Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The big joke

Nobody told me.

Nobody told me the road to the cottage was impassable, that we'd have to park a ways off, transfer our baggage to the sled, that we'd have to skidoo the rest of the way, over a lake. ("Just like the eskimos, in the old days.") I'd've dressed differently, dressed the girl warmer; in an instant, or rather in the 30-odd-minute skidoo ride across a lake not sheltered from wind, I've undone all the recent days of keeping the girl home to get her fully healthy, to finally get rid of that pesky cold once and for all. I'd've packed differently, more compactly; I'd've spent a few more minutes to dig out a larger dufflebag instead of stuffing Helena's jigsaw puzzle and her board game into a plastic shopping bag at the last minute. Nobody told me about crossing the lake, about the consoling physics of the thing, that, though the sight of puddles unnerved me, though they were evidence of last week's rain and a bit of surface melt, they topped at least 4 feet of ice. But perhaps it's for the best that nobody told me about some of these things. (Please, nobody tell my mother.)

Really, I would've packed differently. I wouldn't've brought my hardcover copy of Infinite Jest, for example. I'd planned that as my reading material for some time already; how perfect it was for a weekend in a shack in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and I'd joked:

1. I wouldn't run out of reading material.
2. I'd be forced to just read it already, having no alternate reading material.
3. I could use the pages for extra insulation between layers of clothing.
4. Page after read page could feed the fire in times of necessity.
5. I'd like to hurl it across a room. In times of cabin fever, it would be a sure conversation starter, or stopper, as appropriate.
6. If one kind of cabin fever led to another, it would serve as a perfect murder weapon.

As we skidooed across the puddled, if allegedly thoroughly frozen, lake, I considered climbing over into the sled, retrieving it from its last-minute what-do-you-mean-we-park-the-vehicle-here plastic bag and throwing it overboard to lighten our load.

Nobody told me that we'd all be sharing one cottage, instead of spreading out over two, as is our usual summer habit. It makes sense, of course. One of them was fairly locked up for the winter; only one cottage to run, one generator (just like the eskimos use), one wood stove to tend. Closer, warmer quarters. But nobody told me. No television, no radio, even no internet — these I can do without. But no separate corners to retreat to. No stack of old National Geographics to turn to in desperation as entertainment fodder for the child. And no privacy for lovers.

My idea of winter activities involves bottles of wine, books, blankets. On occasion I look forward to conversation. And jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles have something festive about them, an indoor activity that engages a team spirit when conversation fails to enthrall.

I'd imagined gentle walks this weekend, dragging Helena about on her sled, building a snow fort. Not all that different from our time in the city, actually.

But here we drove hours north in a gas-guzzling vehicle, to be with nature, like the eskimos, enjoying the roar of the generator, the stench of skidoo fuel, our god-given right to figuratively piss in the woods; to be put off by the fact that it's snowing and too cold to spend much time outside, other than a quick, indulgent skidoo zip down the trail and back again; to stay in, and try to get warm, then keep warm.

I'm struck (as were the characters in The Goldbug Variations) just how much energy is devoted to bare maintenance. Meal preparation and clean-up stretch on forever. There's not even much time for reading.

To be honest, Infinite Jest is not all the reading material I had on hand. As departure time neared, I was within a few dozen pages of the end of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and nothing — but nothing! — could've persuaded me to abandon it and forget it for even a mere 3 days. Of course I brought it with me, and finished it and cried. J-F brought my review copy of Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird, which he was already well into (and which he may review for me).

So at the end of that first day, I'm left with that big joke of a book, Infinite Jest.

I've had a copy for about a year now, and I've been meaning to read it, see what all the fuss is about, for longer still. I'm on page 74; that is, I've barely opened it.

Part of me wants to hate this book, I'm not sure why. Part of me is succeeding. Some bits are kind of funny, some bits are kind of clever. I especially liked the scene where he's sitting around waiting for this woman to come with his drugs. I like the idea of the footnotes, but they seem to be put to inconsistent use, sometimes being more scientific or academic and other times used to editorialize; the blend doesn't sit comfortably with me. I'm a bit put off by the references to Quebec politics; having relatively recently become a resident I feel like I'm being put on the defensive (though at this point I know neither how it will figure in the plot nor what commentary if any is being made on Quebec society), but I'm intrigued that this part of the world and its history should figure at all in an American novel. I'm especially peeved by the narrator's "like" tic ("there were like a dozen..."), which thus far doesn't seem to contribute much by way of tone or voice or whatever literary attribute you'd like to call it.

Mostly, it bores me.

Maybe I'm not ready for it after all. But if not now, when? I feel committed now; I've started, I'll finish. (I should say I'm a David Foster Wallace virgin, apart from, I now realize, his article on English usage in Harper's, which I'd read when it came out, loved, and saved.) I'm loathe to put it off any longer, but it's not gripping me.

Maybe I'll never get the big joke. Maybe that's the joke.


marydell said...

"I'm struck (as were the characters in The Goldbug Variations) just how much energy is devoted to bare maintenance. Meal preparation and clean-up stretch on forever. There's not even much time for reading."

When I first moved to my cabin in the woods, the city-dweller in me imagined a simpler, less complicated life. I was so wrong.

Forced to leave my job because the commute proved too exhausting, I haven't worked in months. Economy has caused me to do backwoods things like rely heavily on the wood stove for heat, and now I know why the furnace was invented. Hauling, cutting, and splitting firewood; ensuring proper seasoning and storage; and tending a fire are more than full time jobs.

I am more tired now than when my commute was 6 hours each day, and I am determined to find a job so I can rest from all this work.

cipriano said...

Some of the new fictions that are out there may be as THICK as the ice you were traversing across [I am referring to the Wallace brick] but about as substantial as the same ice in early May.
What a great blog you have written here, Isabella.
I hear it and feel it, complete with the smell of ski-doo exhaust.