Saturday, August 13, 2016

I Finally Finished Infinite Jest, or Why I Read Fiction

I have finally completed David Foster Wallace's magnificent novel Infinite Jest. It took me eight months, but I read many other novels and other books during that time as well. It's a book worth taking slowly. There's a great deal that could be said about it, but for now I'll just say a little.

Much has been written on the themes of the book: addiction in general, America's addiction to entertainment in general, the conflict between the freedom of pure license and obedience to a higher authority, how playing high-level competitive sport both shelters us from the horror of the freedom of pure license and also is a horror and an addiction in itself, the spiritual depth of twelve-step programs, the need to overcome an ironic and cynical stance toward the world in favor of a heartfelt, even naive, sincerity, etc. Much has been written on the form of the novel: its cyclic structure, its encyclopedic accounts of tennis and drugs and Alcoholics Anonymous and films and optics and so much more, the use of endnotes (and endnotes to endnotes) to disrupt the narrative structure, its self-referentiality, its use of humor, etc. I could say a lot about these things too, but there are some other things I want to focus on.

Why do we read fiction? Why is it, for some like me, as necessary to life as eating and sleeping and prayer, sometimes more necessary than these things? 

It is surely in part to escape from the everyday, and there Infinite Jest certainly delivers. In the novel, Infinite Jest is a film (or rather "film cartridge") so engrossing that once one begins to watch one will continue to watch it over and over again until one dies, or the power is shut off, in which case one will be reduced to imbecility. But the book itself has a compelling, addictive quality to it as well, with so many plots and subplots and characters and stray details that turn out to be essential that one could, if one wished, read it again and again trying to tie together the whole net of details. Though full of minute descriptions and quasi-stream-of-consciousness, it's eminently readable. The text moves, without fail. It's certainly an escape.

But one of course reads for far more than to escape. If one read only to escape, one probably wouldn't choose Infinite Jest. One also reads certain novels because, to use Arthur Danto's phrase, they "transfigure the commonplace," [1] that is, after reading them the everyday is not so much escaped from as revealed in its value, its every particularity shown up as a blaze of splendor. And without such transfiguration, everyday life is a vanity and a chase after the wind. One steps away from reality for a moment into a world where this luminosity is deliberately evoked, and then one returns and notices the luminosity that was there in the real world. Or rather, perhaps, one's life in the fictional world overlays the real world and actualizes the luminosity of one's life there. One reads fiction because it transforms one in a way that few other things can. [2]

This, I think, is where Infinite Jest really shines. A character at one point (no spoilers!) describes how he wanted to make films with no background characters, where there would be no extras actors, their reduced to meaningless background babble. Every character would shine forth. The result, of course, is a cacophony—and that is, to a certain extent, what the novel gives us: the cacophony and the splendor of real life, of each person and their thoughts, their childhood, the horrors they have endured, the humor of their lives, both dark and joyous, their hopes and thoughts, their addictions and faith and hope and hate. One comes away from reading this book with a new appreciation for all the peculiarities of other people—and of all of one’s surroundings, the shades of light at different times of day, the feel of different surfaces, the smells and sounds, all of it.

There are plenty of websites devoted to trying to figure out “what goes on in Infinite Jest”, for much of the plot is unwritten, only hinted at in stray lines here and there, and left for the reader to piece together. Indeed, if one tries to read the novel in terms of a conventional plot, most of the most climactic parts of the plot are like this. But this, I think, is the wrong way to read this novel. What is important, what is transfigured, really, are not the climactic moments, but the everyday—cooking for those one lives with, cleaning a homeless shelter, lying intubated in a hospital bed—and one’s memories of past days.

One reads for other reasons too—for the sheer pleasure of experiencing great language, for example. There’s a virtuosic quality to Infinite Jest, scenes where, like Mozart in Amadeus or like many of the scenes in The Rules of the Game, the artist tries to see how many strands he can weave into a scene, how many balls he can juggle at once. Many such scenes—the game of “Eschaton” scene, the fight between the residents of Ennet House and the Canadians—are nothing less than exhilarating. It's a funny book too, with all sorts of humor.
But one reads for more than just pleasure; one reads some books [3] because their value demands, calls for their being experienced and appreciated. The call of the value of this book is not, I think, to everyone. There is a grittiness, a coarseness, to this book, to its depictions of sexual and drug-related violence, and its bleak assessment of most of its characters that will not sit well with some people. But there are those to whom this book calls, and they ought to read it and appreciate it, for beyond (or even in) its rawness, there is a splendor that reminds one why one reads fiction.
[1] I endorse this phrase as a description of what great art does, though I strongly disagree with Danto's claim that the art that does this in a definitive way--so much so that he calls it the "end of art", 'end' being used here is the same sense as in the Hegelian 'end of history'--is Andy Warhol's Brillo Soap Pads Box. I don't think the point of Warhol's art is to "transfigure the commonplace." Rather, it seems to me that it's to reproduce or make a comment on or just give us back the commonplace. This isn't, of course, meant in any way as a criticism of Warhol [a] but rather of Danto.

[a] Whom I might want to criticize another time, certainly, for not transfiguring the commonplace--for this attention to beauty may well be a duty we have as human persons.

[2] I don't mean that fiction ought to be read as a means to this transformation. I don't think fiction should be read in a utilitarian spirit. (I don't think much should be done in a utilitarian spirit.) Rather, I mean that in reading one is thereby transformed. One reads for its own sake, or for the sake of its inherent value, its importance in itself, or what have you. But in the act of reading, one is transformed and one's perception is transformed, when one goes to read the world.

[3] Just as one listens to some music and watches some films and views some art and thinks some thoughts…

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