Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Response to Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is a strange novel.

I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I started reading Infinite Jest back in January of this year, and I just last night (finally) reached the final period of the final sentence. There may be spoilers in the words that follow here, but they will be more or less spoilers about the way David Foster Wallace wrote IJ and not so much about what happens in IJ. It would be hard to spoil that novel, like telling you the ending. As you'll see soon enough.

And per my usual unusual logophilic touch, I will attempt to mimic DFW's predominate IJ style while I write about IJ.

Mimic, not mock.

Note: Page references are from my electronic Nook copy of Infinite Jest, which my Nook says has a total of 1377 pages. Amazon lists the hardcover version as having 1079 pages and the paperback version having 1104. Some formatting problems were evident in the Nook edition in the form of maybe a dozen "pages" consisting of only a single line of text, scattered throughout the novel. In short, the page references will be close, if not spot-on, for your own electronic version, and you might need to do a little math to figure out where those spots exist in a print edition.

Infinite Jest
Infinite Jest
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
And but so the thing about Infinite Jest is that it is set up as a frame story, with the first chapter teasing the reader with something so tantalizingly amazing and unbelievable that he (the reader) can't not keep reading, much like the dark teenager who loiters just on the other side of the playground fence tempting the young and impressionable with the wonderful, unbelievable mental and emotional joy that his like product will bring, and then he slyly forks over a small white paper stick that's twisted at both ends and says that this joint (or, in the parlance of Infinite Jest, Bob Hope or a DuBois) is absotively, posilutely free because he likes you so much, but then after the first hit you're hooked and go back for more, only now it's no longer free. So you get hooked from the first chapter when Hal Incandenza, the main character, a young tennis star who has like memorized the entire Oxford English Dictionary for no apparent reason is having some extreme difficulties communicating in a language that anyone else can understand. The chapter wraps up, or at least ends, with a sort of "and here is my story" line told to "someone blue-collar and unlicensed…—a nurse's aide with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses [Hal] as jou…" (28)

And that's the left side of the story's frame. And but so then the story proper takes off in the next chapter a few years before that, when Hal is still a pupil and rising star at the Enfield Tennis Academy, which was founded by his giant of a father — James Incandenza, aka "Himself," aka "The Stork" (who before the story begins has killed himself in a most satisfyingly unique way) — and is run by his Aphroditish giantess of a white-haired Nuck mother Avril "The Moms" Incandenza and her adoptive-slash-step-brother Charles "C.T." Tavis. Plus there's the eldest brother Orin, a tennis-player-turned-NFL-punter who serves an important yet minor role, and a middle brother Mario who, though he physically looks the least human1, is perhaps the most human and humane character in the entire novel.

Wet Parking Lot
Assassin Parking Only
(Photo credit: Geoffery Kehrig)
IJ has a surplus of characters, the entire list of which might rival Dickens's Bleak House, and each character displays his or her fundamental flaw(s) at every opportunity. The flaws range from too-real and -believable addictions to various narcotics and potables to improbable physical deformities (and not just Mario's) and medical conditions. And the geopolitics of DFW's world are equally improbable and therefore irresistible. One cannot forget the cross-dressing Hugh Steeply, agent of the OUS — the Office of Unspecified Services — and legless amputee Rémy Marathe, agent of the AFR — Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a group of hard-core Québecois assassins whose wheelchairs' wheels' squeaks strike fear into the hearts of the pure — both of whom, Steeply and Marathe, are at least double agents and possibly triple, quadruple, or, through some ambiguous shift of personal loyalties, quintuple agents.

And but so with this massive and fluctuating cast, the story moves along in unpredictable fits and starts through present action, flashbacks, and flashforwards from multiple shifting points of view, in a like jigsaw puzzle sort of way. Only it isn't just one 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, but three of them, with all the puzzle pieces mixed together and some of them missing. And the thing about a jigsaw puzzle is that the goal isn't to see what the final picture looks like — that's on the front of the box — but to enjoy putting it together piece by piece, to find two colorful, amoebic shapes that don't really show much of anything and figure out how they fit together to reveal a tree, or a deer, or a homicidal robot. And that's exactly what reading IJ is like — you don't (possibly can't) read it to enjoy the whole as a unified story when you finish. The joy is from looking at all the pieces individually and seeing how they fit together and what they might show on the larger scale.

You know how the TV show The Sopranos ended?2 How it just stopped at an odd moment? Went black? And how some people thought it was the greatest thing ever, and other people thought it was just a stupid way to get more publicity or whatever? That's about how IJ ends. At least, that's what it's like when the words stop. Only this is "worse" than The Sopranos because the story (or, more accurately, stories) were really starting to build up to multiple climaxes. Really bad but possibly really happily-ever-after wonderful things were about to happen, and we the readers were going to really see how the characters we were now rooting for had changed into something worthy of our rooting. But then it just stops, and you run into a page with "Notes & Errata" printed in large type at the top of the page. I literally started swiping back and forth through the end pages to see if I had missed something, or if my Nook had somehow malfunctioned.

But you remember how I said the first chapter of the novel was the left part of a frame that the rest of the story fit into? After I finished, I returned to that first chapter (because there was so much in there that hadn't been resolved that I felt cheated) and reread it. And remember, I had first read that first chapter in January.

As it turns out, that first chapter acts simultaneously as both ends of the frame. Not so much like the seam on a Mobius Strip, but like a nose ring through the septum of an allergy sufferer: Same nose, different nostril, but it does come full circle. Some of the questions left unanswered at the end (Did Don Gately live? Did Hal pass his pee test?) were answered in the very first chapter. And some of the other elements that were left hanging at the end weren't so much answered as hinted at, alluded to. But still, there are many holes in the narrative that DFW left open like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and you can either complain that the puzzle is incomplete, or you can imagine what goes into those holes.

Nonetheless, if you decide to take on Infinite Jest, you will find more satisfaction, I think, by rereading the first chapter after you've finished this mammoth tome.

About the editing

If there were an academy award for editing, DFW's editor Michael Pietsch deserves it. With Infinite Jest's infinite shifts in point-of-view come also shifts in the writing style. Under normal circumstances, an editor's most important tool is the convention sheet, where he records strange spellings, usage choices, and the like so that he can impose consistency throughout the novel. But the POV and style shifts and even character growth and decline necessitate a staunch inconsistency to the point that Mr. Pietsch must have had a different style sheet for each POV character. There is, for example, Hal's sometimes over-technical and sesquipedalian discourse, governed by his eidetic recollection of the OED and his mastery of and facility with philosophico-linguistic concepts. And the eye dialect used in a tangential story about Himself's father. And the scatterbrained and scared and fractured thoughts of a drug-addled transvestite hiding from reality. And all the wonderful malaprops.

From an editing viewpoint, IJ seems like a monster of a challenge. And from my reading, it looks like a job well-done. I found very few instances of bona fide errors in the complex, tortuous, and sometimes intentionally ungrammatical sentences that make up Infinite Jest. As an editor, I simply cannot imagine the time and effort and thought and satisfaction that working on this novel must have wrought.

You can read some of Michael Pietsch's own recollections of his work with David Foster Wallace at InfiniteSummer.org.

Random fun quotations

One of the great things about eReaders is that you can highlight words and phrases and come back to them quickly later. I mostly highlighted individual words that I didn't know or that I thought I could blog about. But I also highlighted some passages that I thought were just elegantly written, or insightful, or in some other way just plain awesome. Here they are:
The Director of Composition seems to have more than the normal number of eyebrows. (12)
'I'll say God seems to have a kind of laid-back management style I'm not crazy about. I'm pretty much anti-death. God looks by all accounts to be pro-death. I'm not seeing how we can get together on this issue, he and I, Boo.' (58)
Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you. (224)
Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can't even hear because you're in such a rush to or from something important you've tried to engineer. (370)
If you close your eyes on a busy urban sidewalk the sound of everybody's different footwear's footsteps all put together sounds like something getting chewed by something huge and tireless and patient. (271–72)
The door's got a big poster of R. Limbaugh on it, from before the assassination.

1.To wit:
Mario's "incomplete gestation and arachnoidal birth left the kid with some lifelong character-building physical challenges. Size was one, he being in sixth grade about the size of a toddler and at 18+ in a range somewhere between elf and jockey. There was the matter of the withered-looking and bradyauxetic arms, which just as in a hair-raising case of Volkmann's contracture curled out in from of his thorax in magiscule S's and were usable for rudimentary knifeless eating and slapping at doorknobs until they sort of turned just enough. . . . Bradypedestrianism-wise, Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square . . . : together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate. . . ."(398)
"People who're somehow burned at birth, withered or ablated way past anything like what might be fair, they either curl up in their fire, or else they rise. Withered saurian homodontica Mario floats, for Hal." (403)
And on and on.b

2. I've never actually seen an episode of The Sopranos. I don't have cable or dish or any channels that I have to pay for. And even in those few years of my post-college life when I did have cable, I could never afford or justify paying for the premium channels, on one of which The Sopranos was aired. But still, the end of the last episode of that series was somehow news, so just about anyone who is at all interested in pop culture has seen at least the last 15 seconds of it.

"[A]ll Mario's teeth are bicuspids and identical, front and back, not unlike a porpoise. . ." (Note 119, p. 1268)
b. This is perhaps a good point to mention DFW's endnotes. There are an insane number of them — 388 in all. Some of them are quite long, too, like 20 or so pages long, the length of an entire chapter that looks like DFW had intended to include in the story but then, while editing, realized it was missing and then instead of trying to work the new information into the story just tacked on another endnote marker and dropped the thing lock, stock, and barrel into the back of the book. The endnotes are labeled as "Notes and Errata," but it's impossible to tell which is which. Some of the endnotes even have their own footnotes, which is why I recommend that you read this book on an eReader of some sort, because the endnotes and footnotes are linked together with the text, so you can easily navigate through the whole thing. If you're reading a print copy, you might need three bookmarks.

Enhanced by Zemanta