Sunday, June 01, 2008

Infinite Jest

I am three hundred pages in, and I have to say, although I was skeptical at first, partly because I'm instinctively wary of popular things and partly because Wallace looks like kind of a dick in his picture on the back, but my cynicism has crumbled under this book's onslaught. It's really quite wonderful. Parts of it are sort of reminiscent of Underworld, in that they consist of characters talking around one another, but that's about as far as it goes: there's really feeling here; real emotion. It's both funny and harrowing as hell. I don't know what if any personal experience Wallace has in this area, but he writes about addiction scarily convincingly. The last thing I read was an account of an itinerant, gender dysphoric individual going into heroin withdrawal, and WOW. You are there. Addiction of various sorts is one of the book's major themes, and thinking about contemporary culture in these terms, while not a new idea by any means, is well-explored and has interesting results. The idea of subsidized time ("Year of Dairy Products from America's Heartland") is also rather potent.

A large part of this book takes place at a tennis academy: so why tennis? One character theorizes that with tennis, you have a kind of aloneness even within the collective, because it's not a team sport. Everyone's preoccupied with his or her own status. Isolation within a super-connected world: that's a good post-modern thing. Orin, the brother who gives up tennis for football, still maintains this tennis-y thing: it's suggested that his weakness in tennis was his ability to only master a part of the game, which translates somehow into football where, as a punter, all he has to do is this one thing good: he's kind of on the periphery of the team. Mario, the brother who can't play sports due to physical disabilities: is he more connected than the others? He's the one who talks frequently about their father's death.

Addiction kind of works the same way: you have the halfway house near the tennis academy where all the inmates are forced together, but at the same time they're fighting their demons in their own heads; the institution tries to help them, but it can't force them out.

Dude's interest in addiction borders on the obsessive, I have to say. There was a LONG segment in today's reading about AA meetings. I still don't have my head quite wrapped around what POINT he's trying to make. It's most compelling reading, but what with the massive, unbroken blocks of text on the SAME SUBJECT for pages and pages, it sometimes takes on a manifesto-like quality. There's a recurring bit featuring a US agent and a Quebecois separatist meeting to exchange information in shadowy ways, and the Quebecois has a kind of proto-fascist philosophy where American freedom is only the freedom to not have to do anything, and compares it to a parent letting a kid eat candy all the time. There's certainly a relationship here. Wallace's personal viewpoint remains somewhat murky, however.

There were also kids playing a complicated nuclear brinksmanship with tennis equipment simulation called Eschaton, which breaks down into bedlam, as the boundaries between the players and the playing area--between, dare I say it, signifier and signified--come into question. A map is not the territory kind of thing. The full implications remain slightly out of reach to me, but it's clearly a world come unstuck.

There's also a thing with Hal's brother Orin having a crush on the aforementioned agent, who is undercover as a woman. A classic literary device, from Shakespeare to Ranma 1/2!

Okay! Halfway point, more or less. The most striking thing in today's reading was a part with a pair of brothers, bumbling, ineffective Quebecois separatists, quite horrifyingly assassinated by more committed separatists--these here wheelchair assassins--and you don't really KNOW these characters or anything, but it's really hard to read, as the harmless ineffectualness of Lucien is emphasized even as he's being killed in a way that I don't really want to describe, and there's a sort of life-flashing-before-his-eyes thing at the end that is just absolutely DEVASTATING.

We also get a lot of background on the founding of this here Organization of North American Nations--certainly the ONAN acronym could be analyzed endlessly--as well as the move away from network TV to a sort of netflix-esque content-on-demand thing. It's fairly prescient, although I really can't see the networks actually *dying off* anytime soon, as they do here. The only thing that I find rather strange is that media is still being distributed on cartridge-y things. The book was published in 96, so written early 90s--surely even then CD-based media was enough of an emergent technology for Wallace to have extrapolated. OH WELL. I am nitpicking.

Also: more back-and-forth about what America's "pursuit of happiness" means and how it works when one's happiness impedes on others', and things of that nature.

The most likable character in the novel, I find, is recovering narcotics-user/burglar and current halfway house live-in counselor DW Gately. Yes! There are likable characters! Suck it, Delillo!

It was hard at the beginning to tell who the main characters really are, since there are a lot of disconnected sections of people major and minor. But now it becomes apparent that Don Gately really is the hero of this novel, if it has a hero, and I have a sick feeling bad things are in store for him--well, bad things have happened already. It may well get worse. There's an inmate who gets, I don't know, catharsis from killing rats then cats then dogs, which is a little hard to an animal person like me to read, although it's never in super-graphic detail. Anyway, he's chased back to the house one night by burly Canadians, and Gately enters a kind of fugue state, going back to when he was using, and beats the shit out of them, killing at least one. Not a good scene. I am uneasy.

There's a section where Steeply is telling Marathe about how his father became addicted to MASH and came apart more and more until he DIED, albeit from seeming unrelated causes, which raises many questions, and raises issues related to the isolation of the postmodern condition.

This is a pretty intense book, and reading it so quickly I think only exacerbates that. Sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself: it's only a book. There's a world outside. There are (pleasepleasepleasesaythereare) no actual Wheelchair Assassins doing horrible things to people. There's a lot of horrible stuff going on right now, and we're still waiting for the ultimate shoe to drop: in the beginning section, which is after everything else so far, chronologically, what is wrong with Hal (something drug-related--dmz related, to be specific--presumably). I predict that the book will not end on an upbeat note.

A mean but rather funny bit where Hal accidentally finds himself not in an NA-type group but one of these Men's Support Groups.

Marathe is actually a pretty intriguing character. A genuine anti-hero, I would say, although we'll see how things turn out.

Gately having a long, hallucinatory discussion with the late Incandenza. Pretty interesting stuff.

Still not sure where this is going, but it's gotta get there in a hundred pages. So we'll see. I wish I were being more substantive here, but I'm distracted by wanting to know what happens :-(


Next: The Recognitions

...okay, to be more specific: this book has no ending. As in, it just STOPS. I have no doubt that any number of people would argue that this is indicative of the postmodern condition endless narcotizing sameness blahdy blah blah...but, although I am open to reasoned arguments, I'm thinking that's basically a cop-out. I don't think Wallace puts in the necessary groundwork to pull off that kind of ambiguity. All of Pynchon's novels have endings.

Do not get me wrong: I liked the book a lot. But I think the bottom line is that Wallace is a ridiculously talented motherfucker who--at the time of the writing--did not quite have the experience or discipline to bring it all back home. There's a temptation on the part of a lot of people to look at something so fucking massive and erudite and automatically declare it a masterpiece--which is probably actually rather unfortunate for the writer, as it encourages complacency. There are many things about Infinite Jest that are fucking awesome, but ultimately, I think it has to go into the category of journeyman work. I just hope that DFW doesn't consider it some sort of definitive novelistic statement, because, although it isn't the Next Great American Novel (there's a reality show for you), I strongly suspect that, with this experience under his belt, the next one very well might be.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

many thanks for the affirmations.

a young dfw was involved in rehab and admittedly writes with some authority.

7:17 PM  

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