Like most serious readers, I experience periods when I'm unable to read anything. Nothing seems satisfactory. I'll pick up a book I've loved for years and the words will lie lifeless on the page. Not Beckett, not Chekhov, not even Nabokov's greatest invention, the intoxicating voice of Humbert Humbert, can trick me deviously into enjoyment. I seem to have lost all my readerly mirth, and even the fire-fangled fronds of Stevens's summer palms refuse to dangle down. Days like these, my swirling thoughts settle on the idea that I'm simply asking too much of fiction, of mere words arranged by the merest mortals. Why should a perfectly tuned sentence be expected to come as powerfully as a climaxing lover? Why should an enveloping image not satisfy unless its light is so brilliant it overpowers the sun by which we read? The doubts come unbidden and circle like melancholy birds that in evening's dying light glide downward to the realization that asking too much is exactly and entirely the point.
We should always ask too much of art. Unless we ask too much, we are not asking enough. Unless we hold art to the highest possible standards, we will eventually find ourselves eating shit and calling it caviar.
All I ask of a novel is that it blow my mind and alter my perception of the world. That's all. And I do not consider that too much to ask of a novel by a living American writer. Franzen and Chabon and Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz don't do it for me (although I like Chabon a lot, and respect Franzen), but Gravity's Rainbow and Blood Meridian and William Vollmann's The Atlas and Annie Proulx's Close Range and even Infinite Jest do exactly that. Yes, even Infinite Jest, about which I have major reservations and which coincidentally concerns itself with exactly these topics of enjoyment and anhedonia.
There's something else, too, that I'm looking for when I read: a creative originality that doesn't limit itself to content and form but reaches down to the level of the sentence and the word. Bullet my brain with a metaphor; sing me a sentence that sounds like a song. More than anything else, show me something I haven't read before. Not necessarily some surreal invention or outlandish transgression or excremental abjection--which have all been done to death, actually, and have been old hat since Bataille, older than Bataille's poop-smeared hat. All a writer really has to do is show me a shower head in a way that makes me feel I've never looked at a shower head before. Describe a human eye in a way that makes me see eyes differently for the rest of my life. That's what I want to read, a book that impresses me the way Ulysses impressed me on my second and third readings two decades ago, that impresses me like Proust, like Beethoven, like Picasso and Cezanne, like the ceiling of St. Ignazio di Loyola on a rainy day in Rome or the infinite inventions of Borges the Unblind, like the slow dying of the light at sunset over the Great Plains, like making love. That's the book I'm looking for, jonesing for. That's what I need to read.