Monday, December 28, 2009

Infinite Jest's Structure/Length as Metaphor for Life/Addiction

I found a funny old 'review' of the book, that is highly ironic in light of the chapter I just read. Here's an excerpt from the non-review review:

"It sits there like a dare, like a reproach, like a doorstop. It is 1,079 pages long. It's a terrific book, I'm sure -- all the other reviewers tell me so. But right now INFINITE JEST (Little, Brown, $29.95), the defiantly dense new novel by the intriguing young writer David Foster Wallace, sits on my desk like an infinite burden. I cannot lift the thing to crack its wonders, and I'm beginning to despair.

Carrying the 3-pound, 2.7-ounce book to read while commuting is out of the question; I might as well heft dumbbells in my backpack. Propping it on my knees to read in bed or in the bathtub is tricky: Too much concentration and left-hand grip strength is needed to prevent the tome from toppling over while turning the pages. It is occasionally possible to read 20 or 30 pages at a clip while sitting at home in a special chair, but then I look up, realize there are 900 or 600 or even 400 pages to go, and fall into profound dyspepsia, longing for an unedited Joan Collins manuscript. Skimming isn't possible. Reading the last page first reveals nothing."

I definitely sympathize with the reviewer's sentiments (though, thanks to Kindle, my version isn't as impenetrable, physically). I'm about 89% through the book now, months after I started it, and interestingly just as I read this review Infinite Jest responds to the criticism within it's own narrative, metaphorically. Don Gately, a recovering alcoholic, talks about a time when he had to do jail time and was forced into white-knuckle withdrawal, and the only way he could endure it was to live inside of every second. In this section he's looking back on the experience from a hospital bed where he has to endure intense pain, and again can only get through it one second at a time. If he thinks about the millions of seconds that lie ahead of him lined up, each second filled with pain, the idea of that pain, for that amount of time, becomes almost unendurable. But each second in and of itself is not unendurable. And he talks about times that he or others had relapsed, or people that he know committed suicide, and how those things happen because that person was not living in the now, but was getting too far ahead of themselves. Another character talks with Gately about this and says how she used to count her days of sobriety, and after she got to a certain number of days, say 14, the idea of 100 more days, or 800 more became too frightening, and caused her to relapse. [note the structural similarity of the sentence I just wrote to the bolded sentence of the review]. Which is why, for the addict, and properly understood, the AA slogan 'One Day At a Time' isn't a trite cliche, but is actually kind of profound. You do have to take it one day at a time, literally. Or one page at a time, as it were.

I can't really do justice to the chapter in summary, but the advice it gives for dealing with the daunting task of life and/or addiction can be translated to dealing with the daunting task of reading Infinite Jest. I don't know if the intention was to anticipate and preemptively respond to critics of the novel's length in some meta- fasion, but it does function on that level whether it was intended to or not, which I found interesting.

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