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September 16, 2009

Infinite Jest As Infinite Jest

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 6:04 pm

By Ezra Klein

I’m done. I have not eliminated Infinite Jest’s map, but I have walked its length. As such, this post is pretty much all spoilers. Indeed, this post is about the ending of the book. I was going to wait on it, but not that even Infinite Summer is talking about the end, well…You were warned.

You’re being warned again.

I’m warning you.

Here we go.

AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH. I was expecting that. But not that. It was like waiting for your friend to give you a dead arm and instead taking a brick to the face. The ambiguous ending has a role, of course. There’s no doubt that I’m thinking harder about the book and its pieces than I would’ve in its absence. But the trick of the ambiguous ending is that the parts really are there. The Sopranos played this game, and for my frustration with the show’s final fade to black, did it well: an attentive viewer, given the information at hand, could project the possible endings, and choose the one that fit best with his read of the data.

A quick jaunt around the world’s online Infinite Jest forums suggests that that’s not true here. Wallace himself has suggested otherwise, but the author’s mind is little match for the reader’s experience — especially the obsessive reader’s experience. That’s not to diminish the incredible breadth of the book, and the clues contained therein. This theory, for instance, of Hal’s speech impediment is both fairly convincing and a grand reminder of not only how much I missed, but simply how much there was. But there does not appear to be a reader consensus on the ending of the book. In fact, there don’t even appear to be many complete theories.

And for good reason. I don’t buy the idea that there are sufficient clues to fill in the frames between the final page and the final frame, in which Hal and Don Gately dig up Himself’s head somewhere in the wastelands while a masked John Wayne stares down at them. The lines from here to there are not plausible. Wraiths may not be plausible either, and nor are prophetic dreams, or Lyle, but they fit better in the world of the book. Hal and Gately doing some grave robbing doesn’t fit the world of the book at all.

The ending, however, fits well in the sense of the Entertainment. For most of the book, I didn’t understand the phenomenon of IJ’s rereaders. I do now. It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

We knew of two scenes in the Entertainment. A beautiful woman telling you something horrible about the way the world works. A revolving door in which you never quite caught your target. James Incandenza didn’t create something entertaining. The title was, as Himself told Joelle, a joke. He created something terrifying. The central theory was outlandish and awful. But people couldn’t let go until they found the information that would put their world right again. And that information never came, and so they never left. They just kept running through that revolving door, being told those horrible things again and again, which made them run all the faster.

So too with the book, at least in a miniaturized form. The conclusion is outlandish and awful. And that keeps you from letting go. In a dystopically idealized world, you keep rereading this immense, absorbing book, always looking to explain away the horrifying events of the end, but on each read, your connection to the characters becomes stronger even as the end doesn’t clarify. You discover just enough new details and new theories to keep the cycle going, but never enough to resolve it. And the time you spend in the book’s world takes you further and further from the real world. You spin in that revolving door again and again, continually hearing these horrible things.

In a way, I wonder how much of this sensation was subverted by Infinite Summer. Reading this book should be a terribly lonely experience. It is so sweeping and detailed and consuming. No one outside the novel can possibly understand what you’re talking about. And if you’re reading it twice? Three times? Before the acceleration of the internet, how many similar obsessives was the average reader likely to run into? Most people don’t read this book, and most who do don’t finish. Those who did finish and find themselves trapped were in for a lot of alone time. A lot of time drawing out theories that no one else would understand on piece of paper.

After all, before there was the Entertainment, there was Hugh Steeply’s poor father, scribbling out increasingly esoteric theories about what M*A*S*H was really trying to teach us, going slowly mad. The Entertainment affected everyone that way. But even something as innocuous as M*A*S*H could affect someone that way. This book is somewhere in the middle.

What all the Entertainment has in common, though — be it Infinite Jest, “Infinite Jest,” or M*A*S*H — is that there are no answers. There’s no way out. No answer to the equation, or if there is an answer, no numbers that add up to it. By the time you look up and scream that it’s too late, however, you’re long past the point when anyone can understand you, and you’re holding some dead guy’s head in your hands.

Not here, though. Here, people can understand you. The brilliant Gerry Canavan, for instance. And the delightful mind behind Infinite Detox. And the Zombies, and the forums. A book that is about loneliness and that creates isolation has been subverted into a communal activity. Instead of being turned into Hal, we enrolled in the Enfield Tennis Academy, sharing a fundamentally strange and obsessing experience, but sharing it nevertheless.

September 7, 2009

So I Lied…

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 4:55 am

…about waiting until the 21st to post, having finished the book yesterday. I enjoyed it to the end, although I started to resent it about three weeks ago, not because the quality flagged (it didn’t) but because my stack of unread books began to reach truly frightening heights. Getting through all 1,079 pages (1,096, really, because when you finish you have to then go back and re-read the first 17 pages, which are the last chronologically and contain several crucial bits of information vis as vis the fate of some important characters, in particular Don Gately) requires, psychologically, something akin to the “One Day at a Time” mentality that’s key to successfully navigating A.A., to wit Joelle Van Dyne on her previous failed attempts to kick crack cocaine:

“Did you ever hear of this fellow Evel Knievel? This motorcycle jumper? What I used to do, I’d throw away the pipe and shake my fist at the sky and say As God is my fucking witness NEVER AGAIN, as of this minute right here I QUIT FOR ALL TIME. And I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know? And soon it would get…improbable. As if each day was a car Knieval had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?

Think too much about how long it will take and you’ll never get there. 

The length raises obvious questions of “What’s the Point? and “Is it Worth It?” and “What Does it All Mean?” Wallace himself provides as satisfactory an answer as any, in this excellent interview conducted for Salon by Laura Miller. 

What do you think is uniquely magical about fiction?

 Oh, Lordy, that could take a whole day! Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that’s just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that’s set up through art by the writer. There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There’s a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair. There’s real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn’t make me feel less lonely.

There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.

Again there are parallels with the struggle against addiction, with A.A. members urged to Identify, to resist the temptation to obliterate their loneliness with Substances and do the hard work of genuine human contact instead. As Dave Eggers notes in the foreword, the act of writing Infinite Jest must itself have required a level of immersion and obsession not wholly dissimilar from the Substance-mania and single-minded drive for tennis greatness that occupies much of the novel. 

by Kevin Carey

September 3, 2009

On Not Blogging

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 6:42 pm

Can’t speak for my co-bloggers but I’m on page 920 and it doesn’t seem like there’s much to be gained by posting in-progress thoughts on the book at this point, so I’m planning on coming back in a few weeks when the Infinite Summer schedule wraps up and talking about the book as a whole. Plus that’ll give me a little time to read some of the other analyses of the book which I’ve been avoiding for spoiler reasons.

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