As I said in the introduction to this series, I’m currently up to the 63rd page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I got for Christmas this year. It has been a wild ride so far, filled with humor and terror in equal doses, plus not a few things that don’t make sense yet. Who’s this Saudi guy and what the heck does he matter? And though the interlude with the guy waiting for his drug connection to arrive was well written, it means very little to me so far. I’m not too bothered, though, because sometimes Wallace will write something so great that it invigorates and empowers me to plow through, say, the ridiculously affected “Wardine be cry” segments. Let’s look at a few of them.
1. Hal’s Interview
Hal is probably the protagonist of the story and Infinite Jest begins, as most books do, in his head. He’s at a college interview that’s about to get really weird. Since we’re privy to his thoughts, nothing seems out of place. Sure, he’s a little smarter than a college prospect might be and he’s a tennis whiz, which will throw anybody a little off the normal track, but he’s well adjusted. But his uncle and coach have told him to keep quiet and let them do the talking. There are a few questions about his academic ability, but if his inner thoughts are anything to go by he’s got nothing to worry about there. Accusations of cheating fly, and the book suddenly switches to an event from Hal’s past where he eats a piece of mold he finds in the basement of his house. We flash back to the present (whenever that is) and he begins his loquacious defense of himself, his uncle and coach having been kicked out so that the bevy of deans could hear Hal’s own version of the tale. Boy, can this kid talk. He’s smarter than anybody I’ve ever met and I began to wonder just what the problem was.
Ah, and then DFW pulls the rug right out from under our feet.
I look out. Directed my way is horror. I rise from the chair. I see jowls sagging, eyebrows high on trembling foreheads, cheeks bright-white. There chair recedes below me.
‘Sweet mother of Christ,’ the Director says.
What we’ve heard is not what the Deans have heard. “Subanimalistic noises and sounds” apparently emanated from Hal’s mouth, complete with wild gesturing and gesticulating. It’s horrifying and even more so, given our supposed insight into Hal’s perspective. This is the start of the novel and from here on out we must be vigilant to DFW’s tricks and deceptions. Never again will something be what it seems to be. That’s the beauty of the opening scene.
2. Hal’s conversation with Himself
No, that title doesn’t mean that Hal’s schizophrenic, though maybe the grunting and all that would have something else to say on the subject. Himself is actually Hal’s father. As in the man himself. A few pages later in the book Hal is sent to a psychologist, a professional talker, to try to figure out his problems. This happens, I think, before the interview from above. The timelines here are super screwy and I haven’t quite gotten a hold of them yet. Anyways, this professional talker is there to diagnose Hal’s no-talking-sickness, though the brief conversation told entirely through the dialogue and pauses indicated by a quoted ellipse indicates quite quickly that Hal has no problem with talking, he has a problem with his mostly-absent father. It’s another great scene, this one punctuated by hilarious lines as Hal pokes holes in his father’s flimsy disguise and the reader realizes along with him that the professional talker is, in fact, Himself, Hal’s Dad desperately trying to talk to a son who has long since given up on him. This is a relationship that’s sure to develop even after Himself’s death which happens at some point. The father/son connection (or lack thereof) is, I think, a major theme of the book and one which links it to a lot of the big important literature of our time.
3. Orin’s fear of insects
Orin, Hal’s older brother, is a professional football player living, at whatever time this particular scene happens, in Arizona. I’ve been to Arizona and it’s very nice in the winter, a pleasant change from the frozen North Eastern climes at 75 degrees and dry. But the summers are brutal. Made even more brutal, apparently, by the hideous and terrifying giant cockroaches that crawl up from the shower drain or the toilet bowl and infest innocent people’s houses. DFW describes a time Orin stepped on one of these walking nightmares only to have it burst into gooey bits under his feet and through his toes and on to the walls of his bathroom into which it has seeped and moldered. Ugh, the grossest thing. Very few books have inspired that kind of creeping dread and icky, skin-crawling nausea in me and to have Infinite Jest do it on page 45 is special in its own unpleasantly pleasing way. And in case you were wondering, the way he deals with the cockroaches from hell now is to put tumblers over them and wait a few days until they use up all the oxygen and expire in their own exhalations.
4. Unnamed E.T.A student’s nightmare
This is the last thing I’ve read and I’m just itching to get back to the book thanks to its clever horror. We get a first person narration of a dream an anonymous student has at the Enfield Tennis Academy (where Hal goes and which his father established) on their first night. It is, as is almost always the case, the middle of the night and the student has woken up scared and out of breath, the grab their flashlight and scan all the innocuous objects in the room, including the prone bodies of his classmates sleeping soundly. DFW lulls us with a long, boring list nearly every item in the room…
the cracks in the Venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, Inter-Lace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil.
And then its mouth opens at your light.
On first read I totally glanced over the face in the floor. Did you? I omitted probably half again as many objects the flashlight glides over which might lull you even more into a false sense of semi-security as it did me. DFW plays on all of our childhood fears, especially those of being in a new place and the night’s ever present danger. It also creates a dark side to Enfield Tennis Academy, a place at which we’re sure to spend a lot of our time throughout the book. If their dorms have faces in the floors, even in nightmares, what other horrors might they hide.
The first 63 pages of Infinite Jest may not be the best pages, but they certainly contain some of the best writing I’ve read in about a year (since If on a winter’s night a traveler…). I’m very excited to continue reading and I hope you’ll follow along. Up next will be a post about the difficulty of reading a book like this one, I think, unless something in the coming pages inspire me. Please drop me a line if something in this whopper of a post struck your fancy. And keep on Jesting! Too cheesy? Probably. Will that stop me? You’ll have to return next time to find out.