03/04/2011

notes on Infinite Jest

(c) Cody Hoyt 2009


"...I am just about the world's worst source of info on [Infinite Jest]."
- Wallace, letter to fan

Infinite Jest is a book. I am a reader of such. What could go wrong?

But it's hard to say things about IJ because, despite that ^ epigram, in a real sense you are competing with Wallace if you do; IJ has already Freuded, Hegelled and problematized itself, not least in its 200pp of (plot-endogenous) footnotes.

And its reputation obscures it, already, only fifteen years in. (e.g. As well as the usual exhaustive cult attentions, there's a series of wacky blogs and a support group devoted to how gruelling it is.) We view length as pretentious in itself. This speaks little for our generosity, motives or attention spans. And but the fact is that the book isn't really over-written or gratuitous: that it's 1200 pages of drum-tight shit, staggeringly funny and human to boot.

It reports in on a dozen things I'm not interested in - tennis, optical physics, pharmacology, counter-pharmacology, the specifics of child abuse - and is riveting even then. Every hundred pages there's a passage to gasp and halfclose yr eyes at. It is warmth reporting on ice.

Some first-read thoughts, (toward a lifetime of catching up):

- There's probably massive overlaps with its namesake Hamlet, though not for me, not yet, barring:

"BERNARDO: Who's there?" - opening of Hamlet

"I am..." - opening of IJ


As well as the bit where James Incandenza (the father)'s ghost manifesting and warning ... well, a character he's not related to - who notes that had the ghost appeared to his son, he would've messed the kid up good and proper...

- IJ stylizes itself with things which have been considered the opposite of style - formal organisation titles, straightfaced repetition of details and nerdy facts and full names; unnecessary, often-unfunny subject-predicate clarifications (Wallace, that is); and oodles of technical explanations. The thousand footnotes give reading it an interruptive rhythm. So but there's constant digression in the text (at one point there's three pages of flashback and tangents between two lines of dialogue) and in your train of thought. Life is a series of more or less successful digressions.


- Almost everyone is in some way deformed: phobic, neurotic, addicted, displacing, disabled. (And so too in the novel!)


- DFW is an omnivore, a generalist: IJ is nauseatingly detailed with academic arcana, medical/chemicological/mathematical/scientific passages, lC20th Boston slang, film-geek waffle, & what one reviewer called "pseudo-science" (but which are surely just "alt.hypotheses") - which theoretics all add up to sensory overload, and exasperation for anyone who expects to encircle and dominate what they read with their understanding.

- The "unreliable narrator" conceit in literature is making its worthy way towards cliché; the third-person-objective narrator who is nonetheless occasionally ignorant is entrenched but still crisp - but ignorant footnotes?

The discourse changes style and inflection when swapping storyline to storyline - most noticeably when the Francophone Marathe is its object. (At one point I got suitably paranoid and saw the whole book as an informal report by the cross-dressing secret agent Steeply.)


- The physical contrast between brothers (Apollonian, Olympean) Hal and (Tiny Tim, deformed, innocent) Mario is unsubtle, but so. Mario and Lyle are perhaps the only naive, unironizing characters among, say, the hundred in the cast.

"The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott [10yo] finds stuff that is really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy."

This links Mario's innocence to his defect: innocence, in an irony-obsessed world, is a defect. And 'stupidity as closely related to innocence', too: stupidity as the absence of an attitude, not the absence of intelligence (temporary or chronic).

Like Don DeLillo, Wallace uses hyperarticulate children. I'm inclined to name this sort of thing "Hogwarts Syndrome", with the kids more sensible, prolix and interesting than any pack of children have rights to be.


- Mario notes at one point that he has lost his easy empathy with his little brother, that he cannot tell how Hal is feeling anymore: we the readers go through the same, beginning the book inside Hal's head at moment of trauma and insight, and but gradually (as the cast expands) lose this closeness.

- The word "annular" recurs like every thirty pages, though I only noticed this cause I had no idea what it meant. ("...of or pertaining to a ring or rings, ring-formed, ringed.”) I now think it's a key MacGuffin, describing as it does

how IJ's cold fusion works;

how (super-MacGuffin) James Incandenza's film ouevre is structured;

how addiction works;

the appeal of suicide;

how they cured cancer by giving cancer cancer;

maybe the "Subsidized", ruined nature of time in his near-future paratopia;

and IJ itself - how its storylines fit (rings-within-IJ's-ring).

He could have used "meta-". It wasn't ruined yet in 96'.


- There are six suicides in the book, not counting people who watch the samizdat. A number of passages treat this, particularly the long depression rationales given by the characters Joelle, Gompert, Day et al (eg. p648-651):

"the person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. It is the weighing of two terrors, a rational decision, which rationality is invisible until you are there with the flames at your back..."

These can't help but be newly resonant for us. Just because you're a genius doesn't mean you'll ever arrive at any answers.


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