22 July 2009

Infinite July: Why

(Second part of a two-part post on my INFINITE JEST experience so far; here's the first. Again, carte blanche to skip this, it's mostly for me.)

So as I mentioned, I started INFINITE JEST the weekend of the Wimbledon semis and finals, which seemed like a cosmic "This Way" signpost to keep me reading. (I haven't gotten tired of the tennis stuff so far; it reminds me of John Feinstein's HARD COURTS, a great piece of nonfiction despite being extremely dated now.) For a spell there it felt like I kept hitting all these references that said move forward, move forward, but I realized about 50 pages ago that there are so many references in this book, to movies or other books or bits of cultural detritus, that naturally as you read it you will pick up pieces that seem targeted just to you.

At the same time, these pieces more than the development of plot have pulled me into the book thus far. What has happened so far in terms of "action" would be extremely hard to describe; I'm not sure why the jacket copy doesn't just say "Nice try, sucker! Read the damn thing!" I keep reading because I'm sure those pieces will all lock into place someday, but for now I'm enjoying the exuberance of something so rich and playful in language.

I was beginning to despair of finding an example of Wallace's prose till I hit this one which some of you may recognize. Take it away, page 226:

The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed was unofficially founded in London in B.S. 1940 in London U.K. by the cross-eyed, palate-clefted, and wildly carbuncular wife of a junior member of the House of Commons, a lady whom Sir Winston Churchill, P.M.U.K., having had several glasses of port plus a toddy at a reception for an American Lend-Lease administrator, had addressed in a fashion wholly inappropriate to social intercourse between civilized gentlemen and ladies. Unwittingly all but authoring the Union designed to afford the scopophobic empathetic fellowship and the genesis of sturdy inner resources through shame-free and unconstrained concealment, W. Churchill -- when the lady, no person's doormat, informed him with prim asperity that he appeared to be woefully inebriated -- made the anecdotally famous reply that while, yes, yea verily, he was indeed inebriated, he would the following A.M. be once again sober, while she, dear lady, would tomorrow still be hideously and improbably deformed. Churchill, doubtless under weighty emotional pressures during this period in history, had then proceeded to extinguish his cigar in the lady's sherry and to place a finger-bowl napkin delicately over the ruined features of her flaming visage. The laminated non-photo U.H.I.D. membership card Joelle showed the interested old black gentleman related this data and more in a point-size so tiny the card looked somehow both blank and defaced.

(I had to type that whole thing up because it wasn't Googleable. You're welcome, Internet.)

That's perhaps a third of a paragraph, and well, just look at it. Is it overwritten, especially compared to the original joke? Absolutely -- any newspaper editor would strike the repetition of the word London in the first sentence first without batting an eye. But it's not the periphrastic scramble of a student trying to finish a paper; it's all deliberate. How different a world the characters of INFINITE JEST live in from our own, I'm not sure, but Wallace has created it and I'm just living in it.

New Yorker critic James Wood coined the term "hysterical realism" to describe this kind of prose as seen in the "big, ambitious" novels of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and DFW himself. Know what those authors have in common? The ones I've read deep enough into to know, I love. I came across the term a while ago but never have I thrown it around with such loving abandon as I have in my Infinite Summer. I want to buy that T-shirt and join that team. I am that which Wood fears! What a feeling.

In mentally preparing myself for the Long Book, I didn't stop to contemplate why people read INFINITE JEST. I anticipated that it would "get good" eventually. I didn't realize it was going to be funny almost from the beginning in the wry vein that I love. I actually laughed out loud where Hal says to Orin, "Everybody said you'd regret not coming to the funeral. But I don't think this is what they meant." And that's in one of the most harrowing sections so far! (And if I explain it, it will not be funny any more.)

Even amid those torrents of prose, little gems like that turn up. The one bit of DFW warming-up I did was reading his Harpers essay "Shipping Out"(PDF version available here) which became the title essay of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I'LL NEVER DO AGAIN. In a passage about cruise-ship dining options, Wallace describes one as offering "the sort of coffee you marry somebody for being able to make." I carried that phrase around with me for weeks. I can dig a long, long way for phrases like that.

ETA 7.27: Welcome to everyone coming over from Infinite Summer. Tonight I had dinner with a family whose three children are nationally ranked tennis players, and it was all I could do to not start spouting off about the Enfield Tennis Academy and Eschaton. I'm sure you can relate! Anyway, thank you so much for reading, please make yourselves at home.


Wade Garrett said...

I liked it for all of the reasons that you like it, but at times you do want to say "GET ON WITH IT!" like the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Especially after 550 or so pages when you have a bar exam to study for - I would probably have more patience for it now.

8yearoldsdude said...

I love the big prose too, but I somehow feel guilty about it. I tried to take hysterical realism in a post in the past and failed miserable.

but I do love the details and phrases of the imagined world of IJ.

"inciting mass pep","minimal mambo", "year of the trial sized dove bar", and "eschaton" populate my mental space as vividly as if they were real.

Ellen said...

8, there has been a roiling debate over at Infinite Summer over whether DFW meant Dove bar as in the soap, or Dove bar as in the ice cream. Someone who knew him, or met his sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend at a party once, ruled that it was the ice cream. That's the kind of nerdery you just have to adore.

W.G., I expect it will test my patience at some point. Since I've blocked out what I did last time that happened in the context of reading a Long Book, it should be interesting.