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Infinite Jest

September 5, 2012

We’re sometimes a little competitive in my household; last May, my youngest child, now 16, read a work of fiction that I hadn’t read. He loved it so much that I finally got interested in it myself and started reading it over the summer, mostly right before bed. This is the big, absorbing book that, by August, I was carrying on and off airplanes—David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

It is fascinating. I’m not finished with it yet, partly because I don’t want to be finished with it; I like opening it up and immersing myself in its pleasures every night.

One of its pleasures turned out to be enhancing the experience of the movie premiere I attended over the weekend.  (Here’s a photo of Ron and my friend Carol, closely followed by the blonde head of one of the students who works for me, on the purple carpet.)

We attended an early showing of the movie Liberal Arts at my local campus, where it was made, and the writer/actor/director, Josh Radnor, (an alumnus) made a little speech and requested that those of us who were extras refrain from shrieking when we spotted ourselves and each other, but confine ourselves to elbow nudging of our neighbors. I was very pleased to see that the scene Eleanor and Walker and I were extras for made it into the movie—you can see us in the background, sitting at a table pretending to eat brunch. One of the actresses, the woman who plays the mother of the female lead, was kind enough to come over to our table early in the day and warn us not to actually eat the food, as we would then have to continue eating it all day. This was good advice, since the food was not only prepared by a restaurant that was recently shut down again for health code violations, but it sat there on the plates in front of us from 10 am until 5 pm (we got breaks).

Infinite Jest features in the movie as the book college students aren’t ashamed to be seen reading, as opposed to Twilight (which the main character, Jesse, also reads and just when you think he might say something conciliatory about it, he concludes that it’s the worst book ever). There’s a discussion about why we read, in which Jesse, already graduated from college, espouses the “great books” point of view and the female lead, still in college, espouses the “reading is only for pleasure” point of view. As you know if you’ve ever counted the ways necromancy never pays, I’m an advocate of trying to combine the two—to share the pleasures of reading books and poems, including some that are celebrated as great.

There are few more celebrated modern works of fiction than Infinite Jest. Perhaps because it takes a while to build, it’s not generally regarded as accessible. I started it once and put it back down. Last summer there was a group reading it, and I remember they had some guidelines which included an important page number, but they warned people not to skip ahead to it. I think it’s a book for which you have to make room. You have to read it like Walker, who gulped the whole book down in about a week. Or you have to read a chunk of it every day, like I did right before bed all summer. You have to give it enough room in your head that it gets a chance to begin inhabiting your imagination.

The parts of Infinite Jest that I like best, and that frequently made me laugh out loud (which became more of a problem when I started reading the book in airports—I have a loud, sometimes startling laugh) are the stories. Here’s a part of one of the first ones that made me start to love this book:

“The woman, a 46-year-old Boston accountant with irreversible restenosis of the heart, responded so well to the replacement of her defective heart with a Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart that within weeks she was able to resume the active life-style she had so enjoyed before stricken, pursuing her active schedule with the extraordinary prosthesis portably installed in a stylish Etienne Aigner purse. The heart’s ventricular tubes ran up to shunts in the woman’s arms and ferried life-giving blood back and forth between her living, active body and the extraordinary heart in her purse….
The 46-year-old recipient of the Jarvik IX Exterior Artificial Heart was actively window shopping in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ fashionable Harvard Square when a transvestite purse snatcher, a drug addict with a criminal record all to well known to public officials, bizarrely outfitted in a strapless cocktail dress, spike heels, tattered feather boa, and auburn wig, brutally tore the life sustaining purse from the woman’s unwitting grasp.
The active, alert woman gave chase to the purse snatching ‘woman’ for as long as she could, plaintively shouting to passers by the words ‘Stop her! She stole my heart!’”

That this story is centered within a larger discussion of modern-day heroism, is also presented as part of a news story, and that a reader already knows the sordid and painful background story for the “transvestite purse snatcher” add depth to the joke.

All the jokes have depth, which makes them even funnier and usually more pathetic. Here’s an example (I just realized that it’s the page to which that group guideline referred, which strikes me as even funnier, since I didn’t find it that much of a help in navigating through the immensity of this particular fiction). After reading chapters identified as taking place in the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” or the “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar,” you get an entire “CHRONOLOGY OF ORGANIZATION OF NORTH AMERICAN NATIONS’ REVENUE-ENHANCING SUBSIDIZED TIME™, BY YEAR” and then a list of nine products. It’s one of the many bits of near-future satire, significant because of how people have evidently learned to sell everything and especially sad because of the “self-cancelling” story that immediately precedes the list of year names.

As a part of this “self-cancelling” story is pursued in the pages, readers experience a kind of layering of stories that produces its own satire. One starts with the story of a girl who is sometimes referred to as the P GOAT–standing for Prettiest Girl Of All Time—beginning to wear a veil over her face, broadens to show the political purpose of others who take the veil, and is enhanced by seemingly chance encounters like this one:

“But in the Year of Dairy Products From the American Heartland it was Hal, not she, who, when the veiled legate from the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed showed up at the E.T.A driveway’s portcullis to discuss with Mario issues of blind inclusion v. visual estrangement, of the openness of concealment the veil might afford him, it was Hal, even as Mario laughed and half-bowed, it was Hal, brandishing his Dunlop stick, who told the guy to go peddle his linen someplace else.”

The joke from which the author took the title of his 2005 commencement speech at the local campus (This is Water) is in this book on page 445.

The layered stories and the jokes are what keep me fascinated, but what keeps a person reading are the parts where you want to nod your head vigorously and say yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like. There are parts about what it’s like to be an adolescent in a seriously competitive sport, what it’s like to hit the point after which the only option left is to go to AA, and what it’s like once you get there. And there are parts that build, like the explanation of why the veils can be useful:

“What you do is you hide your deep need to hide, and you do this out of the need to appear to other people as if you have the strength not to care how you appear to others. You stick your hideous face right in there into the wine-tasting crowd’s visual meatgrinder, you smile so wide it hurts and put out your hand and are extra gregarious and outgoing and exert yourself to appear totally unaware of the facial struggles of people who are trying not to wince or stare or give away the fact that they can see that you’re hideously, improbably deformed.”

If there’s a better description of how it can feel to walk around on a campus like my local one and stare back at people who I know think I’m too loud, too tall, too fat, too brightly colored, and too unashamed on top of it all, I don’t know of it. These are stories that reveal the instabilities underneath much of what we think we’ve built in our lives, however old we are. These are stories that say we’re not alone.

As I said to Walker, who was feeling self-conscious about talking about how much he likes Infinite Jest in a college interview, it’s not pretentious to talk about reading a book that some people consider difficult if you can share some of your enthusiasm with a person who might be convinced to read it.

I don’t know if I’ll want to talk about this book again when I’ve finished it. I’m on page 786, and I don’t know if reaching the last one—981–might make me want to talk about its weighty themes and the brilliance of its construction. So I thought I’d resist, for now, and share my enthusiasm for the journey; it might be one worth your time, too.

As is a trip to the movie theater to see Liberal Arts. The campus looks so lovely.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2012 11:55 am

    I couldn’t find a good link to the movie theaters showing Liberal Arts, so here they are in the comments:
    September 14th, 2012
    IFC Center – New York, NY
    The Landmark – West Los Angeles, CA
    Sundance – Los Angeles, CA
    September 21st, 2012
    Century Centre Cinema – Chicago, IL
    Lagoon Cinema – Minneapolis, MN
    Amherst Cinema Arts Center 3 – Amherst, MA
    Kendall Square – Cambridge, MA
    Claridge – Montclair, NJ
    Cinema 100 – White Plains, NY
    E Street Cinema – Washington DC
    Midtown Art – Atlanta, GA
    Town Center 5 – Encino, CA
    NoHo 7 – North Hollywood, CA
    Playhouse 7 – Pasadena, CA
    Hillcrest Cinemas – San Diego, CA
    South Coast Village – Coasta Mesa, CA
    Mayan – Denver, CO
    SIFF Cinema @ The Uptown – Seattle, WA
    September 28th, 2012
    Cedar Lee Theatres – Cleveland Heights, OH
    Drexel East Theatre – Columbus, OH
    Plaza Frontenac Cinema – Frontenac, MO
    Charles Theatre – Baltimore, MD
    Ritz 5 Movies – Philadelphia, PA
    Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
    The Magnolia – Dallas, TX
    Angelika Film Center and Cafe – Plano, TX
    Sundance Houston – Houston, TX
    Burns Court Cinemas – Sarasota, FL
    Cinemas Palme D’Or – Palm Desert, CA
    Camelot – Palm Springs, CA
    Embarcadero Center Cinema – San Francisco, CA
    Shattuck – Berkeley, CA
    Living Room – Portland, OR
    Broadway Centre – Salt Lake City, UT
    UltraLuxe Scottsdale Pavillions – Scottsdale, AZ
    Grand Cinema – Tacoma, WA
    October 5th, 2012
    Keystone Art Cinema 7 – Indianapolis, IN
    Dundee Theatre – Omaha, NE
    Varsity – Des Moines, IA
    Cinemapolis 5 – Ithaca, NY
    Manor – Pittsburgh, PA
    Nickelodeon Theatres – Santa Cruz, CA
    October 12th, 2012
    Loft Cinema Twin – Tucson, AZ
    October 19th, 2012
    The Flicks – Boise, ID
    Darkside – Corvallis, OR
    October 22nd, 2012
    Bear Tooth – Anchorage, AK

  2. freshhell permalink
    September 5, 2012 11:55 am

    This books sounds…confusing? Is there a story within it? I’ll have to think about his.

    • September 5, 2012 11:57 am

      There is an overall plot, but I don’t think that the pleasure of reading the book lies in understanding who is doing what to whom. I’m trying to recommend more of a “let it wash over you” method.

  3. September 5, 2012 12:08 pm

    Okay, it’s coming to my town (the movie). Also, as a person who does college interviews, but only of the alumni variety, any enthusiasm is a good thing. It’s amazing how many kids don’t seem to be interested in anything at all!

    • September 6, 2012 8:10 am

      I guess if there’s one behavior I’ve modeled for my kids, it’s enthusiasm!

  4. September 5, 2012 2:08 pm

    I’m so impressed that your son read that book. It totally intimidates me. I don’t see a theater near me on that list.

    • September 6, 2012 8:15 am

      It’s actually a really good book for 15-17 year olds. A lot of the action centers on a competitive tennis school, and the parts about competition made him shake his head vigorously, as they apply to chess and the general difficulty of being a smart kid in high school.
      The closest theater to us is an hour away, and that’s because Radnor is from Columbus. A lot of people around here are waiting for the DVD.

  5. September 6, 2012 7:38 pm

    IFC Center! I can do that! ON IT. I shall induce my friends to do an Evening Out. Can you say more about the scene you’re in so that I can be sure I won’t miss you? I’m excited!

    Also, I am much more inclined to read Infinite Jest than I was earlier this year when I did not have a Nook and would have had to haul 981 pages of book around with me on the subway everywhere. Living in New York has had a detrimental effect on my willingness to read long books. But now! I can do so!

    • September 6, 2012 7:47 pm

      That is the best thing about electronic books–especially for a book like this one, when I think part of the pleasure can be not keeping especially good track of where you are. Unless you pay attention to the page number showing at the bottom, which I never do, because as a friend of mine who is a physics prof has demonstrated, we can look at the same page and read completely different things (she reads all the numbers; I read all the text).
      The scene I’m in comes early in the movie; the main character, Jesse, goes out to eat with his prof who’s retiring and a girl he’s just met and her parents. The camera goes by Walker, farthest back, and then Eleanor, farther forward, and then swings to the mother of the girl and I’m right behind the mother in a dark blue skirt (we had to wear subdued colors) with mostly the back of my head and my dark hair visible to the camera. You can actually see my hair in the background for several minutes of the shot towards the mother.
      And that’s it. My moment on the silver screen, pretending to eat.
      But you really can see where I live and work, and how lovely it is in June, when the movie was made.

  6. September 6, 2012 9:33 pm

    How neat to be an extra in a movie!!! If I have a chance I shall see it. And I’m one of those people intimidated by Infinite Jest .. but I hope to try it one day. I’ll be brave. If I can read The Brothers Karamazov, I can read anything, right?

    By the way, got the bookmark today. Thanks so much!! It is lovely. I’d love to just walk into it and explore.

    • September 9, 2012 9:07 pm

      There’s nothing to be intimidated about; it’s a book about entertainment, and it does make you think, but it’s funny! How can anyone be intimidated by something so funny?

  7. September 8, 2012 10:04 pm

    Wow, this sounds like an ambitious book to try to talk about! I think I probably would have just given it a star rating on Goodreads and then given up. LOL! I love the way you describe it though-I know what you mean about enjoying the reading of it. How fun that it tied into your real-life silver screen debut too.

    Have you seen George Clooney’s interview on Inside the Actors Studio? After your experience being an extra, I think you would appreciate the part where he talks about filming a scene in The Descendants where his co-star has to eat ice cream. 🙂

    I got my bookmark today too. Thank you so much! I love those trees-they look like Muppet trees with all that moss drooping off of them.

    • September 9, 2012 9:09 pm

      I’ve not seen that George Clooney interview, but I will look it up. I can only imagine how long it might have taken to finish with the scene of the little girl eating ice cream (I remember that scene).
      It gave me a new perspective on movies to realize that a scene like the brunch, which goes by so quickly, took most of the day to shoot.

  8. September 9, 2012 4:03 pm

    It’s so fun you were an extra in that movie! I saw a preview awhile ago and have wanted to see it, but because of where I live and where it’s playing, I’ll probably have to wait for the DVD release. Also, the character Josh Radnor always seems to play tends to annoy me, but I did go to a liberal arts college and get invested in all of those English-y things, so that’s a draw too.

    As for Infinite Jest… I read it three years ago (I think), and I agree — you have to either just read it straight through or invest time very day; it’s a hard book to keep a hold of in your brain (at least it was for me). I think it’s a book that lends itself to rereading too, but you have to find the time to invest in that too.

    • September 9, 2012 9:12 pm

      You know, part of the way the movie and the book dovetailed for me was the issue of English majors and book reading–how does a former English major read to be entertained?

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