Monday, December 15, 2008

And So Adieu....Until Next Time

So, I think I finally get it. The title of the novel is actually a triple-entendre - it's a reference to Hamlet, from which parts of the plot borrow heavily; it's the title of a film in the novel - also a cornerstone of the novel's plot; and, probably most importantly, it's a meta-reference to the novel itself. Let me explain that last one: The first chapter of the book is the last chronologically, so when you finish the novel, which really does just end at a seemingly random spot, you're supposed to flip back to the front and start all over again. The book is actually intended to be an infinite cycle.

Yes, last night I finished the two-month expedition I started back on October 7th (ah, okay, just for posterity - 1,079 pages in, 100% of the novel!). And yes, after I finished, I did go back and reread the first chapter, and was very, very tempted to continue. But that would've meant another two months of my life - and I'm not sure I have it in me...yet. There's no doubt I'll return to this novel at some point, maybe three or five years from now. DFW even said in an interview that, at the risk of sounding a bit presumptuous - you know, it is a 1,000+ page book - but it really is a book that he intended to be read more than once. And so, someday, I will.

After a first reading, it's very easy to see how a second reading is almost necessary. I had my "cheat sheet" guide book to help orient me in time and explain interconnected relationships of theme and characters, but without that, there's so incredibly much I would've missed. And I'm sure there's a lot I missed anyway. The book really is a giant cycle (and the notion of cycles dominates many of the descriptions and plot turns throughout the novel) in that the foundation for the last chapter (dueling story lines between Don Gately - a former drug addict and main character at the Ennet House, and Hal) is set up by tiny clues in the first hundred pages - when the novel is at its most jumpy and fractured.

So, at any rate, the next time I read the book, now that I know how it all fits together ("the interconnectedness of all things" - DFW), the reading will probably be even more fun than it was this time. This reading definitely had its ups and downs. There were certainly times I was bored and frustrated, and would find myself spacing out over several lines at a time, and then forcing myself to stop, backup and reread. But as pieces started to come together, and I started to "get" the book, it became more and more fun - like the feeling you get when you're let in on a joke, only magnified hundredfold.

And, so, I sign off - for now. This is quite sad, to be honest. After DFW died in September, I wrote a silly, somewhat rambling note on facebook - basically stream-of-consciousness thoughts on his death. Someone I don't know at all posted a comment: "Good luck with Infinite Jest. It's a much sadder book now." No doubt about it - that guy was absolutely right. Of course, the book is very sad anyway, and it's incredibly sadder now that DFW is no longer here. But thankfully, he left us a work that, by its very nature and structure and brilliance and fun, is meant to last forever - quite literally, an infinite jest.

(Thanks for reading...GZ)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nearing the End...Sadly

It's all starting to come together - only soon to conclude with no conclusion. (I'm not really ruining the ending here - the biggest criticism of Infinite Jest is that it...just...ends. So I'd hope anyone that takes it on knows that going in.) I'm 1,035 pages in, 96.0 percent of the novel. I'll probably finish tomorrow.

Before I conclude this blog, I wanted to make sure to post two links to DFW-related things I planned to blog about at some point, but never got to.

The first is his brilliant commencement address to Kenyon College, May 21, 2005. I've read this probably 10 times, and each time, I find something new that's inspiring and funny. It's very, very much worth a read! Evidently, an expanded version of this address will be published next spring under the title This is Water. So, there is (sort of) new DFW to look forward to!

Secondly, after his death, one of his English students at Pomona College posted a syllabus for a Literary Interpretation class he taught in the Spring of '05. It's funny and terrifying (if you were one of his students) all at the same time, and he even used his signature footnote-style in a syllabus!

"I wish you way more than luck."
-DFW, May 21, 2005

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Synecdochically Speaking

A couple weeks ago, I sat through the new Charlie Kaufman film "Synecdoche, New York." (Isn't saying "film" instead of "movie" delightfully pretentious? You know, similar to using a phrase like "delightfully pretentious"...)

So, how was the FILM, you ask? Let's just say Entertainment Weekly gave it a D+, and I'm hard-pressed to disagree. It's very, very bizarre and, I thought, way too convoluted and silly to be entertaining. Also, the last 45 minutes or so is incredibly dull.

In the novel Infinite Jest, Hal's late father Jim is an auteur known for his avant-garde and bizarre films, similar to Kaufman. There's actually a 20-page footnote that catalogues his filmography, including five versions of Infinite Jest - the fifth version of which is Jim's last film, and presumably what drove him insane enough to kill himself. It's also the film the Quebecois terrorists are looking for because (as mentioned in a previous post) it's so entertaining that anyone who watches is rendered virtually lobotomized, wanting to do nothing but watch the film over and over. Some other titles of Jim's films: The American Century as Seen Through a Brick, Dial C for Concupiscence, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun (which is a gory revenge tale taking place in a convent), and Fun with Teeth.

Jim is also known for inventing a new genre known as Found Drama. One example of Found Drama is Jim's film titled The Joke. The "film" shows an audience filing into a movie theater and settling in to watch a flick. The audience watches itself watch itself, becoming increasingly "self-conscious and uncomfortable and hostile" as the movie-goers realize that they are the actual movie. And then they leave. This film was credited in Jim's filmography as his first "truly controversial film."

So anyway, in a section I read this week (892 pages in, 82.7% of the novel), DFW is describing one of Jim's films, and uses the phrase "camera as audience-synecdoche." Clearly, that's not a word you come across too often, so seeing Kaufman's film and then reading it in as a description of another bizarre, mind-bending film (Jim's) within a few days of each other is quite a fun little coincidence.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Depressing Thoughts on Depression and Death

I'm back on the wagon in a big way, and am now 783 pages in, 72.6% of the novel. I came across some really thought-provoking and sad sections this week, especially, again, in looking at the book through the lens of DFW's suicide. In one part, DFW describes two different types of depression. Anhedonia is basically "spiritual numbness, a kind of emotional novicaine." There's nothing inside, you can't find yourself, you just don't have any feeling. Hal, it is revealed, is afflicted with this type of depression.

The other type is much more severe - "predator-grade" clinical depression. It is just incredibly, unimaginably painful. DFW says that for someone with clinical depression, anhedonia is a "fond dream." By way of further explanation, DFW says that if you put two people next to each other, one depressed and one not, and tortured the not-depressed person with electric current, that person would scream in pain, and the screams would be "circumstantially appropriate." But the depressed person is in similar pain, but if s/he did scream, s/he'd be considered "psychotic." His/her pain/screams aren't appropriate because, there is nothing tangible to be screaming about - to the outside world.

And here's an analogy to further convey the severity of clinical depression: When someone who is clinically depressed kills him/herself, it's akin to a person on the ledge of burning building jumping to their death instead of being burned to death by the fire. S/he'll die either way, but jumping is the less scary, and less painful. A depressed person views the pain DFW calls "It" as worse than death. I thought that was really profound and incredibly insightful, especially because DFW says it's nearly impossible for non-depressed people to empathize with depressed people, and vice-versa. It's also another frightening window into DFW's own life...and death.

In another section describing Hal and his relationship with his suicided father, DFW writes: "It's weird to feel like you miss someone you're not even really sure you know." Ah, the pathos of that quote! Incredible. And it made me think about how whenever I think about DFW's death, and the fact that there will be no more of his brilliant writing, I miss......him? his work? I'm not sure. It's weird.

On a slightly happier note, sort of - I was thrilled to find that one of the members of my favorite band (Smashing Pumpkins), guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who was working on Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA before joining Pumpkins, recently wrote a mini-tribute to DFW on a Pumpkins blog. It's not exactly sunny, but it was fun to see two of my favorite things intersecting like that.

And on a much happier note, GO MARQUETTE!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Quick Summary and Reinvigorated by Roth

Okay, I'll admit it - I've been dragging ass on Infinite Jest lately. But since I'm over the halfway point (618 pages in, 57.3% of the novel), now seems like a good time for a quick plot synopsis. There are three main "plots" in Infinite Jest - all of which are interconnected in ways it would take pages and pages to explain.

The most interesting is about Hal Incandenza and his misadventures at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Another plotline (broken up into several narrative strains) is the story of the recovering addicts at Ennet House (incidentally, Hal is a bit of a pothead, too). The final story is of Quebcois separatists who use a unique form of terrorism - they've recovered and unleashed on the American public a film produced by Hal's father James called Infinite Jest (the only copy of which was thought to be buried with James when James killed himself). Infinite Jest is so entertaining that anyone who watches it is rendered a braindead vegetable - wanting to do nothing else but return to watching the film. (see the parallels between the addiction to entertainment and the addiction to drugs and alcohol?)

Anyway, the last hundred pages or so have been really fractured again, occuring in 2-3 or 7-8 page snippets. So I decided to escape to one of my other all-time favoriter writers: Philip Roth. Roth just published a slim novel titled Indignation, which I read over the weekend while home in Ohio. Indignation is a fantastic book - a true return to form for Roth after a few duds. It's the story of Marcus Messner, a college student at fictional Winesburg (Ohio) College in 1951 (yes, the homage to Sherwood Anderson's samely titled novel is intentional). Marcus is terrified that he'll be expelled from college and be drafted and killed in the Korean War. He meets a girl who has a history of mental problems and even a suicide attempt. Meanwhile, he's stuggling to deal with his increasingly paranoid father and constantly fighting with the Dean over Marcus' refusal to attend mandatory chapel (Marcus is Jewish, but is also a Bertrand Russell-devoted atheist). It's sort of a zany, comic novel - but not overtly so, because Roth's prose is so measured and downright deadpan. I'd highly, highly recommend it both for Roth fans or as an introduction to Roth if you've never read him before.

At any rate, after finishing Indignation, I'm re-energized to soldier on with Infinite Jest. My goal when I started back in October was to finish by the New Year, and it'll take some doin', but I still think I can.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Break with Bukowski

Since I was traveling last week - and attending a Smashing Pumpkins concert on Friday, and a Marquette basketball game on Saturday - I had no time to read Infinite Jest (so I'm still 526 pages in ). But, on the plane to and from Boston, I did manage to plow through a book called Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski.

I'd never read Bukowski before, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a short, quick coming-of-age tale about a boy (supposedly Bukowski's alter ego - Henry Chinaski) growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Chinaski grows increasingly mean and misanthropic, constantly getting in fights (including with his father) and drinking himself stupid. The novel ends on the day the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and now-20-year-old Chinaski is getting beat in an arcade boxing game by a nine-year old kid - clearly a metaphor for how difficult and broken Chinaski (Bukowski) feels life is.

Bukowski's minimalist prose couldn't be in more contrast to DFW's literary acrobatics. So, Ham on Rye was a nice way to sort of relax and take a break from Infinite Jest. But now it's back to actually having to concentrate very intensely on the prose, instead of just flying through it. Almost half way there....

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shipping Up To Boston

Today is a good day. I'm headed out to Boston for a few days for a conference called Greenbuild. I usually don't mind traveling for work, but this is one show I always really look forward to. People that design and build green buildings are really, really passionate about what they do - and it's infectious. Also, the keynote speaker is Archbishop Desmond Tutu - so it'll be fascinating to hear a Noble Peace Laureate speak in person.

Most of the action in Infinite Jest (I'm 526 pages in, 48.7% of the novel) takes place in and around Boston. The Enfield Tennis Academy and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House are both located in the fictional Boston suburb of Enfield, and several other scenes happen in Boston proper.

I thought about trying to compare how curvy and confusing Boston is to the fractured, non-linear structure of Infinite Jest, complete with a lengthy (and probably-not-too-interesting) explanation of how appropriate it is that the novel takes place in Boston. But all that seems like a real stretch. So I'm just gonna wrap up here and go get on a plane...