June 29, 2009

Some notes on the first milestone

[I’m blogging my reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this summer with the folks over at Infinite Zombies. This post is available there as well. I’m keeping a copy here for posterity. Your comments are welcome at either location.]

I have to admit, pulling my thoughts together in order to create a decent first blog post about Infinite Jest has been harder than I had anticipated.  I’ve been beneffitting greatly from Daryl‘s observations and some of the posts and comments over at the mothership.  But, in a way, the wealth of good and informative posts only makes things harder, as anything I might be clever enough to say has likely already been said, and more cleverly.

I’ve found myself taking more than the usual amount of notes for this thing.  And I’ve been trying to stay ahead of the the reading schedule, both because I know that I’ll sooner-or-later fall behind (likely right after the students in my summer class turns in their second round of papers) and because getting a little deeper into the book ads some perspective.

[Here be spoilers: I’ll be discussing pages 3-63, below.]

What to say about the first sixty-three pages?  First off, it’s not pulling teeth. DWF keeps things lively with shifting points of view, a huge cast of characters, and a good dose of (generally dark) humor.

The first chapter (“Year of Glad,” 3-17) is one of discrepancies, the first being the distance between Hal’s academic performance, which is outstanding, and his performance on academic tests, which is described by one of the deans in the interview that is the gist of this chapter as “subnormal” (6). The second, and probably more significant, is the discrepancy between Hal’s point of view and that of everyone else in the chapter–or as much as we can surmise of it, since we see their reactions only through his eyes. Internally, Hal seems on the verge of a panic attach of some sort, but he also seems quite well versed in how to manage his own anxiety.

It is only after the deans dismiss his two handlers, Uncle Chuck (whose full name, we later learn, is Dr. Chuck Tavis, [half?] brother-in-law of Hal’s late father, James O. Incandenza, and his successor as director of the Enfield Tennis Academy) and Avery deLint, one of the “prorectors” at the ETA, that the silent Hal finally speaks and the distance between his point of view and every other is revealed, albeit with a good dose of comedy, like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen skit gone mad, as the deans seem to try to outdo one another in their descriptions of Hal’s behavior:

‘But the sounds he made.’
‘Undescribable.’
‘Like an animal.’
Subanimalistic noises and sounds.’
‘Nor let’s not forget the gestures.’
[. . .]
‘Like some sort of animal with something in its mouth.’
[. . .]
‘A writing animal with a knife in its eye.’ (14)

Stylistically, one of the most interesting and enjoyable things about the first chapter is how close we are to Hal’s view of things.  His view is idiosyncratic and finely focused on visual details of the room and his experience of it (and reflections triggered by the same). But, for all that, it isn’t too hard to follow Hal’s thoughts.  What is challenging is DWF’s penchant for giving characters multiple names and nicknames, referring to them by whatever one pleases him, or the character doing the describing, as is common both in the real world and in Russian fiction.  Uncle Chuck is, at various points, “Charles,” and “C.T.” (even before we know his last name).  The same is similar for almost every other character. I find myself drawing lists of characters to keep this all sorted out.  The business with the names adds realism and a bit of mystery, and is clue enough that the author expects us to keep track of things.

(I’ve been using the term “chapter” here, to describe the divisions of the text, but just what counts as a chapter is also a judgement call. Some “chapters,” like the first one, start off with a little circular symbol and a title.  Other have just white space and a title. There are many places where the narrative shifts and the only typographical indication of it is additional white space. I’ve seen a few different numbering schemes for these. So I’ll stick with page numbers, for clarity.)

I think the main takeaway from these opening chapters is to acquaint us with some of the vast cast of characters (the vastness of which also, like the penchant for nicknames, invites a comparison with Russian novels), whose story lines will surely converge and intertwine as time goes on. It also serves to introduce us to some of the range of styles and points of view to expect from DFW.

The second chapter (17-27), where we are introduced to Erdedy, is a case in point.  Here, we move from the chaos and first person point of view of the opening chapter to a third-person point of view centered on Erdedy and following his thoughts in stream-of-consciousness fashion, following his anxieties as he prepares for yet another “one more last time” (19) marijuana binge. This chapter is a stunning and stunningly accurate portrait of anxiety, and it could easily stand on its own as a short story.

If I had any reservations about the novel, this chapter sent them packing. Erdedy’s contemplation (or, really, refusal to contemplate) the bug in his stereo system brings to mind Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Though not physically a bug, sitting almost without motion in his own protective armor, how much does Erdedy already resemble one?  Like Hal, Erdedy also finds himself trapped in lines of anticipation and expectation. And, like Hal, his consciousness is finely focussed, at times to the point of distraction, on the world around him and the thoughts it sparks. DWF clearly has a metaphorical turn of mind, which means we’re in for a lot of fun unpacking what he offers us and making connections between the various characters, events, and symbols in this novel.

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