Notes from the Infinite Summer, Part I

It’s been about 2 weeks since I started reading David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest. According to the schedule, I’m about a week behind (thanks a lot, GitS:SAC 2nd Gig). Anime viewing aside, I’ve been making steady progress and wanted to post some of the stuff I’ve found interesting so far:

  • The book is reasonably accessible and easy to read. To be sure, it’s not something I’d want to read with lots of distractions around (i.e. not on a plane or at the beach), but it doesn’t require the sort of intense concentration something like Gravity’s Rainbow needs.
  • There appear to be a ton of characters. It seems like every other chapter features a new set of characters, and even 100 pages or so into the book, I’m not sure if I’ve even come close to meeting everyone yet. So far, the narrative seems quite disjointed, in part because of the breadth of characters, but there are some parallels and connections that are beginning to develop. Some connections are more complex than others. Some are simply thematic similarities between two different sets of characters. For instance, at one point, we’re introduced to a medical attaché who starts watching a movie and becomes transfixed by it. Later, in one of the endnotes (actually, it’s a 9 page endnote that includes footnotes of its own), we see the filmography of another character and one of the movies sounds awfully familiar and is surely what the medical attaché is watching (or maybe not, it hasn’t been confirmed just yet).

    Another example: the book starts with a high school student interviewing with a college. He’s a quiet kid, but apparently quite gifted, and when he speaks, we can read the dialogue fine, but we later figure out that the characters he’s talking to couldn’t understand a word and also think he’s insane. Later in the book, we meet a chronically depressed girl who is being interviewed by her doctor after a suicide attempt. She seems to have issues explaining her condition, and the doctor thinks something offhand: “Classic unipolars were usually tormented by the conviction that no one else could hear or understand them when they tried to communicate.” Does that mean the original character is unipolar? Or, because the original character doesn’t have the “conviction” that no one could understant them (indeed, he seems to think he’s doing well, and we the readers can see that he is as well), does that mean he’s the opposite? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into this and trying to connect the unconnected – perhaps that’s just how I’m dealing with the breadth of characters and settings. Another reason it seems disjointed is because the story appears to be jumping around in time.

  • Speaking of time, the story appears to take place mostly in the future. Is this science fiction? One of the characters contributed to the invention of “cold annular fusion” which has helped the U.S. and its allies to achieve “approximate energy independence.” When Wallace talks about phones, he refers to them as “consoles.” People seem to watch “cartridges” that are manufactured with lasers of some sort (or perhaps delivered via a laser-like system of fiber optics or something, I’m not sure). At some point, years went from being incremented numerically to being sponsored by corporations (i.e. Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, Year of the Whopper, etc…). Conceptually, this last one is kinda funny, not just because of the concept but because of the actual names of each year. This is also somewhat tricky, as it obscures when the story is actually taking place, a choice that is probably deliberate. Also amusing: This system is called “Subsidized Time” and the years we’re all familiar with (i.e. 1996, 2009, etc…) are referred to as “Before Subsidization” or B.S. Do you think it’s a coincidence that B.S. is something that already has a meaning?
  • There seems to be a lot of talk about drugs in the book. I’m not sure why, but a lot of books like this seem to fixate on drugs for some reason. I generally tend to find drug talk kinda boring, but Wallace at least manages to keep it interesting enough…
  • Wallace uses single quotes when doing dialogue. No idea why, but it seems like a deliberate choice. Or maybe not.

So far, I’m quite enjoying it. It’s not a book that tickles my exact eccentricities (like Cryptonomicon does, for instance), but it manages to do well enough. More posts to come.