The Life and Opinions of Nikki Levine. Woman, on Tristram Shandy

I just posted this to a class discussion. Fortunately, this is graduate school, so I received credit.

I read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman in the following locations: The 4 bus, the Yellow line Max, my therapist’s waiting room, my bedroom, the basement of Townshend’s Tea, the quiet floor of the library, behind the cash register of a retail store, on an elliptical machine overlooking a pride of half-naked grunting men named Chad, and on my sweetheart’s couch while covered in cats.

Most of the time I had earplugs in my ears. The rest of the time I wrapped noise-cancelling headphones around my skull and cycled through different white noise sounds. I found that the storm-related tracks worked best to block sudden noises, but they also gave me a headache at the necessary volume.

At times I asked others to be quiet. I isolated myself from humans for hours with no distractions–just me and Tristram Shandy. I thought for sure that by eliminating everything that might distract me from reading this book I’d finally be able to dig in.

I underlined sentences as I read. I sat a highlighter on my desk in case something jumped out at me. I tried different strategies–reading the notes separately, writing character-identifying descriptions in a notebook, drawing a map. I tried all of this on a full stomach and then on an empty stomach, with varying levels of caffeine and appropriately-prescribed drugs.

After hours upon hours of frustration trying to make it to the end of the first section, I turned to Google to make sense of the underlying plot. I read bits of Cliff Notes and Spark Notes for the first time in my life. Still, I remained baffled–did the people writing these summaries read the same text as I? I went back and made another attempt to start from the beginning with new context. But still, the words were just words. Meaningless words. Words drowning in voice.

So now I’m thinking about factors that could make a narrative text impossible for me. Not challenging, but impossible.

One thing is language. If a narrative is written in a language with which I am unfamiliar, I will be unable to follow the story. In this case, the language is English, but an old English with which I have little familiarity.

Another is digression. Obviously, that’s what this novel is all about. I typically love when authors play with time. I do not need linearity to digest a text! But in the case of Tristram Shandy, the digressions made me feel like I was playing a game, non-consensually. At times I felt berated by the text for wanting the narrator to get to the point. And I’m kind of sensitive! If a text contains a bunch of factors that alienate me as a reader, I go into self-preservation mode. It’s a thing I have to do in order to not feel stupid for understanding something challenging that others seem to get.

Basically, everything I just wrote can be reduced to “This novel is not adult ADHD-friendly.” The more I think about why, the angrier I get at myself and the novelist. I look forward to hearing what others have to say about this text in class discussion. Sort of.

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