Saturday, October 22, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest 14 -- Things come to a head

We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe.

-- Hal's internal monologue in Infinite Jest, page 900

I reached the long stretch recounting Gately's sojourn in the hospital, where he suffers a dark night of the soul as he bravely/stupidly refuses all narcotic painkillers for fear they will get in the way of his recovery. (I almost capitalized recovery. Must be careful not to let DFW's tics infect my own writing, which is something I'm sure all writers experience.) These scenes, at once comic and heroic, alternate with incidents back at the tennis academy where one of the secondary characters gets his face stuck on a cold window, and then protagonist Hal has a nervous breakdown. I'll let the English majors determine how the character Stice more or less literally losing face contributes to the breakdown, and how this is thematically beautiful; no connection occurs to me right away, but I'm probably not reading carefully enough.

Hal's nervous breakdown is accompanied by enhanced perceptions and a rush of thoughts, as if he were high on something, though he isn't -- unless I missed something. And the quotation above, which more than any single sentence in the book could serve as its epigram, comes amidst a slew of disconnected thoughts:

It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me* that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately -- the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into.

* None of the sections about Hal were in the first person until a few dozen pages ago, when suddenly first-person sections started to appear. So "I" is Hal himself.

Here's the author, using the first-person perspective to bring more immediacy to the words, stating the book's theme as clearly as it's ever stated. The book is all about this quest to care deeply, to commit oneself totally. The tennis players commit their young lives to the sport ("games"); the addicts commit their lives to addiction ("needles"), then to recovery; the terrorists commit their lives to their cause.

Simple, and very clear once you're this far into the book. It takes your own commitment, as a reader, to get this far, though. Again, that's payoff enough for me. I don't need the plot to all wrap up nicely which (I've heard) it won't.

It also occurred to me today: the tennis academy sections of Infinite Jest are a Y.A. novel. Maybe the publisher should extract them -- the way Don DeLillo's publisher extracted the first, unbelievably brilliant baseball section of Underworld -- and publish it separately. Titled, maybe, "Dawn Drills."

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