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September 21, 2015

Jest Reading the Infinite



I bet lots of folks did just like me. I recently went to the local art-house theater (Vine Cinema & Alehouse, Livermore) and saw The End of the Tour, a film about an interview (boring) with a writer (zzzz). It will not be a popular film and could have been awful if not for the fact that the writer in question was David Foster Wallace. The guy playing the interviewer did a fine job acting the part, but the guy playing Wallace (Jason Segel) was scary real. He wasn't acting at all; he was Wallace. When they meet in heaven Wallace will say to Segel: you're more me than me.

So I loved the film, and when I got home to Messina I grabbed my heavy copy of Infinite Jest, of which, like most people, I'd read fifty pages. It's Wallace's tour de force/tour de farce and over a thousand full pages of words, almost an avalanche of verbosity. But this time I'm reading it and loving it.

It's a book about America, as Wallace says in the film. Completely crazy characters do crazy things told by a crazy narrator, letting his talkaholism-thinkaholism run wild, all created by an author who was an excellent wordman, stylistically advanced, and crazy himself.

The book is hilarious, which many people don't get. It's very wry, shaggy-doggish, but, for reference, write in your copy: Hilarious. Then imagine the audio version read by Bill Murray or better yet, Fred Willard. The mudslide of words is meant to overcome you and tickle you. Like when I dared talk to girls in high school I always got: I can never tell when you're joking. The trick is to say the absurd with a straight face.

So lots of people don't get it and drop the book on their toes. Ouch. There are other problems: the 100 pages of footnotes annoy many. Take them in Jest and enjoy the beautiful bullshit. A bigger problem is that it is a very slow book to read, a slog perhaps. That is, it takes a long time to get to the end. Months probably. Harry Potter books are big but blur-fast, Infinite Jest is thick and meaty. However, what is your purpose in reading a book? To get to the end? Scarf down the meal to get to dessert? Speed home from work to sit doing nothing? 'Do' Italy in five days? Is that any way to live? Stop that.

Infinite Jest forces us to have a different attitude. Slow down and savor. Stay in the present. Each page is a little dirty pleasure. If you read this book merely to enjoy the writing then you will; it is extraordinarily good. It is a frighteningly monumental work of talent and skill. This is a fantastic book, better than I'd ever imagined.

You have to read it though, but for amusement not obligation. Get through the first 300 pages just to figure out what's going on. Then taste the bitterness of the vision of a culture gone to hell in infinite pain. And laugh. And get obsessed as the narrator is obsessed with everything, including the elegance of our language. It ain't easy to write perfect single sentences lasting several pages. 
"Scleredema adultorum. Them that seep, the serodermatotic. Come one come all, this circular says. The hydrocephalic. The tabescent and chachetic and anorexic. ..." (187)
I don't know all the meanings, but I get the roll-off-the-tongue joy of big words.

The editor, Michael Pietch, who I met once, apparently cut 250 pages out of the tome. But it's still an inclusive book. Not unrevised, very carefully crafted in fact, not a word out of place, but not abbreviated as we're so used to doing.  When Wallace talks about the truths that one learns in a substance-abuse halfway house, he goes on with sentences beginning with 'That' for seven packed pages. It is an incredible section in a jumble of incredible pieces.

Still the writing isn't show-offy, because it serves the book, not merely the plot but the real book that's always between the lines. It's neurotic, it's weird, but it's not a display of cleverness, like I see so often nowadays. It is a coherent whole. A dark masterpiece. The Great American Novel of legend has been on the shelf since 1996. The American Ulysses. I needed the film to kick my butt. To push me in the lake. Now I'm loving the warm water and don't want to get out.

As I get further along through my Infinite Jest/Quest, I'll keep you updated.

Happy trials, Martin


Mutt: Your Jeffness, I've got a query.
Jeff: Har har har.
Mutt: It means question.
Jeff: Oh.
Mutt: What can you make from baked beans and onions?
Jeff: I dunno, but I asked my wife, I said: Dear, must you spend so much money on food?
Mutt: What'd she say?
Jeff: "Sorry, darling, but you and the kids just won't eat anything else!"
Mutt: Well, y'know dieting is a matter of life and breadth.
Jeff: I read a diet book called: Are You Going the Wrong Weigh?
Mutt: Doctors tell us there are over seven million people who are overweight. These, of course, are only round figures.
Jeff: I dunno. I'm on a seafood diet. Every time I see food, I eat it.
Mutt: Have you heard of the Mexican ghost named Jose? They call him, "No Weigh, Jose".
Jeff: I've heard that some people trade TIT-FOR-TAT, while healthy people trade FIT-FOR-FAT.
Mutt: Tear gas.
Jeff: Scuse me.
Mutt: Tear gas.

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