This is reposted from my old blog. I’ve imported the whole post, comments and all, into a single space here. I’ve listed it here under its original date.
Filling in the Gaps: Infinite Jest
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Last weekend, I finished one of the longest titles on my fill in the gaps 100 books list, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It is hard to say exactly how I felt about the book. But immediately upon completion, I already knew it was one I would be thinking about for some time. So, my comments here are not going to be a review per se, but a rundown of my responses to the book, more like what I would record in a reading journal. I begin with last Saturday, Sept 5, the day I finished the book.
Saturday, Sept 5
I’ve been working on this tome since May. It hasn’t been an easy read, though parts of it were incredibly absorbing. It took me a long time to get to those parts, but I am not sure if that had more to do with me as a reader and the state of mind I was in, or with the novel itself. Anyway, the parts that were engaging were worth the read, even though there were large chunks of the book that did nothing for me.
The end of the book frustrates me. It seems it did not end at all, in fact, and that I could just pick it up and continue reading the same old thing over again. There is no resolution, which I more or less expected. But worse, there’s no sense that we’ve come to a stopping place at all. But then, perhaps that is because we’ve not really had a plot either. It’s more like a prolonged rambling (in amazing prose, of course) that just comes to a sort of abrupt stop.
Sunday, Sept 6
The notion of Entertainment and its connection to addiction (perhaps only made possible by contemporary consumer culture) is so adeptly explored in Infinite Jest. I think this is what there is to love in the novel. When I read about the book, before having purchased it, this was what made me want to read it. I have to say that the treatment of the theme(s) is somewhat disorienting. Perhaps that is the way it should be, though, as a sort of representation of the mind-reeling abundance of Entertainment possibilities today.
The treatment of sex, drugs, and addiction as interconnected facets of the Entertainment culture was especially fascinating. It isn’t so much that that’s a foreign concept to me, as that putting it right up against sports, movies, etc., gave it a whole different perspective. The intertwining (or entangling) of these elements in the text is probably what I enjoyed most about it.
Monday, Sept 7
Depression. Who could know more about it than David Foster Wallace?
I am usually not one to read the author in(to) the text he’s penned, but it was hard not to have thoughts of DFW’s demise enter the head when reading some of the more eloquent passages about depression in Infinite Jest. Those bits are so well-written, so piercing, so insightful. Is it authorial intrusion into the narrative? The modest training I’ve had in critical theory recoils at the suggestion, but the casual reader in me found it difficult not to see a good deal of DFW in those bits of prose that dealt so poignantly with the black dog.
One way or another, the book’s treatment of Depression is elegant. The descriptions of a despondent mind’s thought processes and the understanding of the impulse that drives the depressed to actions that seem so irrational from the outside (including suicide), are so lovingly presented that it brings the melancholy horror of those feelings close to the reader, simultaneously allowing for empathy and examination. Anyone who has experienced depression would recognize the truth held in those passages, the first-hand knowledge they present. Anyone who has not experienced depression would probably do well to pay close attention, if they want to understand it from the inside.
On another note, I finished Velocity last night. After the long 4-5 months it took me to finish the 6th book from my Fill in the Gaps list, I finished the next in just a day. Infinite Jest is a demanding read. It required a lot of slow, careful attention from me.
Tuesday, Sept 8
The whole treatment of Subsidized Time in Infinite Jest is the first thing in the book that really caught my interest. It is funny. It is handled with a wry cynicism that is just perfect. The idea of selling ad space on our marking of time just makes me laugh, and is well suited to the book’s critique of our current situation in which everything is for sale — or at least open for sponsorship. And, it is quite fitting that most of the action of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
I just happened across the Infinite Summer website today. I didn’t know this challenge was out there. I started a little early, and finished a few week’s before the challenge’s dates dictate. But I guess I unwittingly joined this community of Wallace’s readers. Well, not exactly. But I did more or less follow their reading schedule.
Wednesday, Sept 9
The characters in Infinite Jest are not at all endearing to me. I’ve read plenty of comments by other readers about the characters, mostly calling them “memorable.” That might be true, but I don’t feel much for them other than a sort of detached interest. Hal is, not surprisingly, the closest to a sympathetic character that I find in the novel, but even he is presented in such a way that seems to distance him from the reader. In this way, the book reminds me of the Gormenghast novels. There I have a similar feeling that the characters are not at all sympathetic, though Titus does, from time to time, invite you in a little closer. Infinite Jest struck me in much the same way.
Friday, Sept 11
One of the things about Infinite Jest that is really well done is the way the book shows the problem of drugs, and of addiction in general, being something that cuts across social barriers. There are abusers in the book who are young, and those who are old. Rich and poor. Various races and backgrounds. It runs the gamut. Drug and alcohol abuse play a significant role in exploring the theme, but it is really much wider than these problems. It is all in the context of addiction to consumption, which covers a whole lot more ground. And perhaps why it is so all-inclusive.
I also like the way the book handles its critique of various programs set up to help people suffering from addiction. It is not just the fact that it pokes fun of these things, but that it seems to hit hard at the notion of a system that treats all problems of addiction as a pre-packaged sort of thing, as if all addictions are built on an assembly line. And, even more insightful, it discusses the way these support groups can become an addiction in themselves. When one of the characters finds himself in the wrong meeting altogether, this idea is handled especially well. Our addictions, it seems, can sometimes function as interchangeable parts.
Saturday, Sept 12
I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what all Infinite Jest has to offer. I think it isn’t a book for everyone, but that those who do read it will find plenty there to think about for a good long time. I find myself thinking of it several times throughout the day, pondering over little bits and pieces at different times.
I have a friend who has decided to read it, but not necessarily from beginning to end. She’s more likely to flip through here and there and read whatever jumps out at her at that point in time. This might be a very interesting way to approach Infinite Jest, as a linear, beginning-to-end reading isn’t necessarily the best way to really get into the book. Anyway, I am interested in seeing how her reading experience goes.
I wouldn’t recommend the book to just everyone, but would enjoy hearing thoughts from anyone who does decide to tackle it. There’s a good reason that it was so much a topic of discussion when it came out. It really has a lot to offer. Even though there were parts of the reading process that were quite a chore for me, I am very glad I read it now that I am done.
© 2009 Shelly Bryant