Dana Coffield: I hate this book.

Discussion prompt: Is Infinite Jest really a novel, or is it a collection of conjoined short stories linked by time and place and, occasionally, cameo appearances by particularly evocative characters?

I have given up thinking about Infinite Jest as a tough, but conventionally formed novel. I have abandoned my expectation that a cohesive narrative will emerge, and snuffed the hope that well-formed characters will evolve to carry much more than faint embers of a story line.

About 200 pages in, I allowed myself to consider each section/chapter independently. Letting go of the desperate search for cohesion, allowed me to immerse in the things that, I guess, made David Foster Wallace a great writer.

I hate this book. But I loved the dark story of the obsessive compulsive pot head waiting for a delivery of 200 grams of unusually good marijuana. In this section, I was struck by the near-sedative quality of the narration that he used to convey the dangerously intense anxiety of addiction. I have no idea what Ken Erdedy looks like on the outside, but the writing made me know his pain. My heart was pounding with worry as I read.

I was sucked right in to the nautilus of the Madame Psychosis show story, settling into the folds of the brain-shaped roof of the MIT student union with the work-study radio engineer struggling to hear the show he’s producing over a primitive Heathkit radio receiver. He is a student of cold fusion, but in the end, the clearness of the sky is the powerful force to be reckoned with.

And I was stunned by the meditative recitation of the many exotic new facts one might learn in a substance-recovery halfway facility like Ennet House – so random and, yet, so intently observed. The point is not that there are many slang words for genitalia or that people will make mistakes with tattoos when high, but that life is detailed, complex and influenced by things so subtle that they often are unacknowledged until it is too late.

Perhaps I am too stupid and intellectually lazy for this Important Novel. But taking a more simple-minded approach to the book has given me the freedom to enjoy reading it and process its painful messages. Halfway through, I have begun to understand this book as a powerful warning that we all are dying – and not because we are aging appropriately toward our ends. We are dying inside because we are willingly entangled in the cable kabal’s filthy fight for lucre (nice call outs of our local magnate John Malone, BTW), because we are so vested in our own beauty that we can’t bear to have others gaze upon it, because a gunshot to the head is a less painful thought than the possibility of loss. We – the greater we – are so self-obsessed that it is impossible to envision the red mist of our actions settling indelibly into the lives of others, or are unwilling to act until the ruin of society has grown so foul and maggoty that it cannot be ignored.

I’ve been dragged from my reading safe place by Infinite Jest, and I’m still not sure it will coalesce into a satisfying story. For me, the miracle has not yet happened. But for now, I’m appreciating (and little terrified by) the parts – the rich description, cadence and dialect that so clearly establish the anxiousness of living. And even if the novel never sums up, I suspect will have (mostly) enjoyed the journey to the end. Or I’ll die trying.

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Denver Post business editor Dana Coffield has been a full-time professional reader since 1996 and a solo recreational reader since roughly 1969. Despite the attempt of a well-meaning librarian to warn her away from chapter books when she was in kindergarten, Dana has read many, many long fiction and nonfiction books and occasionally talks about them in the pages of The Denver Post Books and Business sections, and on Twitter @denpostdana. Infinite Winter is her first book club.

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2 thoughts on “Dana Coffield: I hate this book.”

  1. Heh heh. I feel like one of the bikers at Don Gately’s “Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink” meeting. This is water; keep coming back. IJ is more than a novel, which is why I keep coming back to it. I’m 79% through the book (reading ahead when I can), and put the book down for a few days at a time so that my head doesn’t explode, so that the tedium doesn’t put me to sleep, and so that I can return to the reading rested and refreshed. This is my second run-through, and thanks to these posts and the Infinite Winter cadre, it seems that I’m on my third reading already. Not a spoiler: characters develop, paths cross, connections are made, and more is revealed over the next few hundred pages. As they say in AA: you’re right where you’re supposed to be. (1)

    (1) When I heard that at meetings, I wanted to SMACK people.

  2. IMHO: Excepting sentences one and two, your paragraph seven is a powerful and concise explanation of the purpose of the book. But I do think you are a bit hard on the work in wanting cohesion as a novel.
    I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler. I love the character of Marlowe. I like some of his discursions into LA culture. Others not so much. But the whole is more than the sum of its parts, because the principal character ties it together.
    For me, the Don Gately/AA parts comprise that principal character.
    Thanks for your post!

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