Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not infinite, but without end

I finally finished Infinite Jest, all 1079 densely-packed pages of it. Here's my review, cross-posted from goodreads. Some abstract, mild SPOILERS below - nothing specific that would ruin the book for someone (but avoid clicking the links).

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.

Now having finished I think I can say I loved it. Not everything works, but when it does it is pretty memorable. The book demands a lot: the first 200 or so pages are pretty rough going and I found I could only read it when my wits were sharp or else the page-long sentences started blurring together. But once you're acclimated to DFW's strange little world and full-court-press writing style the cumulative whoosh of the plot and the words and the spiderweb of allusions becomes exhilarating.

It helps that the book is funny as hell and full of clever set-pieces (Eschaton!) that beat back the tedium. And yeah, it is tempting to call b.s. on some of his more over-written passages, but for the most part DFW uses his powers for good, not evil. He employs all his post-modern trickery in the service of a big-hearted, painfully sincere (even, sappy) story. The numerous tales of addicts bottoming-out are sometimes quite grim and desperately sad, but that only makes their slow climb to sobriety all the more compelling.

IJ is difficult, but I truly believe he meant it to be as entertaining and as humanly meaningful as possible. (As an aside, I will say that some of DFW's linguistic inventions are so good I've started using them unconsciously -- particularly the howling fantods and de-mapping.)

Finally, I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the plot cuts off quite literally in the middle of the action. The novel is not infinite but it does literally have no end. The feel is of something massive and ornate--a chandelier or a grand piano--snapping its tether and falling. At first there is virtually no discernible movement, then it begins to gain a terrible speed. It glitters ominously as it rushes downward, anticipating a clamorous transformation. But the video reel cuts off just before the crash and noise.

DFW stated that the story's end "can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame." Which is true, if you carefully track the clues strewn through the book, but also a major "what the hell" moment once you turn that final page. (SPOILER-laden theorizing found here and here, among other places.)

The big idea, presumably, is that the novel's form recapitulates its themes of addiction and entertainment -- broadly, the pursuit of happiness. The abrupt ending conveys that same sense of incompleteness that returns once the buzz wears off, a longing for just one more hit. Indeed, as deeply frustrating as it is to read, a 'traditional' ending with a sense of closure would feel wrong for the novel and the protagonists. Addicts never get closure on their addictions, it is always day-to-day with the possibility of relapse.

Ultimately, I feel like I should give this like 17 stars or something. Not because it is perfect or necessarily the best novel I've ever read, but I can't but help feel tremendous respect for the story he tried to tell. Even the books flaws seem like triumphs.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Music Downloads

Here are a few youTube tabs that have been left open in my browser for the last few weeks.

Together with Simon & Garfunkel and the John Denver Christmas album, PP&M were a big part of the sonic background to my childhood (especially Puff the Magic Dragon!) R.I.P. Mary.

Of more recent vintage, the new Mos Def album seems really strong, which is good to hear since his past two albums got such miserable reviews that I didn't have the heart to listen. Glad he's back to form.

Similarly, I haven't really listened to Pearl Jam since the mid-90s, but their new single rocks pretty damn hard I have to say.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Half Dome views

Speaking of high sierra photography. Many years ago I visited Lick Observatory, an astronomical observatory run by the UC, just south of San Jose in the Coastal Ranges. In the lobby they had an enormous panorama of the Sierra Nevadas taken by the big telescope during the daytime. The mountains were some 150-200 miles away across the central valley, and Half Dome was easily recognizable in the center. The only online version of this image I could find was from this website, where the author had helpfully annotated the view.

In the course of searching, I also came across this amazing shot, also of Half Dome, but taken from Turlock in the central valley. Like most commenters, I wouldn't have guessed you could see Half Dome from the floor of the valley, let alone so dramatically.
On The Outside Looking In

Interestingly, the photo seems to have sparked a lot of accusations of fakery (for example, here and here and on flickr), prompting others to bust out the Google Earth proofs that, yes, this view is possible (although unlikely due to the constant air pollution and crappy visibility). Part of the confusion is stems from the fact that this photo was taken using a serious, pro-grade telephoto lens, so the scene is highly magnified.

At any rate, two examples of what can be done with serious optical systems.

Mount Whitney panorama

The Astronomy Picture of the Day a few weeks ago was this gorgeous astro-photo panorama taken from the top of Mount Whitney -- at 14,495 feet, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Click the photo for the full-size version (photo credit: Park Service Night Sky Program).

We climbed Whitney in summer 2000 and for years I had this same (daytime) panorama up on my wall, taped together on a cardboard backing (this was pre-digital camera).

The trail to Whitney is possibly the single most crowded backcountry trail I have ever experienced, particularly given that it is 22 miles round-trip with 6,000 feet elevation gain. I'm sure we encountered over 100 people that day. The lack of oxygen at the top is fierce - I felt like I was taking 3 breaths for each step. Still, a fantastic hike!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Circum-estuarial exercise

Today's run took me all the way around Lake Merritt, pushing a grumpy Quinn in the jogging stroller.
I have to say it is awesome to have the lake -- and its running paths -- so close to our place. After 3 years of urban running in DC it feels good to break free from the stoplights and traffic and constant hazards and really run. It is too bad the lake is far too disgusting to actually swim in, but it's a pretty great city park.

Apparently the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders Club hosts monthly fun runs with 5K, 10K and 15K options (i.e. 1, 2 and 3 laps around the lake) which I may have to check out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The City & the City

Here's my brief review of China Miéville's latest novel, The City & the City, cross-posted from goodreads. (In an effort to avoid spoilers, I suspect this will seem a little vague. But much of the fun of the novel is in figuring out what he's talking about, so hopefully the vagueness will not put you off reading it.)

It is nice to see China Miéville stretch himself a bit with his new novel, The City & the City. I enjoyed Perdido Street Station quite a lot, and while he's touching on some of the same ideas here, this is no repeat.

In some ways the detective genre has disciplined his writing. His canvas is much smaller here than with PSS, his socialist politics pushed to the background and his ornate prose streamlined. He has given himself another rich urban setting--two cities in fact, bizarrely intertwined, the setting for a murder.

And yet I am reminded of a review I once read of Jose Saramago's great novel, Blindness. The reviewer was puzzled as to what, exactly, the plague of blindness in that book represented. He concluded that Blindness was ultimately a novel about "not being able to see." I took that to mean that the book was powerfully resonant of all the horrors of the 20th century - war, genocide, etc. - but in the end abstracted beyond all specifics.

Something similar is happening with TC&TC. Miéville is careful not to make his allegory too ham-fisted. Instead he makes it a puzzle to solve - and a hook on which to hang our political obsessions. Certainly, it seems, he must be talking about the status of immigrants, or minorities, or the invisibility of the poor. Bilingual nations, multicultural cities. Or all of the above. Or something.

Like PSS, the ending is unsatisfying, but for the opposite reason. Here Miéville isn't stuck piling useless subplots atop one another, rather he has over-corrected and cuts his plot short with an ending that left me wanting more more, and not in a good way.

At any rate, I never got bored with this one, and I continue to be impressed with Miéville as a writer. I'm just waiting for him to hit one out of the park.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

IJ Quote of the Day

"Stice, oblivious, bites into his sandwich like it's the wrist of an assailant." -- Infinite Jest, p. 627