Sunday, July 15, 2012

Infinite Jest, and What it Taught Me about Both Writing and Experimental Novels

Let me start off by saying that I was introduced to David Foster Wallace by the multitudinous more famous FilmCritHulk, who makes mention of him throughout many of his essay length blog posts.

Actually, let me start off by saying that his post will have a bunch of spoilers for Infinite Jest.

I started with a book of Wallace’s essays I discovered at my local used bookstore called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. For anyone interested in Wallace and his oeuvre I would recommend beginning with this one first, or his other book of essays Consider the Lobster.  I make this recommendation because to really delve in an grasp Infinite Jest (for the most part) on the first read through, it really is a boon to understand the man’s mindset.  Supposedly also accustomed to his writing style before it went all experimental and esoteric in Infinite Jest. Plus, my god is it hilarious. Wallace’s comic wit is nonpareil while at the same time affecting; he casts a critical, examining and deconstructive eye at things while never descending to mockery. Well, except maybe in the aforementioned thing he’ll never do again (a cruise). But you read his essay on, say, the Illinois State Fair and while there is a level of sardonic contemplation it is never less than respectful: he’s not making fun of these people, but illuminating them, their lifestyle, what they find important, how they live. And like I said, it both puts you in a position to understand Wallace better, and that will do nothing if not help you understand Infinite Jest better.

Because hoo-boy, is it a mind trip.

PICTURED: This about sums it up.
Not that it’s difficult. Well, not in the way you think. Yes, it's very long with veritable mountains of texts and multiple page paragraphs...but from a pure language standpoint? It's actually very readable. In fact, Infinite Jest is probably one of the most accessible High-Literary Experimental Prose Novel’s you’ll ever see, in that its entirely composed in very conversational English, a lot of it pure street slang. That’s not to say there aren’t “big words” in it, but it never bogs down the manuscript and more often than not the use of the 10-dollar words is lampshaded and made fun of: Hal Incandenza, for instance, uses the long sesquipedalian words, but only because he has a neurotic obsession with reading and memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary, a fact that’s spelled out almost every single time he uses one. Another character during a pain-induced monologue of delirium keeps wondering where he's coming up with these big words he's using since he had never heard them in real life or even knew what they meant before then.

But for the most part the novel’s through the eyes of either young elite Tennis Kids or Boston schlubs, and the prose reflects that in a nigh-stream of consciousness way that’s a little too comprehensible to actually be stream-of-consciousness.

It’s a good book that’s been well summarized and picked apart elsewhere, with a WTF? ending and a very interesting plot that in no way gets resolved and is only really able to be pieced together if you go all the way back and read the first “chapter/section” which is actually the last section chronologically—


But I’m not here to really dwell on all that; rather, the book really spoke to me about writing, the writing process, and what a novel can do. And those are the thoughts I want to share here. And do you know what the biggest thing—outside of the text itself, that I took from Infinite Jest is?

 I. Writing is Hard.

 Yes, that may just qualify for the dumbest, most obvious and yet somehow reductive statement ever uttered on a blog. But it is true, and Infinite Jest really hammers it home. See, there are two types of hard work: there is hard work that is physically taxing, and hard work that is mentally taxing; in some occupations the two overlap, but it happens less than you might think. Which is why sometime after work, even though I can walk for miles on end because I’m not physically tired, I have the I.Q. of a tree plum.

Writing is a mentally taxing exercise. I know. I do it. And I’m not even successful at it!


What I mean to say is that a good two hours of writing is enough to make my brain feel like mush. There are a lot of gears whirring up there in any creative process after all, and it gets worse the deep and deeper you going into editing, extrapolating theme, making sense of the story, and all the stuff that come after the initial draft. The first draft is, after all, just letting yourself go and vomiting whatever AWESOME!!!! stuff comes out of your mind onto the page (Note: Writers’ processes may vary. –E). But then you get into the nitty-gritty of it. Making sure every action make sense, supports the character. Making sure the tiny detail you wrote on page three doesn’t get contradicted on page 200. Making sure you aren’t confusing themes. Rewriting entire chapters because themes and character actions are confused. Moving the structure that you thought was so brilliant around because upon re-read you realize nothing flows into anything else. Making sure the times are right, that the amount of time that passes is reflected correctly. That the sun actually goes down and comes up. Making sure the office building you said was located on 73 North Street isn’t suddenly at the corner of Broadway and 5th at the end of the book. Making sure what the character was wearing in the morning on chapter 3 is the same things she’s wearing at the end of the same day with no chance of clothing change at the end of chapter 10. Every little minute figure has to fit into the overall logic of the tapestry.

So to wit: David Foster Wallace has one of his largest endnotes (and there are a lot of endnotes), which is nothing less than a complete filmography of the entire career of James O. Incandenza, the father of (for lack of a better term) a couple of the main characters, Hal and Orin. It is an endnote written in, oh, 8 point script. It takes up 8 and 1/4 pages in my edition and lists precisely 78 films (including several that are "unfinished, unnamed and unreleased) that a fictional character “made” over his filmography, complete with dates, notes of reference, actors and actresses, what film company financed it, whether it was released to the mainstream, what lens it was shot on and what in what archives the “films can be found.” Not to mention that every single “film” has a complete “synopsis” with sometimes the most insane plots that could ever be imagined up. What does this have to do with the plot of the novel, if I can even use the word plot when referring to Infinite Jest? Well, it has something to do, in any case. Like most of what for-our-purposes I’ll call the plot, the relevant information is hidden within details within the endnotes, said details having no indication that they’re important until you stumble upon a pertinent piece of information in the novel proper. Most saliently, the “filmography” just serves the verisimilitude of the piece.

Which means the David Foster Wallace created this entire endnote just to serve the feeling that these people and this world is real.

PICTURED: Because it had to go somewhere.
 That crazy bastard.

We can’t understate how hard and involved this process had to be. How much time it took. Imagine the research: Wallace had to be on the up and up—before the true advent of the internet, mind you—on film size, types of lenses and archives. Then he had to figure out names for the “actors,” where to put them in which movie and how the cross-reference them. Then he had to come up with titles, dates, and most importantly, synopses. Meaning David Foster Wallace came up with somewhere in the range of 50-60 synopses to nonexistent movies for no other reason than to contribute to the verisimilitude of his world. It’s hard to come up with one believable story on a good day. 50 is simply bogus.

My point for all this is that David Foster Wallace did all this research, thinking, toying, editing to create this realistic archive for a fictional character, hours upon hours of typing and editing and time in the library probably, just to put it all in the back of a novel, just to make one of his character seem more real.

Folks, this is hard work. I can’t even imagine—it would probably take me a week to transcribe that footnote, much less make it make sense. And then it would probably end up being the entire focus of the novel, not a throw-away gag that only hints at the larger picture.

This isn’t to imply that the information isn’t important or that Wallace should have spent his time elsewhere (it’s very apparent that he spent all the time he could on every single portion of the novel), but that this endnote, that is so crammed full of information and research and imagination, makes up maybe 1% of the entire mosaic the novel is building. But Wallace is so invested in what he’s doing that he spends all that time to make sure that 1% carries its load.


II. This is probably the best experimental-literary novel you could ask for—and yet it’s still probably not enough.

PICTURED: More imposing wall than anything George RR Martin could dream up.
 Don’t let me mislead you—Infinite Jest is a great book. Well worth the effort. It’s too well written, too interesting, too aware of its characters and life at large not to be…but in the end it’s still unfulfilling.

It was funny…throughout most of the novel its rating in my mind had steadily climbed, so that near the end it was way up in the top five books I’ve ever read.

Then I read the ending. And it plummeted.

Well, only to like, #9, but still, it dropped out of the top 5!

It’s really a great joke that Wallace pulled on us, and Infinite Jest is probably the one best uses of meta-postmodernism in recent history. It’s so perfect: throughout all, what 1066 pages including endnotes of novel, the reader has been subtly and consistently reminded that James Incandenza’s filmographic career was known both for its viewer-unfriendliness and its conceit of anticonfluential narrative—that is, in opposition to most commonly accepted aphorisms of storytelling, none of the “plotlines” of Incandenza’s movies ever “came together” to form a cohesion.  Lo and behold if the ending of Infinite Jest doesn't turn out to be reader-unfriendly and anticonfluential. I should have seen it coming…and actually, I think part of me did. This novel was way too experimental and esoteric to have anything but an experimental and esoteric ending. I mean, what was I expecting? For the plot to resolve? For an outright battle between the AFR and the Incandenzas? For a completion of the narrative, for Gately to meet up with Hal and fix the problem and save mankind or whatever? I mean, was that what I was expecting?

Actually, yes, it was.

Not consciously, mind you, but the whole reason the ending is such a mind screw is precisely that it plays with the perceptions of how a story is supposed to end. Even knowing, even knowing that the novel wasn’t going to have a conventional ending, some part of me was expecting one, or at least hoping for one. Which is how Wallace pulls off his meta-joke so perfectly. It’s also why the book plummeted in my “favorites” category. Not because it didn’t work: it did. Not because it isn’t a tremendous achievement: it is. Not because it doesn’t deserve every amount of praise that it receives: it does. But the simple fact is that humans want stories to resolve. We want the heroes to win—or lose, even, just as long as we know how everything turns out. And while Infinite Jest does indeed have a quasi-resolution in the narratively-first but chronologically last chapter in the “Year of Glad,” not only does it require the reader to skip back to the beginning and re-read the entire first part of the novel, but it also requires research and a bit of internet scouring to get a complete picture of what happened (1).

And, listen, Wallace was aware enough to understand this; commenting about how the narrative does have a converging through-line and if you didn’t see it then the “book has failed you.” (2) And what he did worked perfectly—but that only means that it purposefully left the reader gasping and clutching and banging their head against the wall. Or, well, of course the people reading this are way too good to do that, but some part of them wanted to, I guarantee it, because Wallace’s novel has probably one of the best and most interesting plots in the history of experimental-character-prose-focused-literary-endeavors (Wheelchair based Canadian Assassins! Years named for whatever corporation ponies up enough dough! A society of deformed people who wear veils over their faces! An entertainment so completely perfect that whomever glimpses it wants to do nothing else but watch it until he shrivels up and dies! --E), and the way he ends it is inevitably going to leave people wanting to know the resolution. Which he withholds. Knowing that it’s going to infuriate people but probably amplify the book’s greatness.

Infinite Jest may be the best novel I have ever read. But by the very structure that makes it so great, it simply cannot be one of my absolute favorites.

Oh, I definitely still highly recommend it.

Until next time,

Mr. E

(1) All right, (major spoilers BTW) so a lot of this I had to figure out from the internet, to which point I recommend this site which basically tells you everything: For the most part, though, you can sort of figure out at least the basics without resorting to the internet; we know, obviously that Hal and Orin have survived the assault of the AFR. We know that Hal was hospitalized with whatever ailment was building in him. And we know from one line that he, John Wayne, Joelle and Don Gately formed a super-squad that went and dug up James Incandenza’s head to help avert the Infinite Jest catastrophe—which obviously was averted seeing as everyone’s going around business as usual. But for the real in depth stuff—as in the chronology and where the AFR ended up fitting into the picture and what the heck was actually happening to Hal in the first chapter—the website’s the place to go.

(2) dfw: Herb -- there is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kind of
parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an "end"
can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such
convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book's failed for you.