Monday, June 13, 2016

Poor Yoricks' Summer - IJ Group Read: Introduction

David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest was published in February 1996. Part of the book's huge hype (and for me, its initial allure) was its sheer size - a brick of nearly 1,100 pages (cut down from an alleged 1,700!), including 388 small-fonted endnotes. I borrowed it from the library, but my brain balked at its dense prose and confusing storylines. I gave up after 100 or so pages.

But I returned about a year later. I bought the paperback and dove back in. At about the 200-page mark, several plot lines intersected, something clicked, and I was off! (Breaking through at roughly that page-point is a common experience, it seems.) I was (and remain), appropriately enough, addicted to the novel, since one of its central themes is addiction - in many forms - and recovery. Most the action takes place in suburban Boston, at either the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House or the Enfield Tennis Academy. The book's wikipedia page has descriptions of the main characters and is a pretty good overview to the whole thing, though it contains spoilers.

Time praised Infinite Jest for its "endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis".

A reader also gets copious amounts of information/minutiae on prescription drugs, jailhouse tattoos, avant-garde film theory, and Quebec separatism, as well as lengthy internal monologues and frighteningly accurate descriptions of panic attacks, crippling depression, suicidal thoughts, and blindly feeling your way through sobriety. There is also the international search for a film cartridge that is reportedly so entertaining that unsuspecting viewers lose their will to do anything else and are content to watch the film over and over and over (not sleeping, eating, etc.) until they die.

So what is it about Infinite Jest?

Language and Tone: Infinite Jest is packed with dense, often analytical, prose. One reviewer described it as "a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits ... juxtapos[ing], often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, highly esoteric words". You will read words that you will most likely never see anywhere else. Wallace delivers all of this in a conversational voice filled with deep insight, empathy, and a jaw-droppingly precise use of language.

Wallace once spoke about his use of compound-conjunctions (sentences starting with some variation of "And but so ..." that, while actually used sparingly in the novel, became a kind of trademark):
When somebody's talking and they get on a roll, and they start talking faster and faster - and they don't breathe - one of the things they'll do is have compound-conjunctions because you're really - you're wanting that sentence to serve a number of things. It's both a contrast and a continuation, and it's an extrapolation. And it's a little unconscious clue to the reader that he's more listening than reading now - that we're at a pace now that's supposed to be far more sound and pace and breath than it is these short contained sentences. ... Infinite Jest is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator - it's supposed to sound like the narrator's talking to you.
Narrative Intricacies: Infinite Jest could also be described as a mystery. Because of the abrupt ending of the physical book and the gaps and loops of the narrative's chronology, the reader is left with many questions. This is by design. Readers often go right back to the beginning and start over - not unlike the soon-to-be doomed viewers of that notorious film. And Wallace has a remarkable habit of burying possible clues in page-long paragraphs.

Humanity of the Characters: Although Wallace gets lumped in with other lesser writers who use irony as a way of keeping an emotional distance from their audience and avoiding showing any vulnerability which might expose them to pointed-finger ridicule, Infinite Jest's characters and their thoughts are often heartbreakingly naked and raw. Wallace explores using the crutch of irony in an essay on Dostoevsky (a writer he clearly admired and (I think) wished to emulate) included in his essay collection, Consider The Lobster.

For years, I felt that there was no possible way Wallace could have written Infinite Jest without having gone through some horrifying personal experiences with depression, drugs, addiction, and the wrestling match of recovery. When asked, he would claim he merely sat in on many open-to-the-public AA meetings in Boston and got to know and talk with many of the people in attendance. Information made public since Wallace's death in 2008 - most notably, D.T. Max's biography, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story - has revealed that he was a recovering addict and suffered from depression for decades (and attempted suicide several times).

However, there were some clues published shortly after Infinite Jest was published. Wallace told Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune that in the late 80s/early 90s, after the success of his first novel and a short-story collection, he admitted himself to a hospital and asked to be put on suicide watch. Another article mentioned Wallace "being treated for a drug problem he developed in the wake of his early novelistic successes" and then becoming "compelled by the paradox of the AA 12-step program, which requires utter submission to a higher power in order to give up just such a submission to addiction." Wallace is also the anonymous author of this letter of appreciation to the people at Granada House in Allston, Mass. (the inspiration for Ennet House).

Pretty much the first review of Infinite Jest - or at least the first major review - was from Sven Birkerts in The Atlantic. He writes that Wallace:
has a penchant for weaving long braids from enticingly antiphonal plots, each of which is differently absorbing, if not for its characterizations or imaginative brio then for the sharp snap of its thought, the obsessiveness of its informational reference (hence the notes), or - and - the incandescence of the writing. ...

To say that the novel does not obey traditional norms is to miss the point. Wallace's narrative structure should be seen instead as a response to an altered cultural sensibility. The book mimes, in its movements as well as in its dense loads of referential data, the distributed systems that are the new paradigm in communications. The book is not about electronic culture, but it has internalized some of the decentering energies that computer technologies have released into our midst. The plot is webbed, branched, rife with linkages. ... [Infinite Jest works] as a postmodern saga of damnation and salvation. The novel is confusing, yes, and maddening in myriad ways. It is also resourceful, hilarious, intelligent, and unique. Those who stay with it will find the whole world lit up as though by black light.
Colby Cosh (National Post (Canada), September 16, 2008):
It was in 1996 that Wallace arrived; I never saw anything quite like it before, and I do not expect to again. For some years there had already been murmurs and hints about the arrival of a massive new contender for Great American Novel, or at least Decade-Defining Doorstop; a huge, Pynchonesque, unsummarizable, labyrinthine, comic-tragic-ironic book about tennis and addiction that some math geek from Illinois had been brazen enough to call "Infinite Jest." Books columnists talked about it like Ahab murmuring about the whale; one couldn't help but be curious.
Michiko Kakutani (New York Times, February 13, 1996) wrote that Wallace was:
a writer of virtuosic skills who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who's equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and the Nicolson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who's also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.
Ted Gioia (Blog Critics, September 14, 2008):
[IJ] is a big novel by any definition. Yet the creativity and energy of Wallace's vision never lag. Few writers have ever been better at delivering scintillating prose, sentence after sentence, without ever seeming to run dry. ... Infinite Jest is not just an exercise in dazzling prose. ... This is one of the most sober (in more than one sense of the word) novels you will ever read, and also one of the funniest. The novel is also loaded with irony, but also one of the most caustic critiques of irony.
Bruce Weber (New York Times, September 15, 2008) stated that Wallace's books are:
prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary ... [Infinite Jest] perceives American society as self-obsessed, pleasure-obsessed and entertainment-obsessed [and is] by turns hallucinogenically stream of consciousness, jubilantly anecdotal, winkingly sardonic and self-consciously literary.
David Gates (his 1996 review is here) (Newsweek, September 14, 2008):
True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we're all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and - that chillingly neutral word - information. ... Wallace's literary project was to get something of that infinity within us out where we could see and hear it. This explains his characteristic footnotes and endnotes, his digressions within digressions and his compulsive, exhausting (but never sufficiently exhaustive) piling on of detail.
Despite my tremendous love for Infinite Jest, I would point anyone curious about Wallace in the direction of his non-fiction. Grab A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - a collection of essays which were written at the same time as Wallace was drafting Infinite Jest and serves as a kind of addendum to the novel in terms of Wallace's commenting even more on the same themes.

Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, by Greg Carlisle (Sideshow Media, 2007)
David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide, by Stephen J. Burn (Continuum, 2012 (2nd Edition))

The Howling Fantods

Posts/Blogs From Previous IJ Reads:
Infinite Detox
Infinite Zombies
Fiction Advocate: "Words Words Words: The Infinite Jest Liveblog"
Infinite Tasks of Philosophy: "Top Posts of Infinite Summer"
Infinite Summer: "How To Read Infinite Jest"

Finally, some wise words of introduction from Dave Laird (Infinite Winter, February 5, 2016):
When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. ...

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. ...

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

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