Break time!

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I have made no secret of the fact that I am struggling with Infinite Jest. Even though we are 600 pages through and (in theory) we are closing in on the end, it feels like a very long road ahead. I am actually not enjoying reading right now, which is unusual for me. This is supposed to be a fun project, not a punishment.

 

 

This is an actual picture of me trying to read Infinite Jest:

bulldog wearing eyeglasses sleeping over a good novel

Ok, you got me, it’s not really.

One of the things I enjoy the most during the summer is sitting on my balcony in the mornings with a coffee (or in the evenings with a gin and tonic) and reading. I could not fathom enjoying that while reading Infinite Jest. So I suggested to BJ that we put a pause on the book for a few weeks and then get back to it. I can get some easy summer reading in and hopefully come back to the book with a renewed vigor.

I do feel a bit like this is taking a year off after high school and ‘promising’ to go to University when I get back (no, I didn’t do that). However, I am invested in this book and I really do want to finish it. I don’t have to like it, I just want to get this:

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I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying my light summer read phase – I actually finished two books this past weekend – and I feel as if I have my reading mojo back.

We will see you back here after the 4th of July!

TIME OUT!

Gregg PopovichAll right guys.  We haven’t given up…that’s the first thing.  But we needed a break.  So, we’re going to call a halt on the project until the 4th of July or so.

Here’s the deal.  This book is hard.  WAY harder than War and Peace.  And, you know, reading should be hard sometimes, as Dave Eggers pointed out in his foreword to the book (“not one lazy sentence”) which was opposed to his contemporaneous review (“lexical diarrhea”).  Oddly, both could be true, but let us not digress.  Difficult is not a virtue.  Worth it is.  Jury is still out.

I feel a little bit like I do when I am in an art museum and I get to the part where the art abstrat artis a white canvas with, like, a red line across it.  It makes me feel like I’m more at home in my more modernist setting.  As I have written before, many parts of Infinite Jest are brilliant and many are funny…. but the lack of a driving narrative and strong characters and (yes) even a modicum of economy of language, even one time when 100 words was substituted for 1,000, makes it a difficult read.  You’re expecting (or I am) to be driven from page to page by the narrative.

So, we’re calling time out.  We will finish the book.  God help us.

to 2

A painful period….

There’s no data on this, but I am going to guess that the most common pages where people quit reading Infinite Jest is somewhere between 500 and 600.  If there wasn’t an absolute determination to finish the book, I believe it would have done it for me.

This particular section is just especially painful.  There are just long scenes which appear to go on forever without any real actual point.  I once read an interview with the editor of this book and how he had DFW take parts of the book out, like whole parts, and I now think…he did?  Really?

So the closest thing  to something in this section that might hold your (or my) interest and be memorable is a conversation about (obvi) fusion…gratuitously staged between one man and another man who has to go to the bathroom REALLY BAD but can’t because of the conversation about fusion.

You all remember fusion.  I am amazed that I didn’t look for this information before this, but DFW is/would have been two years older than me, so we have very much the same pop-cultural frame of reference.  Anyway, fusion was big because two guys said it could happen at room temperature and it didn’t make waste and was going to be the answer to our energy problems that wouldn’t require us to do anything differently.  (These two guys turned out to be full of shit).  Anyhoo, you can see how DFW would have been fascinated by the concept, given that his dystopia is one where a part of North America has been sectioned off to handle nuclear waste, which is itself a metaphor for the inevitable costs of our insatiable and uncontrollable desires (relevant but self-referential link).

So there’s this special kind of fusion that actually uses toxic waste for fuel.  Which seems like a really good thing, but we have learned that anything that good must have a drawback.  In this case, it’s too good:

…the whole process environmentally is that the resultant fusion turns out so greedily efficient that it sucks every last toxin and poison out of the surrounding ecosystem, all inhibitors to organic growth for hundreds of radial clicks in every direction.’

‘Hence the eastern Concavity of anxiety and myth.’

‘You end up with a surrounding environment so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable…Therefore rapacial feral hamsters and insects of Volkswagen size and infantile giganticism and the unmacheteable regions of forests of the mythic eastern Concavity.’

 

So, the great fusion beast needs to be fed more waste, a kind of virtuous circle where the cure is the disease and the disease is the cure.

See, I think that’s interesting.  There are insights in this book.  They’re just floating in an ocean of (wait a minute, maybe I have figured it out) seemingly wasted paragraphs.  Hmm.   (Emphasis indulgent).

Also, in this section, we have the punter Orrin who cannot feel pleasure and therefore is a great lover.

Finally, DFW has clearly seen me wrap a package.  Apropos (naturally) of nothing.

painstakingly wrapped in so much foil-sheen paper that the final wrapped present looked like an oversized dachshund that had required first bludgeoning and then restraint at both ends with two rolls each of Scotch tape and garish fuchsia ribbon to be subdued and wrapped and placed under the gaily lit pine, and even then the package seemed mushily to struggle as the substrata of paper shifted and settled.

 

 

Finding humour

IamBeaver

I was doing some google research to try and figure out what connection that DFW has to Canada. There are about 1,000 references to Canada in the book. The most recent is one of the characters was the architect of the Sky Dome.  (#random!!)

While I was entering the rabbit hole of the internet, unfortunately I didn’t get to the bottom of the Canada connection, but I found this:

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Some dude made up an entire website that shows scenes from Infinite Jest in lego.  I can hate on the book, but I actually love this site.

And as luck would have it, BJ brought this Strand tweet to my attention:

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Which I actually LOL’d at. (I also retweeted with the comment Truth!) We both thought it was pretty sassy for the Strand to tweet it. Turns out they had an author take over their Twitter feed. Hilarity ensued.

And, you can always count on the Onion. The article:

Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter At Page 20

starts with the line:

Claire Thompson, author David Foster Wallace’s girlfriend of two years, stopped reading his 67-page breakup letter at page 20, she admitted Monday.

 

I will say that people making fun of the book does make me feel a bit better. However we are 600 pages through the book and it feels a little like this:

 

Can we handle pleasure? 500 pages.

One of the things that has kept me going on Infinite Jest–and let’s be clear, the reasons why people quit reading this book are evident every few pages, most recently when there was a 10-page depiction of moving a mattress–is the parts where he lands an insight into how we live now–20 years later–and specifically on the single thing I believe that is crippling our culture.  (OK, one of two things…I’ll let you know what the other one is at the end of the post.).

For now, we are talking about how the book addresses people’s weakness/sheer helplessness in the face of pleasure.  Simply put, people seem to be unable to self-regulate their pleasure intake.  When something makes us feel good, we are powerless to say “no” even if saying “yes” is deadly in a chronic or even acute sense.  This fact is certainly well known by the food scientists at Taco Bell (see above) and has been demonstrated in rats for a long time.  A rat that has the option of stimulating its pleasure center will starve to death.  Also, according to Fortune Magazine, researchers believe people are forgoing sex to watch Netflix.

The book is replete with examples.  In AA, one of the 12 steps is to admit that you are powerless over your “disease,” which is, essentially, an addiction to a pleasure-giving substance.  There’s a video-like thing that is the rat-killer on steroids….it gives so much pleasure that a person literally can do nothing else.  In fact, this cartridge is so valuable that is has become a pawn in the bizarre and mostly indecipherable Quebec subplot and resulted in a violent burglary.

DFW had to know about this research, given his eclectic knowledge base, and in fact, he appropriates it in the Quebec section as research conducted in Canada and on animal subjects up to dolphins.  When Canadian scientists look for human subjects for this research, they have people trampling each other to participate, even when the know the end result.  Deviance?  Not according to DFW…

All just for the chance at this kind of pleasure, and the M.M.P.I.s and Millon’s and Approception tests on all these hordes of prospective volunteers—the hordes were told it was part of the screening—the scores came out fascinatingly, chillingly average, normal.

“Chillingly average.”  Just like the studies of the nazi war criminals.  Nothing is more chilling than the actual reality of the average person.

So, here’s the thing.  Our society has moved closer to the reality of people being able to choose to expose themselves only to things that give them pleasure.  We can use Netflix to only watch things we know we like.  In the old days, we had to sometimes watch something different because there was nothing on.  Now we can watch Bar Rescue day and night.  We can choose “news” that makes us feel good, a concept that would have been foreign a few years ago and should be foreign now.  You can watch Fox News or MSNBC and only have pleasurable feelings of righteousness drizzled over your head.

And it’s killing us just like it killed the rats.  Literal and metaphorical obesity is killing our culture.  Whether we fail to nourish or minds or souls or bodies, we are wallowing in a hot tub of our pleasure addiction and our primary thought is how to make the water hotter.

This cannot be separated from the country’s political culture, where a fact is now defined as something that makes you feel good and “fake news” is something that makes you feel bad.

The thing is, you need to face unpleasant facts.  And discomfort.  You have to eat vegetables and not just foods designed by people who, in an unrelated DFW quote, “do not love us.”  If humans cannot self-regulate, they cannot survive.  They will literally optimize their way out of existence.  This realization brought about the dark ages and much of the religious discipline we know today.  Sadly,  I see most of today’s contemporary religion as being too busy “affirming” us to save us.  The answer is unclear.  (Irony alert:  there is no better proof of your ability to self-regulate your pleasure centers than reading 500 pages of Infinite Jest).

FWIW, the other one is nostalgia.

Thoughts at 500 pages

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#truth: I’ve re-written this blog post 3 times.

I figure that 500 pages into Infinite Jest is a milestone to be celebrated, as well as a good place to stop and reflect where I am in this journey. (It’s not just a book, it’s a journey.)

Here is what I know so far:

  1. This is a frustrating book: the narrative structure of this like a Russian roulette of literary techniques. From page to page you don’t know what you are in for. Tenses change, perspectives change, you flip back and forth between past and present, and on it goes. You can never really get in the flow of the story because of the shifting sands of it.
  2. This is a funny book: for a book that is so dark and sad, there are moments of pure hilarity where I am actually laughing out loud. I was not expecting that.
  3. Hamlet in the house: I should have figured this out from the title (Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest…). There are many similarities and shout outs to the bard’s play, which I actually find really interesting. It’s like a puzzle to figure it out. (Also, Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play.)
  4. It’s a boy book: I was discussing the book with a colleague at work, and she said, he’s one of those misogynist writers. The more I read it, the more I agree.
  5. He saw into the future: it’s uncanny that many of the future-state things that he (seemingly) made up have come true: cell phones, online streaming of entertainment, and the list goes on.

This is an inherently challenging read. The question remains, will it be worth it in the end?

Also, I found this on Buzzfeed, and it’s funny because it’s true:

What happens when you read Infinite Jest

 

 

 

Prescience

I will say this.  Whatever you might think of Infinite Jest, you have to give DFW some credit for having prescience about where society was going.  The book’s only sort-of future-oriented…it isn’t like sci-fi…but there are some things that landed pretty close to the mark in the prediction category.  Perhaps the most obvious is the corporate sponsorship of individual years….as in the “Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.”

Here is the thing….there were some corporate sponsorships that existed about then…for example, we had been joking for more than a decade about M&M’s being the “Official Melts In Your Mouth, Not in Your Hand Candy of the of the 1984 Olympics.”  But that’s not really the same thing.  What came after was actual places named after companies…when DFW was writing only Busch Stadium in MLB had a Corporate name and they owned the team.  In 1996, the Sugar Bowl was the Sugar Bowl presented by Nokia…which I remember because I had no idea what Nokia was and barely do now.

Anyway, that’s sort of the low-hanging fruit, prescience-wise.

DFW had other areas of prescience, one of which is obvious now in our body politic.  Here is what he said at the time:

…there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear, and the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear.

Of a new-era’d nation that looked out for Uno, of a one-time World Policeman that was now going to retire and have its blue uniform deep-dry-cleaned and placed in storage in triple-thick plastic dry-cleaning bags and hang up its cuffs to spend some quality domestic time raking its lawn and cleaning behind its refrigerator and dandling its freshly bathed kids on its neatly pressed mufti-pants’ knee.

I don’t think you could do better when describing the US between 1989 and 2001 (the end of the Cold War) and then since after the 9/11 attacks.  Beyond that, the language is incredible.  The words are clawing to get off the page, one clause climbing over the other, the crisp metaphor of the retiring (world) cop supported by the rich details of the uniform and domesticated life the US adopted when the Cold War ended.  It is another example of the brilliant language that DFW serves with his prescience.  Whether it is in the service of something larger….that remains to be seen.

The one thing I have noticed on Twitter is that Infinite Jest is apparently a boy thing…and by that, I mean a mansplaining boy-type thing.  Like not in a good way.  You can read the Electric Lit essay below for an example (and apparently the comments are pretty misogynistic, including dragging Lena Dunham into it).  Another tweet was something like, if you go home with a man and he has Infinite Jest on his shelves, don’t date him.

There is a general sense that anyone who recommends this book is:

A:  A man

B:  A douchebag

Which makes me feel a little bad.  I guess reading this was my idea, but I had no idea it had gender identity issues.  I thought everybody couldn’t finish it.  And to be clear, the predominant accusation appears to be that boys just pretend to have read it.  So maybe everybody can’t finish it.

So what then is the final message?  That douchey dissembling boys love prescience?  Or are prescient?  Seems unlikely.