Monday, July 20, 2009

You Have To Be Jesting

Have you ever woken up one day and realized, apropos of nothing in particular, you've managed to accidentally jump on some obscure cultural bandwagon? Like, after years of living for fixed gear bikes, you stumble across Urban Outfitter's new venture: very pretty fixies that probably won't even kill you. Remember when Stitch 'n' Bitch started heating up yarn shops all over the place? I bet that really chapped the hides of many a nana who had been purling away for years. It's like, every time a burrito joint opens up down the street, you get eighty millions people who are, like, "so into Mission-style." Bitch, please.

Which leads me to Infinite Summer, the national group read of D.F. Wallace's Infinite Jest. According to John Barber of the Globe and Mail, "reading Infinite Jest is like trying to swallow a goat and discovering it is the most stimulating experience imaginable." Preposterous. Infinite Jest is many things, but I can think of something a little kinder to say than, "it's like trying to swallow a goat." Anne Lamott wrote about the phenomenon particular to writers who read: writing like whomever happens to be on our bedside table. Barber, whose prose in the Wallace article verged on hysterical, might be just a tad too immersed in the I.J.

As another 20th-century writer said, so it goes. Infinite Jest is notorious. It's ultra-long, ultra-dense, narratively modeled on (of all things) a fractal: it's not exactly a Dan Brown novel, one of which you can blitz through in about four hours (I find it helps if you're slightly drunk). Inexplicably, it's #2 on right now: right behind something that's designed to look like a Cape Cod weekend, and two ahead of Barney Stinson's Bro Code.

Barber alleges that Infinite Jest is so perfect that the reason Wallace hung himself last September was because he was failing to follow it up in a suitably incandescent manner. To this I say: John Barber, you're kind of a douche. Maybe he, at page 316, knows something that I, at a measly 73 pages, do not. (I do know that, since I was reading it for the pleasure of reading it, not hipster bragging rights, I've totally botched the schedule.)

So far, I can tell you this: it's confusing. The end notes are annoying - flipping 1.2 kilos worth of book back and forth is kind of a bitch. So far, it seems to sort of be about tennis, with a deep snowdrift of street drugs settling over the whole scene.

But I'll also tell you this. As I was reading through footnote 24 ("James O. Incandenza: a Filmography"), the phrase "Untitled. Unfinished. UNRELEASED." cropped up about a half-dozen times.

Thought experiment, nothing too strenuous: try repeating that phrase to yourself. Try thinking about all the things you've left untitled, unfinished, and unreleased. Think about the psyche that makes those three words feel resonant, even if they began as a cliche. That was the moment I started to really fall for the book. Underneath all the technical jargon and fractalized story, there's a real heart.

I'm not mad at the Infinite Summer kids. I like Wallace, and when I got the book a few weeks ago, I was genuinely nervous and exhilarated to read - not an emotion prompted by much fiction. Even though it's nice to feel supported during a massive literary undertaking (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I totally read some of the online discussion about The Dark Tower as I was ripping through those monstrous books), I think I'll leave the conversation on the internet. Even though, as one Jester put it on a forum, “all the cool people are doing it," I'll be swallowing this particular goat alone this summer.

No comments:

Post a Comment