I am now 50% through Infinite Jest. It feels slightly strange to be at this point, here in Colombia of all places, but hey, it works.
I’ve been in Medellin for six days now, and haven’t done much else other than apply for jobs (I finally got one yesterday, so I’m officially done with that now, yay!), help my sister with her reports (this isn’t as generous as it sounds: if she doesn’t finish them, then we can’t celebrate the Feria de las Flores this weekend!), and walk through the smog-infested city center to the local Éxito (grocery chain) to buy essential goods such as lentils, brown rice, strawberry-flavored drinkable yogurt and cans of beans (“gotta have a protein,” my sister says, in reference to her salad-making theories). Oh, and read Infinite Jest, along with some essays from Jonathan Frazen’s How To Be Alone as a break. I am mostly likely going hiking through the jungle to an ancient abandoned indigenous city next week (I KNOW!), so I am definitely appreciating this downtime while I have it.
It’s a pretty intense book (I’ve probably said that already). Yesterday I had to put it down and go for a little walk around the back patio, watching the crazy Manx cat (owned by one of my sister’s office mates) hunt pigeons, and try to feel like I hadn’t just read a graphic death scene in which a character dies by getting a broom shoved up their mouth. (In the margins of such scenes I’ve found myself writing things such as Oh, David… ) The other day my sister asked me to summarize a scene or a moment from the book I’d found disturbing. Hmm… it was hard to choose. How about the part where during her confession at AA, a former crack addict/prostitute talks about carrying her dead crack baby around with her until it starts to smell? Or the moment in which one of the main characters reveals to his therapist that his first thought after stepping into the kitchen and finding the body of his father (who’d just committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven) js “that something smelled delicious!” Or the handless guy in the rehab center, “trying to saw at a waffle with a knife and fork attached to the stumps of his wrists with Velcro bands.” Or the Poor Tony has a seizure while in drag on the subway chapter. And how do I even begin describing the apparently infamous Eschaton chapter? In which a bunch of young boys play a complex role-playing nuclear war game that involves pegging targets with tennis balls and gradually descends into a level of chaos that wouldn’t be out of place in Foster the People’s new apocalyptic video? (If Infinite Jest ever gets turned into a critically acclaimed HBO series a la Game of Thrones, this is definitely the episode I would most want to see!)
There are a lot of things that could potentially be said about this book, though, apart from “wow, that’s disturbing and/or weird and/or memorable.” While talking about its bigger themes (i.e. entertainment, the nature of desire and addiction) with my sister, she said that it sounded like it would be interesting if someone wrote a thesis one day comparing the works of Jonathan Franzen and DFW. Considering they were apparently buddies, this wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Not only do they both deal with similar topics such as depression, the question of freedom and the alienating nature of modernity and technology, they both even use the word samizdat to emphatic effect, for goodness’ sake.
Franzen has one particularly good essay called “The Reader in Exile” that makes a few salient points, many of which I imagine would have made DFW pump his fists in the air in emphatic agreement. One of Franzen’s comments in the essay that I liked the most was his discussion of the reader as someone who is an outsider, the high school loner in contrast to the team captains and class presidents. I like how Franzen uses this conception of the reader as a rallying cry of sorts, maybe not quite on the level of “ATTICA!” but pretty close. He also makes the argument for what he calls “the oppositional writer,” pointing out that many writers themselves were like high school outsiders throughout their lives: Kafka wanted his novels burned, Faulkner hid in the South, Bolaño smoked cigarettes, ate tiny plates of salty sardines and worked as a security guard in rural Spanish beach towns. “The most original and farseeing novelists of our own day not only accept the shadows but actively seek them,” (177) which I think is about a good description as any of not only DFW but of many of my favorite authors (Arlt, Onetti, Woolf…).
I guess the main reason I like this conception of the reader/writer as an outsider is because I really agree with it. I mean, let’s face it, it does say a lot about a person to want to read books in this day and age (especially books like Infinite Jest, which let’s face it, is a really, REALLY hard book to recommend to most people—definitely none of the families I’ve ever worked with at the school, or even most of my co-workers). We live in a world with pretty much infinite distraction at our disposable. Compared to watching a movie or clicking blissfully and endlessly through infinite hypertext, the act of reading a novel (in Franzen’s words) is more akin to a state of meditation, in which a person can enter a state where they can reflect upon the meaning of things.
There’s a pertinent passage in IJ, in which two characters discuss the nature of desire, resistance and choice. Steepley insists that choice is what makes people free, while Marathe counters that that’s just an illusion, that the freedom to choose is actually a cage that keeps people enslaved (“How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”). (320) This question of the nature of freedom and choice is particularly interesting in light of the AA passages at the rehab center, in which so much emphasis is put on the act of just “showing up,” of going through the motions, of just doing the actions of AA (prayer, group meeting and so on). According to this line of thought, action precedes and leads to the thought and the wisdom, not vice versa. One of the rehab old timers astutely compares it to baking a cake: you follow the directions on the box, and you don’t necesarrily need to understand the chemistry of how it’s all going to work out, you just need to have faith and trust in the directions that if you follow it, step by step, at the end you will have—voila!—a cake. In other words, there’s a lot to be said for just blindly following directions sometimes.
I think there’s a lot of value to this kind of mindset in regards to the act of reading IJ itself. So much about reading this book is just “showing up” and reading my allotted minimum of 10 pages a day. It could apply to lots of other things: yoga, for example, or going to my writing class, or even the act of writing in this blog or in my paper journal. A lot of the times we just show up, day after day, week after week, with all our weaknesses and ugliness and insecurities, and we just have to trust that even if we’re not there now, even if we’re nowhere even close, if we just keep coming and trying and sticking to the actions that we know are good for us, then one day we will eventually look up and realize that we are already in the place that we’re meant to be. Wherever that is, I’m looking forward to getting there. In a way, I feel like I’m there already.