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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

My Not So Deep Thoughts on Infinite Jest: Infinitly Di[jest]able?

So this is my first foray into posting thoughts on IJ (Ha! I typed IF by mistake), as part of a virtual book club type thingy (see Jake's blog for further details). Despite not being exactly hassled with Stuff To Do right now, I've sort of dragged my feet, so to speak, posting my first entry...perhaps because, although the links and notes Jake's provided so far have been infinitely (har) helpful, I'm still not quite sure, well, what I think, or where to begin talking about it.

I will say that I'm glad I'm attempting this with extensive electronic resources and a virtual support system. The book is hard, and intimidating, which isn't necessarily bad, just...hard. And intimidating. It's challenging, and I can feel it challenging me and forcing me to Learn Stuff and Think About Stuff. Even when I'm struggling with the book, I do find it interesting to think about, which helps. And I'm -- I think more slowly than many readers, but I'm getting there -- becoming affectionate towards the strange Incandenza family and the carefully built up world of ETA.

In the quote cited on Jake's blog, DFW describes the future world of the book as "glittery but cold"--a fairly apt description of how I'm finding the prose, I think. It reminds me of Thomas Pynchon, a pretty obvious comparison, but the closest reading experience I can think of is The Crying of Lot 49 (though in terms of length we're at opposite ends of the spectrum). The combination of paranoia, dystopia, beautiful, weird writing, and yet at the same time slapstick humor and pure delight in word and idea play, I've found only in Pynchon before.

Since I can apparently only do blog entries in lists, I'll start with a list of things that have really resonated with me:

(1) Chunks of the action -- perhaps it worthwhile to note that I'm on page 101, not even done with what's speculated to be the first "section" of the book -- takes place in Arizona, some of it Tucson. The first chapter is an admissions interview at the University of Arizona, in fact (though we're at some unspecified point in the future, as we pick up on fairy quickly -- or if you're me, take an embarrassingly long time to twig to). I haven't read many books set in Arizona, apart from some of Barbara Kingsolver's work, and those that are usually tend towards the Lo! Look Into The Beautiful and Mystical Heart of the Desert and Hear the Spiritual Lizards Singing! variety. The little bits of Tucson/Arizona description in IJ are nice because they are unsentimental and right on, my favorite so far being Chapter 1: "Not for nothing did Orin say that people outdoors down here just scuttle in vectors from air conditioning to air conditioning. The sun is a hammer." Totally true, and I made a similar observation in a recent story of mine.
My second favorite Arizona detail is the cockroaches that crawl out of Orin's shower a few chapters later. While this is obviously highlighted by Orin's intense disgust -- and while I feel the roach problem is exaggerated for comic effect/filtered through Orin's strange perception-- I have in fact had the experience of showering in my ancestral home in Tucson and screaming in horror as I looked down to identify the tickle on my foot, only to realize that a cockroach had crawled out of the shower onto my foot. There really is this feeling in Arizona of constant battle with the bugs; the presence of an exterminator being a vital and necessary -- nay, life saving, when you think of the poisonous bugs -- one.

(2) The addiction/depression sections; I guess I'm referring here to the first Erdedy chapter, highlighting his pot addiction/obsession, and the chapter in the psych ward. We also have Hal's secret pot habit, similar in many ways to Erdedy and the suicidal girl: the secrecy (blowing in vents), intense desire to "pass," etc. I'm going to ask a really bone-headed question, or pose a somewhat silly topic of debate: can you even be addicted to pot? Jake commends the Erdedy chapter for it's amazing depiction of addiction, and I can only agree. But I guess I've always been raised on the liberal line that pot is harmless, impossible to become addicted to, natural, far better for you than most prescription medication, etc. etc. etc. And it is true that pot is in no way physically addicting, no? But, of course, that doesn't mean that you can't become cripplingly psychologically addicted to it -- as you can become psychologically addicted to anything, I suppose. In fact, if the addiction aspects have reminded me of anything in myself, it's probably my relationship to food. And food is of course only physically addicting insofar as you need it to remain alive (the worst problem for those of us with food issues, really: you can't give up food; you have to come to some sort of relationship with it).

(3) The futuristic/dystopian aspects. It took my awhile to pick up on this, which is probably a tribute to how well it's done. As Jake points out, the red envelopes that "entertainment cartridges" arrive in kinda eerily evoke Netflix (we have in fact arrived at a world in which entertainment cartridges are delivered to your home, only they're DVDs); and in the Erdedy chapter, he talks about leaving "e-notes" which I floated right through the first time, only to realize later that, of course, when this book was written there was no gmail, no facebook, no myspace, few blogs -- I had this idea right away of what an "e-note" was, but of course that's from knowledge of now. Weird. What's successful about the way all of it's done is that it's almost-but-not-quite-the-world-we-live in: things are exaggerated, trends in our society taken to a natural extreme, the known fused seamlessly with the speculative. It's what George Saunders does, too, though for some reason, despite the obvious points of comparison, DFW emphatically does not remind me of George Saunders; I can't work out why, exactly, but I'll mull on it.

(4) The structure. I've been trying to chew on this idea that the structure of the book is inspired by a fractal, a Sierpinksi triangle. I've been interested in fractals ever since Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (anyone who hasn't read or seen this play -- please run don't walk to a bookstore and get a copy. You'll thank me, after you've stopped weeping, of course). Fractals -- though I can't claim to really understand them, like, at all, mathematically-- are amazing because it really does seem to be how the natural world works -- the way leaves and coastlines are actually put together -- random, but not really random, just self-similar repetition. It really is like you're mathematically describing the world.
Anyway, I'm trying to think of how this book's structure might be like a fractal and I think the best I can come up with so far is: instead of a conventional center, there are small sections; similar ideas are iterated -- run through different variations -- over and over? There's also always a hole in the Sierpinksi triangle, perhaps reflecting that the novel has an absent center. But then, as these guys point out, you can just as well say that about a donut or anything else with a hole in the center. I don't know if the fact that it's supposed to be a triangle (3 sides; repeated three times) matters -- after all, the S. triangle is just one example of a certain kind of a fractal; it doesn't have to be a triangle. I can think of groups of three in the book already (the three pot examples I just listed, for example); but I don't know if the "rule of three" is going to matter, or if I would have the patience to track it through the book.
I'm also reading The Black Swan -- or rather, I was, and I still need to finish it -- and it also has a section on fractals (I'll report back -- think that book might dovetail nicely with IJ).
One thing that just occurred to me as I was writing this: despite the highly unconventional structure, formatting, etc. etc. etc., the book still employs the most basic structural tool of fiction to keep you interested: the distribution of information. What's keeping me "hooked" on a very basic level (other than the Interesting Ideas and a few characters that I like) is wanting answers to my questions: what's on the cartridge that's killing people? Is it the father's movie*? What's this Canadian conspiracy? What happened to the father? What's wrong with Hal? And in that sense -- as it's producing that urge in me to keep reading to find out information that is being deliberately withheld -- IJ is working on me like a "traditional" narrative.

*(Loved the footnotes that described the movies, btw, my favorite being: "Fun With Teeth...a Kosinski/Updike/Peckinpah parody, a dentist performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic he suspects of involvement with his wife" -- of course, as I just realized, this becomes less funny when you realize later this film maker's wife was unfaithful to him).

Okay, that's enough for now kids. More to come?

Things I still wanted to talk about: the effect of re-reading (and perhaps the necessity of re-reading books like this); the acronyms; world-building.

It occurs to me, though, maybe I need to be reading less and writing more.

Damn. Anyway, g'night.

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