No Easy Way Out

maxresdefaultWhen BJ and I were on our honeymoon last year, we were in California and decided to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. We were driving enjoying the scenery and the day, and assumed at any point we could just find the highway that would take us back. It wasn’t that simple. It’s like we were trapped. There was no signal for the phones, so no GPS. We kept thinking, we will get to a place where we can turn off soon. That went on for what seemed like hours (I am sure it wasn’t that long), and we finally figured out we needed to turn back and go the way we came.

That feeling, the one where we realized that we couldn’t just turn off, and find another highway back, is what I am feeling reading Infinite Jest. Slightly hopeless, disappointed and fearful.

Here is the deal, I am 400 pages in to this thing, and I am not going to give it up. I keep hoping around every turn in the book, I will somehow ‘get it’. The meandering plot lines, and lexical acrobatics will all become one and I will understand the book and exclaim: NOW I GET IT. I am highly suspect at this point that this is actually going to happen.

BJ and I were talking about the book, and he said: Maybe it’s the emperor’s new clothes. Meaning that maybe there is nothing there at all. I was like yes! that is it!

I am going out on a limb here: this novel sucks.

Wow, that feels better. There are points in the book where I laugh out loud – which I realize is a difficult thing to accomplish in the written word. There are times where I am reading and the language is beautiful and evokes emotions, visuals that are so crystal clear and on point, or he gets right to the bullseye of the human condition. The problem is, those moments are few and far between. It’s like a bad boyfriend, he is a bit of an ass so you want to dump him, then he does something super sweet, and you say, oh he’s not that bad. This is that in novel form.

Look, DFW is a good writer. See above on the humour, descriptive language and understanding the human condition and being able to express that in the written word. I can’t help but feel that the novel is just a bunch of anecdotes and small stories that are strung together by literally spit and some dental floss. There are no actual threads holding the thing together.

BJ and I have discussed at length about what the meaning of the book might be. And I take the stand (which is the opposite of my husband) that it doesn’t mean anything. DFW wrote about the three things he knew about: tennis, drugs and addiction. He wrote about the topics he wanted and in the way he wanted. I don’t begrudge him that. However, what I am having an increasing difficult time with is that this is somehow a great novel. It’s just not.

There are about 600 pages left. Maybe there is going to be some sort of literary miracle that occurs that will make me eat my words here. Truly, I hope so. Honestly, I doubt it.

 

One Grisly Literary Suicide Down….

From pages 100-200, I’d say the dominant image I was left with was the suicide of Hal’s Father.  It has been alluded to quite a few times, but is revealed in a conversation between Hal and Orin…and Orin apparently has never heard the official word on what happened.

And it definitely happened.  In a suicide that is half Coen Brothers and half Popular Mechanics, the man had bored a hole in his microwave and the sealed it back up with aluminum foil before turning the microwave on.  As the description says, you have what happens to a potato if you microwave it without poking holes in it, so you can imagine the mess with a human head.

The description–and you won’t be surprised to know that it goes on and on–reminded me of something out of John Irving…the early John Irving, like Garp-and-before John Irving.  There’s just an unfolding grisliness to it, almost in a kind of post-shock irony that might be intended to show how broken we are.  Or, just a perverse sense of humor.

Anyway, it wasn’t strictly gratuitous.  We then learn that Hal–either as an expression of unbearable ambivalence or 90’s ennui or antipathy toward his father–feels nothing.  He has been sent directly into grief counseling, which he literally cannot escape from until he feels something.  He tries to read books about grieving to find a clue for what he can do to feel something (give the people at ETA credit, whether it is drug use or grieving, library usage is a surprising go-to move), but nothing works.  The situation is finally resolved when he is advised to take the opposite approach and read books about therapy itself (and not grieving) and he figures how to construct a breakdown that convinces the therapist he has come to terms with the trauma and he is released to go back to…feeling nothing.

When you read the book you do wonder, from time to time, what specific point is trying to be made.  I have tried to let the thing wash over me, just experience it, but I can’t help it.  I don’t know that it is intended as social criticism–it doesn’t have to be–but clearly DFW has (let us say) a salty perspective on therapy.  This is a good example of writing what you know.  This specific incident would seem to be a look at the professionalization of therapy, to the point where the feelings of the person are secondary to the professional expectations of the therapist, based on his or her training.

Which brings me to a last point.  DFW has been in the news recently because he was mentioned in the confirmation hearing of Neal Gorsuch, of all things.  And from that came some chatter the DFW is some kind of neo-conservative touchpoint.  Leaving aside the conclusion that these people have chosen the Century’s least-readable authors to be their touchpoints (Rand and DFW…Pynchon, you are next due), we have to wonder why.  DFW doesn’t seem liberal or conservative to me and in fact seems non-political entirely.  Of course, I’m not to the point where I know what the fuck it is about anyway, so maybe it is.  I can see the therapy thing saying that therapy is more about the liberal-do-gooders than the patients, much like other “helping” professions, but it seems flimsy.

Anyway,  you can google it there is some talk about Conservatives and DFW…apparently Antonin Scalia actually met him once.  Under closer examination it appears that Gorsuch never read past “This is Water” which makes his reference just one step (literary-wise) above a Dr. Suess reference.

And on we go.

It’s a struggle

millennialstrugglesrealstruggleisreal

I knew that this book was going to be a bit of a grind. I wasn’t wrong. It is, and I quote here the New York Times review of the book “alternately tedious and effulgent“. That is a 100% accurate portrayal of the book.

I decided to set a daily reading goal to keep myself on pace – we are trying to get through 100 pages a week. I diligently read my 15 pages a day and thought I was golden – page 298! The promised land. Then I was speaking to BJ about something and he mentioned (#spoileralert) about the scene where the father kills himself via the microwave. I was like wait, what? I don’t remember that part. So it turns out – and this probably does not matter in any other scenario – that the Kindle version and the Kobo version of the book (same edition) are paginated differently. It turns out I was over 100 pages BEHIND! Sigh…

I can’t decide if there is too much going on in the book, or actually nothing, which is causing the problem. There are a lot of words, that’s for sure. And much of the time they are crafted in beautiful sentences. I will again refer to the NYT review – “…his momentum tends to be sideways rather than forward”. You read and read, and don’t feel like you are getting anywhere. It’s the literary equivalent of a treadmill.

I wish I had something witty or smart to say about the book. I don’t. On to the next 100 pages…

Eureka! I figured it out!

lightbulb-moment

There was one thing that was really bothering me about the book: there are these chapter-like things that have a date and then weirdness. For example: 9 May- Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Wait…what????? Then 1 April – Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. Hold on….this makes no sense. Then, during a (what seemed like) 30 page footnote listing the ‘films’ that the main character’s father made there were years listed. Voila! It all made sense. In whatever future time (it’s unclear) this book takes place, the years are sponsored or subsidized by companies. Ahhhhhh….that feels better.

As I get further into this book, I can’t help but think this is somewhat (ok VERY) autobiographical for DFW. I guess it’s easy to see that reading it now vs. when he was still alive. This line got me:

And then so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?

Sheesh. That’s deep and dark. And prophetic. When I read that passage (there were other lines related to that) it helped me be bit a more compassionate towards the book. This was written by someone who felt the NEED to tell this story, maybe HIS story and I feel like I want to do right by that.

Lastly (yeah, I am jumping around a bit)….

I was wondering what the relationship was between Dave Eggers and DFW. For some reason, I thought they were more contemporaries (turns out they were not). So I googled that and came across the ultimate book nerd click bait headline: The Infinite Jest Review That Dave Eggers Doesn’t Want You To Read.

Mr. Eggers wrote the intro to the 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest saying such complimentary things as:

[Infinite Jest is] 1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.

BUT <insert dramatic music here>, in his 1996 review of the book he wrote:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

I am not going to criticize Mr. Eggers because you know what, those statements are both true. DFW was a brilliant writer. The complexity of his writing, the vivid descriptions of both scenes and the inner-workings of the characters are brilliant. It is relentlessly smart and incredibly moving (see my quote on suicide, above). Also, lexical diarrhea? Yes. So my question is: can you have a brilliant writer that writes a not so great book? I guess I have approximately 1,400 pages more to figure out if that is true in this case.

The Transcendent Qualities of Tennis…

Slipping into my Andy Rooney mode….didja ever notice that you hear about one thing–say portobello mushrooms–and then for the next few days all your hear about is portobello mushrooms?

Well, that’s how it has been for tennis for me.  I honestly didn’t think people played tennis too much anymore and then I met two guys I work with who play tennis (and they’re on the older side) and they are in leagues and state tournaments and then there was another guy at a publication.  So.  Tennis.

And then, of course, there’s Infinite Jest, a significant portion of which takes place at one of those tennis academies that started to be big about when this book was created.  (They still exist.  The most famous was Nick Bolliteri who founded what is now the multi-sport IMG Academy and trained Monica Seles, Andre Aggasi, etc, in the kind of boot camp immersive experience that DFW describes in this book).1

I’m not going to go into a description of how good DFW is at detail.  The locker room scene, where the boys are hanging out is just incredibly described, because that’s been covered.  He has an incredible eye.

The question we started with was:  is this a great book?  Or merely a literary circus exhibition.

It isn’t a story in the truest sense…which you wouldn’t expect.  There is sort of a plot (so far) but it isn’t going to be a plot that follows along any kind of linear path.  And yes, there are incredibly realistic scenes like the locker room scene, but they are juxtaposed next to sweat licking scenes and other bizarre stories and as realistic as some parts are the book is set in the future but a future which does not appear to be very much different than this one.

Anyway, here’s the thing.  This all has to be for a purpose.  Or you would hope.  Barb showed me a quote this weekend where Dave Eggers called the book “lexical diarrhea” (before he wrote other reviews praising it when that became the cool thing to do).

DFW has said this was a book he had to write.  I just can’t believe there’s nothing to it besides lexical cirque du soleil.

When Barb and I talked about it this weekend, we sort of said that this is like looking at art or listening to a symphony…don’t try to understand it, just let it happen to you.  This is about as far from my training and mental approach as something can get.  I don’t like abstract art.  I’m going to do my best, though, moving ahead with the trust that there is simplicity (and therefore meaning) on the other side of the complexity.

1DFW is a true believer when it comes to the transcendent qualities of tennis, as demonstrated here when he writes about “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” for The New York Times.

First 100 pages down…

So back on West Wing, when Bartlett was running for re-election, there’s a part where they are worried that he is acting too smart.  Toby Ziegler gives a long speech about why it was OK to be smart…you want your President to be smart….if you are smart, be smart.

I was thinking about this when reading the first part of the book.  A criticism of the book has been that DFW was “full of himself” when writing the book.  I’m a little like Toby Zeigler here.  There is no doubt, DFW takes us through some wickedly great language and detail and observations.  He’s really good at it.  Is he full of himself?  Probably.  Does he want people to watch while he does the literary equivalent of Cirque du Soleil tricks?  Yes, yes he does.  That’s no different than any other artist, though

That’s no different than any other artist, though.  Smart is good.  He should let it all hang out.

 

Spoiler Alert.  I guess.
Spoiler Alert. I guess.

 

 

 

 

 

So, 100 pages in, I like it.  Yes, it is a discursive, but (much like War and Peace) it is not as unreadable as its rep.  At least not yet.  Yes there are footnotes.  Even the footnotes have footnotes.  It is also manic.  Words and sentences are literally piling off the page, expanding like billowing smoke.

It is also funny….to wit:

a redisseminated episode of the popular afternoon InterLace children’s program ‘Mr. Bouncety-Bounce’—which the attaché thinks for a moment might be a documentary on bipolar mood disorders until he catches on….

Doctors tend to enter the arenas of their profession’s practice with a brisk good cheer that they have to then stop and try to mute a bit when the arena they’re entering is a hospital’s fifth floor, a psych ward, where brisk good cheer would amount to a kind of gloating.

In school, we were taught that detail is the key to good writing.  DFW was definitely in that class, too.  His observations are so keen, so sharp, and so detailed.  You wonder if there ever was anything he didn’t notice and observe on 5 different levels at the same time.

And, of course there is the vocabulary.  An incomplete list of oddball words from the first 100 pages would include thigmotactic, hypocapnia, rictus, festschrift, dipsomaniacal, apocopes…you get the idea.  There’s a lot of words here I have literally never even seen in my life.

There is a plot.  Not like there was in War and Peace, but there is a plot.  There’s an attaché who apparently saw something so shocking it has either killed him or made him catatonic.  And two guys in the desert talking on a ridge.  And weird Quebec-nationalism.  It’s futuristic, but only a little.  You would be hard pressed to describe the book to someone.  It is brilliant for its circus tricks, but whether it ends up being a great book remains to be seen.

For good measure, DFW seems to have pre-discovered Netflix, too.

 

Hold on tight…

cannonballI started the book and it feels like this is the literary equivalent of being shot out of a cannon. (Admittedly, I’ve never been shot out of a cannon.)

The reader is kind of plunked in the middle of a meeting – you aren’t exactly sure who, what or why – and then slowly your questions are answered. It reminds me a lot of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. In the Faulkner book, he tells (basically) the same story multiple times from the perspective of different members of the same family, with the first chapter being told from the perspective of a character with limited mental ability. As Fury unfolds you get to see the whole picture. I get that same sense from Infinite Jest.

The thing that I learned from reading The Sound and the Fury was, to just sit tight and go along for the ride the author is taking you on. You might not understand the structure of the story, or where it’s going, but you need to have faith that the author will get you there. I will say, so far David Foster Wallace has done that.

Although this novel doesn’t have a traditional structure, I am completely shocked to find it extremely readable, and enjoyable. And, it’s even very funny. I have laughed out loud multiple times.

Here is what I now ‘get’ about this novel, DFW is incredibly insightful and able to use exactly the right words and turn of phrase to transport you, not only to the scene but exactly inside the characters head.

About the footnotes: I have now experienced my first footnote in footnote action. These are actually way less irritating than the footnotes in War and Peace. They are kind of humourous. You don’t know if you are going to get a completely inane two word explanation of something, or a 3 page detailed description (with its own footnotes) about the class of narcotics that the character may or may not be ingesting. It’s like a surprise every time!

Time will tell if this narrative style will get old and exhausting. But for the moment – and the first 100 pages – I am actually enjoying it very much.