Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Infinite Jest

So I just finished Infinite Jest. This is a novel I've wanted to read for awhile now, I think the first time I heard about it is when I was reading a lot of Vonnegut and Heller, which was like the start of high school, so that's about six years maybe. It wasn't like I was constantly considering it, it sitting there perpetually as maybe the next book I read, but just that I knew at some point that I would sit down and read it and probably like it quite a bit. With my recent abundance of free time, and my newly-acquired Kindle, I figured I had no excuses not to and set to it. I plowed through the thing in a little over a month but really over half of the novel was done in the last week or so. I'm a little scared that I read it "too fast", as I have been told often that good books should be digested slowly if one wants them to stay in one's long term memory, but I don't think I could have held together all the connections and parallel-story allusions had they not been so fresh. I think that on the inevitable reread, which will probably be on the original book for more ease in access of endnotes, I'll probably go at it slower and and with more repetition of earlier parts, which is difficult on the Kindle and probably my only grievance with it. I reread most of Gravity's Rainbow like this over the last five or six months, same with Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I found them very enjoyable to read like that. I think the only way I might be able to defeat Finnegan's Wake is to go at it nonlinearly and cherry-pick parts that look interesting.

I think a book's ability to adapt to this nonlinear reread speaks volumes about the quality of the writing. Obviously, some genres are going to be more apt than others. Episodic content usually fares better than a single epic thread, to state an obvious example. But more basic than that is the ability for the reader to appreciate the writing with arbitrarily small amounts of context, down to the level of sentence by sentence beauty of prose. In the novel, major-by-most-definitions character Don Gately talks about total immersion in the present moment as the only way to tolerate immense suffering - to note that no individual second is actually unbearable, and that the an individual second is the most you will ever have to experience. We can think of reading some books in the same way: the entire door-stopping tome might amount to something beyond your mental comprehension or appreciation, but each line, each manageable and digestible line, will give you some enjoyment, will enlighten you in some way. Of course, IJ taunts those attacking it with this philosophy with oblique connections that span unnoticed under hundreds of pages, causing, on emergence, the reader to futilely strain their brain to find the entrance. It's all paradoxical in a way that's challenging but not quite frustrating.

Infinite Jest: Is it a story, or literature

One almost defeatist attitude to take is to disregard the plot totally. This is your basic Thomas Pynchon survival tactic, and can also be used to great success in Russian epics where you care more about the philosophy discussed than keeping straight multisyllabic names, or basically any other book that can stand beautifully as unstructured prose. Let me make it clear now that this is no insult to books that cannot, however, nor am I saying that the plot of these novels suffers for being unnecessary. It's just that I have always held in my mind two types of books: stories and literature. One reads the former for the plot, the latter for the prose, i.e. the appeal of knowing what happens next vs. the abstract appeal of reading well written writing. Excellent books fall into both categories, as do bad books. Of course, there is an overlap on some terms - obviously plot-driven books can have some beautiful writing, and the best literature also has a traditionally compelling plot - but it's still fairly nice and binarily parsing since you can, sometimes with some effort, figure out which of the two you're more interested in any given book. A good test is to ask yourself if you'd still want to continue reading if the story and characters remained the same, but the writing was changed to drivel that pushes it forward with the absolute minimum required effort. Or ask yourself if you'd keep reading if you knew nothing more would "happen" in the book besides more of the author's prose and thoughts. Which scenario would you prefer?

Obviously these are extreme cases, but rarely is a book gray enough to require them. One can usually determine pretty early on which way the novel will lean, which muscle the author is attempting to flex most vigorously. Sometimes it gets a bit tricky - a lot of what everyone calls Russian literature seems to be so occupied with the eventfully developing relationships of characters that it seems natural to focus on the story, but when the true climax and resolution is philosophical, the plot allegorical and the characters projections of ideology, the genre's title becomes very apt in my book. The canonical example and also Greatest Books Of All Time is the works of James Joyce, a master of putting words into G.B.O.A.T.s with a sort of grace that towers above the most strained efforts of anyone else.

With that said, I'm still not going to claim that one approach is better than the other, just that I do have a preference and I do have a rationale for it that I think is fairly sound, from an objective standpoint. I like what I consider "literature", because I feel that the paramount focal point of an artistic medium should be what is unique to that medium. Now, you could easily contest that the ability for imagination-fueled storytelling, which is hard to argue against being still more perfect than any film adaptation, is equally unique to the written word, and it would be a good point, but I feel that this argument of imagination filling in for the missing senses of a medium - e.g. imagining the visuals of a book, the sounds of a comic, the interactivity of a movie, the... tactile response of a video game (maybe a "one-dimensional" written narrative summary of the fully-sensual real world, as I am often wont to consider, to bring this full circle. I feel like making this an endnote, THANKS DFW) - is somewhat weak because of this sliding scale feel to it and undermines the more sublime aspects of each genre (which, again, I'd like to go into in an endnote, but since this sentence/paragraph is getting really long in a way I find oddly amusing, I'll list what I think these aspects are here: books have the beauty of prose/language, comics have the beauty of timing, film has the beauty of hypnotic suspension, video games have the beauty of subliminal flow. This sentence is long enough though that I won't explain what these vaguely pretentious and nonsensical terms mean right now, and I'm also way off point).

So I like "literature" and most of what I read is "literature" and I went into IJ expecting "literature" and was hit in the face early on with expositions, the fundamentals of some sort of web of plot-lines, enough characters to make my head spin, and other such things that usually signified a story. I wasn't prepared for a story. At this point, I was considering two possibilities, mainly:
1. All the exposition and such was more for a backdrop of complexity, a sort of overwhelming amount of information to create a "realistically whole" universe that would actually be disregarded in favor of a much simpler story, or no story at all.
2. I had predicted wrong and IJ was really more a masterpiece of plot than that of prose, and I had better hunker down and start taking notes or else completely drown in it.

If you'll allow me, I'd like to stroke my ego for a second. I feel I am "pretty good" at minimum at reading literature, possibly "good" at it. This is not the sort of skill people usually brag about. What I mean isn't so much that I'm quick to spot metaphors and symbolism and analyze it at length and all such other high school essay crap (although I do love doing that, and my grades from the random AP literature exam I decided to write with no prep indicates that I'm like 5/5 good at it [HURR DURR MY BLOG I GET TO BRAG ABOUT THING SOMETIMES PLEASE]). I mean more that I'm able to enjoy it immensely, which is sort of notable when a good percentage of people seem to complain about it being boring or tedious. It's really more of a personality type than a skill, a personality probably best described as "dull" but more generously described as "content-able". I can be happy, truly engrossed and emoted to the point of audible gasps and such, just by reading something I consider well written. It's pretty much the highest pleasure I can get out of art, in many ways.

So I was hoping for that from Infinite Jest. I was hoping for a thousand-odd pages of the wonderful writing style and engrossing thought process that I had seen in the various DFW essays I had read online over the years. I was hoping for the former possibility, basically, hoping that the overwhelming "hold on" feeling I got as the book ricocheted between characters and piled on the topics was an intended emotion to help me better understand the tonality of the universe of the book, maybe, and not actual exposition to set up some plot down the road that would call on this knowledge.

What I got was both! Oh boy! Spoilers from here on out, by the way. Maybe spoilers previously, too, but I don't think so, sorry if there are.

My indication of spoiler should indicate that there is some sort of plot to the book. And there is, and one with bits of action and mystery at that, and one that definitely becomes all the more substantial when fed whatever facts you retained thus far. The feeling you get as old facts plug holes in new events is exhilarating, as the number of plots involved increases your suspense of the story exponentially. I feel almost cheated that the resolution of these plot lines is quite jagged - while some stories, usually the smaller and more episodic ones, come to a fairly traditional resolution, many major ones don't, and although what resolution they have is always poignant and interesting and masterfully told, I had very specific expectations unfulfilled, which is rare with this sort of book. Here I will break the ice on explicit Pynchon comparisons and say that Infinite Jest's ending reminds me a lot of Gravity's Rainbow's, with all plots reaching a boiling point, and then, in a move that's really far more fitting for a boiling point, just dissolving away into the wind. The order gets less chronological and riddled with flashbacks and anecdotes, with characters, although still abiding by overarching plot motivation, appearing and being fleshed out with an almost arbitrary selection. Meanwhile, on some sort of hidden back-burner, the kettle of thematic and philosophical and tonal and whatever conclusions is whistling hard through all of it. It's a hell of a great way to finish a book, I really wish I could express it better.

A key difference, though, between the ending of Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest is that the plot and characters of the former had started somewhat resembling normal and understandable and cohesive and had spiraled out into, in many cases literal, madness, the opposite of the initially confusing world of Infinite Jest that is explained layer by layer, piece by piece. This is key because when the former ends, you haven't had anything you could reasonably expect or even want to learn for a couple hundred pages, and the resolution seems surprising in it's brief bursts of exposition. Infinite Jest left me wanting more answers at the end than it did anywhere else in the book, mainly because I felt like those answers were still forthcoming, like they were owed to me.

Here's the crazy thing, though - I think those answers might actually have been available to me, or someone better at analysis and detail-remembering than me. It's because of the way the book hides it's exposition, and here's another thing that I feel is a key difference between it and Gravity's Rainbow. Pynchon packed in a lot of exposition and universe building and plot interweaving and all that, but he always did so nakedly and omnipotently. He presented Third Person Narrative Facts for the reader, and the reader knew these to be either Worth Remembering or perhaps just Relevant In The Future or even Meaningless But Entertaining. It was never An Allusion To Something Else You Should Know or A Big Clue About Future Plot, and Infinite Jest has these in spades. As every scene of IJ is written from the limited and unreliable first or third person narrative perspective, or as a transcript or something that's also limited, there's a lot of masked and semi-oblique knowledge that takes a bit of thinking to uncover the significance of. A character will see another character that the reader knows, but not recognize him. The effect isn't just underlining the "figurant" nature of many of the world's wholly real human beings, a reoccurring and engrossing theme of the novel, but is allowing the parallel plots to progress mysteriously from another perspective.

In my reading, I constructed a lot of theories for the book's mysteries. Some of them were explicitly solved later, some weren't. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I wasn't. I'm sure, if I had been more studious, more answers would have emerged, and probably more mysteries. I had often seen straight-up "what's on the tape?" mystery as being sort of pedestrian, I mean, anyone can come up with a concept like "whoever watches this dies from pleasure as they starve to death watching it repeatedly" (well maybe not everyone, that's quite an amazing concept when the full philosophical ramifications are brought to light) and then not show you. And yeah, there is a bit of finesse and restraint involved in getting the audience truly desperate to see it, e.g. Pulp Fiction's briefcase. But on the whole it just seems like you're using the audience's imagination to supplement what could be replaced by something that's beyond the audience's imagination. I feel like the eventual answer to "what's on the tape?", done with brilliantly little dramatics, falls into this category, and the way the reader is lead thematically and symbolically and straight-up Sherlock Holmes clue-trailed to something similar to it only highlights it.

So I wonder about other mysteries of the books - were there ways that IJ had attempted to lead me to their conclusions, or, for the mysteries with no conclusions, to a conclusion that only appeared between lines but was still undeniably the "right answer"? To really get my money's worth with that way early spoiler tag - and I'll apologize quick here for rambling so long - here are the specific things that are still bugging me:

-Himself's appearance as a "wraith" - purely supernatural injection (the only one in the book? Or did Lyle really hover?), or something else that I missed? Did he actually not die? I had long predicted this "twist" - that he had faked his own suicide. Mainly because it also answered:

-Where did The Entertainment originally get leaked from? How did the A.F.R. get the initial duplicates if the only master was buried without any indication of reproduction? I really feel like I should know this one, but it's slipped past me. Same with:

-The haunting of The Darkness and the related(?) randomly appearing objects around E.T.A. Was it the wraith of Himself? Why? Am I wrong in thinking this didn't have much of a resolution at all, except for maybe some symbolic one with Stice being frozen to the window? Was there some sort of character flaw in Stice that this was representing?

-The DMZ: was Hal's condition at the narrative beginning and chronological end brought on by this? Did Pemulis drug him? Why? Is that what his facial dissonance at the narrative end was about?

-This completely baffling sentance at the beginning of the book, which I reread after I finished it: "I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year's WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head." Am I wrong in thinking that Gately and Hal never met at all and would have no reason to meet in the future, not even mentioning John Wayne? My best guess is that Hal and Wayne end up in the same hospital as Gately after the DMZ incidents, and maybe Himself intervenes somehow, and that ties them all together and they go after the master Entertainment? But that theory has so many flaws I don't know where to begin. The whole line has this mysterious allure that reminds me of Hamlet, and Dedalus's discussion of it, and I think it's no coincidence that it refers to Hamlet on a few other levels right there as well, maybe.

Those are the big ones - there are more, but you get the idea. There's probably way more things that I don't even think to realize as unsolved, though. The density with which the novel weaves stories is unmatched.

So IJ's got plot. But it's also got prose. Oh man, does it ever. Descriptions of AA stories, and withdrawl and detox and drug use, and catatonic adoptive sisters being molested, and old people, and seizures, and wind, and the geometric/mental/physical/competitive challenges of tennis, and anything Eschaton, and late urban nights, and sunrises, and skin-graphed decaying fetuses, and blizzards, and the entomology of blizzards, and thanksgiving, and lighting, and sex, and radio broadcast, and the homeless, and opera, and kicking footballs, and I could go on and on, but it's like everything is in here, and everything is tackled with the appropriate and wildly varying tone. It's not quite like Pynchon or Joyce in that regard, two authors who also saw it fit to stretch their novels to catch any thoughts they had on any subject, but always from a perspective that, although changing, was never different to this extent. I cannot say which approach I prefer, as I found myself almost frustrated by the way I preferred some of Wallace's narrative voices over others, a disappointment I didn't feel with other authors, although it was certainly refreshing. The man was a wonderful writer, plain and simple, and I'm glad that he never let his intricate plot muscle out the need to just write. I think this is apparent when some of my favorite sections are the phone conversations that never went anywhere between Hal and Orin, and the exciting-not-on-paper-but-really-it-is part that begins with "The following things in the room were blue:".

So is this pure English literature, or a dystopian sci-fi satire mashed up with essays? After ruminating on it for a few thousand words, I have to come to the probably unsatisfying conclusion that's both. It's a rare piece of literature that has an almost spotlight-stealingly novel plot that actually sticks with it and develops it, not just uses it as the makeup of hardcore word porn like my beloved Pynchon.

At this point I'd like to go more into how I feel like this duality of it is shared with only a few other books I've read, most notably "Life of Pi", which I still love even after having a few years to get cynical about or find overrated, and how this shared pool I now have started qualifying mentally as "modern novels". And of course I'll have to explain that, 'cause it doesn't make a lot of sense, what with these books often called "post-modern" and all, but I basically have very unformed ideas of the internet age breeding art that feels the need to always frame good writing with new stories, like we've finally hit some magic point where the old "art" plot of "character wanders around" or "a dialogue" as seen in like everything has suddenly become cliche.

BUT I'm getting tired and I don't think I can really express this stuff at all right now. I also wanted to point out some things I didn't like about IJ, 'cause there were a few, I mean, don't get me wrong this was a great book but right now it's like, maybe top 10, not flawless or anything. It pains me to say that now, though, what with all this excitement of reading it for like five hours straight and finishing and then writing/thinking about it for awhile longer not having diminished, and I don't think I should ruin this feeling by getting all critic-y too soon.

Honestly though the odds of me coming back to talk about Infinite Jest are not good, I'm sorry to say. I have a backlog of blogposts I'm working on that just seems to get longer. I'm really glad I just sat down and said mostly everything I had to say about this, or at least enough, and probably too much, and didn't just save a draft to plug away at endlessly like I have for a bunch of other things.
-A post on The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya
-A post on  Puella Magi Madoka Magica
-My top albums of 2010
-A post about the latest Oyasumi Punpun volumes
-A post about going to Japan, because holy shit I'm going to Japan
-A post about recent Smash Bros. stuff
-A post about recent Tetris stuff
-A post about recent TAS stuff
-A post about Hamlet
-A post about having seen Das Racist live
-A post about the Tactical RPG I'm still making with a friend of mine (it's actually getting pretty cool)
-A post about The King of Limbs

I figure if I mention them it'll motivate me to work on it more. Or maybe I'm mentioning them because I'm thinking about posting this post to Reddit on like, /r/DavidFosterWallace or /r/Books or something and I want to entice possible future loyal readers? I dunno. If I did do that and you are here from Reddit, HELLO! If people really do want to hear me write more about Infinite Jest I'd be glad to, though, 'cause I do have a lot more to say about it.

I guess that's about it. I'm sorry about the blog being so dead. It will hopefully get less dead soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome commentary and thoughts! Thank you! I finished the novel around the same time you did, and it was great to read your opinions and experiences with IJ. --another Joyce, Pynchon, & DFW fan