Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer of Jest--the First 300 Pages


My family and I have sold our home.  We're living temporarily with my in-laws, trying to stay out of the exurban heat, and awaiting the birth of our second child.  Throughout all of this, I've been lugging around Infinite Jest, trying to make headway.  Here's where I am so far:

Now that I'm 300 pages into it, it's about time for me to do some writing about what I've read.  I have gotten through the bewildering first 150-pages or so, when I was beginning to question whether the novel was ever going to stop introducing new characters, new situations, and new plotlines that needed my attention.  At this point in the novel, I feel confident that there are two main plots and I understand them--on one hand, Hal Incadenza and the E.T.A. kids, and on the other hand Don Gately and the equally eccentric denizens of the Enfield House.

No way am I going to try a summary, or even an analysis of it.  Instead, I am going to highlight some of the sections of the novel that I have enjoyed the most so far, in no particular order.  (Most of the following comes from emails I have written with my older brother, Jason, who has been guiding me through my reading.  He's the one who encouraged me to start reading it back in 2004, when I made it to page 324, and who has stuck with me until now.) 

  • The seven-page chapter beginning on page 144 with the ridiculously long title which details how video-telephoning (a.k.a. "videophony") first became really popular, but then people reacted against it and went back to regular audio-only phoning.  It's so freaking brilliant and hilarious, even though it does nothing to further the story and could easily be excised.  I was thinking this: "Dude.  If I ever had an idea as great and well-thought-out as this one, then that would be the one idea I've been looking for all my life, and I could write a novel around it."  The fact that it's a seven-page aside in this book is mind-blowing.
  • The chapter from B.S. 1960 that begins on p. 157 is a 12-page monologue from Jim Incandenza's father to Jim in the garage of their trailer park.  It includes a 10-page long paragraph.  This was very, very difficult to read and had to be done in one all-out burst of energy (how do you pause in the middle of a 10-page paragraph?)  And the whole time I was thinking "This [jerk]!  Why doesn't he make a paragraph break?  This is so so so so demanding to read!"  But man oh man.  It was just so fantastic.  In Jim's father's memory, he (Jim's father) is beating the [bejeezus] out of a kid at tennis and he hears his dad say "Yeah, he's good, but he'll never be great," and at that instant he loses control of his body and [ruins] his knees forever.  Wow.
  • James O. Incandenza's filmography takes up seven and a half pages of the endnotes, and details dozens of his movies.  Again, had I been clever enough to think up a few of these ideas (my personal favorite is Cage III--Free Show), I would be very proud of myself.  Also, if these movies actually existed, my friend Hayden would own them all, probably on VHS.
From time to time, I have grown frustrated with Wallace's hyper-virtuosic writing style and what I interpret as cleverness for cleverness's sake.  I was at first peeved that he withheld some very vital information from us until page 233,  but now I see how its sudden appearance fits into the grand comic scheme of the book.  The chapter beginning on page 37 about Wardine and Reginald put me off, (sample line: "Reginald he down and beg for Wardine tell Reignald momma how Wardine momma treat Wardine"), and I was reassured to find that others had found this an off-putting moment.

The more I read Infinite Jest, the more I am reminded of how much I loved reading Lolita, and how much I disliked Pynchon's V.  And that's what I have to say right now.  Back to reading!

1 comment:

  1. Addendum: For years I have been teaching my students that you can sing just about any of Emily Dickinson's poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." It wasn't until just now that I realized that this was one of Orin Incandenza's crackpot ideas.