course. Vollmann's work is seminal. One can never have read enough of his work...he's so prolific. But yes, some of his stuff has had a significant impact on my work. Actually, when I'm really down on myself as a writer, I compare myself to him. It never ends up making me feel better...just much worse. He has written so much. He's intense. I once did a joint reading with him. As you can probably tell, I'm a little nervous now, so you can imagine the kind of nervousness about public speaking I had in the early days. Vollmann went first. I don't remember exactly what he said or how the reading itself went (as I was so nervous, I had my own neuroses to deal with), but I know that he spent some time sending x-rays around the room and then shot a gun off into the gallery. The crowd was engrossed and scared into a state of awe. I then had to go on stage after that like "Um, so, here I am. I have a poem to read." That man is intense. He will parachute into Antarctica for material if necessary. He is just..."
DFW went on a bit and as I'm not exact-quoting anything, I'm loathe to "make up" more of his response. (What with the state of publishing the truth or not truth as it were and all that stuff out there about journalists vs. bloggers and how they are covered and we are not -- it seems I could land myself in some sort of trouble with some sort of group for even attempting to capture his thoughts as they tumbled out and I sure as hell don't want to piss off Oprah, being that she clearly has such a mind for literature and the arts and wasn't at all sucking up to her audience by changing her mind on national television and getting all haughty about the state of the publishing world as if it were wholly owned and created by Harpo Industries). He did, however, mention some key things. Things that I took with me and still turn about in my head...all these days later, even while still in the midst of driving you nuts with just finally getting to the end of the reading already.
- Thing #1 -- He mentioned that You Bright and Risen Angels and The Rainbow Stories were among the first Vollmann works he read and found them influential. He also mentioned that while he has not yet gotten around to reading Vollmann's seven-volume set of Rising Up and Rising Down, he did manage to read the much slimmer compilation cliff-notesque volume of said seven-volume set. I have not read any of these, but now mean to.
- Thing #2 -- He somehow worked it in that he considers Powers to be equally important. I don't quite remember the context in which it was mentioned, but I remember feeling a renewed kinship with DFW. Powers is divine. The thought of the two minds together...or even, DFW reading Powers and Powers reading DFW. Its. Well. A lot for me to wrap my head around. I could write a whole set of installments on this very topic. I realize that to do so would cost me the precious few readers I have. But oh, can you imagine? Either way, I could read more Powers. Add him to the ever-growing list.
- Thing #3 -- He somehow worked in the phrase "since I'm grossly over-educated" -- which I thought was...well...interesting. Mostly because it's true. But also because he recognizes it's true. And then, it seemed as if he felt that possibly his extreme levels of education might distance himself from his readers and so he should be humble about it, dismiss it as an aberration, a fluke.
- Thing #4 -- He really IS overeducated. Undergraduate studies at Amherst in philosophy with a specialization in math and logic. Then a quick grab of an M.F.A in Arizona. Then off to Harvard for graduate work in Philosophy, Logic, Semantics and Math. Lest you feel woefully undereducated at the moment, at least you can find solace in the fact that he left Harvard after a year. Yes, to pursue writing full time and become a wild success.
- Thing #5 -- Right about here -- when he started talking about his education and someone asked about his extensive vocabulary and he said he didn't at all feel his vocabulary was any larger than anyone else's and the he, too, must read books with a dictionary by his side (I really, really would like to know what books HE is reading that require HIM to look up a word)and he doesn't understand why people think his work is difficult or why they have trouble recognizing many of the words he uses -- it was during all this that my heart began to turn a bit. He was just shy of arrogant. His over-education was oozing out all over the podium and it just...it smacked a bit of..."Look, at the end of the day, I'm really too smart for all of you, you will never understand my work because you are idiots, so can we just end this thing already?" But in the most charming way possible.
I've spent the days since his reading wondering where I fall on the curve of those who are smart enough to get his work, those who aren't, those who pretend to get it because it seems to be hip at the moment, and those who really could give a damn. I'm still sorting it out. I really dig his work. And 87% of the time I saw him read and speak, I really dug him as well. I believe smitten and love were tossed about in previous installments. But then, somewhere, I lost my crush. His sermon from the mount veered into the realm of too preachy, too misunderstood-genius-artist for me. And it pissed me off. I began to feel that I had to -- if at all possible -- separate the man from the writing. But is such a thing possible? Necessary? Perhaps it was me...was I at fault? Am I lacking in some fundamental writerly way? Too insecure in my own knowledge and reading/writing lineage (read: not a published writer, certainly don't have an M.F.A and definitely no post-grad work in semantics and physics and logic) to be comfortable in his presence? Am I making this about me when it really has nothing to do with me? (I've certainly type the word "me" several times in the last paragraph!)
Perhaps that is why he doesn't do readings & interviews. His self-referential musings that charm on the page seem somehow inappropriate and lofty in person. Almost vulgar. Especially for would-be writers. I can handle some good Vollmann and Powers, but let's be honest...they are sophisticated reads that require dedicated readers. Readers willing to do the work. I can see an entire class structure mapping out before me -- those who read junk (Richard Paul Evans and the like) and those who splinter off into various groups of reading not junk but not quite literary stuff. Then the class structure expands. There's the not quite literary and then the somewhat literary and then the obvious by now literary and then we get into high brow territory. The high brow stuff then splinters off into a few hundred categories depending on our education, various IQ and Rorschach tests, page count of most books read, philisophical/idealogical leanings and so on. And who decides what is literary? I feel as if we are all lemmings bowing down to the ever-painful Ulysses because it was deemed high-minded by someone who was deemed high-minded. And really, who among us, can honestly say they LOVED Ulysses? And I hate that DFW, writer of so many things that I truly, truly love and wish I had written myself, has made me feel (or has caused me to make myself feel) unworthy. A kinship and then not. A mutual understanding and then no.
And yet, and yet.
His commencement speech at Keynon.
And the heart swells again...