Tuesday, June 23, 2009

6/23/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 1-80

All right, so what makes a better summer beach book than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest? Nothing! You can learn new words while you listen to the surf crash on the shore, and if anyone attempts to take your shiny new beach chairs you can beat them off with a book that weighs about as much as a small dog. That's right, this is one intimidating mutha of a book; and, truth be told, I'm thankful that Wallace was able to crank out his magnum opus before his disease got the better of him - he's too good a writer to have not attempted a batshit crazy epic, so God bless him for getting this thing written. It's a doorstop, but it ensures that all readers of Wallace have a north star to guide them by, and it's this attempt of Wallace's to write the epic of modern living, or so it would appear from the reviews, hype, and snippets gleaned from various Wallace interviews.

So, then, how did I come to this book? Like many, primarily through Wallace's non-fiction, which as I've written about previously is simply stunning in its brilliance. Moored to everyday reality, with the events of real life (somewhat) providing a natural grounding force for a towering, towering intellect, Wallace just owns the essay form. The best essayist I've read since James Baldwin, and that means not a lot since I don't read many essayists, but his short-form journalism is simply amazing. Plus, it's accessible. I've only read Oblivion, of his fiction, and while also brilliant, it's a harder read, because Wallace can really get bleak in his fiction in way that he rarely does in his non-fiction. His non-fiction voice quizzical, ironic, questioning. His fictional narratives in Oblivion plunge full-bore into depression, anxiety, confusion, and despair, with a lot less of the humor that characterizes his non-fiction. Granted, he was struggling with some pretty heavy stuff by the time that story collection came out, but it still gave me pause at opening up Infinite Jest.

Well, imagine my surprise then to find that Wallace the raconteur is in full effect in Infinite Jest. He doesn't write comic setpieces in the Confederacy of Dunces sense, but already in the first 80 pages of the book he sets up very vivid scenes of anxiety that are shot through with the kind of ironic good humor that he uses so effectively in his non-fiction. Thus, the scene of Erdedy waiting for a delivery of marijuana is a humor and dread tour de force as Wallace burrows deep in the man's mind, tracing his every attempt at reformation, which always involves throwing out all of his bongs, weed, and smoking paraphenalia, only to have to buy it all again when he is fiending anew.

What's also stands out is Wallace's Jules Verne-like take on entertainment in the future. Published in 1996, which if I remember right is about the time of AOL demo discs spreading the gospel of pay-by-the-hour dialup throughout the land, it's incredible the way that Wallace's imagined Teleputer anticipates the whole laptop/iPhone/Hulu/streaming video axis of constantly available entertainment. Roku came out this year, and Wallace is writing with his usual easy facility about purchasing entertainment online and watching it instantaneously. It makes the whole near future in which Infinite Jest is set seem both more contemporary and more prescient.

The novel also has genuine narrative drive, which is more than I expected from both the stories in Oblivion (which are structured like more-or-less detailed sketches - few of them really hit any sort of climax or rising/falling action) and the usual critical writeups of the book. But Hal Incandenza, Don Gately, the nameless marijuana addict, and a whole host of other supporting characters are all well-drawn - the footnotes are a lot less intrusive than they are in, say "Host" (the essay about talk radio in which the footnotes were visually designated and quite distracting), and all told, reading the book is a lot more straightforward than I expected, even with the requisite alternate future and chronological shifting.


mike brotzman said...

I just finished, last night actually, Consider The Lobster - Host was my favorite (though the McCain piece may have trumped it had I not read it before, and had they preserved the RS edits in the book version, which I found very un-snappy), actually - loved the distracting form, as it made me experience and think about the story as DFW did, i.e. abstractly and distractedly. Conclusion was highly stirring and unexpected.

CAlex6977 said...

Great write-up. Thanks for the explanations. Im also reading infinite jest with the infinite summer group. Should be exciting. I believe the Unnamed pothead is actually named Erdedy. Ill be keeping up with your blog along the way. Hope to hear more about your experience! Thanks again I appreciate your thoughts and insights.

Croz said...

Corrected - thanks!