Infinite Jest

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From: Steve Herman
To: Bill Chisholm
Sent: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 12:36 AM
Subject: Book of Last Ten Years

What was “the” book of the last 10 years I am supposed to read?

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From: Bill Chisholm
Sent: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 11:12 AM

infinite jest by david foster wallace

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From: Steve Herman
To: Bill Chisholm
Sent: Sunday, March 05, 2006 7:59 PM
Subject: Infinite Jest

I picked up my copy.

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.”

Present tense. First person, in the voice of a person that clearly doesn’t exist.

I guess I will at least flip through the pages, out of curiosity.

But I think the jest is on me.

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From: Bill Chisholm
Sent: Sunday, March 05, 2006 8:10 PM

It takes a while to get good.

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April 3, 2006.

I would have stopped at page 100, but I was on a three-hour flight and didn’t have anything else to read.

Then, on page 139, there is a hilarious E-Mail from someone submitting a Workers Compensation Claim. I’m not sure what, if anything, it has to do with the rest of the book, but it was funny.

So I kind of skimmed around, looking for something funny or interesting, and, on page 200, there was some of the best four or five pages I think I might have ever read. It’s a string of aphorisms. Or observations. Supposedly what you will discover while spending time in a substance-recovery halfway facility. Some very specific and concrete; others universal or abstract. The first one that really caught my attention was: “That certain persons will not like you no matter what you do.” Followed by: “that most nonaddicted adult civilians have already absorbed and accepted this fact, often rather early on.” The string peaks on the next page with: “That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That it is possible to get so angry you really do see everything in red. What a ‘Texas Catheter’ is. That some people really do steal – will steal things that are yours. That a lot of U.S. adults really cannot read, not even a ROM hypertext phonics thing with HELP functions at every word. That cliquey alliances and exclusions and gossip can be forms of escape. That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth. That evil people never believe that they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That it is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person. That is takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds. That you can all of a sudden out of nowhere want to get high with your Substance so bad….” I lose interest when he starts talking about the drug addiction stuff.

My initial reaction to this passage was to wonder whether it really belonged in a novel. While the answer seems to be “yes” if done in the right way, it seems like it should be tethered to some character or experience. Couldn’t he show this? Through the characters and the plot. Wouldn’t that be more effective? The old: “Show. Don’t tell.” I think telling, in this way, can be effective too, (and, indeed, likely more effective), as long as it’s done within a construct that makes sense and isn’t just something that is gratuitous and on-the-nose to make sure the reader gets the point. Show, and tell. Perhaps. Seemed, at the time, to be no show and all tell. Now, having finished the book, I guess you might be able to say that some of this was demonstrated through Gately, and perhaps some of the others. But I’m not sure if I have a clear enough sense of what happened.

Which is likely my fault. It is supposed to take time and effort to put together. Like a cubist painting. Or some other type of modern art. But – and again, maybe this is just me – I really don’t, and didn’t, care. Numerous times I would think about going back, and re-reading, and trying to figure out what was going on, or how things fit together, but most of the time I was thinking “What difference does it make?” or “Who cares?”

In fact, there were a lot of passages that might have been “moving” on some level. Or interesting. Or funny. Or insightful. But, at the end of the paragraph, or the page, or the section, I would think “So what?” or “Who cares?”

There is one passage, in particular, where the author seemed to be talking about the book itself:

“Was amateurish really the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness – no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience. Like conversing with a prisoner through a plastic screen using phones…. more like a very smart person conversing with himself…. mordant, sophisticated, campy, hip, cynical, technically mind-bending; but cold, amateurish, hidden: no risk of empathy with the Job-like protagonist, whom she felt like the audience was induced to regard like somebody sitting atop a dunk-tank. The lampoons of ‘inverted’ genres: archly funny and sometimes insightful but with something provisional about them, like the finger-exercises of someone promising who refused to really sit down and play something to test that promise.”

I assumed that this was a meta-criticism of his own book. Or, perhaps, taken from a criticism someone else did of an earlier work of his.

What I couldn’t find was an overall message, or form, or unifying principle, of any kind. Maybe it’s there. But I didn’t see it.

It says on the back that it “explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are.”

Perhaps. But frankly, without comparing my stuff to Wallace, and being as objective as I can be, I think that’s likely demonstrated better in something like The Sign of Four or A Day in the Life of Timothy Stone. Wallace infuses “Nom” and Cheers nicely into Gately’s psyche, by a lot of it is too hyperbolic to be truly meaningful. The guy who goes crazy obsessed with M*A*S*H would seem to say less about society than one crazy guy who got obsessed with M*A*S*H.  The analysis of the Steve McGarrett hero of the B.S. 1970s versus the Frank Furillo hero of the B.S. 1980s was interesting, and funny, and entertaining, but, again, untethered to an overarching character, or drama, or theme.

It just doesn’t seem, looking in from the outside, that this would be a very difficult book to write. There just don’t seem to be enough “rules”. Maybe he is working, internally, with a lot of rules. Maybe I could find them if I took the time. Someone (Stephen Bern) apparently has taken the time to write some type of handbook or guide.

Which is interesting in and of itself. I understand writing some guidebook to Shakespeare or Melville or Joyce or something. Pointing out historical references or the literary allusions they might have been referring to, etc. But they’re dead. So there is, in effect, no “right” answer. Here, by contrast, Wallace could presumably say no, that’s wrong; what it really meant is X. Seems like the only one that could give us a true guidebook is Wallace himself. Which (a) even that wouldn’t be truly reliable, because I’m sure a lot of it comes from the sub-conscious and he isn’t even aware himself where he got it from, and (b) would kind of defeat the whole purpose of having a modern (or “post-modern”) book, without any one definitive interpretation.

Nevertheless, and in any event, it seems to me that there has to be some type of a structure, even if the ultimate “meaning” or “interpretation” is left to the reader to construct, or de-construct, or re-construct, or behold.

It would be difficult for anyone to write 1,000 pages and not have some passages that are poignant or funny or moving or insightful. (Wallace says it himself: “You do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it” and “it is possible to learn valuable things from a stupid person.”) The challenge, it seems to me, is accomplishing that within some type of a world – even a made up world – where things are internally consistent and authentic to that time, place, character, etc.

What I found interesting is the hybrid of first person and third person where much of the book is told in the voice of a “real” narrator (e.g. David Foster Wallace) who does not himself appear to be an actual character in or otherwise part of the story. But I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do the whole book that way. Much is written in (apparently) the first person from Hal’s point of view (which sounds very much like the hybrid first-person/third-person David Foster Wallace narrator), with splitter-splatter of the “black” character here and Joelle there.

Is it just for the sake of trying to “show off”? Experiment? Exhibit range?

You know what would have been great? You take the basic construct of Seven Types of Ambiguity wherein one of the voices is the Incident of the Dog in the Night narrator, and the other six manage to weave in the concepts, episodes, elements, characters, themes, etc. from those two books, plus Infinite Jest, Up in the Air, John Henry Days, and the brother who goes to Russia from The Corrections.

A lot of the critical acclaim for Infinite Jest talks about the book being “ambitious” which I always think is kind of a back-handed compliment. I.e. He was trying to do something great, (even though he was ultimately unsuccessful). But I do agree with the good folks at Back Bay Books who claim that it is “one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.” I don’t even really understand the point of writing a novel that doesn’t do that. (Although I must confess that I do sometimes enjoy reading them.) While much of Wallace’s book struck me as kind of “cutesy” or (as Soren Gisleson says) “trying too hard” or whatever, Bill Chisholm was right: It was a book I needed to read.

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