Okay, now that I’ve had time to digest the book (and to cope with the ending) I wanted to give some final thoughts on the book. I also wanted to tie up some loose ends by posting my original response to the Salon.com questions as well as my letter to the posted article (keeping all my IJ stuff in one place). I also found a map of Enfield that places things nicely in context. I’ve included that at the bottom of the page.
But on to the book:
My previous post ended with what feels like a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. And yet I the disappointment I felt at the end of the book was not so much at what was said, but was actually a sort of disappointment that the book is over.
The book, the world, these characters became a part of my life. I know for a fact that I have never spent this much time and effort on a book before (I didn’t even spend as much time on Ulysses, which I’ve read twice for a class). And I think having the book left so open keeps the characters floating around in my head without actually letting them rest. (Wraith-like if you will).
When I finished the book, the first thing I did was to go back to the beginning and re-read the Year of Glad section (now, for the third time!) [And I now I’m not the only person to have done so….just how many posts will say that that’s what they did?]. And I know that’s sort of the set-up of the book, like Finnegans Wake or even Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And, in re-reading, even more gaps were filled in. And that is, of course, why people read it multiple times. And yet, do any of the multiple-times readers come any close to filing in the gaps of that lost year, or do they just find more and more awesome details to obsess over (or both)?
But before I get wrapped up in trying to “figure out what happened” I have to mention just how much I enjoyed the book. I’ve never read anything like it. The details, the quotes, the laughs, the pain. It all sounds so trite (“It was better than Cats!”) And yet, whether it’s the work itself or the amount of time spent on it, these characters are now with me.
So, I had read IJ when it came out. And sometime in 1997 or 1998 after DFW published A Supposedly Fun Thing… he did a promotional tour stop in Boston. And I recall getting up there and getting his autograph and saying how much I loved IJ and how it has stayed with me two years later. And that was true then (of course, if you’ve read me fumbling around and not remembering anything, you’ll know the details didn’t stay with me for 13 years, but that’s okay…the writing and the imagery stayed there somewhere.)
I think also, given the amount of time I spent on the book, and the amount of effort I expended keeping track of things, having this vacancy (both in the fact that the book is over and in the gap of one year) is really weird. I’ve since read a bunch of reviews of IJ and the one thing I cannot imagine is how anyone with an advanced readers copy of this book could hope to read it in a few days (typical reviewer turnover time) and actually have something useful to say about it in time for a slated book review date? I would think that if you weren’t following quite so closely you wouldn’t feel the sense of loss at the end of the book.
But enough pontificating.
Let’s think about what happened from 11/20 YDAU to Whataburger in late November, Year of Glad.
- We know that Hal was starting to lose control of his features once he had stopped smoking marijuana.
- We know that Orin was captured. And in reading the post at Infinite Tasks, I realized that I had missed Orin yelling “Do it to her! Do it to her!” Is the “her” Joelle? That would make some sense, (although it seemed as if JvD was being protected by Steeply). But, if the AFR were going after the Incandenza family, would they have Avril rather than Joelle? But I wouldn’t think that Orin would have to be pushed very hard to give up Avril. And really, Avril seems above the fray somewhat.
- We know that Steeply warned JvD about Marathe being at Ennet House.
- We assume the AFR captured the Quebec team and did whatever they intended to do at E.T.A. (whatever that was).
In the Year of Glad we know that:
- Hal had been in the hospital (psychiatric) about one year ago.
- Cosgrove Watt is dead (although why is Hal thinking of him?)
- Hal’s ankle hasn’t hurt all year.
- Hal and Gately dug up Himself’s head while John Wayne watched (in a mask). And somehow this impacted Wayne’s ability to win this years’ Whataburger (which Hal is in the middle of during his interview at AZ college).
- Given everything that happens, the world seems to be proceeding as normal (ie., O.N.A.N. hasn’t been decimated, there’s no sign of any major changes w/r/t The Entertainment destroying people).
- Hal doesn’t think about Mario or the moms except about her alphabetizing cans above the microwave. One assumes nothing happened to them.
- Orin is okay: “The brother’s in the bloody NFL for God’s sake.” (14)
- There is no mention of JvD at all.
So, we’ll never know all the details. But let’s assume that Hal never did the DMZ (Pemulis was seen crying around a dumpster on 11/20 after looking in the ceiling…his drugs were removed). [Okay, see several paragraphs hence where I pretty well discount this idea].
Regardless, he clearly had some kind of breakdown between the WhataBurger and the AP exams he was planning to take (his scores were a little too close to zero). But Hal is seeded third in The Year of Glad’s WhataBurger, so he clearly has been playing quite well, despite his losing interest in playing anymore.
At some point, he and Gately and Wayne go up to the Concavity to dig up Himself’s head. How does this transpire? Well: The AFR and Steeply’s team (with insider dope from Marathe), know all of the parties involved.
Since it’s a blank year, Gately is likely healed by the time they go up there (Gately has “dreams” about these events: driving in a bus due North… although really why would he be in a bus?). Joelle appears with wings and no underwear…is she dead? At the end of Gately’s dream, Hal, who can’t speak, mouths that it’s Too Late (to “divert the Continental Emergency”) (934).
All that suggests that they couldn’t dig up whatever (Master or Antidote) to prevent the dissemination of the Entertainment. And Endnote 114 says that the Year of Glad is “the very last year of O.N.A.N.ite Subsidized Time” (1022). So, something has happened (presumably a new president has been elected, as who would vote for the guy who let the Entertainment happen?) And yet, when Hal is at the U of A, everything seems pretty normal (true it comes from Hal’s P.O.V. but there’s no talk of anything apocalyptic in the office).
And so, the question really isn’t so much what happens (which we do sort of know), but how does it happen? And the reason I’m bummed about trying to figure this out is that 1) I’m not as clever as DFW and 2) I don’t have enough time to ponder this and 3) I really enjoyed reading about these characters, and even though I feel that I know them quite well, I imagine they were in for some tumultuous character changes over this year.
I also wondered again about the narrator of the book. There are so many different possibilities for who is telling this story. In this interview for Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt, DFW says, “and Infinite Jest is the first thing that I wrote where the narrator — it’s supposed to sound like the narrator’s talking to you.” (about 3/4 of the way through the interview…there’s no pages). The obvious one is Hal, and yet there are a number of things that suggest it is not him. And of course, Infinite Tasks has a thoughtful post about the narrator here. Axford maybe? Or even J.O.I.? I’m inclined to say it’s a student/academic deal, what with the scholarly information/paper type thing. Especially since, and I don’t know who has brought this up before, the notes section is called Notes and Errata, whatever that means for the book.
Is there the possibility that the author is Gately, after getting that influx of brains through J.O.I.? (Or am I just reaching now?)
And something I just thought of…is the preponderance of Drug company information in the Endnotes indicative that the “readers” of the work wouldn’t know what these drugs/drug companies are anymore? Is that suggesting that the book was written several years after the fact (and possibly after the Entertainment has ceased the need for the drugs?) Again, I’m reading too much here, I think.
And but so for what is ostensibly disappointment (at so much unanswered), it has in no way diminished my love for DFW, his style, his sensibilities, everything. Since finishing IJ, I have downloaded all of the uncollected DFW works from the Howling Fantods, and have begun re-reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in light of the new John Krasinski film that is coming out soon.
So, yes, I’m still a committed DFW-phile.
As for IJ itself, I hope that some answers will, like Gately’s ghostwords, come out of the ether. I hope that one of these days I’ll read just the right words that fill in what I’m missing. And yet, if none of that happens, that’s okay too. I enjoyed the ride, I enjoyed the book club, and I enjoyed being a part of the whole thing.
And, I’m quite certain I haven’t written my last word about IJ yet either.
See, here’s more already. A very clever person has concocted this fantastic explanation of what happened which certainly works for me. It’s amazing how many people theorize that the mold & the DMZ are interrelated somehow (of course, as with any gun on the wall that will eventually go off, the mold has to be significant, I mean it gets mentioned THREE TIMES!) And, yes, the DMZ is pretty crucial to the story too, so perhaps my (earlier) naivete about Hal not taking the DMZ was, well, naive (or actually quite foolish).
My general chronology
(I had this placed in Week 7, but I feel like it may have given stuff away for those who were reading my posts hoping not to get spoilers, so I’m moving it here)
(Please feel free to correct or amend if I am glaringly, or even less glaringly wrong). Also note: in Infinite Jest A Reader’s Guide by Stephen Burn, he includes a very detailed Chronology of Events (although he leaves out many many things that I include because they are not within the scope of his book).
B.S. Winter 1960: Jim’s Dad tries top get Jim into tennis
B.S. 1963: Jim gets into math
B.S. 2001: Eric Clipperton incident/Big 3 Network TV collapses
(2002) The Year of the Whopper: Orin (age 18) switches to football at B.U.
(2003) The Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
April 1 Hal (age 14) goes to speech therapist/Jim kills self
(2004) The Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar: The Wardine section
April 1 Hal (age 14) goes to speech therapist/Jim kills self
(2005) The Year of the Purdue Wonderchicken: Hal’s 2 papers on about television
(2006) The Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster
(2007) The Year of the Yushityu 2007…
April Mario’s Tennis prodigy film
(2008) The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
June: Bricklayer email was sent
August C.T.’s speech on the tennis courts about coming down to E.T.A
Autumn Gately’s infractions, including the killing of M DuPlessis
(2009) The Year of The Depend Adult Undergarment Introductions to Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert/Erdedy Waits for his drugs/The general demise of videophones.
April 1 Medical attache starts watching The Entertainment
April 30/May 1 Marathe/Steeply on the mountainside
May 9 Hal & Orin 1st phone call (Orin has “things to say”, Hal hides that it was Orin calling from Mario)
August 10 Poor Tony steals heart
October Orin & cockroaches/Millicent Kent/Drug Testing/Intro to Madame Psychosis broadcast/Hal has dream about teeth falling out/Mario misses the M.P. show
November 1 Orin in Denver flying into stadium
Nov 3 Troltsch ill/Hal floor nightmare/post-practice shower/talks with Little Brothers/Orin & Hal longer phone call (learns about Himself’s death)
Nov 4 Pemulis buys DMZ/Transcripts from Ennet House
Nov 5 Hal & Orin discuss separatism & toenails
Nov 6 Weight room (Pemulis mocks the grunters)/P.W.T.A. match/Gately meets Geoffrey Day
Nov 7 Saturday classes/Troeltsch announces the results from P.W.T.A./Joelle tries to kill herself
Nov 8 Interdependence Day/Escahton/White Flag Meeting/Mario’s ONANtiad film
Nov 9 A.M. drills/Gately cooks/Antitois killed
Nov 14 Poor Tony dies on train
Nov 20 Whataburger Tournament
(2010) Year of Glad: Hal applies to college
My calculation is that I have written nearly 60,000 words about Infinite Jest this summer. (Which is more than Slaughterhouse Five (49,000 words) and darn close to Lord of the Flies (59,900 words). Now, if only they’d been original coherent and publishable, eh?
My questionnaire for the Salon.com article
I wanted to include my answers to the questions that Joe Coscarelli asked me (during Week 3) for the Salon.com article. In true DFW fashion, I’m removing the actual questions (plus I didn’t ask him for permission). So if you’re interested in just what he asked, you can email me. But here’s my Week 3 frame of mind. (I particularly like my guess at that 80% of the participants would finish the Infinite Summer project…I think I overestimated).
My name is Paul Debraski. I’m 40 years old. I work as a librarian in NJ. I’ll also fill in that I’m married and have two kids (ages 4 and 2, which may come up regarding how much time I have to read this thing).
Q? Q? Q? Q?
I read Infinite Jest the week it came out. I was absorbed in all of the hype (I was living in Boston at the time, and the Boston Phoenix newspaper was really hyping it). My recollection is that I read the book in three days, although as I think about it time-wise that doesn’t appear possible. But I LOVED the book, and was hooked immediately (that it was partially set where I was living certainly helped). I wasn’t working at the time, so I had a lot of free time, so I must have read it in about a week.
I saw the first incarnation of A Supposedly Fun Thing… in Harper’s, and I was blown away by that too. After that I’ve read everything he’s done.
Q? Q? Q?
Ah book clubs. My wife tried to join a few book clubs in the last year and ultimately ended up starting her own. My experience with them (as a librarian) is that geographically you’re lucky if you can find a number of people who are genuinely interested in what you want to read. Often times you get stuck reading a book that you would never read on your own, which may be okay, but if you get stuck reading junk, that’s a month you’ve just wasted. The only thing worse is when you’re excited about a book and the rest of your group just couldn’t get into it. In this respect, the internet has opened up so many possibilities. And yet, as you ask, it can be way too big to be useful. I mean, the infinite summer site has hundreds of posts every day. I can’t read IJ AND all the posts too! I think ideally you would like to use the internet to find people who broadly enjoy the kind of literature you like, and then narrow them down to people reasonably local so you can meet face to face once in a while. It’s that face to face that really heightens the experience.
I did the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York two years in a row, which certainly had that social feeling to it. But I have never done anything big online like this before. I log into Facebook a few times a week. I could easily get sucked into a lot more if I’m not careful. Twitter is a bit too inconsequential for me at this stage, although if I found something I was really interested in, I could see subscribing to it. At this point, email notification, which I check throughout the day, is fast enough. I blog at https://ijustreadaboutthat.wordpress.com. I started it primarily as a place to keep track of the books I was reading. I had started a print notebook of the information, but blogging seemed like more fun. Once people actually started reading it, it became a rush of excitement as well. I like to think I haven’t caved to reader pressure too much, but I do keep an “audience” in mind when I write.
I was attracted by the camaraderie, and the idea of achieving something big in a group. I’m not the kind of person to go to New Year’s Eve in Central Park so this is social without actually having to bump into people.
I check the site every day to see what the guides and directors have said. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the guides, and I like that they are frustrated and enjoying themselves and just having fun. I read some of the forums, although as I said, there’s so much, that it gets daunting.
On a purely mechanical level, the summary timelines (and the percentage countdown) have been very helpful. As for my fellow readers’ comments, I’ve been really enjoying seeing the kinds of things that people are attracted to about the book. There’s so much in it, and so many different aspects that you can like (or hate), that it’s fun to see others’ perspectives on what I love or, more importantly to get something out of a section I didn’t like as much. I also really appreciate the people with a bit more time on their hands who are willing to really look into something to find out everything they can about it.
Some of the vernacular sections I haven’t been willing to fully parse out who is talking about whom, I get the gist and the plotpoints, but I’m hoping the characters will reveal themselves later. When the forum folks talk about them, I get a nice, Aha! moment. They also helped when I was under the impression that Mario was younger than Hal. Not sure how I messed that up, but it was nice to get that straightened out.
Q? Q? Q?
My reading has been solid. I have been hitting each deadline and imagine I will continue to do so. I have an hour lunch, so I get in my car, drive to a quiet spot and try to read 20-25 pages (about as much as is possible to read in an hour and digest everything). That gives me about three days to read the allotted portion. Why three days? Well, this summer I had planned to enter several Summer Reading programs at the libraries. In them, the more books you read, the more chances to win. So am I stuck reading one book for the whole summer? Well, I’ve been sneaking in some “easy” books on the other days (Kurt Vonnegut is a nice compliment). As I mentioned I have two young kids so there’s very little chance of reading at home (if I want to remember anything, that is).
When I started re-reading the book, I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much, that it was all right-place, right-time of my life. But in starting again, I am totally hooked. I actually don’t want to only read the pacing that I’m sticking with. But I will continue on my projected course. It’s all about discipline!
Q? Q? Q?
I know that DFW was a teacher. I think that any teacher knows that a group of people can really learn from each other, or at least ask questions that other people weren’t thinking of. Having said that, a teacher also knows when the class is getting too tangential. Now, IJ is nothing if not tangential, so I think he would probably want a bit of reining in so people don’t get too into their own heads (rather than DFW’s). Of course, who will do the reining in?
I agree that reading is a wholly personal endeavor up to a point. For instance, I won’t read any spoilers; I won’t get in any discussions that will impact my reading of the next section. I want my first reading to be my own. But I am more than happy to be influenced after the fact. If this new information radically affects what I read, I’ll go back and read it again. For instance, one of the guides said that the first ten pages of the book were fantastic on their own. I certainly enjoyed them, but since I was in for the long haul I didn’t really delve into those pages the first time through. After reading that post I went back and re-read that first section and I was really blown away. It also made me slow down during some of those dense parts to really appreciate what DFW was doing.
IJ is daunting. First because it is long, but also because the language is colorful, dare I even say beautiful. As with any endurance thing, I’ll say the obvious, it’s about pacing. Whether that means keeping up with the pages per week, or, as seems to be more relevant to IJ, not getting burnt out if you get lost/confused/feel like throwing it against the wall. There is a lot going on. Both in the overall plot, but even in the individual sections. So, if you don’t care about tennis, I think it’s safe to not read too deeply into the tennis parts. While they are certainly important, they are not going to help with the “plot” (as far as I can remember, I could be totally wrong about that plot part, actually).
There’s a lengthy session where the older kids are assisting their little buddies. It goes on for some 15 pages. Now, I’m not sure how that will impact the plot specifically; mostly it’s just stuff about tennis and competition. And I’m not entirely sure if it’s important that Hal talks about one aspect while John Wayne talks about another. And it’s tempting to sort of sail through that because it doesn’t “really matter.” But, if you slow down and enjoy the language. Enjoy that each kid has a different style of teaching and think about how that kid also plays on the court (which is sort of described in that section too) it’s a totally enjoyable read. It’s funny, and it’s insightful.
I think some people will give up because they fall behind. It’s not easy to read a lot (although what else do people do on their lunch hour?). But I think there is satisfaction in finishing it. Even if you fall behind, it’s worth it to not drop it altogether. We just got (in week 3) to a very funny series of seemingly unrelated almost short stories (about the demise of videophones, and a 7th grade essay of Hal’s about police shows on TV) that are so much fun and so lighthearted that they are worth any grief you may feel from other sections.
As for life being too hectic for novels… I have many friends who sort of proudly proclaim that they only read nonfiction, as if nonfiction is somehow better. I read some nonfiction, but in general I find it to be less satisfying than fiction. I find that I can put down a nonfiction book and pick it up several months later and more or less continue without losing any momentum. With a novel, you have to pay attention or you literally lose the plot. Sure, that’s more work, but it’s so much more rewarding. And, at the risk of sounding very pretentious (as if a 7 page email response isn’t pretentious enough) I find that I learn more about people or humanity (or at least learn to appreciate things about people) from novels more than nonfiction. Plus, I think the creativity inherent in fiction trumps nonfiction. I’ve also noticed that the popular memoir trend is written in a much more fictional style. Why? Because novels are fun!
I honestly have no idea how many people are reading. I’m delighted that it appears to be several hundred. In reading reviews from various places it sounds like a lot of people bought the book but not so many read it. I’m thrilled that this will get more people to read the book. I’d say that the people who were actually willing to try to read this are the kind of people who won’t be daunted easily. Let’s say 80% completion rate!
Same here, I hope I didn’t prattle on too much. Let me know if I can help in any other way, too!
After the Salon article came out, there were several letters written. I added to the discussion with this one. A follow up person asked me to clarify, the my sentences were a little unclear, so I have tried to clean it up without changing any meaning:
I’m biased obviously
I was quoted in the article, so I’m biased, obviously.
When IJ came out I read it in about a week. Absolutely loved it. It spoke to me in many ways, not least of which was that I lived in the (real) town where the (fictional) book is set (more or less). So, I had a lot of connections to the details.
And “details” is the crucial word. DFW is hyper-aware of details. Way back in high school English Lit, I was one of those people who hated books that had too much detail…Get to the plot! I don’t need 3 pages describing the landscape. Since then, I have grown as a reader and realized that books are not necessarily for plot. That may sound like heresy, but we often read for reasons other than getting from point A to B.
IJ gets from point A to B, but it goes to a lot of other places first, and in fact, it starts somewhere around point F and winds its way back to point A (not unlike Pulp Fiction, to take a far more mainstream example).
The two things that are daunting about IJ are 1) its length. Duh. Although I’ve never quite understood what is so much harder about reading one 1,000 page book than five 200 page books. And 2) his way with words. DFW loved language. He loves to play with language. He spends time on flourishes, on detours, on, yes, cul de sacs, and I totally agree that sometimes I want to just scream…get to the point. But if you take the time, not work, just time, to read it…it is very rewarding.
About the big words and the endnotes…you don’t have to understand most of the big words, heck, like in the spelling bee, context is everything. Look it up if you want, but it’s not necessary. The endnotes…well, I loved them. I thought it was clever and amusing, and as I read it through this time (my 2nd) I’m realizing that there’s something else going on that warrants the endnotes. Not sure what it is yet, but I can’t wait to find out.
All this is to say, hey, you may not like the book. That’s pretty likely actually. But if you enjoy challenging yourself a little, it’s a good investment. And, as people have said, it’s really very funny (amidst the drug addiction and tennis), and it’s pretty easy to get hooked, even if you don’t follow every detail of every section.
And you can click on my signature to see my post about the book, maybe it will encourage you to give it a second chance.
All along, I had been wondering if there was a good map of Enfield so I could see exactly how it was superimposed over Allston/Brighton. Sure enough the good folks at boston.com made one. Click on the map to see the original.