Saturday, September 17, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest 10 - the Randy Lenz episode

Pages 521-619 are almost wholly taken up by a series of events at and around Ennet House having to do with a particularly unctuous and recalcitrant resident named Randy Lenz, who in addition to having a seriously complicated past as a druggie/drug dealer is also personality-disordered. His foibles lead to a turning point in the Ennet House-related part of the book, as a street confrontation turns into a battle royale. In this tragicomic farce, the character who has emerged as the protagonist of the Ennet House-related parts, Don Gately, is injured.

In this sequence -- the whole 98 pages, not just the climactic battle -- the author once again demonstrates his mastery of the world of drug addiction and recovery. Not only the everyday doings of a halfway house and the endless AA meetings, but the mindset and behavior of an addict, and not just one addict but a whole range of mentalities and behaviors which various characters illustrate. It goes without saying that these 98 pages could have been -- would have been, by any other author -- compressed into 20 or 25 or at most 40. And if 40, then they would be the climax of an entire novel, not just one thread of a much larger novel where, in fact, they take place only 3/5 of the way through the book.

Think how many of the incidents in the book so far would have made up the ultimate climax of many lesser books: The conversation between the brothers in which Hal reveals to Orin the details of their father's suicide. The Eschaton match. Perhaps the sequence leading up to the suicide attempt of Joelle Van Dyne, although somehow it's not given as much weight as the others -- or maybe it is, because I had to skip several pages of that insufferable film grad student party. And finally the battle royale between Gately and three mysterious Canadian malefactors.

Of course, having so many momentous events and revelations so early in the book only raises the stakes for its ending. And I've heard that "Infinite Jest" doesn't necessarily pay off in the way readers expect a novel to, that like "The Sopranos" it just sort of ends. (See a post I wrote a couple years ago on where I explored this phenomenon.) But I think just about anyone who has made it to this point in the book, except maybe the most narrow-minded, will be willing to grant the author his preference in doing whatever he wants, because that's how he's gotten us to this point.

I don't want to focus only on these technical aspects, except to say to those who will expect a neat ending: You know how hard this is? Not the neat ending, though that is hard in itself to pull off well, but the sheer aspect of juggling dozens of characters and at least three major plot lines over hundreds of pages?

In a perhaps unrelated note, I was thinking this morning about what books I would consider the best of the American 20th century's second half, and what immediately sprang to mind were "Revolutionary Road" and "Catch-22." Those are two books I would, if I had the time, read every year. Non-American books: "The Remains of the Day" and "The Savage Detectives," surely. But don't get me started.

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