Infinite Quest: Public Libraries as the People's University

Everybody looks forward to finding some time to kick back - at the beach, say - and read that blockbuster novel it seems everyone else is reading or has already read. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Novels that are sometimes dismissively (and erroneously) deemed “mindless reads” can feature inventive plotting, fully-developed characters, and elegant prose. So-called “mindless reads” can be great reads, which is why public libraries typically own hundreds, if not thousands, of such novels.

But public libraries also strive to serve as the People’s University. In that role, libraries actively collect more “literary” novels because the beach (or anywhere) can also be a good place to tackle those Great Works of Literature that you have always been meaning to read but, for one reason or another, never got around to.

In the spring of 2009, I decided to re-read just such a novel: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. While I was reading it, I ran across, by sheer coincidence, a blog called Infinite Summer, which consisted of a community of people committed to the same basic task that I was:
Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009 […]. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.
1. Plus endnotesa.
a. A lot of them.
I had a bit of a jump on the folks over at Infinite Summer – roughly a month – but that, of course, did not make the posts and comments there any less informative. It helped, having others – albeit virtual others – reading the novel along with me.

Here at the library, I had worked with a guy who had gone to school with Wallace; they had both gotten their MFAs from the same program. My former co-worker had always had interesting insights into Wallace the person; not the least of which was that he (my co-worker) and everyone else in their MFA program was intimidated by Wallace's intellect; most of them strongly suspected that Wallace would be the breakout talent, the writer whose skills would lead to his being quickly snatched up by a big-time publisherNote 1In fact, Wallace had already had his first novel accepted by a publisher by the time he entered the MFA program. That, Wallace later acknowledged, may have made him a bit arrogant because he was frequently at odds with most of the instructors in his MFA program, challenging their views regarding fiction-writing and the purpose of fiction. And he was not shy about expressing his disagreement..

When I discovered the Infinite Summer site, I immediately e-mailed my now-unemployed friend. I knew he had attempted to read Infinite Jest when it first came out but had not managed to get very farNote 2This is a pretty common experience, even extending to those being paid to review it. See, e.g., http://www.smallbytes.net/~bobkat/jest5.html.. I suggested that reading along with the people at Infinite Summer might be just the motivation he needed. He replied:
I can barely get through a Lawrence Durrell travelogue on Cyprus, and I’m enjoying it. I[nfinite] J[est] will require a state of unemployment lasting more than just 3-4 weeks.
Everybody, it seems, is intimidated by Infinite Jest; which makes perfect sense because it is a tough read. The first time I tried to read it over a decade ago, I put it down after 25 pages, concluding it was not worth the effort.

I went back to Infinite Jest years later, after acquainting myself, entirely by coincidence, with Wallace's nonfiction essays, which I found to be witty, challenging, thoughtful, informative, provocative and entertaining – and just flat-out funny. It was, in fact, a long time before I realized that the guy who had written "Shipping Out" and "Tense Present"Note 3The former of which probes the dark underbelly of cruise ship vacations (but not in the way you are probably thinking); and the latter of which manages to makes the ideological differences between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians truly compelling, fascinating and relevant to everyday life. Seriously. And it's funny, too. was the same guy who'd written Infinite Jest because Wallace’s nonfiction writing managed to grab and hold my attention immediately. After I realized that this guy and the author of the seemingly-impenetrable Infinite Jest were one and the same, I thought Infinite Jest might be worth a second shot, especially since Wallace's nonfiction stuff never failed to make me laugh out loud, a rare feat indeed.

I don't regret deciding to have another go at reading Infinite Jest.

That was maybe eight years ago? I devoted the large, uninterrupted chunks of time to reading Infinite Jest that it requiredNote 4 That first, failed time, I had tried to read it in bed. Big mistake. If you start to doze off with a tome of that size and girth on your chest, you run the risk of losing your grip on it and, depending on where it lands, being either asphyxiated or bludgeoned to death. And it is little comfort knowing that, had you lived, you would have been able to say to the parent who kept telling you, as a teenager, that it wouldn't kill you to read a good book every once in a while, “Wrong! In your face, Mom! Tell that to my asphyxiated and/or bludgeoned dead carcass!”. And I finished it. And I am glad I did.

I am also glad I read it again back in 2009.

I was fortunate to stumble across that Infinite Summer site because it really is interesting and helpful to have others with whom to discuss the experience. Six years on, that site is still up and still worth perusing.

I have to note that it seems that few who write about Wallace or Infinite Jest can resist resorting to footnotesNote 5Technically, Infinite Jest proper has endnotes, not footnotes. But some of those endnotes themselves have footnotes. This would not sound at all weird to anyone who is familiar with Wallace’s writing style even though, by any objective standard, it is undoubtedly deeply weird.. (The bloggers at Infinite Summer started using Wallacian footnotes in their very first post.) There is really something compelling, to me at least, about Wallace's writing style. And it is not just the footnotes (or endnotes). It is the way he mixes the sacred and the profane, the academic and the colloquial; the way he intentionally breaks the very grammatical rules that he – a knowledgeable grammarianNote 6But not above poking fun at the very idea of being a strict grammarian. In Infinite Jest, Avril Incandenza, the mother of one of the main characters, belongs to a group called the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Avril, Infinite Jest informs us, was part of a grammar debate that “help[ed] incite the M.I.T. language riots of … 1997.” There may be something more ridiculous to riot over than grammar but I confess myself at a loss to think of it. – knows so well just to add a certain richness of texture to his writing, which ranges over so many disparate styles.

Wallace’s writing style is indeed challenging and sometimes infuriatingly dense; but it is worth the effort it requires of you.


David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which, like all books that fall into Edward Mendelson's "encyclopedic novel" categoryNote 7Which I think Infinite Jest pretty clearly does, it being both novel and pharmacopoeia. I will not go so far as to say that you will learn a lot of technical stuff about drugs if you read Infinite Jest; but I will say you will be given that opportunity, because there is a ton of technical drug information in it. It is, after all, a novel about addictions of various kinds., rewards multiple readings, not merely because it contains an encyclopedia’s worth of information on drugs, or because it tends to confuse the reader the first time around as it jumps around in time – jumps that, themselves, are hard to pin down temporally because, in the world of Infinite Jest, numerical years have been replaced by Subsidized Time (e.g., The Year of The Depend Adult Undergarment, which is when most of the action in Infinite Jest takes place; and everybody's favorite, The Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/ InterLaceTP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile), making it nearly impossibleNote 8Though at one point, over 100 pages into the novel, Wallace does give the chronology of Subsidized Time years — once, in a 1079-page novel. to know initially which year in Subsidized Time came before, or after, any other Subsidized Time year), but also because Wallace's language can be difficult in a variety of ways. By that I do not mean merely that he uses a multitude of words you have probably never encountered beforeNote 9E.g., "Cunctation," which essentially just means “delay”, but I had never run across this word until I read Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest will acquaint you with a lot of words you've never seen or heard before and you may even begin to suspect they are made up. They are not., but also that he uses a multitude of narrative styles to describe the action: from dry, academically-tinged prose to street argot and just about everything in between.

Wallace, in his nonfiction essays, often assails the ironic detachment prevalent in the prose of many postmodernist writers — "ironically detached" being a writing style that, in Wallace's view, manages to leach away any genuine feelings, turning characters into cartoons and fictional narratives into mere word games. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a reader to feel any genuine empathy for a character who is presented as little more than a fictional or even meta-fictional construct, a borderline-cartoon character in a borderline-cartoon world that refers or corresponds to no other world than its self-contained, solipsistic own.

Of course, postmodernist meta-fiction itself came about as a direct consequence of mid-twentieth century authors’ conviction that "traditional" fiction's narrative styles had become utterly hackneyed, predictable, boring, played out and false: Whatever story a mid-twentieth century author might attempt to tell in the "traditional" style had probably already been told numerous times, and, in all likelihood, been told much better.

That being the case, what alternative does a serious current-day fiction writer have? Especially if he wants to avoid the pitfalls (in Wallace's view) of being "merely" ironic, merely engaged in playing a game with words — a game involving signifiers that point to no referent in what we question-beggingly call "the real world"?

With the postmodernists, the stories had become, in large part, about the words themselves: Postmodernist fiction is the essence of writerly fiction – fiction that is inherently self-referential, deliberately constructed to draw attention to itself as fiction, as a lie; as opposed to readerly fiction – fiction that allows the reader to get lost in the story, that asks for and receives the reader's (in Coleridge's famous phrase) "willing suspension of disbelief."

But postmodernist fiction wants – perhaps even requires – your disbelief.

But that style of fiction, the postmodernist style, has, in Wallace's view, itself become old and trite, and is — always was — definitely elitist; but worst of all it is just no fun to the average reader or to anyone who believes that one of fiction's main jobs is to make you feel something because an ironically detached writing style rarely, if ever, produces the type of fiction that asks the reader to care about the characters or anything in the fiction itself or anything in the "real world" that the fiction so resolutely distances itself from.

So for a contemporary writer of fiction, the dilemma becomes … What do you do, then? Narrative styles steeped in irony — postmodernist writers' reaction to the played out "realistic" styles that were real only in the sense that readers were so used to the conventions those styles employed and did not recognize them as pretty much equally false, manufactured, arbitrary and artificial — have themselves, possibly ironically, become played out, no longer fresh.

So if you want your narrative style to be fresh, to make your readers see the world in a new way, where do you go from here?

Wallace’s answer is to attempt to invest both the old ("realistic, modernist") and the new ("detached, ironic, postmodernist") with genuine feeling, pathos, and depth; to introduce characters, many of whom have cartoonish postmodernist-sounding names (Hal Incandenza, Ann Kittenplan, John Wayne, Calvin Thrust, USS Millicent Kent (a person, not a ship)), but make them real, relatable, capable of being cared about.

But he does not try to "bring back" the old, more "realistic" writing style of the modernists (and eras previous to modernism). Wallace's narrative style is, for the most part, distinctly postmodernist: It is a hodgepodge of writing styles, in fact, such as you would find in the works of, e.g., Thomas Pynchon; moreover, Infinite Jest, rather than allow you to get lost in its narrative flow and "forget" you are reading a book, constantly and insistently draws your attention to the fact in a number of ways, not the least of which is Wallace's use of endnotes: There are 96 pages' worth of endnotes, 388 in all, of various lengthsNote 10Endnote 24, for example — in which Wallace lists the complete cinematic canon of Hal's father, James O. Incandenza — goes on for seven-and-a-half small-print pages and contains, itself, numerous footnotes..

It is difficult for a reader to see, in a work of fiction, a superscript numeral crop up next to a word and not be not-so-subtly reminded that he is, indeed, reading a book. It is impossible for a reader to be obliged to turn hundreds of pages, find the endnote that that superscript numeral refers to (while trying not to lose his page in the main text) read it, then go back hundreds of pages to the main text, attempt to pick up whatever "narrative flow" might have existed ... it is impossible to experience this type of reading ordeal and not be grossly aware of the book itself as a physical object — which is one of the main things that writers of more "traditional" fiction ask you to forget with your willing suspension of disbelief. Writers of traditional fiction are giving you the world, not a book – or so they would have you believe. David Foster Wallace’s 1079-page Infinite Jest is approximately 3 tons of book and if its heft is not enough to constantly remind you of that fact, then the incessant need to flip from main text to endnotes and back will probably do the trick.

There is irony in Wallace's style (though possibly not quite as detached as in many postmodernists' fiction, nor as prevalent); there are long, tedious, difficult passages that seem stubbornly resistant to your best efforts to parse them; there is that telltale stylistic bathos that is distinctly postmodern. Wallace even self-referentially discusses language itself, words themselves — the very tools of the writer — the equivalent of a painter making painting itself the subject of his painting.

But Wallace does it in a sly way.

Much of Infinite Jest takes place in a halfway house for addicts — alcoholics, drugs addicts, other substance abusers. One of the recovering addicts, Don Gately, is perhaps the most important character in the novel — the protagonist, if Infinite Jest can be said to have one.

When Gately first joins AA, he is irritated by, among other things, the trite, clichéd language that program members use with each other: "One Day At A Time" … "Find Your Higher Power" … "Easy Does It" … "Turn it Over," etc.

But as he buys into the program, Gately realizes that the clichés, amazingly enough, work. The language, hackneyed though it be, is still capable of imparting actual, personal, meaningful content. He sees past the imperfect expressions that language affords people to the emotional reality behind them. And he is grateful for that because it gives him something to believe in – something that is palpably effective in his own life.

As Gately listens to the speeches of new members — those who have recently "Come In" from "Out There" — he concludes that it doesn't matter how trite the language, how clichéd the choice of words ...
[I]t's got to be the truth, is the thing. ... The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here [in AA]. It can't be a calculated crowd-pleaser. And it has to be the truth, unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. ... Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear ....
I don't think it is pushing it too far to say that that, too, is David Foster Wallace's view on the dilemma faced by the contemporary writer of serious fiction trying to bring feeling back to a form long-content to be little more than merely ironically detached.

I think he succeeds.
Footnotes

Note 1 In fact, Wallace had already had his first novel accepted by a publisher by the time he entered the MFA program. That, Wallace later acknowledged, may have made him a bit arrogant because he was frequently at odds with most of the instructors in his MFA program, challenging their views regarding fiction-writing and the purpose of fiction. And he was not shy about expressing his disagreement.

Note 2 This is a pretty common experience, even extending to those being paid to review it. See, e.g., http://www.smallbytes.net/~bobkat/jest5.html

Note 3 The former of which probes the dark underbelly of cruise ship vacations (but not in the way you are probably thinking); and the latter of which manages to makes the ideological differences between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians truly compelling, fascinating and relevant to everyday life. Seriously. And it's funny, too.

Note 4 That first, failed time, I had tried to read it in bed. Big mistake. If you start to doze off with a tome of that size and girth on your chest, you run the risk of losing your grip on it and, depending on where it lands, being either asphyxiated or bludgeoned to death. And it is little comfort knowing that, had you lived, you would have been able to say to the parent who kept telling you, as a teenager, that it wouldn't kill you to read a good book every once in a while, “Wrong! In your face, Mom! Tell that to my asphyxiated and/or bludgeoned dead carcass!”

Note 5 Technically, Infinite Jest proper has endnotes, not footnotes. But some of those endnotes themselves have footnotes. This would not sound at all weird to anyone who is familiar with Wallace’s writing style even though, by any objective standard, it is undoubtedly deeply weird.

Note 6 But not above poking fun at the very idea of being a strict grammarian. In Infinite Jest, Avril Incandenza, the mother of one of the main characters, belongs to a group called the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Avril, Infinite Jest informs us, was part of a grammar debate that “help[ed] incite the M.I.T. language riots of … 1997.” There may be something more ridiculous to riot over than grammar but I confess myself at a loss to think of it.

Note 7 Which I think Infinite Jest pretty clearly does, it being both novel and pharmacopoeia. I will not go so far as to say that you will learn a lot of technical stuff about drugs if you read Infinite Jest; but I will say you will be given that opportunity, because there is a ton of technical drug information in it. It is, after all, a novel about addictions of various kinds.

Note 8 Though at one point, over 100 pages into the novel, Wallace does give the chronology of Subsidized Time years — once, in a 1079-page novel.

Note 9 E.g., "Cunctation," which essentially just means “delay”, but I had never run across this word until I read Infinite Jest. Infinite Jest will acquaint you with a lot of words you've never seen or heard before and you may even begin to suspect they are made up. They are not. Note 10 Endnote 24, for example — in which Wallace lists the complete cinematic canon of Hal's father, James O. Incandenza — goes on for seven-and-a-half small-print pages and contains, itself, numerous footnotes.

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