Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Accomplishment: Infinite Jest

Congratulations to anyone who can attach meaning to the title Infinite Jest. Either you are aware of the David Foster Wallace novel, or perhaps you recall the line in Hamlet when Yorick (the king's jester, now a skull) is described as "… a fellow / of infinite jest". I learned of the latter in the process of digesting the former. The novel, Infinite Jest, takes a lot of digesting.

While I perused the English language books at my local German library over the summer, this one gleamed at me from the W shelf. As I mentioned in my July 15, 2012 post, I decided to pack the book home. It weighs 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds). I put it on a shelf for a good two months, eyeing it now and then and wondering if I dared take it on and if it would be something for me. 1,071 over-sized, densely worded pages, of which the last 88 pages contain 388 David Foster Wallace style footnotes: maddening, hilarious, enlightening--the kind of thing I had to redouble my determination to get through, especially the multi-page ones, but which almost always rewarded the effort. You find things like this: a lengthy filmography that cites a film production company called Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited. (And what's the book called?) Repeated allusions to the new, slightly future-projected continental alliance O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations). (This is a book about self-destructive pursuit of pleasure.) Or sub-footnote 110a: Don't ask. And 110b: Ibid. (Talk about getting jerked around.) That is a miniscule sample.

Obviously, I eventually got started on reading Infinite Jest. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew it was really the thing to read, if you're talking DFW. A kind of rite of passage in my literary journey. I had first read David Foster Wallace for an intro to literature course at the University of Utah in 2007. My instructor assigned Wallace's essay called "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (an amusing and unsettling travelogue about an ocean cruise written for Harper's).  I was smitten and read the whole eponymous collection of "Essays and Arguments."

It's hard to summarize IJ, but the story is set around 2009 as a future projection from the early 1990's when Wallace wrote it. There's a delightfully characterized tennis academy filled with boys and girls and administrators and instructors; a half-way house and its attendant drug addicts and recovering addicts and hilarious/heartening scenes from Alcoholics Anonymous; stunning and grungy views of Boston; secret agents attempting to intercept and prevent dissemination of a film "entertainment" that literally brings lethal pleasure to the viewer. Does that even offer a clue?

After about 200 pages, I decided to get the 1.2 kilo weight off my lap, and I bought my very first iBook to read on my iPad. The good news about the electronic format was less weight to hold and a built in night light for reading in the dark. I also loved being able to select a word and tap on "define" to get quick aid from a dictionary. DFW has a way of dropping a Latinate and/or medical/scientific word into an otherwise rambling and vernacular sentence. It's tempting to blow past the unknown word, but it can be fascinating to learn its meaning, which is usually astonishingly apt for the situation. Here's an example: "…he's wearing a bright-black country-western shirt with baroque curilcues of white Nodie-piping across the chest and shoulders, and a string tie, plus sharp-toed boots of some sort of weirdly imbricate reptile skin…" I tap-tapped on "imbricate" and discovered that it describes overlapping scales. See?

Suffice it to say that there numerous guide books and blogs and wikis devoted to unpacking Infinite Jest. My favorite so far is a blog called Definitive Jest, which often had explanations for obscure items that I could find nowhere else. I also appreciate the site's "wordle" style word clouds in the banner image. Another helpful reference on David Foster Wallace is a 2011 BBC radio documentary available for listening on uTube.

Back in Utah, David Foster Wallace came up again during a non-fiction writing workshop I took in the fall of 2008. We students had heard the news that morning of Wallace's death. He had hung himself at the age of 46. His insight into his depressed characters, quite a number of which are in IJ, seems to come from personal experience. Our professor had not yet heard the news, which we casually repeated for her. Her face went very still. "I know him," she said. "I used to work with him." A 2008 David Lipsky article in Rolling Stone takes a close look at Wallace's final years: The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.

I loved reading Infinite Jest. It took me just under two months. When I finished it this past Sunday, I had the urge to start right back over again, partly because of the thousands of details I know I missed and partly because the book spits you out at the end, wanting more. On the other hand, I'm glad to be out of its grip and free to navigate somewhere new. To close this post, I want to share a few samples of the sensory descriptions I find so arresting in Wallace's writing. (Let me know if you're dying for a print page number citation. That's one thing my enotes on the sporadically paginated iBook don't reveal, but I could flip through the printed book until I find them…)

At sunrise, "…the east's Mountain of Rincon range was the faint sick pink of an unhealed burn."
"…like Nature, the sky, the stars, the cold-penny tang of the autumn air,…"
"…scalp-crackling gust of Phoenix heat…"
"The pond is perfectly round, its surface roughened to elephant skin by the wind,…"
"Heat began to shimmer, as well, off the lionhide floor of a desert."
"His heart sounded like a shoe in the Ennet House basement's dryer."
"…his…rosary of upper lip sweat"
"The A.M. light outside has gone from sunny yellow-white to now a kind of old-dime gray,…"
"…he wore [his hair] in thick dreadlocks that looked like a crown of wet cigars."

Amazing stuff.