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...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Infinite Sadness

Despite its title, and dozens and dozens of instances of utter hilarity, Infinite Jest is actually a very, very morose book. As mentioned before, the book is basically about addiction and recovery. DFW weaves the infinitely, infinitely sad personal stories of numerous characters in various stages of depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and, thankfully, treatment throughout the novel. A long section I read this week (446 pages in, 41.3% of the novel) was a description of a Boston AA meeting - and included the story of an adopted girl whose foster father had repeatedly sexually molested her handicapped foster sister while the adopted girl was in the room. This led her to become a stripper, prostitute and alcoholic at age 16. There's also a vignette about a cocaine-addicted pregnant woman who gives birth to a stillborn baby in a hotel room while she was freebasing. Then, she's in such denial, that she caries the baby's corpse around with her as if it were alive. DFW's prose in these sections is just incredibly heart-wrenching - I literally had to put the book down and stare at the ceiling for a few minutes to "reboot" my brain.

Suicide is also a recurring theme in Infinite Jest. There have been at least three instances of suicide or attempted suicide so far in the novel - including the father of main character Hal, who killed himself by putting his head in a microwave (he cut a hole in the door, filled the space around his neck with foil and pressed 'start.'). Another drug-addicted character named Kate Gompert attempts suicide before admitting herself into the Ennet House. The interesting thing about this episode is that Kate Gompert is a real person. She was also a tennis player, which is how DFW must've know her. I don't know whether she was actually an addict, but I read in another Infinite Jest blog that the real Kate Gompert sued DFW over the use of her name and untrue depiction in the novel. Can't find any confirmation of that on the Web, though.

One other note: When DFW died, many of the published tributes to him pointed to the sadness of and instances of suicide in Infinite Jest as ways of interpreting DFW's own suicide - retrospectively, of course. My initial reaction to this was skepticsm - I tend to believe you can always find a writer in his/her novel at some level, but most fiction isn't intentionally autobiographical and attempts to link a character or theme to the author's personal life is misguided. But, given the details that have emerged about DFW's life (especially in the fantastic Rolling Stone bio mentioned in the last post) about his own struggle with depression and alcoholism, I'm actually starting to think there may be something to the notion that Infinite Jest is a blueprint of reasons for DFW's own suicide. It's an idea that won't be fully formed for me until I finish the novel, but something I will certainly continue to think about....sadly.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Green Is Everywhere - Even In Infinite Jest (sort of...)

To try to maintain some semblance of sanity while I'm reading Infinite Jest, I've also been working my way through a non-fiction book called Hot, Flat and Crowded. The book, written by star NY Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, is basically a 400-page argument for why America needs to go green - and soon. (Hot = global warming; Flat = Internet has led to globalization, leveled playing field; Crowded = population explosion). Friedman argues that America can again take its place at the head of the world table, a status we've lost due to the Iraq war and Bush, if we lead a worldwide green revolution.

I enjoyed the book - mostly because environmental responsibility (in design, construction and facility management) is one of the "beats" I write about fairly frequently for the magazine I work for. Friedman is very good at relating environmental responsibility to practical benefits - he doesn't just argue that green is "the right thing to do." That argument rarely resonates with skeptics. Green IS the right thing to do, but as IBM has figured out and illustrated in its new ad campaign, going green is way beyond a "feel good strategy." Green actually saves money, it doesn't cost. Friedman argues that it's way past time for America to enact carbon emission legislation (Obama campaigned on a cap-and-trade system), better fuel efficiency standards (China's are tougher than ours right now - what a joke!), and more emphasis (including incentives and tax breaks) on renewable energy and alternative energy R&D.

And but so, there is sort of a connection between Friedman and Infinite Jest - I'm 351 pages in, 32.5% of the novel, by the way. In a conversation between main character Hal and his older brother Orin (which takes place in a 20-page footnote [yes. 20...freakin'...pages]), they frequently reference the Great Concavity. In DFW's parallel world where Canada, the US and Mexico have merged into the ONAN (Organization of North American Nations), the Great Concavity is basically an enormous toxic waste dump. It includes the area north of an imaginary line from Buffalo eastward through Massachusetts' norther border and south of Quebec. There are giant catapults in Boston that launch trash into the Great Concavity, and the area includes "kids the size of Volkswagons shlumpfing around with no skulls, green sunsets and indigo rivers, feral-hamster incursions, and lobsters like monsters in old Japanese films."

Now, I don't think DFW was a staunch environmentalist or anything, but because Infinite Jest is, at its core, a parody, you could make the argument that the Great Concavity is a subtle dig at American wastefulness. That if we continue gorging ourselves resource-inefficiently, nothing short of a three-state sized landfill will be able to accommodate all our waste! Don't forget: Reduce, reuse, recycle! ;)

(One last thing: Here is a fantastic bio of DFW from a recent Rolling Stone.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Was DFW TOO Smart?

As hard as it is for me, a gigantic fan, to understand, there are as many people who hate DFW's writing as love it. I met one of these people in my recent fiction workshop, and we had a brief argument about DFW's style. She described his writing basically as the meanderings of an egotistical jerk, and she couldn't be persuaded otherwise. I was tempted to throw out something along the lines of "Fine, well then you just stick to your Nicolas Sparks and John Grisham," but held my tongue. :)

At any rate, her opinion is emblematic of the No. 1 knock on DFW - that his writing is complex and blustery, simply for the sake of being complex and blustery, that he's just showing off his extraordinary talent, like an outfielder slowing up to make a diving catch when he could just as easily have made a routine grab. In that same radio interview referenced in the previous post, DFW admitted that over-rendering may have been a valid criticism early in his career, but regarding Infinite Jest, he maintains that every word, every element of style, every character was carefully chosen for a particular reason. That it's not "gratuitiously hard and difficult." That everything means something.

A section I read this week - I'm now 276 pages in, 25.6% of the novel - may be viewed (by DFW haters) as an instance of DFW just showing off. It's almost certainly a section you'd skim if you weren't enjoying the novel as much as I am. The section is a list of "exotic new facts" you'd learn if you were a resident of a substance-recovery program, like Ennet House. While I can't make a convincing argument about how, exactly, this six-page section is critical to the story, I absolutely loved it. Many of the "facts" are downright hysterical. Here's a sampling:

- That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.
- That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.
- That it is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person.
- That God - unless you're Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both - speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.
- That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there's a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it's interested in re you.
- That pretty much everybody masturbates. Rather a lot, it turns out.
- That trying to dance sober is a whole different kettle of fish.
- That cats will in fact get violent diarrhea if you feed them milk, contrary to the popular image of cats and milk.

A little silly? Perhaps. But also infinitely fun!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Carefully Controlled Chaos

The structure of this novel is incredibly fascinating. After my last post about how fractured the book had re-gotten, I’ve hit a stretch of another 30 or so pages (206 down, 19.1% of the novel) that are more conventional – continuing the development of actual stories (Hal’s day-to-day existence at the Enfield Tennis Academy, and the stories of the addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [redundancy is intentional]).

So the constantly shifting narrative style has made me curious about the “method” behind DFW’s “madness” (incidentally, the novel’s title is derived from Hamlet – Yorick was “a fellow of infinite jest” – and the novel is bursting with other Hamlet references). And but so, in a 1996 radio interview soon after the book was published, DFW reveals that Infinite Jest is structured like a Sierpinski Gasket (pictured).

I’m certainly no mathlete, but from the best I can tell, a Sierpinski Gasket is a fractal – a geometric shape that can be broken into smaller versions of the same shape ad infinitum. Fractals are used to define highly irregular geometric figures, as well as to bring mathematical order to ostensible chaos.

In Infinite Jest, themes, characters and narrative strains are introduced briefly, then returned to later and expanded, but with bits and pieces of the other narrative strains, characters and themes woven in. This pattern continues for 1,079 pages. And in some way or another, everything is interconnected.

This Sierpinski Gasket business is very briefly mentioned in the introduction of the guide book I’m using, but I paid it no heed then because I didn’t understand it. And I’m still not sure I do, but what I do understand is that it’s just another stark example of DFW’s brilliance. The structure of a novel is usually one of the first choices a writer makes (fiction-writing cliché – think: the movie Wonder Boys: “you’re always telling us that writers make choices..." ), but that usually means deciding if a story will be told in chronological order, or include a flashback here and there, or if it should start out with a few parallel narrative strains that are eventually merged. DFW said "Screw that, I'm using an incredibly complex mathematical proof as my structure." Simply stunning.

PS: Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Spiraling Further Into Complexity

Just when I thought I was settling in – sections and scenes were getting longer, and an actual story was materializing – I hit a patch of about 30 pages that were just as silly and chaotic as the book started.

There’s a scene written from the POV of a heroin addict, complete with colloquial slang and purposely misspelled words. It’s a pretty funny scene - that is, until one of the narrator’s buddies dies when he shoots up some Drano-laced dope and bleeds to death from the inside out. Rather disturbing. Another “scene” was an essay written by the novel’s main character Hal Incandenza about the differences between Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-O and (in Hal’s opinion) the far superior Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues. And then, there's an essay about the rise and fall of video phones. Sound boring? Not in the least – it's a perfect example of DFW’s brilliant and hilarious knack for tongue-in-cheek and deadpan in something that is supposed to be serious. If you want to don a pair of specs and kill a half hour, you can actually read this section here. I’d highly recommend it!

How does any of that connect to the story as a whole? Your guess is as good as mine.

Finally, the funniest scene in the book (171 pages down, 15.8% of the novel) so far: A drug-addicted transvestite steals a woman’s purse that contains her “Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart.” When the woman screams ‘Stop her! She stole my heart!’ nearby police officers “were publicly heard to passively quip ‘Happens all the time.’”

By the way, here’s a story from the NY Times about a memorial to DFW held in NYC last week.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How Long is LONG?

I've been taking a fiction-writing class one night a week for the past two months, and last night was my turn to have a story workshopped. It was a great experience, and a lot of fun to work on a short story again. And it got me thinking about what it would take to convert my short story into a novel.

In just over a month, including many re-writes and edits, I wrote a 4,500-word story - about 14 double-spaced, typed pages. As a baseline, the average published novel (if there is such a thing) is around 80,000 words - or approximately 250 words per page for 320 pages. Obviously, the number of pages depends on font type and size, book size, margins, etc.

Infinite Jest, 123 pages (11.4% of the novel) of which I have now conquered, is 1,079 pages, and its page size is much larger and type size smaller than most published work. Amazon's text stats say the novel is 484,001 words - or about EIGHT times as long as a typical novel.

By way of comparison, Stephen King's The Stand, the longest novel I'd ever read before Infinite Jest is 462,138 words. War and Peace is 568,880.

Now, here's the amazing thing: DFW wrote Infinite Jest in only three years - and his first draft, according to this article, was three times longer! That's 40,333 words per month....or about NINE times my meager output. It's just mind-boggling.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The "Other" DFW

I didn't get much time to read this week because of a work trip to Dallas (DFW = Dallas/Fort Worth airport, too). I thought it prudent not to even attempt to lug this massive brick of a book with me onto an airplane. I don't have a scale, but amazon tells me that the hardcover edition (my book is an early softcover edition, presumably from a book club - it has the same size, cover design and pagination as the original hardcover), weighs in at 3.2 pounds. It doesn't sound like much, and mine probably weighs a little less than that, but this is a BOOK. Three pounds! I'm going to have some strong forearms when this is all finished.

Anyway, the trip from the airport to downtown Dallas swings you by Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, and until recently, Pacman Jones. Also, my hotel downtown was about four blocks from the Joule Hotel where Pacman got in a fight with his own body guard last week. It made me think about what a total imbecile he is...and how funny his ongoing story is to everyone else. Pacman, and Jerry Jones for that matter, have sort of become parodies of themselves - generally perceived as silly jokes to anyone that knows their stories. In the bit of Infinite Jest I got to today, there's a scene where one of the main characters - a punter for the Arizona Cardinals named Orin Incandenza - has to actually don a cardinal costume and "fly" in from the roof of Mile High Stadium prior to a game with the Broncos - whose players are also broncos. I'm not sure if DFW has a point to this, other than to be funny, which it is. Perhaps, it's meant to parody how the NFL, and specifically owners like Jerry Jones will do just about anything to grab headlines and win fans.

So, I'm 79 pages in - 7.3% of the novel. It sure hasn't gotten any easier, but it still is a lot of fun!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Makes Infinite Jest Such a Difficult Read?

I was hanging out with my cousin Mike this past Saturday night, and he asked me this. Damn good question, I thought. But even just 56 pages (5.2%) into the novel, I think I’m fairly qualified to answer it. Here are the top three reasons:

1). The structure of the novel is fractured and non-linear. The narrative continuously jumps to different times, characters and settings, usually after only a single, relatively short scene. The sheer number of characters, how they relate to each other, and how they’ll relate to the main “story” (and I use that term loosely) is difficult to discern at this point. Adding to the confusion is that the years in DFW’s parallel America are corporate-sponsored, so instead of 1996 or 2003, they have names like Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Creative and funny, for sure, but it’s a bit disorienting since there’s no baseline – you don’t know if YoDAU is before or after YoT-SDB, and by how much. But the years are the headings for each scene/section and really the only points of orientation. Thank goodness for my guide book.

2) The fractured nature is amplified by the fact that DFW uses several different styles to narrate different scenes. As examples so far: One scene was written as an extremely dense stream-of-consciousness rant (Erdedy’s story, mentioned in an earlier post), another few scenes have been several pages of nothing but dialogue. There’s a scene told from the POV of a 15-year old pregnant African-American girl told in ebonics, followed by an incredibly dense description of the tennis academy – one of the two main settings of the novel – including a detailed explanation of its HVAC system.

3) So I’ve mentioned the footnotes before (all at the end – I’m using two bookmarks, so it’s easy to flip back), but I didn’t realize some of the footnotes would themselves be footnoted. It’s like a maze of words. On page 53, there are six footnotes, five of which are in the same 130-word megasentence! Those five actual footnotes (appearing on pages 983-984) categorize and explain a huge list of drugs (Happy Patches, Fastin, Tenuate, valium, ecstasy, Xanax, etc., etc., etc.). So, that one sentence, and its footnotes, and its footnoted footnotes, took me about 30 minutes to get through – after which I felt like I needed some of those drugs DFW had just painstakingly described.

Does any of this make sense? My head hurts. But this is fun!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

DFW +1 month

Today is the one-month anniversary of the death of one of the world's greatest minds. During the past several weeks, as is often the case when an artist dies, there has been renewed interest in DFW's work. In fact, Infinite Jest, a book that was published 12 years ago, is currently #86 on's bestsellers list. Bill Simmons -'s Sports Guy - wrote a heavily footnoted column about Manny Ramirez, a tribute to one of the signature characteristics of DFW's style. (Infinte Jest includes 388 footnotes encompassing 96 pages!) And, just anecdotally, I've had several conversations with friends over the past few weeks about DFW and his writing - some of whom had read DFW for the first time and were just blown away by his prowess.

One of my all-time favorite pieces by DFW is a New York Times article titled "Federer as Religious Experience." I just re-read it now, and would encourage you to check it out. It's about as rewarding as reading a sports article can be.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Venus and Pot Smoking

And but so (a DFWism), I’ve made it through 27 pages (2.5% of the novel), which includes two chapters — one with Hal, and another with a guy named Erdedy sitting in his apartment, waiting for his pot-delivery girl. The second chapter includes a single five-page paragraph, and then another four-page paragraph. Whew!

Hal is interviewing at the University of Arizona for a tennis scholarship. It's a short chapter, but the most interesting part to me, is that at one point Hal mentions that he hopes Venus Williams comes to watch a tennis tournament he's supposed to play in. It’s clearly not the “real” Venus Williams, because this one "owns a ranch," - it's just a character with the same name. But I'm sure it's not a coincidence - DFW was a highly ranked junior tennis player in his youth, and though Venus was only in her early teens (born in 1980) in the early 1990s when the novel was written, DFW must've still been an avid enough tennis fan that he knew about her even then.

Nextly: Erdedy has tried unsuccessfully to quit pot “70 to 80” times before, but he’s so determined to make this his last time, that his plan is to smoke all 200 grams ($1,250 worth) of “unusually good” marijuana he’s about to purchase over a four-day stretch. He’s counting on the fact that when he’s finished, the memory and shame of such debauchery will be enough to scare him off ever doing pot again. I loved this scene because I’ve actually tried this strategy. In college, four friends and I smoked an entire pack of Marlboro Reds in one sitting to try to disgust ourselves into quitting. Sadly, our resolve lasted only a few days. The first to crack was a portly Korean fellow named Nam, and his punishment for breaking our support-system agreement was…a dorm-room swirlie. That’s one punishment that probably didn’t fit the crime. Ah, memories….

Heads and Bodies: Opening Lines

A great first line of a novel is a bit like a walk-off home run: It’s utterly unforgettable on its own merit, but it also helps recall, associatively, images of the whole. Think Joe Carter’s home run in Game 6 in 1993, and suddenly it’s pretty easy to remember other details – Mitch Williams and his sweet mullet walking dejectedly off the field, that this was the Blue Jays’ second World Series win in a row, that this was the last World Series game for two years because of the strike, etc.

Literaturewise, even if you’ve never read the novel, you know this: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” And you surely know the story. What else does it make you think about? Wait, don’t answer that.

Anyway, IJ’s first line is certainly one of those that sears itself into memory: “I’m seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” From literally the first moment of the novel, DFW reveals a major theme he’s going to spend the next 1,079 pages discussing: drug addicts' disassociation from reality. Of course, the heads and bodies aren't unanchored and floating as it may seem if read literally - it's just a unique way to say that there were a lot of people in the room. And, sometime in 2011, when I'm finished reading this doorstop of a book, "heads and bodies" will certainly be a catalyst to fond memories.