A Supposedly Fun Blog

August 17, 2009

Expectation and Ecstasy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 3:44 pm

by Dayo Olopade

Ezra, I have to disagree strongly with you about the book not being as fun as you supposed. Yes, this is a subjective designation, but the disappointment you express seems to come as a result of the supposing, not the text. I say that not because I’m eating it up, for the sheer procedural enjoyment (as opposed to an ends-based enjoyment). But because it’s critical to the project of the book to note that we can be—as perhaps was DFW—exquisitely hampered by expectations, or rather, the belief not strictly that a work of art is great but that a culture has collectively decided that such work is “great,” or a person “beautiful,” or an idea “novel.” (Indeed, college friends and I spent hours playing an enchanting game we called ‘overrated,’ wherein things like California rolls and NASA were put in their place.) This is the reason for which people read Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Middlemarch, or the Bible, for that matter–however excellent or awful each text may be.

What is so ironic about your difficulty in enjoying Wallace’s “paper brick” is how it intersects with the metaphysical play involved in the book’s thematic and narrative construction. We want to read Infinite Jest not just because the book was well-received—that came long after Wallace came up with its conceit—but because Infinite Jest and the world it describes is obsessed with value-claims in entertainment.

This obsession takes several forms, most notably James O. Incandenza’s own hilarious and gleeful tweaking of academic convention and the “après garde“. But if you’ve gotten to the parts of IJ that dwell, with ever greater specificity, on “the entertainment,” the last work of the Mad Stork, for which Walllace’s book is named, you’ll note that its power to destroy lives is linked equally to its aesthetic merits and its unexpectedness. Gradually, the subject matter of the movie, its basic act and actors and narrative trajectory, come into focus. But within the novel, its power comes from it being unexpected—a mythology due in no small part to the tales in which guileless test subjects and unwitting governmental monitors turn a corner, spy the samzidat, and are reduced to diapered audiovisual addiction in an instant. For these poor souls, there is no expectation, only ecstasy.

Of course, as the cartridge gains a certain notoriety (and as the plot of IJ increasingly centers on the canuck quest to find this cartridge), the reader likewise grasps for signs of what could possibly be so awesome about the object—is it mental porn? Aural opium? A transubstantiated sex act? No matter what it is, its relationship to readers is markedly different from that of the characters in the novel itself, who are quite blissfully unaware of the serious Medusan entertainment powers they are starting to fuck with.

And while “Infinite Jest” the movie necessarily must be orders of magnitude more compelling and enjoyable than Infinite Jest the book—the latter’s brilliant play on expectation rather requires the reader to dream on, imagining the idea of entertainment so beautiful and bizarre as to justify meandering through pages and pages of text and footnotes that are painfully (I think wonderfully) oblique to that entertainment. In other words, the book is all expectation, and—sorry for you—very little ecstasy.

August 11, 2009

Not As Fun As I’d Supposed

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 4:14 am

By Ezra Klein

Infinite Summer correctly calls us out for not posting lately. So here’s my post: This was supposed to be fun. It’s right there in the name of the blog. But I’m not having much fun. I’m somewhat past page 500 now — 538, actually, and if I were DFW I’d have put that in a footnote even though that would have annoyed you — and am enjoying the book more than when I was at 400, and more than I was at 300, and more than when I was at 200. It’s getting better, richer, deeper. I care more for the characters. I’ve come to anticipate Don Gately’s every appearance, and I really love the perspective on Alcoholics Anonymous and the sensations of addiction.

But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David. Things are happening, which is a distinct improvement on things not happening. But the things that are happening aren’t really happening in the confines of a discernible plot. Rather, they are happening in the service of beginning to bring together a discernible plot. That’s fine on page 200. We’re on page 500. When I was a teenager, I remember reading Maxim’s interviews with actresses and supermodels of various kinds. A standard question for them was “can ‘it’ ever go on too long” As you might have guessed, “it” meant sex. And the answer was often “yes.” That’s sort of how I feel about IJ at this point. Enjoying the journey is important, but the reason people don’t always take the scenic route is that it takes too damn long.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not DFW I’m mad. It’s me. It’s not that I don’t want to finish Infinite Jest. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest. It’s that I don’t have time for Infinite Jest. But this is not a book that takes the opportunity cost of the reader seriously. In my other life, I write 15 blog posts a day and a weekly interview column and a twice-monthly food column. I need to read books on the Federal Reserve and papers about obesity and CBO scores. I don’t want to be the sort of person who doesn’t have the time to read a long and serious and difficult novel. But I am that sort of person. And it is not as if Infinite Jest richly rewards every sentence read or page finishing. It is not taut and there is little forward motion. I can’t shake the feeling that DFW is wasting a lot of my time. But at this point, I can’t tell which bits are actually unnecessary, and which just feel that way.

Will I give up? Probably not. I’ve sunk too much into this book. I have too much nagging anxiety over the fate of Hal Incandenza. I haven’t heard from Orin in awhile, and I want to know Gately’s role. But I’ve not been convinced that Infinite Jest is a truly great book. It is brilliant, but it is self-indulgent and petulant and difficult in the way brilliant people often are. It seems seduced by its own intelligence and talent, and feels to me like it’s reliant on readers who want to be the sort of people who have read Infinite Jest more than readers who want to keep reading Infinite Jest and so simply continue until it’s done. That, after all, is why we’re in this book group: Because it’s a book that people legendarily don’t finish. At page 538, I understand full well why people don’t finish it. Without Infinite Summer, there is no way I’d finish Infinite Jest. But I am not without Infinite Summer, and I will persevere.

How are the rest of you doing?

August 10, 2009

Wisdom

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 11:22 pm

by Kevin Carey

I started reading Infinite Jest a few weeks before I realized anyone else had had the bright idea of spending the summer of 2009 this way, and once I passed the magic 200-page threshold I really took to the book, so for a while I was waaay ahead of the “Infinite Summer” schedule, to the point that it became frustrating because I couldn’t blog about what was on my mind. In the future it would probably make sense to set up blogs like this so each post comes with a book page number attached and readers can sort the blog by posting date or book page. That way people can post ahead if they like and readers can stay unspoiled. But all of that’s moot because of a recent sever two-week work-related time crunch that left no opportunity for mentally taxing recreational reading, so now I’m barely 50 pages ahead of the horizon. A marathon and not a sprint, I guess.

But the good thing is that now I can finally write about the big 35-page section from page 343 to 379 that (with a few interruptions) really dives into the heart of Boston A.A. Most descriptions of IJ use words like “satire” or “post-modern” but empirically speaking it seems to be, more than anything, an exploration of the modern human mind trying to balance the primal urge for happiness and fulfillment with the temptations of artificial gratification and dangers of addiction in all their forms. Maybe that doesn’t make for good jacket-copy, I don’t know.

The A.A. section is where, per Ezra, Wallace’s skills as an observer really shine. Some people have a knack for noticing the crucial detail. Some are particularly skilled at writing and scene-setting, and some are able to look deep inside everyday events and grasp the larger meaning within. Not that many people are good at all three of those things at once, but Wallace was, which is why his non-fiction stuff is generally so good.

This is also where Wallace does some of his best work (so far!) on the subject of wisdom. For example (p. 358) :

“Pat Montesian and Eugenio Martinez and Ferocious Francis the Crocodile wouldn’t answer Gately’s questions about enforcement. They just all smiled coy smiles and said to Keep Coming, an apothegm Gately found just as trite as ‘Easy Does It’ and ‘Live and Let Live.’

How do trite things become trite? Why is the truth usually not just un- but anti-interesting? Because every one of the seminal little mini-epiphanies you have in early AA is always polyestrishly banal…”

When you’re young—adolescent young—the world is confusing and painful as hell, and you grope around trying to make just a little sense of it and to find a way to protect yourself and live day to day. Then, if you’re lucky, you figure some things out and learn from experiences that hopefully don’t leave scars that are too deep or wide, and you collect those insights and ideas into something at least vaguely resembling a worldview that defines you and guides you as you live. And there’s comfort in that kind of control, in the sense that you’re smart enough to understand how things really are, that you can take or leave ideas and maybe even contribute some new ones of your own.

And then—again, if you’re lucky—you realize that every big idea you’ve ever mulled over has been pondered since pretty much forever by untold multitudes before you, and all that experience and wisdom has been sanded down into little bite-sized sayings and aphorisms that seem impossibly trite, reduced to utter simplicity in the desperate hope that enough people in future generations won’t have to re-learn hard lessons at terrible psychic and material expense but will instead internalize them from the beginning and have at least a fighting chance of being among the relative handful of people in all of history who had the fantastic luxury of spending their brief lives doing something other than staying safe and fed from day to day. And that among those lessons perhaps the most crucial is that the key to happiness isn’t forging new wisdom but acting on the wisdom the world has been practically shoving in your face all along. And hopefully you get to that point with most of your life in front of you and no permanent damage done to yourself or others along the way. Gately ponders how to submit to a higher power if he doesn’t believe in God–to me, that’s the higher power, the inheritance of human wisdom. It’s hard to submit to that and maintain the kind of confident intellectual curiosity that I imagine Infinite Jest readers value so much in themselves. But Wallace did it, or at least tried to, and he was smarter than us all.

A few other random thoughts:

1) I appreciate Wallace’s affection for good words, e.g. the frequent use of “befouled” with respect to the Concavity. That’s just an inherently superior word, “befouled,” and it should be used as often as possible.

2) What’s with the narrator(s)? When it says on page 437 “plus I should mention the odd agonized gurgle-sound,” who is “I”? Same thing when Endnote 142 says “The speaker doesn’t actually use the terms thereon, most assuredly, or operant limbic system” –okay, who did use those words? This strikes me as the kind of question that must have been fully explored by now and made the subject of various graduate theses, etc.

3) Is there an IJ concordance on the Web somewhere? When I was reading the whole sickly funny Raquel Welsh mask / diddling section (another good example of the reading experience simulating the racing addicted mind), I knew that Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa had come up before, but it took a while to figure out that it was during (I think?) the Joelle Van Dyne bathroom crack overdose / attempted suicide scene.

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