June has been a slow month, book-wise. This often happens to me. I sometimes find myself with so many books on my line-up I’m not sure when I’ll get to them all, and other times, like now, I have four or five books I’ve started, but am not strongly compelled to finish. The Wings of the Dove, for one. I read Portrait of a Lady last year and it was one of the best books I’d read all year, so I thought I’d try James again. This second essay is a struggle; there’s barely any dialogue so far, and I’m nearly a hundred pages in. I’m also working on this book called Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas, which I downloaded after I read the back of the book at Barnes & Noble. It sounded, at least to me, like Donnie Darko lite, and I was right there. It’s not exactly like that so far, but I’m managing to slog through 15-20 pages a day. My e-reader tells me I’m 42% done, and I’m still not sure what the book is about, but there’s enough there to make me hope I’ll find out soon.
I hate not finishing a book. I rarely allow it to happen. And yet. I started reading Don DeLillo’s Libra last December. I forced myself to get about halfway through it. I see the book, every day, sitting on my shelf. I don’t know if I’ll ever pick it up again. I was drawn to it because I read, somewhere or other, the following excerpt:
He rode the subway up to Inwood, out to Sheepshead Bay. There were serious men down there, rocking in the copper light. He saw chinamen, beggars, men who talked to God, men who lived on the trains, day and night, bruised, with matted hair, asleep in patient bundles on the wicker seats. He jumped the turnstiles once. He rode between cars, gripping the heavy chain. He felt the friction of the ride in his teeth. They went so fast sometimes. He liked the feeling they were on the edge. How do we know the motorman’s not insane? It gave him a funny thrill. The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts, on the edge of no-control. People crowded in, every shape face in the book of faces. They pushed through the doors, they hung from the porcelain straps. He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The view down the tracks was a form of power. It was a secret and a power. The beams picked out secret things. The noise was pitched to a fury he located in the mind, a satisfying wave of rage and pain.
Pretty amazing stuff, no? The book is an imaginary account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life. I was so impressed at how DeLillo, in this one brief section near the beginning of the book, depicted Oswald as someone passing through a world he was not actually a part of. I was, eventually, put off when I realized the entire book read like this. DeLillo writes from a third-person perspective, but he stays so close to Harvey’s consciousness that reading the book feels like being inside the head of a mentally disturbed person. Masterfully, done, yes, but for me, nearly impossible to commit to for very long.
In January, I began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, partly because I’d heard so many positive reviews of it from friends, and partly because I was in the middle of a quest to read more contemporary fiction and break out of my 19th century/scifi/fantasy comfort zone. I read about a hundred and fifty pages before I guiltily started loading other things onto my e-reader to distract me from the fact that I wasn’t finishing yet another novel. The book is very segmented, so it’s hard to tell what’s even happening at times. Though I hear it gets easier after the first two hundred pages, nothing I have read of it so far convinces me that I will ever find the book interesting. Honestly, not liking stuff like this makes me feel like an intellectual failure.
It’s good that I’m mentioning these two books here, because it’s not likely I’ll ever have cause to refer to them again. Some books just don’t speak to me. There’s no book I’ve ever enjoyed that has reached me solely on an intellectual level. There has to be something about a book that grabs me emotionally, or I won’t bother putting in the work to suck out all the story has to offer.