David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST pp. 3-75 (notes 1-30)
This will be my first read-through, and boy am i glad i waited til finishing college to read it, as even in this first slice there’s so much weed culture that ive seen firsthand. im reading this novel with a book club in the grad philosophy department, and im at least as glad to be tackling it with company. So far it’s been easy going, mainly because ive already absorbed so much information about the plot and the characters, but i have no idea how this thing will unfold, or if it will have been worth it at the end.
If you’re a wanna-be writer in the millennial generation DFW looms in your landscape. It’d be absurd for me to deny it, and frankly i dont even like his work that much. But im still fascinated by his life, mainly bc of his severe depression and substance problems. i remember sitting in a high school classroom in 2008 when i heard he had hanged himself. i would make my first attempt on my life a year later — is that TMI? Sorry. Of course im in awe of his intelligence; no one’s going to be publishing my undergrad papers, even if i offed myself.
My reading of DFW thus far: i liked the nonfiction in SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING, and ive read the first two shorts in OBLIVION, which were excellent. im a fan of his open endings, which seem so abrupt yet land on the perfect enigmatic image — they also tend to stop just when Something is about to Happen. There’s a perverse glee to be had in shaking up sensibilities like that. The academic discourse was endearing in the essays but we’ll have to see about an IJ sized dose. (Of course im reading the endnotes. In my experience with wild texts from the 90s, the most important stuff is in the notes.)
Some members of our reading club (3 women, 3 men, and me) have had multiple false starts with IJ already, and everyone’s keen on getting through it just to say they have. But maybe we’re behind the game. If middle-brow magazine articles are to be believed, the people are turning on DFW.
Which admittedly isn’t a mark against the novel so much as its perceived lit-bro fandom. It’s par for the course for these maximalist pomo system-oriented ultra-long works to get a cult following. But it got really bad when the poor man killed himself and every scrap in his archive was getting printed — suddenly on the forums i lurked in DFW was given an apotheosis, turned into a celebrity guru imparting life lessons, everything that irritates me about mainstream literary culture — author as commodity. (That maudlin “This is Water” address, ugh. And the way people cant seem to resist aping his style in tributes and commentary, so embarrassing to read.) People wondering aloud how his suicide was the final text, since every socially odd, meticulous genius artist does every single thing deliberately as part of a grand inconceivable aesthetic system. Theories abounded for how his suicide was the key to decyphering THE PALE KING. My nutty theory: he killed himself because he was sad.
i was gonna have a Vocab section like my LOST SCRAPBOOK let’s read but gave up after filling a page with words to define. i love it when a 10 or 37 cent word gets dropped now and then, as long as it really is the right word to use. But is the bind between Orin’s head and his mother’s disembodied head in a freaky dream really best characterized as “phylacteryish, that is, pertaining to those black leather boxes that contain Hebrew parchments, or are you just showing off? (i was gonna do the Sparknotes style format as well, but that became exhausting to keep up in LS.)
Now let’s get on with it.
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.
And so we meet Hal Incandenza. The opening lines are pretty fascinating — why a “head” and body split as opposed to the more typical “mind”? But head v. body is is woven through the issues of severe depression and drugs. There’s a single line paragraph that goes “I am in here.” Too many writers these days are doing single-line paragraphs to give their piece more punch. It’s annoying. But here it works bc its meaning should be simple but it’s actually imprecise: “in here” in his head, or in here as in an office surrounded by heads and bodies? It’s also an office with a bunch of Remington paintings (pictured above), imagine this kitschy shit hanging all over the room.
Here’s the thing about the voice of the JEST. The language is really tight and readable. It’s exhausting to process by googling every obscure reference and going to the endnotes and thus scattering the reading experience, but it’s not exhausting to actually read like say Thomas Bernhard. On a sentence by sentence basis things are clear. There are spots that are calculated to be over-wordy like with cliches: “still be in it without the fat woman in the Viking hat having sung.”
Other mannerisms include using word marks where there aren’t usually, like an umlaut over Toblerone, or a line over the a in “creatus.” It’s kinda ironic that the author gives you more info to help you pronounce such words but in effect ends up only more demanding. But the text is demanding. Yet at the same time it has this high omniscience to the narrator, like you hand is being held in an absurdly exhaustive and encyclopedic text. One idea which came up in the group is that DFW, rather than clear the landscape of pomo irony in favor of sincerity (“please don’t think I don’t care,” says Hal), has flipped the postmodern coin to the other side: Everything’s meaningless is the same as everything’s meaningful, and thus everything deserves inclusion.
And we should consider the title. You’re probably already familiar with the Hamlet reference:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!
But two of our book club readers, who are Catalan and speak English second, missed the notion of Jest as a joke or a trifle and landed on an older stem of the word which blew our minds — the middle English “gesten,” to recite a tale. The associated the word with the QUIXOTE, that is, a series of exploits and actions (gesta, gestures). It really describes the text as we have it. A sprawling romp of fragments, infinite fun, infinite book, but also you shouldn’t take it too seriously perhaps. DFW’s much pored over interview with Larry McCaffery and his other art manifesto “E Unibus Plurum” talk about a desire for sincerity and genuineness in a world suffering under ironic cynicism and superficiality in postmodernity. And yet DFW is always undercutting himself, always deferring away from that sublime goal, going “I know perfectly well how banal and pithy and sappy I’m acting.” And this process is itself a postmodern kind of performance.
Hal’s episode at the admissions meeting is one helluva opening scene. i especially liked his description of the bathroom:
You have to love old-fashioned men’s rooms: the citrus scent of deodorant disks in the long porcelain trough; the stalls with wooden doors in frames of cool marble; these thin sinks in rows, basins supported by rickety alphabets of exposed plumbing; mirrors over metal shelves; behind all the voices the slight sound of a ceaseless trickle, inflated by echo against wet porcelain and a cold tile floor whose mosaic pattern looks almost Islamic at this close range.
The disorder I’ve caused revolves all around. I’ve been half-dragged, still pinioned, through a loose mob of Administrative people by the Comp. Director — who appears to have thought variously that I am having a seizure (prying open my mouth to check for a throat clear of tongue), that I am somehow choking (a textbook Heimlich that left me whooping), that I am psychotically out of control (various postures and grips designed to transfer that control to him) — while about us roil deLint, trying to restrain the mother’s half-brother speaking in rapid combinations of polysyllables to the trio of Deans, who variously gasp, wring hands, loosen neckties, waggle digits in C.T.’s face, and make pases with sheafs of now-pretty-clearly-superfluous application forms.
Inserted in the scene is a fragment from Hal’s childhood at his fam’s suburban house in Boston, when he ate mold. His mom, Avril Mondragon Incandenza, screams and runs in circles. The novel has a lot of ridiculous events that go beyond The Onion.
We fly all over NA continent: to Arizona where Orin is a football player, whose house is full of cockroaches, and he wears a sleeveless sweatshirt; to the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, whose campus is shaped like a cardioid, with curvy mod buildings and an intricate network of underground tunnels where Hal can get high in secret; a Muslim medical attendant who has found, I’m guessing, the Infinite Jest movie in a cartridge packet labeled “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY”; Don Gately who is robbing homes to support his drug habit in Quebec. The geopolitical situation in the story world has only been briefly mentioned in the notes so far.
The video cartridge thing — “Interlace” is one of the key words in this technology, which is so quaintly 80s in a low-hi tech, Buckaroo Banzai sort of way. Erdedy in the famous waiting for pot set-piece shuttles between cartidge entertainments in what one book club member very rightly called a prescient description of FOMO.
There’s a segment in the year “of the trial sized dove bar” narrated by a black character named Claudette, in a kind of hyperbolized AAVE. i dunno how to feel about this, but i understand its placement next to another small 3rd person fragment about a typical ultra-white love story between Bruce Green and Mildred Bonk, which also marks a connection to the Erdedy thread by way of Tommy Doocey, the hairlipped pot dealer.
We mostly found these opening pages to be funny, but the room was split on the final scene of this section, that of Kate Gompert in the psych ward. Half thought it was the most hilarious part, the other half was disturbed, including me.
What got the most laughs out of me was James Incandenza’s filmography in the notes. It’s an impeccable, standardized epistolary bit, and it somehow manages to make fun of the avant-garde. i loved “78mm” film, and that some versions of INFINITE JEST are black and white and silent — unexpected for the most entertaining piece of media in existence. You shouldn’t miss this one, as there’s some crucial world building as well. (Perversely it’s tempting to skip it not only bc it’s long but it comes after a whole bunch of one-line and largely unhelpful explanations of pharmaceuticals that seem calculated to exhaust you.)
The ONANtiad. Year of the Whopper. Latrodectus Mactans Productions/Claymation action sequences (c) Infernatron Animation Concepts, Canada. Cosgrove Watt, P.A. Heaven, Pam Heath, Ken N. Johnson, Ibn-Said Chawaf, Squyre Frydell, Marla-Dean Chumm, Herbert G. Birch, Everard Meynell; 35 mm.; 76 minutes; black and white/color; sound/silent. Oblique, obsessive, and not very funny claymation love triangle played out against live-acted backdrop of the inception of North American Interdependence and Continentnal Reconfiguration. PRIVIATELY RELEASED ON MAGNETIC VIDEO BY LATRODECTUS MACTANS PRODUCTIONS
Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency. Unfinished due to hospitalization. UNRELEASED
Well this was by no means exhaustive of just <10% of a very exhaustive novel. There are few more items i want to keep track of, especially drugs and obscure references to mysticism.