Sunday, August 23, 2009

Infinite speculation

So at some point, about a week ago, I was ready to say this is an awesome book, this Infinite Jest, and while I spent much of the first couple hundred pages admiring it, I was also somewhat confused and not really relating to it.

But I'm done now. (I checked the Infinite Summer reading schedule at about that point and freaked out to find that I was a whole week behind, what with having forgone other reading in a concerted effort to catch up and stay the course, but then I realized I'd gotten my dates wrong and I was in fact a week ahead of schedule, by which point, being page 600+, I was kind of hooked and felt compelled to barrel through to the end.)

So but, right, I'm done now, and yup, awesome book.

To those of you who think it's an intimidating read (and it does have that reputation, and its imposing physical size adds to this perception) and demands a serious time commitment and intense mental focus I say, yeah, whatever. For me, well, I just don't have 3 weeks of uninterrupted time where I don't have to go to work and interact with my family and make sure the child is sufficiently clothed and fed and watch some dumb movie and have this dental implant procedure over and done with once and for all and shop for school supplies and hang out at the community pool and drink pisco sour on the balcony (not necessarily in that order). Because, life, you know; you gotta do those things. And as much as some nights I'd like to stay up and read till 4 in the morning, as engrossing as any book is, it's rare if my eyelids can stay propped open beyond midnight, and then well I'd still have to get up at 7(-ish) and my day would be totally fucked. So, if not now, when? I'm glad to read 3 pages on the way to work, and 3 more on the way home if there's room enough to hold open the hardcover without jabbing some stranger's shoulderblade, and maybe as many more with coffee after lunch on a slow day at work, with a few minutes to check the Infinite Summer forums to see how my impressions measure up against others' and maybe more importantly to check that I haven't missed the significance of some scenes (or missed a scene altogether) what with having to change metro lines, and it's worth lugging this heavy, heavy book around (though some days I did think it was stupid to do so when there's this other novel, a slim little paperback, I've been dying to read), but hey, I really did want to know what the hell was going to happen to Gately (et al). Two pages or 5 minutes at a go does not mean not being able to be immersed and attentive. It doesn't take time or space to give yourself over to something or take something out of it; it just takes now.

Bits of this book are very funny, and it's undeniably clever. The cleverness, with the vocabulary and the footnotes and the historical references and literary allusions, may rub some people the wrong way, as I think it did me the first time I picked the book up, like all it's about is David Foster Wallace writing look-at-me-I'm-so-clever. But at some point (no, I'm not sure what that point is) it dawned on me how desperately earnest it was; I don't know how he did it (how do you convey earnestness? can it be feigned?) — not plot, or even character, more like tapping into something essential about how the mind works with all its messy body and emotion — and you can't (shouldn't) fault something just for being (or even obviously trying to be) smart when that's just a byproduct of representing something real. Also, some bits are horrific. And on the whole, Infinite Jest is overwhelmingly sad.

It's about tennis and Quebec separatism and mass consumerism, but mostly it's about addiction and about being trapped inside your own head.

(People have been speculating about whether Infinite Jest will be read 100 years from now. It's already dated, very firmly grounded in the 1990s. And it's quite unique in being a world that's so now. I can't think of many big sprawling (re-)imagined worlds that weren't written with the perspective of hindsight. Maybe Dickens. But then there's this near-future element. Umm. What was I getting at? It's unique and rich, and people should (will) continue to read it. It's not my favourite book of all time, but it ranks high on the gut-wrenchingness scale.)

On the whole, I don't find this book to be very quotable, at least not in any meaningful kind of way. There are vast sections that could be held up independently for appreciation (like pages 157 through 169, particularly the bit about Brando — and I get the feeling DFW wholly embraced a kind of Stanislavski method of writing) but it's not easy to distill just a few sentences that embody the whole of the humour or the poignancy.

But if there's anything like a single point to this book, maybe this is it:

It is now lately sometimes seemed like a black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring that way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was kind, in a way.

How the novel ends is a bit of a puzzle, and I hope it's not a spoiler (avert your eyes now if you care) to say that, what with the fragmented chronology, the end is given to us at the very beginning. And once having reached the end in state of befuddlement, I had to start over again.

To those of you who've read the book and/or those who find my rambling on some level entertaining I address the following disjointed thoughts and questions:

Mario's first birth is described on page 312. What the hell does that mean? It's implied there is a second birth of the Incandenzas' second son. There is no "rebirth" of Mario later described. Or is it that Mario ("Booboo") was dismissed by the family, being so physically deformed as to not be a son at all, in which case the later-born Hal might be considered the real second son? But glimpses into their family life doesn't bear this out at all.

I love that a quarter of the bus was yellow-highlighting copies of Abbott's Flatland (p 281). That's a fascinating little work of dystopia, and I think here it's a nice little clue about how the ghost/wraith works, but also kind of allegorical, that there's always another dimension, or layer, or step, or goal, beyond this one, that realization on this plane, actualizing in the moment, is nothing when viewed from another angle.

Orin needs women "to fall so terribly in love with him they'd never be able want anyone else" (p 634). This need develops sometime after his break-up with Joelle, and it's akin to the power of Joelle's own beauty and the compulsion of the Entertainment. Did some one event trigger it? Death of his father, some realization about his mother, what?

What was the first emergency room incident Hal refers to (p 16) about? This would've taken place a year back, he says, about the time the novel leaves off. Plain old breakdown, or to do with Pemulis's stash? Does it matter? Is this when he meets Gately? Do he and Gately really dig up Himself's head, or is this something that happens metaphorically or on another plane of consciousness? Does it matter?

"I have become an infantophile" (p 16). I don't think that statement can be taken literally. But. Lover of infants. Hal stumbled on the men's meeting, and while I found this scene uncomfortable (as did Hal) and didn't much see the point of it except for Hal's continuing circling around his addiction problem, I now see it as pivotal. This is the thing that makes him start to regress. This is where he starts to get inside Himself's head. (And that's where the Entertainment is, inside Himself's head, whether literally or metaphorically. He killed himself to destroy the master copy.)

In the Year of Glad, Hal has become what he'd feared (p 694):

Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he's really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

In the end (the novel's beginning), Hal becomes human.

He thinks of the Grief-Therapist ("Something smells delicious."), the Moms, the soups over the microwave. What if Hal ate Himself's head? (I mean metaphorically, I suppose.) At least, it's something he wanted to do (but couldn't let himself do?).

"Call it something I ate." Metaphorically this is exactly what he did when he came home from the men's meeting and immersed himself in viewing all his dad's cartridges.

This is Hal finally grieving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Did you notice also the descriptions of Infinite Jest (the film)-- that they consist of a mother figure as death (Joelle) repeating over and over again that "it's okay." Filmed with a special lens meant to mimic the eyesight of a newborn?

Infantilism is a topic that crops up frequently in DFW's work, with a particularly nice example being the famous cruise ship essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing..."