Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I finished reading this book last night (Nov. 30); it took two months, plus help from a character index, a scene guide and listening to a couple of DFW’s interviews (Fresh Air + Book Worm) and another by Mary Karr (Fresh Air) and watching and re-watching “End of The Tour”.
I mostly read the book in kindle form though I’ve got a copy via Cathy on paperback, which I would from time to time track with book slips to mark my progress.
I started to read it several years ago and gave up after the first scene or two, putting it aside, wondering if I should give a suicidal genius such access to my brain over such an extended period.
In fact, I maintained a vigilant stance throughout this current reading. There is something about DFW’s take on things which is absolutely surgical and cynical, and at times reminded me of the last (and very bad) LSD trip I took, where I couldn’t stop analyzing, and had horribly aware of the thoughts within thoughts within thoughts, circles within circles within circles, and put aside that drug for good.
I wonder if that’s how DFW thought all the time.
ALSO – a confession: there are two main protagonists, Hal Incadenza, a college tennis player (along with various team mates, room mates and family, one of whom, his father, referred to as ‘Himself’, directs a great number of entertainments via movie form (“cartridges”), one of which is “Infinite Jest”, an entertainment that is lethally addictive, and I won’t say any more about that for the sake of future readers…) and Don Gately, a recovering addict who is working at a group home for addicts and tours the Boston A.A. landscape. Other addicts and workers, along with backstories and open talks and sharings are featured heavily when the focus is Don.
I will admit (here comes the confession) to scanning parts of the book when the focus was on the minutia of Hal’s tennis experience. I was more interested in Don’s story and takes on recovery.
I’ve read (where?) that reading Infinite Jest for the first time prepares you for reading it the second time. I get it. I feel a weird urge to pick it up and read it again, right now, after just finishing it.
The process of reading the book is contained in a quote IN the book:
“To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was kind, in a way. Modern German is better equipped for combining gerundives and prepositions than is its mongrel cousin. The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in. I had researched this Stice had asked whether I believed in ghosts. It’s always seemed a little preposterous that Hamlet, for all his paralyzing doubt about everything, never once doubts the reality of the ghost. Never questions whether his own madness might not in fact be unfeigned.”
What madness it is to give ourselves over to whatever passions or obsessions, including READING A 3 POUND 1,000+ BOOK, eager to burn away our consciousness to cause or flickering pleasures?
I’ve already mentioned the two main protagonists and their social and familial and geographic orbits. The more interesting orbit to me was the one that visited recovery world. And all of that really took off (for me) around page 199, which launches a great number of paragraphs outlining the things you will learn if you spend any significant amount of time around the recovery house, each paragraph beginning with “That…”, used as though it were “Whereupon…” I’d been told, in one of the guides, that you really needed to get to page 200 before you decided whether the book was for you or not.
The book will piss you off. At least it pissed me off. The various pissed off questions I asked myself or statements made while reading:
“Is he just showing off what a genius he is?”
“Why does he make this all so confusing?”
“Is he cynical or what?”
“Is he deliberately trying to confuse the reader?”
“Is he deliberately trying to shock the reader?”
“How the hell did he structure this?” (The answer, I learned in an interview, is ‘fractals’: a never ending pattern that occurs in nature in different scales, a process repeated over and over in a feedback loop (definition found in fractalfoundation.org).
You, as the reader, will need organizing guides to help you delineate the year, for instance. After a little while I didn’t care what year it was.
But a big theme seems to be our (human? American?) predilection towards addiction. Which seems to be an answer (we think) to another major theme: loneliness.
“We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded engagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete’. Sentiment equals naivete’ on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration).” page 694
…and so being naive is one of the great sins of being human.
I don’t want to give away too much about Infinite Jest – the cartridge itself – the “lethally entertaining” Infinite Jest starring Madame Psychosis (who is a late night DJ, resident of the recovery house and, rumor has it, based on memoirist Mary Karr, whom DFW had a relationship with in their own early recovery; he supposedly had her name tattooed on his shoulder.). But I DO have to include this quote, which enticed and delighted me in a way I don’t think to be entirely healthy:
“…whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal. I.e. that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.” page 788
DFW repeats this theme again, and then again, explaining a mother’s devotion is based on a past life’s guilt at killing you, a “murder neither of you quite remember.” page 850
DFW’s character Gately has a weirdly caustic optimism towards the recovery movement as an answer to addictions and loneliness. His insights and reflections echo my own – I don’t know how the hell this seems to work but it does seem to work. Except when it doesn’t. He describes, for instance, the ’13th step’ (seduction of a newbie in the program) as the addition of steps 1+12 (my life is out of control and I’d like to share it with you), and a way to avoid the giant mirror recovery hauls out for you to look into.
DFW also suggests, not too subtly, that we are at risk of giving ourselves over collectively as well as individually, as in marching into a kind of fascist state, which was true when he wrote it and even truer today.
So glad I read this. I believe it’s good and necessary to read something challenging now and then, something that doesn’t just delight us and entertain us (although I.J. will do both) but also torment us, frustrate us, inspire us to do better as reader and human. This book is, obviously, huge, smart (a couple of times I said to myself ‘I’m reading above my pay grade here’), dark, funny, profound, adolescent (you’ll get my meaning if you start reading it). Glad I picked it up. Glad to put it down.