Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Early Chill of the Infinite Winter of Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a novel of infinite discovery and infinite rabbit holes and infinitely complex plotlines woven into what can only be deemed a Magnum Opus of the most gifted writer from Generation X. While we readers of the Infinite Winter are officially only into the first fifty pages or so, the discussion forums - of which one has spoilers for those who know the book and another for the novices just beginning to piece together the poetry - are already running strong with speculation and observation ... and some hints of desperation. But the giddiness many feel at even attempting this literary Everest is palpable, and the community will urge us onward.

What I know so far is IJ is a post-modern epic about entertainment and addiction, and much of the plot will center on a young, brilliant tennis prodigy - and probable addict - named Hal Incadenza who is enrolled at the Enfield Tennis Acadamy (founded by his father). The number of characters who weave in and out of the early chapters is mesmerizing - from Hal's brothers (Orin and Mario) parents (The Moms and Himself (as in "the man Himaself" (ha!))), his uncle, poor black youth like Clenette and Wardine, a professional burgler named Don Gately, to a (Saudi?) medical attache who is clearly addicted and engulfed by what I suspect is the "movie you can never stop watching."

Got it?

What makes this read engaging and what makes a reading community like the Infinite Winter supportive (but also a little overwhelming unto itself as you struggle to keep up with the book while also keeping up with the ever-growing feed of reader's comments on Reddit which you don't want to miss ... which in some way seems similar to the movie the medical attache can't stop watching because you don't want to stop reading the book but you want to check the reader forums which you also don't want to stop reading ....) is the fabulously intricate nature of the story and the true art in the crafting of each sentence. As an English teacher (of style analysis in AP Lang & Comp), I want to dwell on the implications of words and syntax like the beginning "I am ..." which is potentially bookended later in the chapter with the words "I am not."  But I am also just digging on the story which I cannot wait to figure out how it relates to the Great Concavity and the Quebecois Separtist Movement.

That said, #InfWin reader "Bill Gaddis" (Ha! Really?) has posted links to two great articles - one from 1996 and one celebrating the 20th anniversary. They are worth the read, but tread cautiously, lest you learn more than you already know before you want to discover it. (ie. the articles can't help but contain spoilers ... but they are also helpful readers guides by indicating some general wisdoms and structures to look for)

First, is "The Alchemist's Retort: A Multilayered Saga of Postmodern Damnation and Salvation" which is a beautifully crafted review in The Atlantic by writer Sven Birkerts

But these more outrĂ© materials combine to form what is finally a thematic second tier. The foreground of Infinite Jest features three basic plot systems. At the center of one is Hal Incandenza, an adolescent tennis star attending Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), which his family founded, and which has been administered by his mother and uncle since his father, James, who was also an experimental filmmaker, ended things by putting his head in a specially rigged microwave oven. Hal, who is compulsive and brilliant, shows his damage obliquely: he cannot walk the orthogonal paths of ETA with an unaltered mind. “Hal likes to get high in secret,” we read, “but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.” An intriguing filtering presence, and a fine departure point for Wallace’s various divagations into Incandenza family lore, Hal does not himself do much besides play tennis and, late in the book, try to stop smoking pot.

And, the other is "Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest at 20" which is a wonderfully insightful reflected published this year in the New York Times by writer Tom Bissell.

How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive? Theory 1: As a novel about an “entertainment” weaponized to enslave and destroy all who look upon it, “Infinite Jest” is the first great Internet novel. Yes, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson may have gotten there first with “Neuromancer” and “Snow Crash,” whose Matrix and Metaverse, respectively, more accurately surmised what the Internet would look and feel like. (Wallace, among other things, failed to anticipate the break from cartridge- and disc-based entertainment.) But “Infinite Jest” warned against the insidious virality of popular entertainment long before anyone but the most Delphic philosophers of technology. Sharing videos, binge-watching Netflix, the resultant neuro-pudding at the end of an epic gaming marathon, the perverse seduction of recording and devouring our most ordinary human thoughts on Facebook and Instagram — Wallace somehow knew all this was coming, and (as the man himself might have put it) it gave him the howling fantods.

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