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I finished Infinite Jest almost three weeks ago, on September 2nd. I still feel the urge to write something about it on September 22nd. This is, in and of itself, a recommendation.

But not one without reservations.  Immediately after I finished reading Infinite Jest, I was something pretty close to irate (Full disclosure: I was also mildly buzzed.  The irony of this does not escape me.).  I had invested a lot in this book, and I don’t just mean the sheer number of hours spent reading the damn thing.  I wanted it to be my favorite book.  I wanted it to change my life.  I wanted to go forth and preach the gospel of David Foster Wallace.  And then he had to go and leave me hanging like that.  Fuck him.

Three weeks later, my temper has cooled, I’ve re-read the enigmatic opening and closing sections a few more times, and I’ve arrived at a more or less stable verdict about Infinite Jest: enormously successful (on its own terms), impossibly well-written (understatement of the year), and, ultimately, not really what I want out of fiction.

That sounds harsher than I mean it to.  Let me be clear: I am so glad I read this book.  I am so glad I got to meet Hal and Gately and Mario and Avril and Steeply and Pemulis and everyone else (not exactly “glad” about Lenz, but you get the point).  I am glad that Wallace decided to end his book by putting me through the intellectual wringer, denying me everything I’ve been conditioned to expect in an “entertainment.”  In the cold light of retrospect, it’s the only reasonable conclusion to a novel that’s all about the ceaseless desire to be forever satiated.

But while I admire Infinite Jest on an intellectual level, I can’t ignore just how cold that ending left me emotionally.  How jerked around I felt.  And it’s not about the lack of resolution.  In fact, one of the first things I did after finishing the book was to pull my copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral off the shelf, a book that, depending on what day you ask me, might be my favorite.  More importantly, it ends on a similarly abrupt and jarring note, although the narrative itself is significantly more straightforward than Infinite Jest‘s (What isn’t?).  And even without having touched the book in a year and a half, barely remembering most of the details of the plot, the ending still hits hard.  I almost teared up; I wanted to read the novel again right that second.  In the closing sentences of American Pastoral, Roth renders moot the unanswered questions of his narrative through sheer literary force.  The words are so strong, so carefully chosen, so musical that I don’t even want to hear any more about Seymour Levov’s impending unhappiness.  The story’s over.  Roth says so.  The last page of Infinite Jest is as beautifully written as the other thousand, but it doesn’t have that sense of authority.

Maybe a week after I finished the book, I was reading an article—or a blog post, or a forum; I can’t remember—that compared Infinite Jest to David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, and everything fell into place.  It’s an extraordinarily apt comparison.  Both are astonishing on a technical level, and both require an extensive amount of after-the-fact interpretation to make any real sense.  But the reason that Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite films ever and I can’t bring myself to outright love Infinite Jest is simple: Mulholland Drive is 147 minutes long; I spent three months reading Infinite Jest.

I hope this doesn’t make me shallow, but while I’m perfectly willing to return to a 150-minute movie more than once, I have very little desire to read a 1000 page book over again.  Not when there are so many goddamn books out there that I haven’t read.  I must have seen Mulholland Drive six or seven times, and it truly does get better with every visit. Infinite Jest probably does too, but I’m not going to find out for myself anytime soon.

So what am I left with?  A deeply frustrating book underlined and annotated to within an inch of its life, with all my favorite passages marked up and ready to be re-read at a moment’s notice.  Somehow, when favorite passages are this good (Orin’s “love kills what needs it” monologue slays me), that doesn’t feel like too bad of a consolation prize.

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Written by Tim

September 22, 2009 at 12:41 am

Posted in Books