A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 3, 2009

Good to Be Here

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 2:35 pm

By Kevin Carey

If David Foster Wallace were alive today, I wouldn’t be reading Infinite Jest.

But he died, and for a couple of days I obsessively read the obituaries and tributes, and then the longer-form articles in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker and elsewhere. Unlike Ezra, I love his non-fiction work and read nearly all of it over the last two years, in the collections and elsewhere. (The introduction to Best American Essays 2007 is very good, as is, well, nearly everything else.) But I hadn’t tackled the fiction, because it was long and “difficult” and who has the time? Then he died, and I wanted to know more. I bought the book in April, tried to get some momentum going, failed, and then started again about a month ago. 

The experience of reading Infinite Jest has been permanently altered by Wallace’s suicide, I think. A lot of the characters experience intense psychic pain, and it’s hard to read Katherine Gompert say things like:

“I didn’t want to especially hurt myself. Or like punish. I don’t hate myself. I just want out…The feeling is why I want to. The feeling is the reason I want to die…I feel it all over. In my arms and legs…All over. My head, throat, butt. In my stomach. It’s all over everywhere. I don’t know what I could call it. It’s like I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything. It’s like horror more than sadness. It’s more like horror…Everything gets horrible. Everything you see is ugly. Lurid is the word…I don’t want anything except for the feeling to go away. But it doesn’t. Part of the feeling is being willing to do anything to make it go away. Understand that. Anything. Do you understand? It’s not wanting to hurt myself it’s wanting to not hurt.”

and not wonder–even assume–that Wallace was describing what he’d felt and would feel again. I’m not sure if that makes the book better or worse, but surely different in an important way. Particularly since Wallace’s mind and voice are so deliberately obvious in the reading. Some of the best non-fiction writers–Jonathan Harr is a good example–manage to completely erase their presence from their prose. Wallace was clearly able to write nearly any way he chose, including straight concise narrative and, in many sections of the book, long and evocative passages, just beautiful lyrical descriptive work. So when he doesn’t write that way, you know it was for a reason, and you wonder why, and when you wonder that’s based in part on your sense of who Wallace was, how he thought and what he felt, and that sense is much different now than it was before.

(Update: As I should have noted, Annie Lowery covered a lot of this ground earlier.) 

The repetition in Gompert’s chapter, certain phrases insisted upon, four, five, six time and more, appears throughout. Maybe Wallace lacked confidence in his clarity, but maybe he was also representing the human need to be understood and the difficulty of communicating in a loud, crowded, anonymous world. 

I’m about 350 pages in at the moment and for those of you pounding away at the opening chapters, I can tell you that for me the book got substantially easier to read around page 200, which is about where the constellation of characters, settings, and larger ideas begins to come into focus.

July 2, 2009

Staying and Fighting

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 10:03 pm

By Dayo Olopade

Greetings, all! I am extremely excited about the prospect of ranting and raving about this deeply frustrating, yet rewarding book. I’ve long believed that reading and writing are extremely antisocial behaviors and that all journalists are a shade defective because of that fact–the life of David Foster Wallace is perhaps a case in point. And so I relish the opportunity to both read and write in a communal fashion.

I also want to confess my own head start on Infinite Summer. On a recent trip to Nigeria, I downed about 500 pages of the “paper brick” before returning to the states and losing not my motivation but my time.

Part of that problem comes from the unbelievable neediness of this book. The sense that Wallace himself, not to mention the compelling cast of characters and precepts that are arrayed before the reader, is tugging at your sleeve, insisting that you stay and fight. Further, the book does not go down like short stories or essays or the tremendous nonfiction journalism that is my favorite part of Wallace’s legacy. It’s broken up into 70-page marathons of engaging prose or short scenes that end abruptly, or footnotes that must be read with care and yet a thumb in the rest of the book and perhaps thrice before the reality sinks in. In other words, it’s really, really hard to start and stop.  The extra weight of this being an “important book” likewise compels the reader, as many have already discussed here, to stay and fight.  You’re in it or you’re out.

When I was in this book it was good (I even devised a very helpful system for keeping up with the dread footnotes, on which more later). For months, I’ve been out–and kudos to the gang here for sucking me back in (though there was talk of sangria, don’t play).

So I’m here, and will clear the space to do this properly. Because time is paramount, as Dave Eggers’ introduction to the most recent edition makes clear:

The book is 1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s deeply felt and incredibly moving. That it was written in three years by a writer under 35 is very painful to think about. So let’s not think about that. The point is that it’s for all these reasons—acclaimed, daunting, not-lazy, drum-tight, very funny (we didn’t mention that yet but yes) — that you picked up this book. Now the question is this: Will you actually read it?

Yes, fine. In. I’ll get into my complaints and my embarassing gushing in short order–but there’s no backtracking because hey, I just said that I would read it with these fine friends and the internet hates liars.

Wallace on Rose

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 12:37 pm

By Dylan Matthews

Chris already linked to it, but Wallace’s interview on Charlie Rose from 1997 is strangely riveting, and actually quite helpful in trying to interpret the odd, disorienting jumble that is the first hundred-odd pages of IJ:

The whole interview (which begins at 23:15) is worth listening to, but I found three excerpts particularly relevant to reading IJ. The first starts at 40:39 and goes until 41:02:

I have this problem of thinking that I haven’t made myself clear, or that the argument hasn’t been sufficiently hammered home, so I will make the same point five, six, seven times. The “E Unibus Pluram” thing in [A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again] is an argumentative essay that I did six or seven years ago, and I just gave up after that, because it seems as if to make the argument truly persuasive requires five, six hundred pages, and nobody wants to read it.

Obviously, this “problem” (if it really is one) isn’t really limited to his essays. But I actually think of it as one of Wallace’s great virtues. Even in the twelve percent of the book I’ve finished, his tendency to repeat points through different characters and scenarios does result in the themes being more powerful.

The second picks up right after, at 41:10, after Rose asks about Wallace’s usage of, yes, endnotes:

In Infinite Jest the endnotes are very intentional, and they’re in there for certain structural reasons and you know, you hear about it. It’s sort of embarrassing to read [A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again]. You can almost chart when it was written, because the first couple of essays don’t any, but the footnotes get very, very addictive. It’s almost like having a second voice in your head…It is a way, I’m just going to look pretentious talking about this…There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. The difficulty about writing about that reality is that text is very linear, and it’s very unified. And you, or I anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disoriented. You can take the lines and jumble them up and that’s nicely fractured, but no one’s going to read it.

So, you know, it could have been worse. I do find Wallace’s consistent characterization of his writing style as some kind of defect or pathology, shown here by his reference to footnotes as an “addiction” which it’s “pretentious” to discuss, unsettling.

Finally, there’s this, from 53:33, about his drug use:

Here’s why I’m embarrassed talking about it. Not because I’m personally ashamed of it, but because everybody talks about it…It sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. “Oh he’s out of the rehab, and back in action!”…I did some recreational drugs, I didn’t have the stomach to drink very much and I didn’t have the nervous system to do anything hard. Yeah, I did some drugs. I didn’t do as many drugs as most of the people I know my age. What it turned out was, I just don’t have the nervous system to handle it…That’s why I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It’s just not particularly interesting. It’s very average.

This is just bizarre to me. Substance abuse is such a crucial part of IJ, something that’s shared by most of the major characters and treated with a nuance and sophistication that is startling on first reading, that to hear Wallace dismiss it as an insignificant phenomenon, or “not particularly interesting”, caught me off guard.

July 1, 2009

The Misspelled Assassins

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 2:56 am

By Matthew Yglesias

On page 87, we’re introduced to one Marathe, an operative with the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, a Québécois separatist group whose name we’re told (in a footnote, naturally) means “Wheelchair Assassins.” But as best I know, “rollent” is not a French word at all—”wheelchair” is, rather, “fauteuil roulant.” My first guess was that perhaps this is Quebec dialect or something, but Google indicates that’s not the case—the only hits for Wallace’s spelling are direct references to Infinite Jest.

I suppose I’ll chalk this up as just another minor effort to disorient the reader, which is clearly one of the overarching goals of the early sections, but would be interested to know if anyone else has a grander theory.

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