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!