Thursday, August 20, 2009

Infinite Jest, 700 pages in

There's only one month and about 300 pages to go in Infinite Summer, the project to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest over the course of the summer. It's time for me to jump into the conversation and evaluate the first 700 pages or so of the novel, and determine how it stacks up against my expectations.

I hadn't read any DFW (this is how I refer to him in my head. As in, 'way to make this passage difficult, DFW,') before, but the book came with glowing recommendations from friends, and with the Infinite Summer support system in place, I figured, 'why not? It may eliminate the opportunity to read other books, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.'

Yet, in the two months I've been reading Infinite Jest, I've also read six other books. That's a testament to the novel's readability, for me at least. To stay on pace to finish the book by September 22, you have to read 75 pages a week, which has proven to be easy. I've been able to bang out 75 pages in one or two sittings, which is why I've been able to read other books as well.

Onto the book — with hundreds of characters and several major (and some minor) plot lines, Infinite Jest is masterfully plotted and pieced together. I imagine that DFW had a huge chart in his house showing relationships between characters and how plots connect:

There's the Enfield Tennis Academy plotline, which focuses on Hal Incandenza, a young tennis star. Hal's late father, James, started the Academy, and his mother, Avril, is an administrator there. Hal's older brother, Orin, is a star football punter, and the middle brother, Mario, is a seriously deformed, yet eternally cheerful, film nut. Mario takes after James, who was a filmmaker, and who made a film so entertaining that anyone who watches it is rendered unable to do anything else for the rest of his life (it's called either the Entertainment or samizdat).

This brings us to the second plotline — Infinite Jest, which was published in 1996, is set in a near future in which the North American countries have joined together into the Organization of North American Nations. But there are also Canadian resistance factions, one of which wants to get its hands on the master copy of the Entertainment to use as a weapon.

The third plotline is set at Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts. We've seen some overlaps between this plot and the other two, but I'm waiting for Don Gately, the hulking former resident-turned-employee to connect with the Enfield plot. DFW offers an insightful look into the world of addiction and recovery, and it's often heart-breaking.

Of the three plotlines, I find the Enfield plot the most compelling, mostly because of the Incandenza brothers. From Orin, who refers to his romantic conquests as "Subjects" and who imparts dating advice to Hal, who is scarred by Orin's oversharing ("he sort of feels like O.'s having enough acrobatic coitus for all three of them") to Mario, a loner because of his multiple deformities, who provides an outsider's perspective to an insider's world, the brothers are all funny and their interactions are great. But I'm consistently drawn to Mario, whose observations are frequently incisive and always interesting: "The inside of it smells like an ashtray, but Mario's felt good both times in Ennet's House because it's very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside."

The bulk of the plot (which skips around temporally), takes place after James' suicide, so we never learn much about him, except through his films and his relationships with others. We also (unfortunately) never learn much about Avril, (who is very tall and Canadian), who belongs to the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, carries on an affair with a student, and did work at McGill on "the use of hyphens, dashes and colons in E. Dickinson" (so did I). Together they make one heck of a family, despite one that's kind of tragic.

70 percent of the way through, I'm enjoying Infinite Jest, but I think it's more out of admiration than sheer pleasure. A common complaint about the text is the 388 endnotes, some of which are pages in length. While I see that this is labor intensive and that some of the notes could have gone right in the regular text, some of the best stuff is found here — priceless conversations between Orin and Hal, for instance.

DFW has created a magnificent world, albeit one filled with troubled individuals, and I appreciate the intricately layered plot, and how he sometimes waits to reveal crucial points until the reader is thoroughly confused. Sometimes there's a "click" in my mind as pieces begin to come together and previous unseen connections emerge.

I'll have more to say in another month or so, when I finish Infinite Jest, on the notion of entertainment and how the plots ultimately come together — though I'm not even sure they will. I can't imagine that DFW will wrap things up neatly, and honestly, he doesn't need to.

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