Monday, January 9, 2012

After reading Infinite Jest

The book is light-blue: a cool color, peaceful. As if it's saying, "Don't panic." Because panic you very well might: it's over a thousand pages long, bigger than most textbooks, and a quick flip through reveals paragraphs that go on page after page, nary a chapter break in sight. And one-hundred pages of footnotes. In his introduction Eggers gives his best pep talk, claiming that when you finish Infinite Jest "you are a better person,” and the back cover is full of glowing blurbs; but it remains imposing.

And then in the first few pages you read about Hal Incandenza, a teenage prodigy who reads the dictionary for fun. That's got to be a challenge, a toss-down of the gauntlet. Surely Wallace is saying: "If he can read dictionaries, can't you at least read a measly thousand pages?" It's  not as if it's dry reading, after all; when it's not heartbreaking, it's damned funny.

“Addictive,” even. Infinite Jest is about addiction, after all; much of it takes place in a halfway house, and other sections in an elite tennis academy reveal no shortage of drug abuse among the well-groomed athletes. It really is a page-turner; there are more twists and revelations than in most thrillers. So that even in the dry parts, the sections where Wallace is spending page after page on a tennis match or an apres-garde (his term) film, you keep pushing on. You have to know what happens next, after all.

It's not long without reason. Near the end is this quote from a director explaining his technique: [He] made sure that either the whole [film] was silent or else if it wasn't silent that you could bloody well hear every single performer's voice, no matter how far out on the cinematographic or narrative periphery they was real life's real egalitarian babble of figurantless crowds, of the animate world's real agora, the babble of crowds every member of which was the central and articulate protagonist of his own entertainment...[critics] assumed the babble (/babel) was some self-conscious viewer-hostile heavy-art directorial pose, instead of radical realism." Got all that? Because by this point in the novel (pp. 835-6) you know that this is Wallace's technique: you hear the story of nearly every character, no matter how minor. Some are crazy; some are homeless, drug-addicted; all are interesting. The novel is long and rambling; but if it wasn't long and discursive it wouldn't be half the novel it is. It’s the sound of a crowd of people, all talking at once.
That filmmaker quoted above has an obsession with lenses; he was a lensmaker, in fact, before he directed any films. Which isn’t just a throwaway detail—it’s a metaphor for Wallace's method, switching from character to character. Switching from lens to lens. Wallace does float above the whole thing as an omniscient narrator, occasionally noting a character's misconception or error. But for the most part he keeps his distance. The reader has to get to the truth through those flawed lenses, those unreliable narrators. It's not just a PoMo trick: it's a way that the novel imitates life and all the uncertainties and contradictions you have to make sense of to understand life. It’s also quite entertaining.

When you get to the ending it hardly feels like an ending. Plotlines stay unresolved, questions unanswered. But don’t all good stories end with questions? As long as the characters are alive, there’s always the chance for a new story, a story perhaps just as interesting as the one that’s finished. (I can’t think of any novel or movie that made me wish for sequels as much as Infinite Jest does; but of course there can’t be any sequels.) I think that’s part of the point, and the thing about Infinite Jest that feels inspirational in a really non-cheesy way: as long as you’re alive, you have more stories to look forward to.

[[[SPOILERS below this line ]]]

If I had to name a favorite part, it would have to be when Dr. Incandenza returns as a ghost and talks about “Infinite Jest.”  It’s a great turnaround, isn’t it? Up to that point the Entertainment is this awful symbol of America’s addiction to entertainment etc. etc. Incandenza, though, explains that it’s the opposite: it’s his last, desperate attempt to really connect to his own son. And a failure. Poignant, but it also really tempers the long monologues about America’s sad present state, which would otherwise feel overbearing.

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