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!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm... sounds interesting and wildly confusing. It makes my head spin just hearing about yet. Which has been your favorite year so far? i commend your efforts!
from, SP