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Monday, December 7, 2015

INFINITE JEST: Book Report Fragments

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace
Orig. pub. 1996

You can go to any number of sites (e.g., here) for a synopsis of the novel and list of its various characters and plot lines, and I have no interest in coming up with my own poor replication of what has been done so many times before. It may be helpful to look up one of those synopses first, if you are the kind of reader who needs the whole map in front of you. The thing is, when you pick up the book and open it to begin reading the novel you don’t get a map, and David Foster Wallace did not list his dramatis personae before launching into his narrative. You enter the world, that’s all. You, the reader, are immediately plunged into the novel’s world without a map, and only gradually do you begin to put together the map for yourself.

The narrative does not so much jump as it steps carefully from one seemingly unrelated story line to another, and it is difficult to say when the various strands begin to be loosely braided together. The world of the novel is, after all, a single world, sometime slightly to the future of the time in which it was written, a world recognizable to readers in the year of its publication as it continues to be recognizable today, even though many of its more bizarre aspects have failed (so far?) to materialize. And so, there is the novel’s world, and here is that world’s omniscient narrator, checking in first on one set of characters, then another, moving effortlessly through space from Tucson to Boston as only fiction allows, and the reader follows the shifts more and more easily as the novel progresses.

One way to conceptualize the different story lines is to think of each as a separate musical composition. All of them, we are sure, as we read along, will eventually come together into a single work, although for hundreds of pages we need to keep track of separate orchestras on separate stages, and we cannot help but marvel at the author’s ability to compose and orchestrate such complexity. Then we notice – was it there all along? – a subtle, nearly inaudible background line connecting the various orchestra’s themes, not yet doing anything so overt as tying together the different story lines, but underlying them all the same. Onstage in one developing scenario a character thinks he hears a door hinge squeaking. It’s a familiar sound, characteristic of that particular door. Too late he realizes the rhythmic, mass quality of the squeaking, caused by a phalanx of wheelchairs “moving with the indifference of things at the very top of the food-chain.” It is a group of the legless French-Canadian terrorists, coming to look for the master copy of the “Entertainment” film cartridge, the novel’s unholy grail. The terrorists approach like “the devil’s own hamsters, moving with placid squeaks just beyond view,” and soon a scene of unbelievable violence and carnage ensues.

Cut to the waiting room of the headmaster of the Enfield Tennis Academy, where a student called in for discipline notes the squeak of a waiting room chair.

Another cut or two, and an unidentified first-person narrator (not the main omniscient narrator to whom we are accustomed) is telling the story of his father demanding assistance in tearing apart the parental bed to locate a squeak that is driving him mad. The dismantling and moving of bed parts proceeds in excruciating detail, but before the problem is located the first-person narrator escapes upstairs to his own bedroom and jumps onto his narrow twin bed in an attempt to produce a squeak.

But all this as I have described it foregrounds the squeaking theme, whereas, the way it plays out in the pages of the novel you almost don’t notice it, and when you start to be aware you can’t be sure if it’s at all important. Or could it be the brilliant, masterful author simply adding a bit of fun, for himself, to the novel’s more serious work? And perhaps there are other background or low-level connecting themes that have escaped me? Because this one very minor theme I have identified is surely much less worthy of note than hundreds of other feats performed by DWF. I only note it as an example of the subtlety of the work, an indication of how very much is going on.

Much more noteworthy and so obvious that no reader can miss them are the occasional showstopper pieces, if you will, where all hell suddenly breaks loose in one of the story lines. At the Enfield Tennis Academy, for instance, there is a sequence involving students engaged in their favorite, unbelievably complicated, intellectual and physical extracurricular game, “Eschaton,” and a similar explosion of high-speed action in a crowd scene is later set just outside Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. In each of these instances, the buildup to the scene’s explosion proceeds slowly and deliberately, the minutiae of detail lulling the reader’s suspicions that anything big might happen. “The night is cold and glycerine-clear and quite still.” Then the “ruckus” begins, but even then , as the character Gately is observing the scene, himself becoming cool and clear, “All this appraisal’s taking only seconds; it only takes time to list it.” And list it the author does, all the simultaneous action in the scene, as well as the high-speed sequences, and what would take seconds in a movie takes pages in the book, because writer and reader both need time to assemble mentally and block and keep track of every move made.

(Confession: I did much better following the Ennet House “ruckus” than I did the Eschaton game run amok.)

Certain descriptive phrases, whether they occur in long, lyrical paragraphs or jump out unexpectedly between lines of dialogue or out of a scene of mayhem brimming with loathesome, decadent, scatalogical detail, make me catch my breath, as Wallace strings together impressions and words that have never before been joined, and the result is exquisite.
The urban lume makes the urban night only semidark, as in licoricey, a luminescence just under the skin of the dark, and swelling.
Like that. Luscious.

Here’s the thing. I tried to read Infinite Jest once before and didn’t get very far, but since the author’s father was on my dissertation committee and I was his teaching assistant for two courses, and since I have read DWF’s short stories and essays with appreciation and admiration and enjoyment, I really wanted to read the novel, and so I began again this fall. It was heavy going at first. Although I did not find it as daunting as on the first attempt, and while some of those lyrical sentences and phrases rewarded me along the way, at first I did approach my morning or evening reading in the spirit of duty. And, it must be said, so much of the novel’s atmosphere is depressing, adding to the feeling of duty.

Only about page 500 did a shift occur for me. About then the various plots began to flow more easily in my brain, as if only then had I truly entered into the author’s world. And following on the heels of the ease came a slowing-down. I stopped compulsively glancing down at page numbers as I turned pages. The overall map of the novel’s action, the various stages and characters – all had their places, and any urgency I had felt earlier to get through the book vanished. I’m in no hurry now. Infinite Jest is a parallel universe to the one I inhabit at home, to my bookshop world, and to the world of my own modest novel-in-progress, whose characters often visit me at unexpected moments, besides the late night or wee morning hours when I invite them into my mind.

I told my David some of the Infinite Jest story and read him a few bits from the book, and he was intrigued, commenting, “It’s a real luxury to get lost in a long book.” Indeed. I said, “What will I do when I finish it?” But there is really no danger. Beside me on a corner of the table is Proust, and on shelves in the living room are Jane Austen and James Joyce, and re-reading favorite books, revisiting fictional worlds, has been a pleasure of mine for as many years as I have been a reader, devouring over and over again Alice in Wonderland, The Black Stallion, The Silver Nutmeg, The Borrowers, and so many other magical stories.


GH said...

I, too, aborted my first attempt to read IJ early on. Thanks for this-I don't think I've the stamina for the 500 pages right now, but I may try it again sometime.

P. J. Grath said...

Many years ago (memorably, 1987) I got a fortune in a Chinese cookie that I've never forgotten: "Your path is arduous but will be amply rewarded." That about sums up how I feel about reading INFINITE JEST. I've passed through the arduous stage and am reaping the rewards.