Sunday, June 28, 2009

Infinite Zest

Disclaimer: This is not a review. Probably a tribute.

Warning: Very long winded, meandering, totally unfunny post. Unintentional hilarity not ruled out though.


It's a book that's a thousand and seventy nine pages long, exhausting, engaging, irritating, funny, heavy, deep, casual, brilliant, non linear, madly extravagant and freakishly intelligent. But most importantly, it is genuine, sincere and does not suffer from cleveritis (David Foster Wallace's {henceforth referred to as DFW} own neologism for smart superficiality). Reading Infinite Jest is like falling in love with a difficult person - an experience that's frustrating, endearing, annoying, heart-tugging and so totally worth it.

The wide variety of topics it touches on include dysfunctional families, substance abuse, terrorism, depression, avant garde film theory, loneliness, game theory and mathematics, prodigies, pop culture, black humor and science fictional parody (among others that NF must've failed to notice). DFW was a former tennis prodigy who wrote an undergraduate thesis on Modal Logic, studied creative writing in grad school before enrolling in Harvard for a PhD in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) only to drop out later (a later non fiction bit by him is called Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ - apparently a highly technical piece not for the casual reader). Among those who know NF would've guessed by now that such a writer bio is sufficient for NF to go ga ga even before having read the book. But herein comes the important bit - even though it is somewhat easy (?) to write deep books which turn out to be great but are soul deadeningly boring, the truly non trivial task is to write a deep book that turns out to be great and is hugely entertaining - in fact is uproariously funny. DFW accomplishes that and more.

The word most used to describe DFW's style is maximalism - the exact opposite of minimalism - the use of multi-clause, page long (in fact sometimes 200 word long) sentences that use sesquipedalian (a NewsWagon 'in' joke; polysyllabic) jargon-laden words in the same breath as street slang, acronyms and plentiful word play [example: O.N.A.N. - Organization of North American Nations - a megastate described in the book and referred to by the abbreviation throughout. Onanism in English means masturbation.] with generous use of end notes and footnotes throughout the text (NB: this paragraph is made up of a single (multi-clause) sentence with multiple use of brackets making up for the effect of end/foot notes and pays tribute to DFW's preferred style of sentence formation - an example of maximalism in action).

In particular, the manner in which his highly erudite, bombastic linguistic calisthenics are interrupted by very lowbrow street language reminded NF of Manohar Shyam Joshi's idiosyncratic, cult book Kuru Kuru Swaahaa - another book that is great, deep and laugh-out-loud funny. Consider Wallace's description of his previous work The Broom of the System and its "covertly autobiographical" nature:

the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who’s just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction . . . which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct

A flip side, however, of this florid, lexically obsessed, often taxing flamboyance of style is that his one-time girlfriend gave up reading his 67 page break up letter (Caution: The Onion reports). There's irony for you, another of Wallace's themes.

The main concern for our Tarantino of fiction was to help readers “become less alone inside”. He was against the idea of smart, cold writers withholding themselves and wallowing in ironic, clever, superficial, detached cynicism. And this is what is so compelling about Infinite Jest - an immersion into storytelling that is totally committed and extremely passionate. The emphasis on the heart, more than the head is what finally won NF over. This is also evident in his praise of St Paul, Rousseau and Dostoyevsky - his favorite writers:

“what are envied and coveted here seem to me to be qualities of human beings—capacities of spirit—rather than technical abilities or special talents.”


"I’m not saying I’m able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love."

A more appropriate title of the book would've been A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - something that the book definitely is. Perhaps equally appropriately, Dave Eggers (the actual author of A Heartbreaking Work...) penned the Foreword to this book.

Nanga Fakir recommends his friends and readers of the blog to fall on their feet and mourn the passing away of this mental titan. For those who can tolerate a huge, fat, highbrow work of art - this is it - the most compelling, ultimate experience. The probability that you'll be changed by the time you end this book is high (including the possibility that it takes you years to finish the book abandoning it midway n number of times and coming out a changed person merely having been bludgeoned by Time).

For those who've been sufficiently intrigued, see the following:

Roger Federer as a religious experience

The Unfinished

The lost years and last days of David Foster Wallace


Wallace reading a passage from his book:

Let's end the post by reading a little something on assignment plagiarism from the endnotes of Infinite Jest:

...the congenital plagiarists put so much work into camouflaging their plagiarism than it would take just to write up an assignment from conceptual scratch. It usually seems like plagiarists aren't so much lazy as kind of navigationally insecure. They have trouble navigating without a detailed map's assurance that somebody has been this way before them. About this incredible painstaking care to hide and camouflage the plagiarism - whether it's dishonesty or a kind of kleptomaniacal thrill-seeking or what - Hal hasn't developed much of any sort of take.

<*Sigh*> So true!


Arvind Krishna said...

The words verbose and verbhonsadike come to mind :P

I was reading his 5 page long NY Times article on Federer (which is lengthy even by NY Times standard) and he goes on and on and on about some inane stuff. I can find myself launching into a 5 minute diatribe against his constant digressions from a topic that everybody knows enough about.

Anyway, it looks like I won't be able to read his 1079 pages in this lifetime, seeing as how I have become impatient with reading. But he is very interesting though, if we can only cure him out of his propensity for intellectual masturbation and find a good enough compression software that captures the essence of his writing into a short story, we might just have another Hemingway or Borges.

Nanga Fakir said...

Yes, our secret advances in Artificial Intelligence will make this possible.

But the poor sod killed himself. What a fucking waste!

Arvind Krishna said...

....Reading Infinite Jest is like falling in love with a difficult person - an experience that's frustrating, endearing, annoying, heart-tugging and so totally worth it.

Now, do you speak from experience?

Nanga Fakir said...

Of course...

Her name is Xing Lihouh

Arvind Krishna said...

please elaborate...i am fascinated.

Nanga Fakir said...

The comment section of this blog is not a suitable forum for discussion of such amorous natures. I am told it's a PG blog not an R/NC 17 one.