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.

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