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Infinite Jest – the First 33%

July 24, 2013

When I started reading Infinite Jest a month or so ago I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about it. So here’s a blog post about it. Apologies and all that, but the novel’s heavyweight reputation and its evident attempt to say something important about the modern world practically demands some kind of appraisal from the reader. After all, what’s the point of hacking through its 1079 pages if it doesn’t prompt a response?

But it gets worse. On the one hand, I felt almost obliged to set out my thoughts on the book but, on the other hand, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t have the time, energy or patience to wait until the end and then produce a carefully thought-out analysis of the damn thing. So instead I’ve opted to post a slightly tidied-up version of notes I jotted down as I read through. The drawback to this approach is obvious: I’m commenting on themes, styles, etc, in total ignorance of how the novel’s end might justify or put into perspective what happens in the beginning.

Still, at least they provide a more-or-less honest account of what it’s been like to read it. Hopefully those who’ve already completed the journey will be able to sympathise with my struggle. Anyway…

24 June

Fifty pages in. Written in the present tense – always slightly irritating. A cheap way to seem pacey and energetic. Also (it seems to me) a clear sign of the effect of films and TV on the imagination. It reads like a screenplay. These days “imagining” something pretty much means imagining it as it might be presented in a film. (But couldn’t we say something similar about Dickens’ theatre-haunted prose?)

Actually, it’s too strong to simply say it reads like a screenplay. DFW often uses the freedom of prose to decent effect. In the first chapter, for example, we get Hal’s version of events and we only learn later that something rather different seems to have occurred (and we’re not told exactly what). But, still, the influence of filmic imagination is strong. I suppose that’s not really a criticism of DFW; it’s characteristic of the modern imagination – including my own. I worry that it’s a diminishment – an automatic focus on surfaces but without the advantage films have of being able to show the fluid complexity of the human face.

Some nice expressions/descriptions, but the prose isn’t as “drum-tight” as Eggers’ introduction suggested. In fact, Eggers’ intro (which I half-read) has put me on my guard from the get-go. He was trying too hard to sell me a book I’d already bought.

College kids/techy types smoking dope. Too much of that so far. Who fucking cares?

Reminds me of DeLillo and Copeland with more book learning. Not an unqualified good in either case.

All the above pretty sniffy. I am enjoying it but it hasn’t grabbed me by the throat yet.

Insects. Colds. Dreams about mother. The face in the floor.

25 June

Technology, biochemistry – life seen from the “outside” dominates. Nature is represented by insects (ie, nature at its most mechanistic) and the malevolence of the Arizona sun.

Of course so far the novel’s stance towards this focus is not clear.

26 June

80-odd pages in. Things starting to clarify: the “entertainment”; its links to the films made by Hal’s father; hints of something unusually sinister about the drugs…. Even the feral hamsters have turned up!

But I already need a cast-list to remember who all these sodding people are (fortunately Wikipedia provides this).

I’m a bit concerned that the whole thing seems to be based on Monty Python’s sketch about the funniest joke ever written. The Pythons were done with it after three minutes, but can it carry a 1,000+ page novel?

Also – I suppose because of its length and reputation – I can’t help comparing it to Ulysses. Post-modernism updates the modernist classic. This seems both unfair and instructive. Hal as a sort of 90’s Stephen Daedalus: precociously talented, a strained relationship with his family, etc. The way the book carries its huge erudition very much on its sleeve, but often does it for satirical purposes. Yet there are no ordinary people in Infinite Jest. And so there’s little genuine pathos or warmth. DFW suggests life is mad by presenting us with a bunch of characters who are mad. Grotesques. Joyce mingles madness and sadness by describing the details of ordinary life. Satire, but also pathos. Bloom is a character we care about. I can’t really say the same of anyone in Infinite Jest.

27 June

I might be using IJ as a lightning-rod for my dislike of modern (ie, post-modern) culture. In other words, I’m setting myself up against the book’s reputation. The haunting fear that I’m becoming Roger Scruton.

28 June

No ordinary people. Everyone is neurotic or worse. No-one is genuinely close to anyone else. And the tennis academy stuff is boring me.

Post-modernism: life is meaningless, so we must “play it” as an ironic game, and (for some never-specified reason) the only “authentic” act is the deconstruction of authority in all its various forms. This is the snarky dream of thirteen year-old bed-wetters and humanities academics too comfortable, too self-conscious and too damn chicken-shit to be Marxists.

Now, is DFW just another of those fraudsters? Or, to put it another way, does he criticise the madness of modern culture using forms of thought which are themselves thoroughly conditioned by that same culture? (And can this even be avoided?)

So we get the alienating invasiveness of modern technology (including biochemistry), but what is the book’s underlying attitude towards this?

4 July

245 pages in and it’s picked up a bit. The image of the cage (again) and the potential for almost anything to be a self-defeating attempt to escape it – and the absurdity of that position; trying to find the “real” artichoke by divesting it of its leaves.

The endless chemical, technical and mathematical details: ramming home how we’re enmeshed in a world that’s far too complex for us to understand. The alienation of this situation. It reminds me of the Ithica chapter of Ulysses. The barren futility of reducing everything to bare “facts”. It’s interesting to compare the ostentatious erudition of Infinite Jest (and Ulysses) with that of Tristram Shandy. Sterne (like Swift before him) was mainly poking fun at the presumptuousness of academics and specialists. This was still possible in the 1750s. It’s harder to laugh today.

It’s easy to make the world seem weird and absurd if you populate your novel exclusively with absurd weirdos.

Or, more generally, the world looks strange if you treat the culture as a given, a kind of surrogate nature (as if our culture, uniquely in the history of mankind, had discovered the real facts of life). But step back. Cui bono? That is to say, look at the deeper processes which are producing this madness. Then things cease to be so absurd or ironic. They become murderous.

And that’s what I mean by criticising the culture from within the culture. It mistakes the structure for the base, endows it with an illusionary necessity and so, of course, in the process everything becomes an absurd tragi-comedy.

It remains to be seen whether DFW is guilty of this particular mistake.

10 July

310 pages in. Another irritation: the footnotes. Supposedly (I’ve read) DFW uses them to break up the narrative flow. Break it up?! Even without them the narrative flow is all over the fucking place! And what exactly is gained by breaking up the narrative flow in any case? I can’t help feeling they’re just an emptily clever post-modernist mannerism.

13 July

The tennis war-game chapter illustrates the faults and good points of novel. It’s an entertaining, knock-about satire of the Game Theory approach to global politics but (a) it’s horribly overwritten, and (b) it doesn’t really nail its target. The problem with Game Theory is not that people are more barbaric than its coldly mathematic approach assumes (which is what I take the chapter to be saying). The problem is that people are more human. Yes, that includes unspeakable barbarity – but also love, loyalty, playfulness, friendliness and self-sacrifice to the point of sainthood. The attempt to reduce all this to a few formulae was pioneered by a paranoid schizophrenic. And it shows.

However, the Boston AA chapter is easily the best so far: moving, compelling and profound. Hopefully this is the direction for the rest of the book. Even here, though, there are quibbles: it is (as usual) overwritten, and reads as a piece of free-wheeling journalism masquerading as fiction (that’s true of quite a bit of the book so far).

All in all I can’t help feeling it needed a better editor. Someone should produce an abridged version – 600 pages perhaps – called Finite Jest.


From → Literature

  1. Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I really enjoy reading through your posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?
    Thanks a lot!

  2. Myfriend Johnson permalink

    “College kids/techy types smoking dope. Too much of that so far. Who fucking cares?”

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