Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Entertainment

Lo in the distant past, my cousin gave me David Foster Wallace's mondo-opus Infinite Jest for xmas. Since then it has lived on my shelf intimidating the other, littler books and taking their lunch money. I started to read it once and got through about 100 pages before my head of steam ran out. Pretty sure I've moved 10 apartments since and lugged IJ with me each time.

So when I saw a bunch of folks were organizing an online reading group called Infinite Summer I figured, well, now or never. I'm now on page 331 (=30.7% finished). My experience so far has been approximately thus:
  • Pages 0-100: Difficult language and sentence structure.1 Very very confusing plot. Slightly pretentious, occasionally uncomfortable, intermittently funny. The ideas he bats about are interesting, but mostly... huh?
  • Pages 100-200: Starting to make more sense even as the full, overwhelming scope of it starts to come into view. I start to realize that IJ is actually quite funny, and a lot of the humor arises out of his unconventional use of language.
  • Pages 200-330: Wow - this book is fantastic! The emotions get bigger: unbearable sadness, wild hilarity, impending doom. Crucial information is revealed that helps you make sense of everything. The storyline(s) click into place. But beware: there are a lot of bizarre ideas and topics here (herds of feral hamsters, not the least).
We will see if the trend continues upward for the next 600 pages, but clearly the with-it-sticking was well rewarded. Once you get past the first 150 or so (which are the literary form of hazing) and acclimate to DFW's style and worldview, the book is fun and actually "surprisingly readable" (as the carefully selected laudatory quote on the cover points out).

DFW's default style is primarily one of overwhelming force applied to everything within sight cf. pp. 44-5:
And no matter how many times he has the Terminex people out, there are still the enormous roaches that come out of the bathroom drains. Sewer roaches, according to Terminex. Blattaria implacablus or something. Really huge roaches. Armored-vehicle-type bugs. Totally black, with Kevlar-type cases, the works. And fearless, raised in the Hobbesian sewers down there. Boston's and New Orleans's little brown roaches were bad enough, but you could at least come in and turn on a light and they'd run for their lives. These Southwest roaches you turn on the light and they just look up at you from the tile like: 'You got a problem?' Orin stomped on one of them, only once, that had come hellishly up out of the drain in the shower when he was in there, showering, going out naked and putting shoes on and coming in and trying to conventionally squash it, and the result was explosive. There's still material from that one time in the tile-grouting. It seems unremovable. Roach-innards. Sickening. Throwing the shoes away was preferable to looking at the sole to clean it.
And it goes on about the roaches. That was me, laughing like a maniac on the metro after reading that passage. He dares to be funny in ways that are sometimes a little juvenile or obvious, but combined with deep philosophical musings and close observation of his characters. And then, strung through the narrative, are extended passages dealing with addiction and depression that are just gut-punchingly sad, that make you realize the full scope of his talent.

So far so good. A final note: the online reading group is great. They post helpful summaries, give useful advice and link to other resources that are useful in making sense of it all. The comment threads are encouraging and thoughtful, rather than the cesspools of snark and one-upmanship you might expect to find.

1 And lots of endnotes. A hundred pages of 'em in tiny font. Similarly, all written discussions of IJ or DFW are basically required to have endnotes also.


bookshelves said...

I'm not a big fan of this book, but I'm sure that it's found on many book shelves, of its readers.

Unknown said...

Got the book Monday. I am trying to get up to the correct place on the schedule, which would be pg 358 by 7/24. I am on page 91(sigh). I would agree with you about the first 100 pages. I am slogging with hope.
PS - Sent Jessica the book yesterday.

t said...

@bookshelves any reason why you didn't like it? Interesting website, btw.

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