The Dim-Post

June 1, 2011

Infinte Winter: Day 1

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 12:53 pm

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn I cheated and started reading Infinite Jest a week ago. I’m around 100 pages in. So. First impressions and general observations:

Is Infinite Jest a difficult book? Yes and no, but mostly no. Some books are difficult to read because the individual sentences are hard to comprehend: Gravity’s Rainbow and Finnegans Wake (which is written in its own dream language) are the classic examples. War and Peace is easy to read but hard to follow -  there are hundreds of characters, they all have four or five different names and titles and you can go for fifty thousand words at at time without encountering one of them, and then when you do you’re expected to remember everything about their background and families and social standing.

Infinite Jest is (so far) well written, in English, and the characters are distinct and memorable and only have two names. And it’s funny and sad and intriguing. It’s difficult in the way that Kafka is difficult: you know what’s going on but the intentions of the author (David Foster Wallace, henceforth for the rest of the winter, DFW) seem very mysterious. What’s he trying to say? What’s the book actually about? These things are not yet clear.

What does it seem to be about? It’s a series of mostly comic scenes each ranging in length from a paragraph to a couple of pages long, set in the near future (many critics think it’s set in 2011, but in the book corporations sponsor each year, so instead of 2010 you have the Year of the Trial Sized Dove Bar, most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment) The plot is loosely structured around a film called Infinite Jest, which is so entertaining to viewers that they become lifeless addicts who exist only to watch the film over and over again. The themes are, famously: addiction, amusement and fragmentation.

So, like, specifically, what do I like? I like the way his writing style mimics and parodies late 20th, early 21st century conversational English. Also, too, I like the odd little style choices in almost every paragraph. Like, for example, when he describes a room and one of the objects in it is ‘green or yellow’ which is, I assume, a commentary on color-blindness and the way novelists describe objects or places in an objective and concrete way even though actual living humans perceive them very differently from  each other.

He also takes you inside the heads of his characters with a vividness that is occasionaly unbearable – I am thinking about the guy suffocating while tied up, for anyone reading along.  That’s something only fiction can do, and he’s really nailed it.

What don’t I like? I’m always disappointed when writers turn to the therapist-patient trope to reveal character, especially if the patient’s mental illness manifests as being young and brilliant and perceptive and just feeling too much, and the therapist is just baffled by their case and really ‘what is sanity, if you follow me?’ . There’s a bit of that going on here.

The technical jargon is also, frankly, tedious. Especially the endnotes filled with calculus and biochemistry. I know enough about the latter subject to understand what he’s saying and it adds nothing to the story, and is occasionally nonsensical. It’s just filler. Why is it there? To impress us?

Which brings me to my final point on the first hundred pages. When I’m reading this book I always have DFW’s suicide, and the subsequent revelation that he struggled with depression for most of his life lurking in the back of my mind. So when I come across pages of technical minutiae that hardly anyone reading the book can understand I wonder: is this a clever literary technique, or witty joke, or did he write this stuff because he was, basically, a mad genius and its presence in this book defies a sane explanation?

I’ll try to post about Infinite Jest roughly once a week. This is Day 1, so if you’re game you still have a chance to hit the library or online bookstores or, I suppose, if you feel like paying double the price for the exact same product, an actual bookshop.

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24 Comments »

  1. I feel sure it was a DFW essay I read, which was about some condensed books and tended to suggest that removing all the inexplicable and annoying bits out of classic novels left them very ordinary. But I can’t find a summary to match my memory on the Wikipedia page for Consider the Lobster, where I would have read it. My overall impression of that book was that here was someone who thought about things in the too-hard way I’ve been known to. A bit novel and also validating for me.

    for the exact same product

    Form is content! Sometimes the content in question may not be judged as worth paying twice the price, but still.

    Comment by lyndon — June 1, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Damn – just got the book and read the first 20 pages or so, hoping to get a lead in this ‘quest’ – got some catching up to do already it seems…

    Comment by Sam — June 1, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  3. the writer won’t meet the author half way

    Depression or schizophrenia?

    Comment by Neil — June 1, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  4. Weirdly, the Exiled published a piece on DFW about the same time you started reading it.

    http://exiledonline.com/david-foster-wallace-portrait-of-an-infinitely-limited-mind/

    Comment by Jack — June 1, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  5. “if you feel like paying double the price for the exact same product, an actual bookshop.”

    Nah, those workers don’t NEED a job. I’ll give them: many are good at their job and can talk enthusiastically about some they stock, and one once helped me find a cookbook suitable for a teenage nephew. But computer algorithms can do it so much cheaper these days.

    That was your point, wasn’t it Danyl? Heaven forbid that you would exercise rationale self-interest and save yourself some money by buying online. You wouldn’t cast your economic vote in such a way as to take the food out of the mouths of booksellers, being all socially-democratic and all? Actually you wouldn’t be taking food out of their mouths, ‘cos they can always claim welfare while you have cheap books. And the co2 and waste of getting your book manufactured and airmailed, in its own packaging, no issue for you? And just how CAN you justify buying books when there’s children starving?

    Good god, man, saving the planet begins at home. You should be leading by example, just like Al Gore does…

    Enjoy your book!

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 1, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Rough day at the office, CF, or did you just forget to take your meds?

    Comment by helenalex — June 1, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  7. So when I come across pages of technical minutae that hardly anyone reading the book can understand I wonder: is this a clever literary technique, or witty joke, or did he write this stuff because he was, basically, a mad genius and its presence in this book defies a sane explanation?

    Or it could just be pretension :)

    Comment by gazzaj — June 1, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  8. I’m trying to work out if this is satire. Surely there must be some deep political meaning I’m missing.

    Comment by John — June 1, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  9. CF is still lamenting the PC gone mad rules about personal hygiene that destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of spitoon manufacturers and their employees

    Comment by Paul — June 1, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  10. $9.99 on Kindle, or $NZD12.18 at today’s import friendly exchange rate, but $33.95 at Whitcoulls…

    No wonder Whitcoulls went under!

    Or should that really read – No wonder most New Zealanders are culturally illiterate!

    Comment by kyotolaw — June 1, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  11. if you feel like paying double the price for the exact same product, an actual bookshop.

    Hey, second-hand bookstores can have quite competitive prices, and the stock is more often than not in perfectly good condition.

    Comment by derp de derp — June 1, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  12. If you purchase online from Amazon,some employees have employment conditions that Charles Dickens could have used as the basis for a novel. Sick leave, even with a doctor’s note, results in a demerit point, six demerits = dismissal. UK Sunday Times profiled their UK working conditions at Christmas a couple of years ago. Similar US employment conditions were exposed about a decade ago.

    Comment by Bruce Hamilton — June 1, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  13. “Or should that really read – No wonder most New Zealanders are culturally illiterate!” – I thought NZ was one of the biggest book buying markets (per capita). Probably just cookbooks and sports annuals though…

    Comment by Sam — June 1, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

  14. Am most of the way through the great satire: Atlas Shrugged. About as rational as Pynchon on a good day.

    Comment by taranaki — June 1, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  15. So I got up to the bit with the guy with a life-ruining cannabis addiction and thought – man, if there are people addicted to *real* drugs in this book they’re in for a world of hurt. Then almost immediately there’s a character so badly addicted to Toblerone he needs 24/7 medical care. I can’t figure out if this is satire yet.

    Comment by gazzaj — June 1, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  16. This might be of interest to you: http://mediumdeadly.tumblr.com/dfwallace

    Comment by John Fouhy — June 1, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  17. I thought NZ was one of the biggest book buying markets (per capita). Probably just cookbooks and sports annuals though…

    I believe that Colin Meads, All Black is the greatest selling book in NZ history.

    Comment by Paul — June 1, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

  18. “I believe that Colin Meads, All Black is the greatest selling book in NZ history.”

    Objectively speaking, does that also make it the most influential book in New Zealand history?

    Comment by Rich (the other one) — June 2, 2011 @ 9:59 am

  19. The Meads book is worth reading since it now comes across as some brilliant satire. I read it in about 2003 and I still have this one line seared into my brain:

    ‘The land he farmed was like the man he was to become: tough, rugged, and reluctant to yield.’

    Comment by helenalex — June 2, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  20. thought NZ was one of the biggest book buying markets (per capita). Probably just cookbooks and sports annuals though…

    I believe that Colin Meads, All Black is the greatest selling book in NZ history.

    Objectively speaking, does that also make it the most influential book in New Zealand history?

    If you believe the current “Whitcoulls Top 100″, we’re all sexual-sadist time-travelling vampires.

    Comment by Phil — June 2, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  21. 6.Rough day at the office, CF, or did you just forget to take your meds?

    Comment by helenalex — June 1, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    Office woes, but everythings under control, situation normal. Had a slight systems malfunction, but everythings fine now. How are you?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 3, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  22. If you believe the current “Whitcoulls Top 100″, we’re all sexual-sadist time-travelling vampires.

    Is that a round-about way of saying that you are not a sexual-sadist time travelling vampire? (I live in Central Otago, so it’s too cold to do that all the time, I limit myself to long weekends)

    Comment by Paul — June 3, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

  23. … but everythings under control, situation normal. Had a slight systems malfunction, but everythings fine now. How are you?

    We had a reactor leak here. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Large leak, very dangerous.

    Comment by Phil — June 3, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

  24. ‘boring conversation anyway. Phil! We’re gonna have company.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 3, 2011 @ 7:56 pm


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