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.