Saturday, August 1, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond

I've been completely sucked into Infinite Jest. I'm sleeping with the Incandenzas - literally, since the book is super heavy and makes a housemate-irritating "thunk" when I heave it onto the floor. (It's too big to fit on my bedside table.) Instead, I opt to just keep it beside me in bed. That way, when I wake up, I can just resume reading it without all the hassle of having to put any feet on the floor.

I know I've rhapsodized about David Foster Wallace before, but at that point, I was kind of a babe-in-the-woods type when it came to how seriously, intensely nuts his writing is. The vocab lesson alone is melting some of my more candy-assed brain cells: seriously, ephebic? erumpent? My dictionary is not up to snuff.

[As a side note, I seriously enjoy reference matierals in a way that I'm coming to suspect might be a little obsessive. Maps and atlases, dictionaries and encyclopedias: I want these items in my house. I understand that the internet is, like, a fairly wealthy source of all this information, but there's something so satisfying about flipping to a page in a book on a mad quest for the definition of sedulous. I don't have photographic memory, but I rely heavily on where chunks of information are on a page, and where that page is in a book. Web pages are hard to flip to on a whim. I like holding information in my hand.]

So to find a book that makes me reach out to other books - multiple books, since Wallace has cast his net onto topics as disparate as Canadian separatists sects, junior competitive tennis, Bostonian AA members, and complex and not-easy-to-follow chemical descriptions of Dexedrine and ratio formulae - boggles the mind. Some of these things, I'm totally rapt with attention. Some...I'm reading, but I'm not enthralled.

But such is life, right? Some parts are totally, eye-glazingly dull (for example, even though I'm a Canadian who was cognizant during that whole Oui-Non debate of 1995, the segments dealing with the violent PQ folks are decisively boring). Other parts are hilarious: the tennis-and-world-domination game Eschaton, played by 13-year-old tennis wonks, ending in an unexpected bloodbath, is so finely crafted and laugh-out-loud funny that I can't help but think Wallace was 100% insane to have written it. In the best way possible, of course.

The part that gave me a distinct feeling of icy fingers along my spine was the AA stats. What really freaked me out was the phrase "tecato gusano," which is definitely hard to Google. What I found were a bunch of references to Infinite Jest itself, and then a little piece about Chicano heroin addicts that makes it clear that Wallace wasn't just making shit up. The tecato gusano is "the worm that cannot be sated", the metaphor for the constant craving for junk that burrows through the gut and mind and soul.

And then the books trips merrily along to other narcotic substances and other mental foofaraws, not to mention fake memoirs, probably-invented street drugs, and an ass-numbing breakdown of how tennis really works, as a construct. It's a freaky read. It's like everything, all the technical and emotional, all the unbelievably complicated and the staggeringly simple, all the young and old and addicted and sober and past and present and future: it's all happening at the same time, and has an equal amount of weight and importance assigned to it.

That's a bowl-me-over type of realization, right there: we're all the stars of our own little movies. Which, like, duh, but that's not often represented in fiction. The books has about ninety thousand speaking parts, and since Wallace is scrupulous in making sure the reader gets to go right inside each person's head, each page brings a new chunk of the human condition to light. Even the small-time Quebecois drug dealers get a whole emotional universe assigned to them, as though they were just as important as Hal Incandenza, the ostensible main character. Which, of course, they are. To themselves.

No wonder the thing is, like, eleven hundred pages long. Even though it's mystically "unreadable" (lies), actually reading it is bringing all this new shit to light, man. I'm nearing the half-way mark, and I have to say, I'm going to be really bummed when it ends.


  1. I remember the first time I read "Infinite Jest." I also felt some parts were so incredibly dull. The more I read, though, I became drawn in deeper and deeper. By the time I finished the novel I knew these were the words of a true literary genius. Strange enough to be compared to Barthelme or Pynchon, but funny enough in parts to remind me of Lardner. Rest in peace David Foster Wallace. I regret all the wonderful stories you undoubtedly left untold. You left this world far too soon.

    By the way, I highly recommend his short piece entitled "Consider the Lobster" to anyone who would like a sample of his writing before jumping into a monster like "Infinite Jest."

  2. For Whom The Bell Tolls touches this, though not by name. Spoken by Anselmo right after chugging straight whiskey (over the less vagus-nerve jerking, lacrimal-gland exciting common practice of watering down): "That is what kills the worm that haunts us."

    Want some orange juice with that?