Sunday, November 29, 2009

Infinite Jest - Half Way review

I'm about half way through Infinite Jest and considering what a behemoth the thing is I figure I should review the first half, because by the time I finish this thing I may well have forgotten a lot of the first half. In fact, the fact that I haven't forgotten the stuff I started reading a month+ ago (i.e. the beginning of the book) is a testimony to the solid plotting and structure of the narrative. Despite the dense and complex prose the narrative builds well. And takes us into a near-future world quite like our own, but slightly different.

I was worried that, being such a notoriously difficult piece to get through, specifically the narrative would be just as dense and complex as the language that's used to deliver it, but it really isn't. Given the avant-garde reputation of the novel, again, I was worried that disparate story pieces might remain separate, but again, so far they haven't. Each narrative piece that is introduced does seem to be, initially, completely isolated from each other piece. We have the story of a tennis player named Hal, who is also a language-savant, applying for admission to a university; the story of his family (the Incandenzas) who own and run a Tennis academy; the story of a heroin fiend on the streets of Boston; the story of a Muslim man watching a mysterious video cartridge (which is really more about the cartridge than about the man) and dying; the story of a wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatist (to the North American union that has been formed between Canada-USA-Mexico), and the cross-dressing spy undercover 'reporter'; the story of Madame Psychosis; and, introduced pretty late in the first 50%, AA member Don Gately. Just to name a few of the major ones. And as each storyline is introduced you kind of feel like you're starting all over, fresh, without any back story because they seem so unrelated at first. If you stick with it you will be rewarded. Every story I've mentioned has intersected with every other one in various important, interesting ways, though it did take a while before the inter-relatedness took full shape. And when they do there is clarification as to the purpose of the story thread in the first place. Now, I'm only half way through the book, so just because the stories intertwine and cross each other doesn't necessarily mean there will be a traditional pay off or resolution of these various story elements. All I'm saying is that it's not so abstract and arty that the story lines don't even relate at all, or that they relate in some obtuse, uninteresting way. The narrative, thus far, has a structure that is not unfamiliar.

All that being said the composition of the sentences and paragraphs themselves is almost wholly alien. Wallace has a style all to himself. He floods you with massive amounts of information, details, history, technical jargon (some real, some fictional), foreign acronyms, made-up words, fictional colloquiallisms and slang, real slang etc. and delivers them in run-on sentences with really unconventional structure and phrasing. Often before you even have a basis for understanding much of any of it. Not to mention the POV from which the story gets told often switches from one person to another, and thus the style changes with it.

Another unconventional technique he uses are footnotes. Of course nonfiction employs the use of footnotes all the time, but Wallace uses it not only as a fictional use of a nonfiction device, but also embeds lengthy narrative elements, often deserving of chapters unto themselves, into the footnotes. This adds to the disconnected, nonlinear nature of the story. Reading this book on my Kindle makes the footnotes easier to deal with though, as whenever you come to one you just click it and it whips you to the spot in the 'back' of the book, and brings you right back when you're done.

I have been finding the book exceedingly interesting because many of the details, and subplots relate to interests of mine. It deals with, among many other things, applied game-theory mathematics to geopolitical situations (in a hilarious way), philosophy, economics, politics in general, film theory, language etc.

The last thing I will mention is that the style the story is written in, though at times maddening, does serve a purpose. When you read it you can almost feel your brain tingling. And in order to get through the book at all you have to have certain obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and the way the book is written and structured brings these tendencies out. And since the book is mostly about human nature specifically as it relates to things such as addiction and compulsion, then if you get through the book, you get an idea of what exactly the book is talking about. Obsessive-compulsive content, written in an obsessive-compulsive manner, by an obsessive-compulsive mind requiring obsessive-compulsive tendencies to read and relate.

An extra word about the first chapter. In reading it the first time I was pretty blown away. It's a really awesome chapter even though the first time you're reading it you're not exactly sure what's going on. It features a brilliant switch-over moment that is one of the best I've ever encountered in fiction. And the moment is intense and awesome even the first time through. But looking back on the chapter in retrospect you see it in different light as the story progresses (as you do of most of the material that is presented early on), and when you realize what was going on there, that is awesome also.

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