Sunday, October 30, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest 15 -- the last 50 pages or so

I went today to the rooftop garden of the S.F. Museum of Modern Art, to which I am admitted free because we have a yearly membership, and sat with some coffee (which they sell there) and finished reading "Infinite Jest." 

The last 50 pages feature the last part of Hal's apparent breakdown in the video viewing room, a surreal scene showing what becomes of Orin, and finally an even more surreal scene, drawn out in pornographic detail, showing what becomes of Gately -- one of those endings which, because it is surreal (cf. Morrison's "Song of Solomon"), is annoying. Because it's surreal, and because it resembles the dreams Gately has been having for the last hundred and fifty pages, you don't know if it's another dream or not. I still don't know.

We never find out whether the competing spy agencies find the magically compelling videotape (or "cartridge"), and unless I missed something, we never find out exactly how Hal's tennis career ends, though what I gathered is that he manages to injure himself accidentally-on-purpose. So it seemed to me that the author ended by being more interested in the characters than the themes or the plot. Which is fine, but is inconsistent with the book as a whole.

As soon as I was done with the book, I found myself contrasting the way I felt with with the way I felt on finishing "2666," which is also a monumental novel that ends without the "story" being quite tied up. On finishing "2666" I wanted to go back to the beginning immediately and read it again now that I really knew who all the characters were and why various long episodes were even in the book. On finishing "Infinite Jest" I only had that annoyed feeling of "Did I miss something here?" and paged back through the last 50 pages a little -- but only for a minute. I didn't really care that much whether I had missed something. More than anything else I felt tired. Not even exhausted, just ready to be done with it.

My final conclusion is that it's a promisingly brilliant work by someone whose mental illness accounts for a certain amount -- perhaps most -- of the work's envelope-pushing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the same mental illness (and I wrote before about not being able to read without thinking about it) doomed the author, who never finished another novel. ("The Pale King" is notably unfinished, and not like "2666" is unfinished, but really only speculatively pulled together by an editor, according to reviews I've read.) By its length and complexity, it begs comparison with "2666," but it's unfair to put "I.J.," a second novel by a 30-year-old, up against the crowning achievement by a 53-year-old who had already written ten other novels and then "The Savage Detectives." Because if it begs comparison, it also pales in it.

I think "Infinite Jest" gained the aura of masterpiece because readers loved the way it captured, and thus validated, the voice of generation whatever-DFW-was-part-of ... X or Y, whatever. The slangy way of talking that accounts for most of the novel's length is the way that whole generation talks, and this novel perfectly captures it. Plus DFW's death has given rise to a kind of hagiography about him, similar to the aura around Kurt Cobain. One of the reasons I wanted to read "I.J." is to find out whether this attitude is justified. In my opinion, it isn't. There are probably fifty or a hundred novels from the last third of the 20th century that will endure longer.

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