Friday, September 1, 2017

Review: Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest
From Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace:
Open quote 

A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself's work illuminated the central conundra of millennial apr├Ęs-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra."

I finished "Infinite Jest." The novel that sold a million copies since publication twenty years ago; the novel that's on almost every list of best novels of the twentieth century; the thousand-page novel that I bet hardly anyone ever actually finishes reading; the novel whose sentences go on even longer than this sentence of mine; you know, that novel. I finished it. I finished it. I deserve some recognition for that. Or punishment. I don't know which.

Grade: C-

I hardly ever put down a novel early, but I did with "Infinite Jest." I quit about 20% of the way through. Then several days later, for reasons I can only think have something to do with me being a glutton for punishment, I picked it up again and plowed through to the end. I admit it did slowly get better as I familiarized myself with the dozens of characters and three or four major sub-plots. But in the end, my main takeaway is a perverse pride in perseverance, in just finishing it.

A quick summary that risks giving the impression that this massive novel can be summarized at all: The Incandenza family, especially tennis prodigy Hal, are part of a junior tennis academy in Boston. The patriarch of the family (now deceased by gruesome suicide), was a film-maker whose greatest work, also titled "Infinite Jest", is supposedly so enthralling that people who watch it can never quit it, until eventually they die of thirst or starvation. There's a Quebecois separatist subplot in which Canadian terrorists (I know!) try to obtain the master of the enthralling video to use as a weapon (don't ask). Finally, we learn the stories of the residents of a nearby drug abuse recovery center. These plots weave and diverge and sometimes (barely) intersect, with many (too many to count) diversions into matters wholly tangential to any of the main plots. I would guess that 600 pages could be cut without doing any damage to the plot(s). But plot is not what "Infinite Jest" is all about, so don't take that as a editorial suggestion on my part.

Enough of the summary. No one reads "Infinite Jest" for the plot. They read it for its style, its linguistic stunts, its sheer innovative audacity. The excerpt above can be seen as an example of Wallace's virtuosity, even though I chose it more to scare potential readers away from this novel. It is meta commentary that supposedly describes "Infinite Jest" the movie within the novel, but could just as well be critical reaction to "Infinite Jest" the novel itself. Wallace is perhaps winkingly referring to critics' view of his own work as "turgid" and "aesthetically ambitious" yet "boring." And the paragraph ends with a criticism of people who misuse words, which Wallace himself deliberately does throughout the novel. In one scene, Hal describes clipping his toenails into a wastebasket as "an exercise in telemachry", a malapropism for telemetry that signals that Hal might also be playing the role of Odysseus's son Telemachry in a retelling of Homer's epic poem. The title "Infinite Jest" comes from Shakespeare, with various characters playing the roles of characters in Hamlet. The more the reader knows (about the minutia of everything), the more this novel makes sense. I don't pretend to be that expert.

What earns "Infinite Jest" its place on the list of best novels is that it's chock full of clever and intense writing that makes you sit up and take notice. Here are a few short examples (just a few of the hundreds one could pick almost at random):

"He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see."

"A bright beach ball floats and bumps against one side of the pool. The sun like a sneaky keyhole view of hell."

"By now the light was about the same color as the ash and clinkers in the bottom of a Weber Grill."

"If you are an adolescent, here is the trick to being neither quite a nerd nor quite a jock: be no one. It is easier than you think."

" 'I Didn’t Know That I Didn’t Know' is another of the slogans that looks so shallow for a while and then all of a sudden drops off and deepens like the lobster-waters off the North Shore."

Here is a description of alcoholism:

"'When I was drunk I wanted to get sober and when I was sober I wanted to get drunk,' John L. says; 'I lived that way for years, and I submit to you that's not livin, that's a fuckin death-in-life.'"

If there's one aspect of "Infinite Jest" that rises above everything else, it's the gripping scenes of alcoholism. One extended scene of an alcoholic in the grip of withdrawal symptoms goes on for pages in a way that you can't imagine getting any worse for the poor man, and then it does.

Tennis gets its own extended treatment. Here is one of Wallace's characters describing getting in a rhythm in the game of tennis:

"But you never know when the magic will descend on you. You never know when the grooves will open up. And once the magic descends you don't want to change even the smallest detail. You don't know what concordance of factors and variables yields that calibrated can't-miss feeling, and you don't want to soil the magic by trying to figure it out, but you don't want to change your grip, your stick, your side of the court, your angle of incidence to the sun."

Sometimes the same feeling comes over you as you read "Infinite Jest". When it does, this novel is magic. But you still have to slog through a lot that I honestly can't say is magic. So I still can't give this classic a better grade than a C-. It may be a great novel, but I can't imagine many people liking it.

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