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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Journey of 1,000 Pages Begins With a Simple Introduction

Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf for a long, long time. Once in awhile, on nights I couldn't sleep, I'd take it down and read a paragraph or two, and that'd be enough to renew my determination to read it...someday. But I never did, I simply never had the courage. So I invented a good way to procrastinate - I'd wait until DFW promised us something new, and that would be the impetus to take it on. But DFW is gone, and nothing new is coming. So what better time than now. And now, I'm excited!

To wring every ounce of meaning out of this masterpiece, I'm employing the help of a guide - Greg Carlisle's book titled 'Elegant Complexity' has been given high marks by many readers for the clarity it brings to DFW's byzantine text.

My plan is to post at least once a week, just talking about what I've read, reactions to those sections, how a particular chapter may connect with facets of my life, memories, people I know, etc. It won't be too cerebral - just a way to force myself to think about the book, and thus, understand it as well as possible. And so it begins...