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One Book Everyone Should Read

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The book is a masterpiece, and to me one of its main values lies in the fact that it feels like a great classic piece of literature while still written in a very modern diction. It’s accessible to a contemporary audience, though nonetheless thematically complex, like any canonically “classic” piece of literature. It’s also gigantic, over a thousand pages (roughly 100 of which are footnotes that you shouldn’t skip), though (mostly) easy to read. Part of this, I think, is because of the aforementioned diction. I suspect people who read Ulysses in 1922 when it first was published understood it intrinsically easier than any given reader today, for the same reason.

The blurb on the back of Jest that tries to make you buy it claims that the book’s about “the pursuit of happiness in America” or “entertainment.” Those are accurate in their broadest senses, but the novel really takes an unrelenting tour through a surreal world of individuals with outrageous personalities and desires, and their broader society. If setting means anything to you, Jest takes place in an addicts’ halfway house, a pre-collegial tennis academy, Boston and Arizona in the near-future, as well as numerous other flashback-settings, like Quebec. For the most part Wallace succeeds in making everything contextually believable, even though so many of the characters’ backstories and so many of the plot elements seem objectively ludicrous. The characters’ emotions and problems and desires are odd and sometimes uncomfortable translations of what people in the real-world of today actually experience.

One of the most likeable characters is a recovering addict, whose Herculean efforts to abstain from relapse warrant sympathy. The kids at the academy are their own breed, most of them likeable, though the lot of them seem to be in a sort of rich-parent induced limbo wherein they’re expected to play tennis and dream of tennis and deal with the absurdity of adolescence stowed away in an isolated athletics-honing facility. Another zany plot element concerns violent Quebec separatist groups, whose main virtue to me is to showcase Wallace’s comical use of a tone (in written English) that one might expect an ESL French-Canadian to adopt in spoken word.

I really appreciate the formal elements of the book. Consciously, Wallace chose to begin the book with its “ending”, then fragmentally details the various characters’ exploits through numerous narrative forms. First- and Third-person are both present, and the written style changes subtly but noticeably depending on the characters present. Flashbacks and memories both develop the characters and inform the themes. The theme of infinity shows up as a motif of death-and-rebirth, or recurring traits and experiences. And, I think, most importantly for the book’s structure, it sets itself up to provide near-infinite readability. Despite the fact that the read is thoroughly engaging the first time through, pretty much every chapter makes (infinitely!) more sense once you’ve completed the book. The instinctive desire once you read the last word is to turn to the first page and begin again. And Jest need not be re-read chronologically – open it to any page after the first time, and you’ll know exactly what’s going on even better than before. The biggest stylistic reward, I submit, is that the book has a literal and logical ending (in fact, the first chapter is that ending) to which it never directly leads you. Wallace himself claimed that the text sets out definite story arcs for all the necessary parties so that the reader should be able to project the necessary events in order to reach the “end” that is the first chapter, but he also leaves a large gap between the last written elements of the arcs and the ostensible “end”. I don’t think that last sentence is too much of a spoiler; it takes a lot of investigation into the themes, alleged events, interpretation, and prediction to come up with a definite answer, and there’s definite room for variation.

The end result is just an incredibly thought-provoking experience, I think. While a lot of the book is really funny for its surrealism, characters and style, there are large chunks of it that are worrying, sad, or downright depressing. Drug use and abuse is quite common; professional or student-athlete sports seem at times absurd and misguided; the general sense is that society at large just lives to distract itself, its members looking for things to which they can give themselves away. Underlying all of these are vast questions of what it means to be human, to be successful, what the point of life is at all. Perhaps the most saddening is that Wallace killed himself three years ago, despite being a critically acclaimed and brilliant author. It is upsetting that someone who seems to have perceived so thoroughly the ways in which North American society (maybe even humanity) functions nevertheless succumbed to a period of personal darkness, of the intolerable “black wing” that his characters occasionally feel.

So why should you read it? I think Jest deserves to be snapped up while it’s still current, and I think it might be of particular value to those who have yet to “decide” what to “do” with their lives (as if you just make one decision and stick with it forever). Written in 1996 but set in 1996’s future, much of the story would probably take place around now. Some of Wallace’s technological predictions are believable or even accurate (like a Netflix-esque television consumption service), other of his creations are more surreal and seemingly unbelievable, though I can find some real-world analogues. This book will make you check a dictionary more than twenty times. It makes me feel ignorant at times. It makes me question its authority, question Wallace’s authority, and question my own beliefs and desires. Most of all, I think the book has a lot to say about our human desire for a sense of purpose, some kind of external object to strive after, real of fictional, physical or emotional. There is no other book I have read published in the last 60 years that so adeptly uses the backdrop of the modern world to illustrate such grandiose themes so poignantly. That it does so in an absorbing, voyeuristic, enthralling fashion is a bonus.

-DL

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Intro and “Who I Am”

Hi everyone,

I come late to the essay-writing table for I have been out of the country and away from computers until recently. I may or may not attempt to catch up with the essays I’ve missed, and will try my best to continue and keep up to date with the rest of them. Ambitions aside, I figure I will start with the Who I Am topic, for it’s a good starting point for all of our blogs.

Who I Am

The sum of who any given person is, I think, some combination of past experience, current existence, and metaphysical outlook, noting of course that they all mix and overlap and affect each other. I do not think I can paint a portrait of myself with merely the brushstrokes of text on a page. A great part of knowing anyone derives from subjective interaction.

I can say that I am a lot of things, or rather I identify with a lot of things. Like most of us, I was and still am a student. As much as vast-expanses-of-do-nothing-at-all holidays are alluring, they are mere rest measures between erudite binges of ostensible “progress” through my life’s course (this sentence means: “I am unemployed for the summer”). If everything lines up neatly, after another three years I will slip right out of another convocation gown and into a suit and go to work like everyone else.

——–

A concern of mine, one that I hope (for my own sake) some others share: How can I be a good person? Forgive me for posing perhaps one of the most difficult, perhaps unanswerable questions humans can puzzle over. Anyway, the basic conflict comes from the fact that my hyper-critical undergraduate career (full of reasoning, rationality, and slowly uncovering how unjust the world can be) has installed a new program in my conscience, whatdoesitmeantobegood.exe, that never quite produces any answers. I know how to be critical and point out flaws in things. I know how to back up my thoughts and ideas with philosophers, writers, or my own ideas. I have a substantially harder time putting things into practice. Zizek says that giving change to a beggar does nothing to address the fact that any system that produces private property (in this case the change I throw in a cup) in the first place is the only reason he must beg. Do I believe this? Maybe. Do I have any idea what to do about it? No. Does this same principle mean charitable actions just add fuel to some big unjust fire? Maybe?! IS THE WHOLE OF SOCIAL ORGANIZATION BUILT AROUND OPPRESSING MANY PEOPLE TO KEEP THE REST OF US RICH?!! Every once in a while that’s what the social-conscience-program yells at me. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s just a sometimes-paralyzing thing (Is it wrong to buy a Coke? Is it wrong to get drunk? Is it wrong to spend $50 on a meal when I could eat at home? What about spewing out a whole whack of CO2 in various ways?). In many ways how you spend your time and money has more of a political impact than who you vote for. The dilemma is that I must continue existing, and probably should continue on the path to which I’ve committed, at least until this degree is done (right?). And to continue existing and continue going to school I must eat and pay rent and borrow from banks and generally buy into a society/world that I feel has too much injustice for me to just complacently accept. I do “nothing” (i.e. nothing effective) practical, for as yet I am still morphing. I am the quintessential student, the ephebe who is not yet the master, unable to act potently and to serve fully my beliefs. Almost certainly, those very beliefs will change by the time I achieve any sort of mastery, perhaps even to the point where complacence (the current enemy that I so ironically delay to confront) becomes the satisfactory end. I hope not. I’ve concluded, maybe a bit halfheartedly, that to reason or critique my way into corners of paralysis isn’t healthy. I suppose almost anything you do can be criticized from some ideological standpoint. In a sense, then, I’ve learned to blissfully ignore the conscience-program, as necessary. Does this happen to anyone else?

——–

In contrast to the admittedly gloomy conscience-program mentioned above, I’ve recently adopted a conscious and, I think, positive personal policy. Summarily, it’d be called “don’t be a hater”. You may not suffer from being a hater, but the idea was that I could tell I was not giving artists – musicians in particular – enough of a chance before writing them off. Too often I intrinsically reviled something/one for an irrational reason. Common irrational reasons are things like “I really don’t like their fans” or “So many people are talking about that!” or “He’s just doing what X did two years ago.” My sister playing the Biebs 24/7 did not put him in my good books, and years ago my friends turned me off Weezy (Baby!) for what I thought was for good by putting “Lollipop” on repeat in their cars. I mean, I have yet to fall in love with Justin’s music, but at least by not shutting him down I can explain why I don’t really like his style or vocals. While I once might have blurted “I just HATE JUSTIN BIEBER HE SUCKS,” I can now say I respect the kid for what he’s done.  And I’m actually fairly fond of Lil’ Wayne now that I’ve heard him out. Hatin’ can release some inner vitriol for brief periods of complain-y pleasure (Louis CK, anyone?), but in the end I think there’s no reason to preemptively cut yourself off from something you might like, right? I like liking things, and it’s way less ignorant to acknowledge reasons for dislike, even if those are matters of personal taste, than it is to predetermine who SUCKS. As a result, I have happily expanded my music collection, am way more open to suggestions from friends, and am just plain better off, I think. And I think dontbeahater.exe applies to pretty much anything you can view or consume.

——-

You might get to know who I am more by hearing what I like, do, think.

Like: Books, with an irrational taste for “classics” and equally irrational distrust of anything overtly populist. I really enjoy when you “get” a reference some author makes, which just makes a positive feedback-type setup where you just want to read more. Music, of all types, and playing it or singing. Some live concerts can make you feel like you’re experiencing human emotive perfection, almost pure joy. Barbecues. Lakes and the sea. Is there anyone who doesn’t like nostalgia? Sometimes the idea of a memory of my family cottage is more powerful than physically being there, even though the only way to create the memories is to be there and experience the thing to be remembered. Knowing that I have a couple ultra-close friends that might still hang out with me in the afterlife. I really like how every part of me can just agree that the rest of the day is a write-off (free time!) after I’ve handed in a 9am-due all-nighter paper. And the ensuing written-off time. Hamilton.

Do: I study things and hope someday someone will reward me for knowing how to do related things with what I know better than at least some other people. But also I cook and make beer and crack jokes and sometimes go way out of my way to waste time or stare at a book for a while and not buy it and go home and drink a beer I’ve made (3 weeks later).

Think: I’ll let the essays speak for themselves!

-DL

 

ONE

“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Hurtling through space, on a train, I have created this blog: I hope to throw the peas in the air, to some extent.