Sunday, July 5, 2009

Infinite Jest : Book-in-Progress Review

And the test begins now-owowowowow
-"Fight Test," The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

: I'm going to finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest before the summer is out.

Important information to know:

Infinite Jest
= 1,079 pages; 388 footnotes; non-linear narrative; more characters than you can count on fingers/toes/skin cells; page-long paragraphs often comprised of one sentence; allusions and abbreviations; and 50 cent words aplenty. (do you know what "scrofulous" means? I didn't.)

Before the summer is out = before the (possibly literal) mound of reading for three literature classes descends upon my desk, acting as a solemn funeral pyre of whatever free time to which I'd become accustomed.

I decided to read DFW's IJ on a well-informed whim. That is, if well-informed can mean "trustworthy-word-of-mouth."
I hadn't even heard of David Foster Wallace until this past year. A good friend and budding DFW fan would continually bring up in conversations some revelatory point the great DFW had made in one of his essays. I'd smile, nod, figure the guy had some good stuff to say/write if this friend kept citing him. Later, this same friend informed me of DFW's death--a fact that saddens me more and more as I progress through IJ.

Many thanks rightfully belong to the lovely people of
The Morning News (one of my favorite websites) for getting me on the IJ bandwagon. The Morning News is sponsoring what I think is the biggest book club ever--Infinite Summer. The idea is to read IJ from June 21 through September 21, endnotes and all. The on-going commentary on the novel by the fearless leaders, forum discussions, and diehard community of bibliophiles at I-S are illuminating, highly entertaining, and encouraging. Someone else is out there struggling through the Maranthe/Shapely dialogues besides yrstruly.

I survived a Victorian Lit course last semester (over twice the number of pages of IJ in the same amount of time), so the length does not frighten me. Also, I lack the reasonable anxiety that I am wasting-time-by-not-reading-something-less-pretentious (?)-and-therefore-enjoyable. It's not simply Hakuna Matata--I trust TMN (more implicitly than I ought).
TMN taught me how to dress a man well , broadened my musical interests (with 6 word reviews of ALL 1,302 songs from the 2009 SXSW Music Festival's website), and has made me laugh so rambunctiously as to cause concern to those within earshot.

TMN all nice and plugged, I believe that the time spent puzzling over this door-stop-sized novel will be well worth it.

This is a "book-in-progress review" because, at 258 pages into IJ, I'm still not sure exactly what the novel is about (if you really want to know about/spoil the novel, you know where to go). The back of the book blurb tells me IJ
"explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to dominate our lives, about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people, and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are."

It goes on to say that IJ is "equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy."

The quest may be more literal than philosophical to the reader as they follow multiple characters (including protagonist Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Massachussetts) through threads of complex, non-linear storytelling. Hurrah postmodernism, even if DFW does not label himself as a postmodernist!
The reader has to hold tight during the first 100 pages or so while multiple characters are being introduced in a parade of (freaking great) short stories, but
eventually everyone connects up with someone else.
The novel could easily become frustrating if DFW's unexplained characters, abbreviations, Boston slang, and essay-length endnotes feel like teasing rather than a grand literary scavenger hunt. Compared to linear novels (which have comprised the bulk of my reading up until now), DFW invests tremendous confidence in the reader's ability to set up a corkboard in their cranium and piece the plot all together with yarn and newspaper clippings, a la Russell Crowe's shed in A Beautiful Mind sans schizophrenia. There is such a wonderful intellectual pleasure that comes from sinking another tack in that board, having questions answered, feeling DFW winking from somewhere beyond the page as he throws another unknown at me. I've heard that IJ becomes more and more wonderful with multiple reads since the reader understands more about the first pages of the novel after finishing it.

I'm finding it helpful to keep a journal for my questions/associations/epiphanies/funny quotes. Especially for the latter, because even in the most heart-rending descriptions of drug addiction
(one facet of entertainment that receives a great deal of focus in the novel--I have learned more about illegal substances than I ever thought I'd know), DFW's descriptions bring little sparks of comedic light to a dark, dark page.
For instance, there is a scene where a new setting is being described, a military hospital area (near the tennis academy) that among other buildings has a center for Alzheimer's patients and as well as a recovery house for people who've been addicted to "Substances." In the Alzheimer's building, a woman habitually sits at an open second story window and yells "Help" from the window. One day, courtesy of some of the irritatedly ironic folks at the Recovery House, a large HELP WANTED sign appears beneath the woman's window. No one fesses up when the authorities become (appropriately) livid.

There are also intrigues with Canadian terrorist groups (The Wheelchair Assassins. YES.), the existence of Subsidized time (years now go by such titles as The Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken to bring in increased revenue for the government), grand allusions to film theory and famous directors, prescriptive grammar and the OED.

In other words, Infinite Jest is a chilly delicious treat for those who enjoy the occasional comedic-intellectual brain-bending ridiculously-long novel.

Sounds perfect for summer.

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