"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Monday, July 8, 2013

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

It's not easy to separate a thing from its hype, from its physical and cultural packaging. Pour cheap wine into a fancy bottle and slap on a hefty price tag? Sommeliers swoon. Switch the labels on Pepsi and Coke? Even experts can't tell the difference. Tell an art critic that some scribbles by an orangutan are the work of an up-and-coming abstract painter? She'll praise the sophistication of the line work.

The above makes some people uneasy. They think it means that we're all shallow liars, eager to impress or fit in. But to me it only means that our sensory and aesthetic experiences are more broad than we imagine. We are actually tasting the label on a bottle of wine and the story of its cultivation as much as we are tasting its ingredients. When we drink a Coca-Cola, part of that taste--not just the experience of drinking it, but also the actual taste--comes from a hundred years of advertising and Americana.  Our appreciation of a work of art is informed by the story of Art, and the story of particular artists.

Which is all to say that it's hard to know when this book, which is sometimes too long and occasionally kind of a mess, is genuinely great, and when as a reader I'm only sort of projecting greatness onto it through the filter of its (and its author's) cultural status.

Well, who cares? "Authenticity" is a red herring. There are no bad reasons for enjoying something. And I really, really enjoyed this book. As in, really really. As in, reference-to-the-title-of-this-blog enjoyed it.

The plot of the novel, so much as it has one, is made up of three largely separate threads:
  1. The Enfield Tennis Academy, an ultra-elite school/camp that prepares tennis prodigies for The Show (professional play). ETA was founded by James O. Incandenza, ex-optics-expert-and-avant-garde-filmmaker whose children, esp the middle child Hal, constitute the narrative focus of these sections. 
  2. The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, a halfway house in Boston. The newly-recovering live-in staff-member Don Gately and the veiled Joelle van Dyne anchor these sections. 
  3. Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a wheel-chaired Quebecois separatist/terrorist group, who are searching for a copy of Infinite Jest (aka "The Entertainment," or the samidzat), a fatal art film by J.O. Incandenza which is so entertaining that it turns viewers brains to a kind of mush as they watch it repeatedly to the exclusion of other activities. 
Chronology is divided into "Subsidized Time," which is exactly what it sounds like (e.g., The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar, etc), and seems to me mostly a clever way for DFW to keep the story feeling both vaguely contemporary and a-historical.

The events take place in a combined superstate of America, Mexico and Canada called the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. While reading, I wrote off the name as a gag, and a sort of childish one, but now I'm realizing that it may be more important than I had noticed from the weeds, that there is something masturbatory not just about the at-least-semi-self-indulgent book itself, but also about the characters, who are moved by strong emotional forces that simulate connection but who are ultimately isolated, and about the world too, which is built on a foundation of pleasure and rote style without substance.

The book is big. 1079 pages. Tall and extremely dense pages. Paragraphs and even sentences that go on for pages without break. Medical, mechanical, mathematical jargon. 92 pages of endnotes, some of which are as long as a serious short story.

And its difficult. Or difficult-ish, anyway.

Reading IJ is like training for a marathon; its a lifestyle choice. And some significant part of the experience is contained in its size and in its difficulty. While it would probably be fairly easy to curate the course of a marathon to include only the best and most beautiful and most interesting stretches, doing so kind of defeats the purpose. You want not only to run the marathon, you want to have run it, you want to be a person who is capable of running it. IJ is like that at least a little bit. Part of the reason people read this book is to prove to themselves that they could, and to become the kind of person who has read it.

But so, the content.

It's a book about addiction and recovery, as you would guess. It's a book about entertainment, and parents and their children, and greatness and mediocrity. It's about the things to which we devote ourselves. And in a big way it's about loneliness. Not just because so many characters are depressed, attempt or commit (or just imagine) suicide. There's something lonely about its zany structure, too. It's a book about existing in a busy, exciting, at times overwhelming sensory experience, surrounded by the sounds and images of people, and feeling alone. And though the stories are intertwined in lateral, out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye ways, and though they gain momentum in the final third and seem to be moving towards a convergence... they never actually meet in the middle. The book ends abruptly, a blank spot on the map where the roads ought to make an intersection.

Something else worth saying about its structure: for all its gimmicks and winking, the book is actually fairly friendly for long stretches at a time. Most of the times when I found myself frustrated and ready to skim, a new section would begin that I couldn't help but read. And the best sections of this book are some of the best literature I've ever read, full stop. Perfectly crafted on the sentence-level and dripping with charity and understanding towards others.

I'll read this again, 4 sure.
I don't know if it's worth saying anything about the Writer. The autobiographical elements of the novel are all over the place (drug addiction, tennis, etymology, genius, depression, suicide). But its hard to know where the appropriate or helpful line is there. So, let's do two things. First, it's worth mentioning the Writer if just in regards to the creation of the thing, how impressive it is, not just for its size but also for its power and vivacity and ambition. There's no understating the energy and time and obsession and love required to make a thing like this. It's humbling and inspiring and sort of gives you a good feeling about what humans can do in the way that only serious art and lit can.

Second, here's a line from a poem Mary Karr,--memoirist, poet, and one-time-girlfriend of DFW--wrote a year after his suicide:
"I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
           your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in,
     each set of lungs, those rosy implanted wings, pink balloons.
          We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain."

Also: I like making graphs, so here's a little behind-the-scenes magic for the superfans.

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