Infinite Summer has wrapped up, and I am still reading Infinite Jest. In fact, I’m only about halfway through (currently on page 550, by rough estimate ). But I’m still counting it as a victory, because Infinite Jest had been on my list for a long time, and I’m now too far in to back out. It’ll take a while to finish it up, but my first experiment with an internet-based reading project has been a very positive experience. I’ve met some cool people, learned a lot about DFW, and made my way half-way through a crazy, thought-provoking novel.
I’ll blog more observations about the novel as I make my way through it, though I’m more concerned, now, with simply reading it.
Meanwhile, Infinite Summer has launched a follow-up reading project focusing on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Coincidentally, I have been reading that novel along with Infinite Jest. It is one of the novels that comes with Classics app, and I found myself reading when I didn’t have my copy of Infinite Jest around, both because I like vampire stories (in film, at least) and because I’d never read it before and felt a little guilty about it. So I could jump on that bandwagon, but I’ll probably just eschew the deadlines and continue to read them both at my own pace. Dracula is light fare compared to Infinite Jest, and can be a nice respite from it, at least when Stoker’s occasionally ham-fisted prose and tin ear for dialect doesn’t get in the way of his storytelling.
Being as I’m still in the thick of it, I can’t offer a resounding pronouncement on the novel itself. All I can say is that I continue to enjoy it. And I’ve enjoyed chatting with you about it.
1. I found lugging the book around was an impediment to my actually reading it, so I bought the Kindle version for my iPod touch. The Kindle app doesn’t give you page numbers, it gives you a “location” value which is, for reasons I still can’t determine, expressed as a range (I am, currently, at “Location 12515-12523″). Triangulating with the paper copy, I found that multiplying that first number by 0.044 makes for a pretty accurate estimate of the page number in my paperback copy.
David Foster Wallace’s fascination in Infinite Jest with the grotesque is hard not to notice. To be fair, it might or might not be DFW’s own personal fascination, but it is certainly fascinating to many of the novel’s narrators. (I’m still a little perplexed about how many narrators there are in this novel, as the third-person narrator seems to speak in many voices. And I suspect I’ll have to finish the novel before I can make any real conclusions about that feature.)
“The Grotesque” is a term I heard kicked around in grad school (especially in the phrase “the Southern grotesque”), but, other than being able to pick out more more obvious examples in Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s work–which is especially easy in O’Connor, as almost every character qualifies–it wasn’t something that I ever learned much about.
So, why not let’s go fishing? I’m no expert, but I am lucky enough to have access to JSTOR. The first stop on our journey is Geoffrey Harpham’s “The Grotesque: First Principles,” where he maintains that “The grotesque is the slipperiest of aesthetic categories” (461). After a brief overview of the history of the term, originating in the study of art before being applied to literature, he judges it one particularly susceptible to change over time and from one writer to another:
All of this implies that, in approaching a definition of the grotesque, we should not always take etymological consistency for conceptual accuracy; the definition of the concept, almost as fluid as that of beauty, is good for one era–even one man–at a time. (461)
Some of DFW’s uses of the concept are fairly traditional: characters are estranged from us and, in some cases, from the rest of the world through some physical deformity or exaggeration, often described in animalistic terms. Mario immediately comes to mind. Some writers use outward deformity–rather heartlessly–as a sign of a similarly twisted inner nature. Others turn that idea on its head and use it, as DFW does with Mario, as a maker of inner beauty. DFW extends the concept a bit further in his characterization of Joelle dan Dyne, a woman so beautiful she must wear a mask and disguise her perfect form in order to make social interactions with other people possible. She, too, is a grotesque, as far from the norm in one direction as Mario is in the other, and, to the uninitiated, producing as estranging an effect.
But what’s the function? I’m still thinking that one over. Harpham mentions, among other things, the grotesque as a way of marking estrangement from a more-or-less realistic world. If Infinite Jest were purely absurd, entirely divorced from our day-to-day experience, the grotesque wouldn’t be felt, as it requires a distance from some norm. But Infinite Jest is not absurd. It has absurdist elements, to be sure, and DFW plays these for laughs, but they’re only funny because of their distance from the mundane events that are commonplace in the novel.
Grotesque features need not be physical; they can be psychological, ethical, perhaps spiritual. Think of the characters in David Lynch’s movies. (DFW was a fan of Lynch and wrote an essay on one of his films.) The settings and the characters often have a surface of normalcy, almost mundaneness, that masks deeply weird inner lives and behind-closed-door proclivities. Lynch likes to dramatize the luridness lurking beneath, perhaps, in part, produced by, the calm, rational surface.
Perhaps something similar is at work in Infinite Jest. Wallace’s characters, considered by clique, are not unusual. They’re mostly addicts and athletes, often both. But each of the major characters has his or her own deeply personal and, often, deeply alienating inner life. Not only is the landscape populated with grotesques, it is peopled with characters who experience themselves as grotesques, driven by deep obsessions and compulsions, idiosyncratic to a fault, alienated from real connection with others.
The few times that anyone has asked me what the novel I’ve been lugging around for nearly six weeks is about, I’m always tempted to say “it’s about 1,100 pages long,” or, “it’s about tennis,” or “it’s about addiction.” But I think the true answer is this: it’s about loneliness. And I think DFW’s use of the grotesque one more tool in his box for bringing that point home.
Harpham, Geoffrey. “The Grotesque: First Principles.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 461-468.
For a long while now, it’s been my contention that whether you like or dislike a novel is about the least interesting thing you can say about it. The same goes for arguing about which books are or are not “great literature” (1). Every book has something to say, and possibly an interesting way of saying it. Focusing on these things is where the fun is, and it is where reasonable people have room for disagreement.
There are many heavy-hitters of the literary canon that I’ve read but didn’t particularly enjoy reading. Joyce’s Ulysses and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment come immediately to mind. Those works don’t speak directly to me, and I didn’t dig deep enough to find a connection with them. I may revisit them at some point in the future, or I may not. But I’m convinced that I’m better off for having read them, even if they’re never likely to be favorites of mine (2).
The fact that I’m not a fan of either work isn’t a fault of either author. Both novels are classics–required reading for people who take literature seriousy. Both authors have other works I have sincerely enjoyed (e.g. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground; Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). My experience with reading them simply underscores the fact that what anyone in particular happens to like doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion. I also like Dr. Pepper, sushi, mandarin oranges, and chicken-fried steak. But, unless you’re taking me out to a very odd dinner, it’s not really of much interest, is it?
I’ve bailed on a good many literary works, too. And some of them, regardless of what good might or might not be mined from them, I’ll never revisit. As a professor I had in college once said, “By this point in my life, if there’s anything I’m still missing about, say, DeFoe, I’m content to miss it.” We probably all feel that way about certain authors or at least about certain works (Paradise Lost comes to mind).
A certain amount of the complaining, over at Infinite Summer, about the length, heft, and complexity of Infinite Jest, serves, a similar function to the locker-room post-match sessions in Infinite Jest: it’s just a release valve for the pent-up frustrations of a difficult but useful task. It also gives cover for those considering ditching the project entirely. And that’s sad, really, because it strikes me as the sort of book that really is worth the effort.
I run into this sort of attitude a lot when I’m teaching. Some students complain that some modernist novel or poem is convoluted. They want everything to be direct and not to have to do any work–or, at least, not much work–to figure things out. They want answers, not puzzles. Cognitive dissonance gives them the howling fantods.
Since they are, mostly, unfamiliar with how long realism held sway, they have a hard time understanding why novelists get bored with what has gone before and try to find new ways to say things. In short, they don’t often appreciate technique, much less how a particular technique might lend itself to a particular theme (rather than just being all for show). They’re accustomed, to the extent that they’re accustomed to reading at all, to reading for plot and for “entertainment,” in the lowest-common-denominator sense of the term (3). Unfortunately for them, quite a lot of literature, at least after realism, requires just this sort of jumping in at the deep end of the pool and hoping you can swim your way back out. It’s not surprising that not everyone finds that prospect entertaining; but some of us do.
Or, as DFW put it–in a Salon interview about teaching that I read after I penned the previous paragraphs–and much more succinctly and casually than I am, evidently, capable: “To watch these kids realize that reading literary stuff is sometimes hard work, but it’s sometimes worth it and that reading literary stuff can give you things that you can’t get otherwise, to see them wake up to that is extremely cool.”
That sums it up pretty well, I think: sometimes hard and sometimes worth it. I just happen to think this is one of those times, at least for me. And, honestly, this is cake compared to Ulysses, if only because DFW and I were both born in the same country and in the same century.
The self-selecting crew of people participating in the Infinite Summer project is much larger and much more varied than any group of students in a literature class. It’s a wide spectrum of people with a wide range of motivations and a wide range of familiarity with literature in general and DFW’s work in particular. I don’t know how many were signed onto the project at the beginning (there’s no official tally), nor how many remain. Attrition is a factor in any project of this sort. Some people simply aren’t going to have the time for it. Others will find that the book simply isn’t what they expected and will lose motivation for it. This would happen no matter what we were reading. Even though DFW’s bona fides as a literary genius are well established, not everyone will have the time or motivation to make it to the finish line (4).
I might not either, for that matter, at least not until all the bleachers have been folded up and the street sweepers have finished cleaning up the confetti. At the rate I’m going, I might make it there before Christmas. As with most projects, I overestimated the time I’d have to devote to this one. But I’m content to keep on limping toward the goal. Because, even though there are certainly some tedious parts of Infinite Jest, it’s still holding my interest, and I still feel like it’s worth my time. And I don’t anticipate changing my mind about that.
So I’m going to post this and then get to reading, because I’m way behind, and the water is deeper than it looked when I first jumped in (5).
1. Discussions of this sort are entirely contingent on whose definition of “literature” and whose definition of “great” has jurisdiction. And it doesn’t take too many counterexamples to find that there’s no definition of either which has 1) stood the test of time or 2) ever been shown to be applicable to enough works to be useful without, at the same time, leaving out plenty that any reasonable person would want to include.
2. I am a believer in the probably psychologically and philosophically naive notion that reading is good for you. And, given the time I’ve devoted to it in my life, I have a vested interest in believing that reading challenging works is better for you than reading whatever is on sale at the supermarket this week. Call it elitism if you like. That doesn’t mean that all great literature must be, by definition, challenging to read.
3. For a good and very accessible discussion of entertainment in literature, check out Michael Chabon’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005. Chabon has his cake and eats it too, defending entertainment as a concept but also pointing out that sometimes it takes something a little more complicated to entertain people.
The second round of paper grading in my American Lit. II class put me way behind on the Infinite Summer project. But I’m catching up, just now passing the milestone for 7/13 (page 242). It will take some time to catch up with the pack, but I’ll get there.
The nice thing about being behind is I don’t have to worry about spoilers, but I also have had to avoid reading posts here and at the mothership for fear of the same. So it’s a decidedly mixed blessing.
But, to the text. I found the Madame Psychosis chapter (starts at the bottom of 181) a blend of really interesting and really tedious. This was really the first section of the book where I wondered if DFW was maybe trying just a little too hard. I found it hard, no so much for the description of Madame Psychosis’ show itself or for the audience’s weird fascination with it as for the architecture of the building it is broadcast from, the MIT Student Union, which is a head with one dangling eyeball and topped with an exposed brain. DFW has a lot of fun making the arrangements of buildings (e.g. the ETA campus) and towns (e.g. Enfield, MA) fit into plans borrowed metaphorically from the human body. I haven’t decided what to make of that, yet. I’m suspecting they’re part of an overarching metaphor of some sort, but they may just be a visual metaphor for holding things together. We’ll see.
It’s worth the trip though, as the scene that starts on 193 and continues on 200 gives us an extended and valuable look at the “Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic],” where we meet and learn more about several of the characters who have been introduced in previous chapters and scenes. Don Gately is here, and is considerably more complex than our first glance at him, a long while back. Tiny Ewell is here, as are Kate Gompert and Bruce Green. This was the point of conversion that I had hoped for in all the disparate tales that are the opening chapters. So the novel starts to come together a bit for me here.
Even better, the narrator of the scene that starts on page 200 lays down some wonderful nuggets of wisdom, or as the narrator labels them “exotic new facts” (200), including these:
“That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that” (201).
“That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them” (203)
“That concentrating on anything is very hard work” (203).
These can sound a little trite, ripped from their context, but they’re wonderful in context, and they are a wondeful blend of obvious, profound, sad, serious, and, occasionally, side-splittingly funny.
[The spoiler line is currently page 168.]
Scribbled down on the back of my Infinite Summer Bookmark: “Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith” (107). These words are from a conversation between Marathe and Steeply. Marathe has been expressing his frustration with Steeply’s real or pretended ignorance about history–literary and otherwise–and etymology. Steeply, in turn, is amused that Marathe is about to launch into what must be one of his pet lecture topics. Despite Steeply’s derision, Marathe is insistant, “Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No?” (107). Marathe has, up the same page a bit, defined love as attachment.
When I read this passage, it resonated thematically with an earlier conversation between Mario and Schtitt (and, really, an unnamed narrator, who bursts in on page 82 and takes on the expository role that he finds Mario incapable of), where Schtitt, commenting on the modern idea of happiness as “The happy pleasure of the person alone, yes?” (83). He continues “Without there is something bigger. Nothing to contain and give the meaning. Lonely. Verstiegenheit” (83).
DFW glosses the foreign word, in note 36, as “Low-Bavarian for something like ‘wandering alone in a blasted disorienting territory beyond all charted limits and orienting markers,’ supposedly.” The Walace Wiki glosses it as “litterally German for ‘eccentricity’.”
It’s clear enough from just the opening pages that subjectivity is going to be one of Wallace’s concerns in Infinite Jest. And I’ve often heard that, along with it, loneliness is as well. This makes sense, as “post-post-” modern life, despite all of the ubiquetious technologies we design to faciliate interaction, of which this post is part and parcel, can feel fairly isolated. I’m typing this and you’re reading it. We’ve likely never met and likely never will. Yet, on a certain lexical level, you and I might know more about one another than I and plenty of other people I’ve met in the “real wold” do. Still, sitting on opposite ends of this node, the connection certainly feels a lot less real, doesn’t it? In fact it is not unlike the real-yet-not-real conversation authors and readers have had as long as there have been authors and readers, separated in time and space (essentially, since the birth of writing itself).
Marathe, a fanatic, a devotee of a cause larger than himself, is caught in a bind between the love of the cause he believes in, and his love of his sick wife. We don’t know, at this point in the novel, which one he will be willing to sacrafice for the other.
Schtitt and Marathe agree that individualism is a problem and attachment is the solution. Marathe defines the thing deserving of such devotion as that for which one would die without a second though, or, in his sometimes pidgin English, “without, as you say, the thinking twice” (107). Schtitt seems more ambivalent about it. His concluding comment to Mario is “Any something. The what: this is more unimportant than that there is something” (83). And, though the syntax of that line is certainly open to interpretation, I think the point is that having something larger than the self in which to believe is more important than the real existence of that chosen thing.
How this argument grows and shakes out will be interresting to see, as there are fairly obvious dangers both to Marathe’s fanaticism and Schtitt’s pragmatic nihilism. I’m just curious at this point; I’m not entirely sure where DFW will (or would) pitch his weight.
In th readings for the second milestone (63-94), we learn, in a fairly straightforward fashion, a lot of backstory pertaining to Hal’s father, Dr James Orin Incandenza, as well as some details about Hal’s grandfather.
Structurally, the details of Dr. Incandenza’s filmic output reveal many details about his own troubled life and, especially, his troubled relationship with his wife and, to a lesser extent, his son Hal. Also notable, as I’ve been told to watch out for Hamlet references (and as I am something of a Hamlet freak), is that the production company for many of the films, especially the later ones, is “Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited” (990), which is, of course, a reference to the court jester whose skull Hamlet famously addresses in the speech from which Infinite Jest takes its title–a speech, not inconsequentially, about death and the purpose of life, given the fact of it.
Pages 68-78 comprise an interesting chapter about a Katherine Ann “Kate” Gompert, an attempted suicide now confined in the psych wing of some hospital. The cause of her attempt seems to be a combination of depression and pot withdrawal. We see the chapter in limited omniscient (or maybe free-indirect?) POV from her doctor’s perspective. It’s a really great scene, as we get inside the head of the doctor (actually a resident) trying very hard to keep the clinically correct outward emotional affect, even as he seems to also become genuinely concerned (and maybe a little out of his depth) during this consultation. So, here, the communication theme appears again. There seem to be moments of genuine understanding here, when the doctor goes off script and Kate reaches out, attempting to be understood. I’m not sure the doctor ever gets named. Kate, mentions another doctor, Dr. Garton (a previous shrink?).
We get a really good chapter introducing Gerhardt Schtitt and his relationship with Mario Incandenza (79-85). I like this one for a lot of reasons. First off, it’s one of the few places so far where DFW gets overtly philosophical, admiring–while also admitting the possible issues with–Schtitt’s pro-fascist upbringing (82), as it creates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, something DFW thinks is sorely missing from modern life (and that Schtitt thinks is missing from American life). It also lets him philosophize more about tennis as a battle not between player and player or even player and objective rules but one between player and self. Stylistically, it’s great because DFW switches, abruptly, from a free indirect POV (hovering in and out of both characters minds) to direct authorial intrusion (e.g. “This should not be rendered in exposition like this, but Mario Incandenza as a severely limited range of verbatim recall” ).
We also get into the really fascinating and strange chapter about Marathe, a wheelchair bound Quebecois separatist and member of an elite group of similarly injured assassins. The origins of the injury itself are explained in detail in perhaps the longest footnote so far (Note 39, which leads to note 304, which tells the story of James Albrecht Lockley Struck, Jr. as he is plagiarizing an essay on Marathe’s group of assassins and the Quebecois separatists in general. The story is eight pages long with several footnotes on it as well).
The tape (which Steeply calls “the entertainment”) which we now know has killed–or, at least, frozen, Medusa-style–the medical attache, his wife, and many others who entered the room and inadvertently looked at it, is mentioned. Steeply wants to know if Marathe’s crew had anything to do with it, which he denies. They speculate that it might have been personally motivated, which leads me to suspect that it might have been James Incandenza’s work, an effort to get even with the medical attache for sleeping with his wife. But we’ll see. It gets a little confusing there.
I have to admit, pulling my thoughts together in order to create a decent first blog post about Infinite Jest has been harder than I had anticipated. I’ve been beneffitting greatly from Daryl‘s observations and some of the posts and comments over at the mothership. But, in a way, the wealth of good and informative posts only makes things harder, as anything I might be clever enough to say has likely already been said, and more cleverly.
I’ve found myself taking more than the usual amount of notes for this thing. And I’ve been trying to stay ahead of the the reading schedule, both because I know that I’ll sooner-or-later fall behind (likely right after the students in my summer class turns in their second round of papers) and because getting a little deeper into the book ads some perspective.
[Here be spoilers: I'll be discussing pages 3-63, below.]
What to say about the first sixty-three pages? First off, it’s not pulling teeth. DWF keeps things lively with shifting points of view, a huge cast of characters, and a good dose of (generally dark) humor.
The first chapter (“Year of Glad,” 3-17) is one of discrepancies, the first being the distance between Hal’s academic performance, which is outstanding, and his performance on academic tests, which is described by one of the deans in the interview that is the gist of this chapter as “subnormal” (6). The second, and probably more significant, is the discrepancy between Hal’s point of view and that of everyone else in the chapter–or as much as we can surmise of it, since we see their reactions only through his eyes. Internally, Hal seems on the verge of a panic attach of some sort, but he also seems quite well versed in how to manage his own anxiety.
It is only after the deans dismiss his two handlers, Uncle Chuck (whose full name, we later learn, is Dr. Chuck Tavis, [half?] brother-in-law of Hal’s late father, James O. Incandenza, and his successor as director of the Enfield Tennis Academy) and Avery deLint, one of the “prorectors” at the ETA, that the silent Hal finally speaks and the distance between his point of view and every other is revealed, albeit with a good dose of comedy, like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen skit gone mad, as the deans seem to try to outdo one another in their descriptions of Hal’s behavior:
‘But the sounds he made.’
‘Like an animal.’
‘Subanimalistic noises and sounds.’
‘Nor let’s not forget the gestures.’
[. . .]
‘Like some sort of animal with something in its mouth.’
[. . .]
‘A writing animal with a knife in its eye.’ (14)
Stylistically, one of the most interesting and enjoyable things about the first chapter is how close we are to Hal’s view of things. His view is idiosyncratic and finely focused on visual details of the room and his experience of it (and reflections triggered by the same). But, for all that, it isn’t too hard to follow Hal’s thoughts. What is challenging is DWF’s penchant for giving characters multiple names and nicknames, referring to them by whatever one pleases him, or the character doing the describing, as is common both in the real world and in Russian fiction. Uncle Chuck is, at various points, “Charles,” and “C.T.” (even before we know his last name). The same is similar for almost every other character. I find myself drawing lists of characters to keep this all sorted out. The business with the names adds realism and a bit of mystery, and is clue enough that the author expects us to keep track of things.
(I’ve been using the term “chapter” here, to describe the divisions of the text, but just what counts as a chapter is also a judgement call. Some “chapters,” like the first one, start off with a little circular symbol and a title. Other have just white space and a title. There are many places where the narrative shifts and the only typographical indication of it is additional white space. I’ve seen a few different numbering schemes for these. So I’ll stick with page numbers, for clarity.)
I think the main takeaway from these opening chapters is to acquaint us with some of the vast cast of characters (the vastness of which also, like the penchant for nicknames, invites a comparison with Russian novels), whose story lines will surely converge and intertwine as time goes on. It also serves to introduce us to some of the range of styles and points of view to expect from DFW.
The second chapter (17-27), where we are introduced to Erdedy, is a case in point. Here, we move from the chaos and first person point of view of the opening chapter to a third-person point of view centered on Erdedy and following his thoughts in stream-of-consciousness fashion, following his anxieties as he prepares for yet another “one more last time” (19) marijuana binge. This chapter is a stunning and stunningly accurate portrait of anxiety, and it could easily stand on its own as a short story.
If I had any reservations about the novel, this chapter sent them packing. Erdedy’s contemplation (or, really, refusal to contemplate) the bug in his stereo system brings to mind Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Though not physically a bug, sitting almost without motion in his own protective armor, how much does Erdedy already resemble one? Like Hal, Erdedy also finds himself trapped in lines of anticipation and expectation. And, like Hal, his consciousness is finely focussed, at times to the point of distraction, on the world around him and the thoughts it sparks. DWF clearly has a metaphorical turn of mind, which means we’re in for a lot of fun unpacking what he offers us and making connections between the various characters, events, and symbols in this novel.
Well, today is the official start. And I am, for the moment at least, ahead of the game. I’m on page 83, but I stopped at 63 and made a lot of notes for this Friday’s blog posts (I’ve been using Evernote for that, tagging each note “infsum”). I didn’t see any other way that I wouldn’t inadvertently reveal something past the agreed upon spoiler marks. (I’ve already started a new note for Monday’s page goal.) But my notes at this point are too verbose for regular blog posts. I’ll have to compress them down, chopping out a lot of the summarizing that will be good for me–later, when I start to get confused about where I’ve been–but won’t be very enlightening here. I’ll have time to do that, I think. I’ve been a bit obsessed at the moment with reading ahead, as I’m sure to fall behind and really don’t want to play catch up for three months.
So far, I’m really enjoying the novel. It’s challenging (even taxing) in places. But, on the whole, it’s solidly entertaining. DFW throws in enough humor and suggestion of things to come to keep me happily chewing through his prose. It’s not, so far, the most difficult or challenging book I’ve been subjected to (or, in some cases, have subjected myself to). And that’s a relief. And there are rewards at every turn: a novel turn of phrase here, a darkly comic situation there, a scrap of esoteric knowledge, nice little references to what’s gone on before, etc.
I’m looking forward to comparing thoughts about IJ with all of you, and with the growing crowd of people joining the IS project. Onward!