Sunday, September 29, 2013

Infinite Jest

I finished David Foster Wallace's massive novel today - whew. At this point I'm not sure whether he just ran out of steam, or reached what he considered an end-point - certainly some large issues are left unresolved.

By the end we know why Hal Incandenza, sighted at the beginning having a meltdown at a college interview, cannot produce words to back up whatever interest he's supposed to have in matriculating. And we can infer what happens to Don Gately, the live-in staffer of a halfway house for addicts whose story holds our attention for the last 40% of the book. But we don't find out about the Quebec Separatists - does their rebellion succeed, or do they remain in the shadows, waging guerrilla warfare on choice targets? Do they get their hands on a master (reproducible) tape of The Entertainment, a film so compelling that those who view it are reduced to an infantile state, incapable of any action except repeated viewings, so that through broad dissemination they can bring O.N.A.N. into helpless compliance?

Instead of answering these questions, Wallace introduces even more characters through recollection, only some of whose stories feel satisfactory (satisfactory in the sense of having a beginning, middle and end, with characters developing and changing as a consequence of the narrated events).

What can an editor say? He invests in certain plot-lines and devices, only to abandon them short of resolution. It is a novelist's prerogative to "throw in the kitchen sink," including whatever shows up during the writing - short stories are required to be to-the-point, with extraneous material cut. But whether we're talking Ulysses, Moby Dick or Anna Karenina, the longer form accommodates digressions. However, those books, in my experience, have cohesion in the sense that everything in them leads one, by varying paths, to a conclusion. Melville's hundreds of pages of riffs on whale behavior, the polycultural milieu of a whaling ship, and the obsessions of its crew, prepare us thoroughly for the grand finale in which the Pequod and the white whale have their fatal encounter.

I can't say this of Infinite Jest - some of its subplots, while fascinating, contribute nothing to the fate of the characters we have come to care about, and things we want to know are left hanging. Is this incompleteness an enticement to obsessives to dig deeper, through multiple readings and heated discussions, to some mystic level where it all meshes? I feel as though I have committed many hours to a particularly long and convoluted shaggy dog story.

Not that I wasted my time - Wallace was a gifted user of language, from such well-coined phrases as "advanced worry" and "windbagathon stories" to "gave him the howling fantods" - it is always a pleasure to read someone who can give us those Aha! moments when words mirror the world. And though he only uses first person with Hal Incandenza, episodes are frequently in the POV of a character, with that person's imprecision and self-interruption coloring the descriptions: "Gately has to monitor the like emotional barometer in the House and put a wet finger to the wind for potential conflicts and issues and rumors." If I have a criticism of this, it's that even in omniscient narrator mode, Wallace sprinkles "like" through the text, Valley-girl style, as though this cousin of "y'know" has a contribution to make.

When one invests a whole book in a mystery, the revelation had better be good. I admit to disappointment with discovering the content of The Entertainment - would that really render every viewer a semi-comatose drooling idiot? Perhaps Wallace's appeal is principally to obsessives, who can dig to their hearts' content through the minutiae he has provided.

I'm more drawn to the Douglas Adams school of revelation: a spectacularly egocentric character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, emerges unscathed from the Total Perspective Vortex: "When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."" (from Wikipedia quoting "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe") This reduces most people to babbling. But not Zaphod. "When it showed him the "You Are Here" marker, Zaphod correctly interpreted the Vortex as simply telling him that he was the most important being in the universe." (Wikipedia again: