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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 2

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Previously on “Words, Words, Words”:

Had Wallace “completed” the story, he would have distracted from what I think is the real meaning of Infinite Jest.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll tell you what that is.

Commence Part 2…

Credit: “KN/PC: Infinite Jest” by Cody Hoyt. Buy it in print, canvas or shirt form here.

So, I may have misspoke.  The truth is that isolating a single “real meaning of Infinite Jest” is next to impossible. On one hand, it can be said that the novel is about many things: fathers and sons; mothers and sons; addiction; communication; entertainment; politics; greatness, mediocrity and failure. It’s a coming of age story alongside a recovery story that is also possibly a love story, all wrapped in a cloak-and-dagger-ish mystery about international realignment and terrorism. Choose your favorite combination and go with it. The book is about a lot of things.

On the other hand, it’s tough to say the book is actually “about” anything at all.  As we have noted, there is no clear resolution. We never see the characters learn lessons, come of age, fall in love or be at peace in any way that warrants a Happily Ever After type of closure. The book literally stops far away and chronologically ahead of the main events in the novel (sort of) and we don’t entirely know who lives or dies, or what the shape of the continental borders look like, or whether fathers connected with sons.  I’m sure many of the most frustrated readers have tossed up their hands and decided that Infinite Jest is really about nothing at all, some kind of post-modern experiment in reader-annoyance-tolerance-levels where we’re supposed to be thinking about what it means to read stories when really all we wanted was to just plain old read a story.

Rather than walking away from IJ in one of these two unsatisfying directions, it is possible to follow a third and potentially satisfying way.

I believe there is a unified theory of Infinite Jest that explains the various particles and waves of the novel — or most of them, at least — and helps clarify why Wallace made some of the choices he made. Continue reading

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The Infinite Jest Liveblog: What Happened, Pt. 1

This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

It’s been a little over three months since the last post of the Infinite Jest liveblog, and I recently noticed the first tiny urges to jump back in and read the book again. I’m not quite ready for all that, but it seems like the right time to tackle some of the most difficult questions lingering at the end of the novel: What the hell just happened? And why did it happen that way? (I’ll tackle the latter in a second post).

If your experience finishing Infinite Jest mirrors mine, then after you threw the book across the room, picked it up and re-read the first chapter, then threw the book again, you went to Google and entered: “WHAT HAPPENED IN INFINITE JEST?” 

This approach leads to some good resources for piecing together the actual events. Aaron Swartz at Raw Thought has the best explanation I’ve seen so far, a concise, linear and well-built case for what happened, even if some of his conclusions are debatable. Ezra Klein has some interesting thoughts about the impact, if not the actual details, of IJ’s ending in a post called “Infinite Jest as Infinite Jest.” And Dan Schmidt’s “Notes on Infinite Jest” answers some questions while raising others.

I’ll be using these sources — without which I would not  have grasped what happened — to walk through things in detail here. But first, let’s establish that there actually is something happening at the end of Infinite Jest. The abrupt closing is easily written off as arbitrary or too clever, an easy way out of a monstrous narrative that offered no satisfying path to the finish line. But Wallace appears to have had an arc — or a circle — in mind, and filling in the blanks does not disappoint. Continue reading

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Fiction Advocate of the Day

In another example of the internet making it easier to read Infinite Jest, we get “Infinite Boston,” a photographic tour of the real-life locations in the novel and our latest Fiction Advocate of the Day.

In July of what might have been Year of Glad, one year ago this week, I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts with the express purpose of visiting as many of the landmarks and lesser known precincts that appear in, or provide inspiration for, the late David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as I could manage on a Thursday–Sunday trip. My reasons for doing so will become apparent at a later date, but for now I am pleased to present what I am calling “Infinite Boston”: a ruminative travelogue and photographic tour of some fifty or so of these locations, comprising one entry each non-holiday weekday, from now until sometime in early autumn.

“Infinite Boston” has already covered — with commentary to help us remember what happened in each place — the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House (IRL the Granada House where Wallace is said to have done a recovery stint), Commonwealth Avenue, Enfield Tennis Academy, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center and other locations in the book.

It’s a bit strange to see these sites photographed in the clear light of day, looking normal and not nearly so grimy as pictured in the novel (and missing, as anyone who has lived in the Metro-Boston area can tell you, the usual ominous gray skies behind them). IB acknowledges that it follows in the footsteps of other mappings and visual guides to IJ, but is shaping up to be among the most comprehensive of the sources already out there.

- Michael Moats

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Fiction Advocate of the Day

Today’s winner is Nick Offerman, with a little help from his friends.  Offerman, aka Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” talked to GQ this month, and while covering topics like not bothering Steve Martin and not Tweeting, he also mentioned reading David Foster Wallace and his love for Wendell Berry:

GQ: What books are you reading now?
Nick Offerman: I’m halfway through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace—a writer who escaped my notice until a few years ago, when posthumously his final novel, The Pale King, came out. Mike Schur [the creator of "P&R" and the guy who plays Mose on "The Office"] did his thesis on Wallace and had been in touch with him, and was absolutely religious about his writing. And Mike had organized a reading in Los Angeles—excerpts from The Pale King. It was Henry Rollins, Adam Scott, myself, and a couple of other actors. That was my introduction to Wallace’s writing. And to continue in my fealty to Mike Schur, I decided to devour the massive feast that is Infinite Jest. But I am constantly reading Wendell Berry—that’s sort of my bible.

No word on whether Offerman is using the Infinite Jest liveblog, but you can watch video of The Pale King reading here. Mike Schur is also responsible for the recent Decemberists video that uses a key scene from Infinite Jest.

Offerman had more to say on Berry:

GQ: What drew you to Berry?
Nick Offerman:
 I was working at Steppenwolf doing Buried Child, and this great actor named Leo Burmester befriended me, and on closing night gave me a collection of Berry’s short stories. I had no idea what a profound influence he was handing me. And I ended up getting in touch with Berry, trying to get permission to adapt some of his work. And he, so far, has refused. He says that he doesn’t want to see anybody’s adaptation because all of his fiction is of a piece—all of his stories and novels continue to flesh out his fictional, rural town of Port William, which reminds me of the farm town where I grew up in. So I wrote him back and said, “I’m annoyed because I have to respect your wishes even more, but I’m so disappointed. And I said, You’re getting up there in years, so if at some point you feel okay about it, I’ll be ready.” I mean, I’d really love—if he would ever give me the green light, I feel like his body work would make a great TV series, a la Little House on the Prairie. We’ll see what happens. I’m new to the world of getting to do things that I want to.

Read the full GQ interview, then read Wendell Berry and Infinite Jest, and watch for pretty much anything with Michael Schur’s name attached to it.

And speaking of authors who invent rural towns, first runner-up for FA of the Day was John Jeremiah Sullivan, for his excellent New York Times Magazine essay on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

- Michael Moats

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The Best of 2011

AFTER A LONG YEARFiction Advocate and Trade Paperbacks asked readers and writers what they loved reading in 2011. Here’s what they said:

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Ismet Prcic, author of “Shards”

“Widow” by Michelle Latiolais — Brutal and honest and well-fucking-written.

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Matthew Gallaway, author of “The Metropolis Case”

“Pilcrow” by Adam Mars-Jones — I’ve loved many books in 2011, the most recent being “Pilcrow” by Adam Mars-Jones. Set in 1950s England, the story is narrated by a young boy who grows up with a joint disease that keeps him bed-ridden until he’s nine or ten, after which he attends a series of boarding schools for the disabled. Far from being depressing, however, the narrator views the world with an infectious sense of wonder, detail, and mischief, which along with the fact that he’s gay (not that he uses the term) makes for a completely illuminating read. In my experience, far too many books assume that children are asexual or heterosexual until proven otherwise, so it was amazing for me to read something that captures a sense of knowing that you’re different and presenting this difference with a sensual awareness/optimism that captures the excitement of what it means to be young and alive and filled with dreams.

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Michelle Lipinski, book editor

“The Metropolis Case” by Matthew Gallaway — Matthew Gallaway’s novel stands out because it does something few novels do: it welcomes novices as well as old hands with the simple hook of an extremely well-executed and dramatic tale. One doesn’t have to know about New York, Paris, opera, or punk rock to see that the language is stunning, the prose is lyrical, and nothing is out of place. There is a distinct reality in Gallaway’s sometimes surreal story, a reality that contains a “painfully stretched-out sense of longing” (as Scott Timberg says in the New York Times) which rolls in and out of the intertwined stories like fog, touches upon some truth, then quickly burns off in the sun.

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Jane Lui, musician

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Pop-Up” by Robert Sabuda and “Cinderella: A Pop-Up Fairy Tale” by Matthew Reinhart — Honestly, if kids got their hands on these, the books would get ripped apart. To me, these are meant to be appreciated in detail by adults: engineers, hipsters, retired physicists, middle-aged Disneyland nerds, and your mom. Not only do the images pop, but they’ve made the pop-ups move with the motion of the turning pages. On the first page of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the pop-up hurricane turns in a circular motion as you open it. It’s fascinating and beautiful. Just please don’t give it to a child.

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Karl Wirsing, contributor to Trade Paperbacks and Communications Director at Rails to Trails Conservancy

“The Wave” by Susan Casey — In this participant/author exploration, Casey follows extreme surfer Laird Hamilton in his quest for the giants of the sea (waves 50 feet and taller, with the kind of power to skin a tree), alternating the narrative between his story and the greater threats of rogue waves–often related to climate change–in the ocean. It’s the kind of book where you think Casey has peaked with her stories and extremes by the first few chapters, yet she somehow manages to extend and accelerate the tension. She sometimes loses herself in the prose, tying herself in sensational knots as she attempts to capture the crushing force of these waves. But through it all the message is clear and riveting: Fear the waves, dude. They’re out there. They’re getting bigger. And they will mess you up.

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Laura West, blogger and PhD Candidate in the Georgetown University Department of Linguistics

“A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin — The average sentence I read in 2011 went something like this: “One might think that interactants’ insistence on the assertion of relative epistemic rights is an ugly contaminant of courses of action which otherwise are the essence of consensus building.” That’s why George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” was my best book of 2011; the fantasy is the perfect balance to the academic articles that threaten to strangle a student’s love of reading. That’s not to say “A Game of Thrones” lacks complexity. Martin can overwhelm with multiple characters and plots (and disappoint those who expect good to always triumph — he kills off more than a hero or two). Still, it’s impossible not to get sucked into each new storyline and twist in the saga. One caution to those who prefer PG-rated material: the books are full of rape, torture, blood and guts, though Queen Cersie does give fair warning in the first book: when you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.

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Robert Repino, writer and book editor

“God and Sex” by Michael Coogan — This is an entertaining and informative rebuttal to both backward-looking fundamentalists and wishy-washy liberals.

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Jessa Lingel, librarian

“Doc and Fluff” by Pat Califia — It’s not every day you find a lesbian dystopian novel to keep you entertained with gore and biker gangs and the occasional lesbian sex scene.

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Brian Hurley, editor of Fiction Advocate

“How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by Christopher Boucher — This book is a story and a game. The story is about a single father in rural Massachusetts hitting rock bottom after the death of his own father. The game is making sense of his metaphors, which are so cracked out that you fear for his sanity. He talks about his son and his Volkswagen Beetle as if they’re the same entity. He explains his father’s death by saying a Heart Attack Tree came along while his father was sitting inside an Invisible Pickup Truck and ripped all the stories out of his father’s chest. The metaphors end up making an eerie kind of sense, and you realize that the book is re-wiring the way look at the world.

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Michael Moats, author of “The Real Holden Caulfield” and editor/contributor at Trade Paperbacks

“Arguably” by Christopher Hitchens/“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace — The best book I read in 2011 was “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. I think it’s one of the best books you can read, and I happened to read it this year. More on that here. But the best book I read from 2011 was “Arguably” by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was known for being disagreeable, and “Arguably” has plenty of contrarianism in its 700-plus pages. But more than his combative side, this last collection before his death demonstrated Hitch’s passionate love of life, and the poetry, wine, history and debate with which he filled his own. More on that here. Finally, the best book I didn’t read from 2011 was either “Pulphead” by John Jeremiah Sullivan or “Parallel Stories” by Peter Nadas. I will have to let you know in 2012.

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Matt Tanner, art director of Fiction Advocate

Boys and Girls Like You and Me” by Aryn Kyle — I came to “A Visit from the Goon Squad” late and somewhat skeptically but was absolutely floored by it. Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” is as majestic and mysterious as any of his other books. Still, my favorite book of the year was Aryn Kyle’s “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which I found by accident when I picked it up to see who designed the strange and wonderful cover (Evan Gaffney, it turns out). As a designer, I know full well that books don’t necessarily get the covers they deserve. So when I picked up “Boys and Girls,” I wasn’t expecting to be enticed by the first few line or to walk out of the store with the book. Nor was I expecting to discover a collection of beautiful, exquisitely brutal stories about young people–almost all female. I’m not sure I understand women any better, but I am more afraid of them than ever.

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Andra Belknap, contributor to Trade Paperbacks

The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach — If you haven’t already, you should really read “The Art of Fielding,” the story of college shortstop Henry Skrimshander. Henry idolizes the famed (and fictional) Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez and subscribes to his baseball wisdom, written in his book “The Art of Fielding.” “Fielding” is Henry’s baseball Bible. The conflict that drives the story, of course, is how Henry loses his religion alongside his baseball skills, and searches for something to worship in place of Aparico’s words. During his existential crisis, Henry looks to a mental health professional for guidance. I particularly liked this exchange he had with his therapist:

“I found it interesting, said Dr. Rachels, “that you chose to say Laying down a bunt the way a person might say Laying down my life.”… “I didn’t choose to say it that way,” Henry said, “Lay down a bunt. Everybody says that.”

Indeed, everybody says that. Chad Harbach, in his first novel, encourages his readers to ask why.

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What about you? What did you love reading in 2011? Tell us in the comments below… 

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New Excerpt: The Real Holden Caulfield

The Real Holden Caulfield

WE’RE NOW UP AT BERFROIS.COM with “Getting Holden into Print,” about the struggles of publishing, censoring and translating “The Catcher in the Rye.”

It’s the final piece that will be excerpted from the e-book “The Real Holden Caulfield.” You can read the whole thing for just just $1.99 through PayPal.

And it’s for a good cause — in tribute to Seymour Glass, Sergeant X, Babe Gladwaller and Salinger himself, who was hospitalized for “Battle Fatigue” — or PTSD — after World War II, half of the proceeds from sales of “The Real Holden Caulfield will be donated to The Wounded Warrior Project.

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