Friday, February 13, 2015

An almost infinite jest

I have rashly committed myself to reading David Foster Wallace's well-regarded, encyclopedic, postmodern novel "Infinite Jest". I'm quite enjoying it so far, but then I am on page 28 of a book that runs to 1,079 small-typed pages (including almost a hundred pages of notes, and notes-within-notes)...
"Infinite Jest" is widely regarded as a "difficult" book, "difficult" in the same sense as Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, et al. As the foreword points out, it's not a book to read in a crowded cafe, or with a child on one's lap. Now, I've always loved Pynchon (and Joyce for that matter, although I have to admit that "Finnegan's Wake" well and truly defeated me). So, despite my slow, painstaking reading style, I thought the time had come for Wallace.
Joyce it's definitely not, although Pynchon is perhaps a good analogue. Like Pynchon, some of Wallace's allusions and metaphors can be downright obscure, and his diction is often erudite. More often, though, Wallace's sentences are just slightly mercurial or capricious. He also takes a Pynchonian delight in meandering, labyrinthine sentences (not to mention paragraphs that are often the lengrh of the page, and may be 4-5 page long) at times. A quick example of a sentence from the very first page:
The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I've come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.
There is nothing intrinsically difficult about the sentence, and this particular one is not even particularly long or convoluted. It is just somehow vaguely quirky and idiosyncratic, just a litle bit unexpected, and it makes a slightly awkward, twisting progress down the page. Quirky, I like; awkward, I like.
Wallace also has a penchant for Proustian attention to detail. For example, he pursues an extended discourse on a small insect found peering out from a shelf bracket in the kind of detail most authors would not even consider for such an unimportant matter, although one realizes afterwards that the episode was actually quite useful in further establishing the mood and the obsessive nature of the main character.
And about that character... The main protagonist (at least at the start of the book: over the course of a thousand pages that could well change), one Hal Incandenza, is a young tennis prodigy, as Wallace himself apparently was in his youth, but also an intellectual wunderkind with an eidetic memory, who reads dictionaries for kicks. Not content with that, though, Wallace adds in a serious marijuana addiction and precarious mental stability.
The mood and setting of the book are equally difficult to gauge. It is set in what appears to be recognizably the Boston area of northeastern USA in the modern day, but something about it feels not quite right, as though it may be a future or parallel America. This is hinted at in little things, like the commercially-sponsored calendar year names ("revenue-enhancing subsidized time"), mentions of strange corporations and technologies, and the hints of unfamiliar political unrests and unknown geopolitical entities. This is all part of Wallace's (successful) attempt to slightly unbalance the reader, and to establish an ominous, uneasy tone.
So, just a few short chapters in on this marathon undertaking, and things are looking good. Ask me again in a couple of months.

It did in fact take me a month, almost to the day. It was worth the effort though.
"Infinite Jest" is a truly post-modern book, lurching between styles, chronologies, character, person, etc, and moving effortlessly from ultra-realism to drug-addled dream sequences to magical realist episodes and back again. There are at least four or five main story arcs and several more minor ones, most of them tenouously linked, although often in a cryptic or oblique way. If the various plotlines never quite come together or resolve, by the end of the book one doesn't really care.
By turns wilfully obscure and incandescently vivid, "Infinite Jest" is a tour-de-force, a quirky whirlwind of excruciating detail and obscure terms and allusions, and an artful mishmash of elegant prose and scuzzy street argot. All in all, it is a bold, unapologetic, sprawling and challenging book, and the oft-claimed epithet "masterpiece" may not actually be too far from the truth.

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