Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Infinite disappointment

Since June 23, I've been slogging my way through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a read that I earlier characterized as "claustrophobic." Interestingly, my choice of summer reading material also coincided with an on-the-spot decision to stop being fat.

Over the past nine weeks, I've knocked down 864 (of the required 981) pages in IJ, and also shed 28 pounds. These parallel events even prompted me to even entertain the possibility that there being was a possible connection between the two.

While I've persevered in my quest to conquer IJ, and lay hold to the claim of having completed the long reading cycle, almost entirely ahead of schedule, I'm looking forward to finally being rid of Wallace and his gargantuan work.

Sections of this overly long novel have been interesting, and some have kept me captivated (the Ennet House parts, mainly), but overall, this has been a taxing read, one of the most difficult books I've ever tackled. I empathize with those who have pulled up stakes and abandoned the rest of the group read.

I'm struggling with a desire to project a variety of issues/problems onto Wallace as I forge on to the end. My introduction to DFW's writing came via his nonfiction. Generally, this is my chosen genre to read (as well as work in as a writer). I'm not averse to fiction, however, and more often than not, when I choose to go the novel route, I find it pleasurable, and often an escape hatch from more serious fare. That hasn't been the case with IJ.

[Spoiler Alert] I have really struggled with a couple of incidents in my reading, both invoking dogs, and what I view as pretty sadistic behavior on behalf of Wallace's fictional characters. What I'm alluding to is Ennet House character, Randy Lenz, one of a cast of freaks, addicts, and general low lifes that populate much of IJ. These dregs populate and play a central role in DFW's narrative.

We find Lenz (on page 539) commencing a series of nocturnal outings involving death and mayhem directed towards rats, and then later, cats, and ultimately, his sadism is unleashed on several particularly vicious attacks on dogs. While this is entirely a fictional rendering, Lenz's character and his actions were particularly disturbing to me, and led me to wonder a bit about Wallace's own sentiment towards animals, particularly those of the canine variety.

The chosen method that Lenz ultimately graduates to with dogs involves luring his victim to the end of its chain by dangling a piece of leftover meatloaf (courtesy of Ennet House's culinary wizard, Don Gately) in front of the dog. Lenz then circles behind the dog and manages to slit its throat with a knife. Wallace doesn't spare us details, as we learn that the weapon is a Browning X444 serrated, with its own personal shoulder holster for ease of transport.

The other involves an Incandenza family dog being forgotten, tied to the bumper of the family car, and dragged to a brutal death, this time by young Orrin. I won't go into further detail, but it's another example of a gratuitously violent act against a dog, without much in the way of remorse from the character who perpetrates the act.

When a writer asks you to trust him/her enough to commit to reading a book of 250 to 300 pages, there is a tacit understanding that the reader leaves at the end with something--being entertained, enlightened, transported beyond the mundane four-walled, boring life variety, possibly so captivated by characters that the tension breaks and the relationship is enhanced.

With Wallace and his nonfiction, he always made me feel like I got more than I bargained for, and the expectations were always lived up to. Granted, a good deal of his writing was dense, and even difficult. Always, there was that interminable search through endnotes, which often delivered a golden nugget, although always distracting, and offputting.

With IJ, I'm feeling duped. Because of Infinite Summer, and its cast of guest bloggers, I came to the read prepared for a difficult start and to do some work (one mentioned giving the book to p. 200 before bailing).

With another 100+ pages to go before I hit paydirt, I have appreciated some of the great passages, characters I connected with, and an appreciation for the breadth and scope of the novel. There have also been entire portions/sections that I found nearly unreadable (the entire Canadian, Marathe, Steeply, Assasins des Fauteuils Rollents sections always produced an "oh shit" moment and consequent skim for the next break and segue).

What I'm left with is a sense that while I'll be happy to say "I read Infinite Jest," I'll also be second-guessing and wondering what other books I could have been reading instead, and that 10 or 11 weeks have been taken away and I'll never get them back.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is real late, but I just thought I'd reassure you on your point about Wallace's real feelings towards dogs. DFW loved dogs and usually took in strays. About a year before he killed himself, he was contemplating giving up writing to start an animal shelter.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Lisa K. said...

This post reminds me of a lot of things Roger Ebert talks about when mentioning why he does or doesn't like certain films. Violence in and of itself doesn't offend him, even sadistic, gratuitous violence, as long as the filmmaker gives him an idea of a) how it contributes to one's understanding of the characters involved and b) a glimmer of how the artist feels about it-what message he or she is trying to impart by using that imagery. I have not read the book (nor do I intend to), but it sounds as if Wallace may have fallen a little short in those areas, which leaves the reader not knowing what to think about it.

7:10 AM  

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