My minimal progress on Infinite Jest

After two days, I’m on page 20 of Infinite Jest. Woo hoo!

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I read pretty slow. And you’re right. I do. I had a reading comprehension problem in elementary school and I had to really, really hard to get up to the speed now. And if that isn’t good enough for you well then…. I’m sorry. I get carried away. It’s kind of painful memory. But hey, a little salt in that wound always makes it feel so much better.

Anyhoo… I would like to point out that the paperback copy that I am reading is larger than standard, the font is not normal, there is very little white space, and DFW, well, let’s just say, at least at the beginning of this book, is not that keen on a lot of dialogue and prefers paragraphs that run for pages.

But I don’t think that I am entirely lost. Essentially we have the story of Hal, a young, talented tennis player. Of course, his interview to be accepted into a very school for which he is slated to play tennis does not go well. The scene results in a kind of slapstick scenario in which Hal ends up wrangled to the floor because the Dean’s interviewing him perceive him as some sort of threat, although cleary Hal is a pretty passive and easy-going guy. But then isn’t it always the case that easy going people end up with their face pinned to the floor.

More intriguing than that was the chapter that came after, in which Hal (I’m pretty sure anyway) obsesses about the pot that some woman is supposed to deliver to him, but who hasn’t shown up, and in fact is some hours late. Some very frantic, even hysterical narration here that seems to reflect that mindset of a guy jones for a fix.

Something intersting I noted on the wikipedia page for Infinite Jest. And that is it is catagorized as Hysterical Realism, a term I’d never heard of before.

The term was coined by the critic James Wood in an essay on Zadie Smith‘s White Teeth, titled “The Smallness of the ‘Big’ Novel: Human, All Too Inhuman”, which appeared in the July 24, 2000 issue of The New Republic and was later reprinted in Wood’s 2004 book, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. [note: the hyperlinks in this quote lead to nowhere. sorry]

I got this book off the shelf yesterday so that I could read this article and frankly I didn’t really ge it. I mean, I understood, sort of, what Wood was getting it, but I just didn’t agree. It seemed less like criticisms and more like griping because books like Infinite Jest do not fit some idea that Wood’s has of what fiction should be. Mainly Woods complains about the lack of real character development and exploration, that these authors don’t give you enough of what the characters feel and too much information about the world in which the characters exist.

I wouldn’t disgree with Woods on this point, but I would disagree that this makes such fiction bad or not as good as other works. Wood even goes so far as to say that such fiction lacks moral intentions or some such bullshit.

Here is a rebuttal essay by Zadie Smith.

I suppose what really bugged me about Wood’s view is that it doesn’t allow for something different. Perhaps Infinite Jest isn’t entirely successful. That’s debateable. But so far as I can tell it is interesting, and quite compelling, even if my wrists do hurt a little from heft the weight of the book. In any case, despite Wood’s bitching, I’m going to keep reading IJ, for now anyway.

Also, one can’t help but imagine how please Wood must be with himself, for coining a new -ism for the literary round table. Kudos to you, sir! Kudos, I say!


3 responses to “My minimal progress on Infinite Jest

  1. Reading a book like INFINITE JEST is a challenge at the best of times so I congratulate you for taking it on even with “comprehension” problems. Other books by Wallace are more approachable, including his lovely collection GIRL WITH CURIOUS HAIR.

    Wallace was one of the five best in America and his death, especially at such a tender age, is a tremendous loss for American letters…and intelligent, discerning readers.

  2. Yeah, well. My comprension problems are not what they used to be, although I do wish I could read faster. But what you gonna do, eh?

    Girl with Curious Hair was the first fiction I’d ever read by DFW. But I discovered him via his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, which I stumbled across quite by accident. But I was blown away by it. And immediately when out in search of his other work. I found a bunch of hard copy editions of Girl in the remainder bin at a Barnes and Noble, I think. I’ve alway wished I’d nabbed several copies.

    Anyhoo.. the fiction in Girl was so unlike anything I’d read before I could hardly believe it. I was an instant fan. And it is just such a bummer that there will be nothing new from DFW. I mean — shit! 46. The dude was just gearing up. Who knows what kind of literary feats he could have accomplished? Fucking sucks!

  3. I’m looking forward to picking up his non-fiction work, collected in A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN.

    The only possible good I can draw from this is that readers who might not have been familiar with Wallace’s books will seek out his titles…and then join the rest of us in mourning the body of work DFW would have composed had he lived to a ripe, old age.

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