Beginning Infinite Jest

I began Infinite Jest the other day and am up to date with the Infinite Summer schedule, which means I’ve read up to page 63 — out of 981 pages, not including the lengthy endnotes section. So far things are going well, but I’m already aware that I’m not going to get everything going on in the book. I mean, I’ll be able to follow the plot and will understand the basics of what is happening, but I can already tell that there will be connections among characters and plot events and ideas that I will get some but not all of. A lot of characters have been introduced and I can already see some recurring themes and motifs that surely will be important, but I will have to carry a lot in my head over the course of such a long book to make sense of it all. This isn’t a book to understand fully in just one reading, I can see that already.

But I really am enjoying it. The opening section is brilliant. It describes one of the main characters, Hal, in an interview with a university admissions committee, the members of which are trying to understand some “irregularities” in Hal’s application. He’s a tennis star, and they really want to admit him, but while his grades are excellent and his admissions essays beyond brilliant (suspiciously so), his test scores don’t fit the profile. In the course of the interview, Hal just sits there, not saying anything, letting his uncle and his uncle’s assistant speak for him. Finally the committee gets Hal on his own, and finally Hal starts talking, and what he says sounds perfectly reasonable, but the committee starts to stare and look horrified and freak out, and finally they call an ambulance and get Hal taken away. It’s unclear what happened, but it explains why Hal was so quiet to start with — he knows that he can try as much as he likes, but what he says will be very different from what people hear. The scene is funny and sad both, and it’s a way to introduce what I’m sure will be a major theme of the book — the difficulty of communicating with others.

I’ve been following the discussions going on in the Infinite Summer forums as well, although I’m not participating (for no particular reason except I don’t feel like it — I have enough online writing to do already). It’s nice to read what others are thinking, and it helps me to see things I might otherwise have missed. Even though I’m observing and not participating in this reading group, I still feel like I’m benefiting from it.

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

7 responses to “Beginning Infinite Jest

  1. Sometimes just reading other reader’s responses to a book helps me clarify what I am getting out of it–without necessarily joining in the discussion. This sounds like a book you’ll need to make a flow chart of in order to keep things straight! Still it’s fun to read something so sprawling and just get what you can out of it–knowing there’s too much to take in all at once. I have a feeling reading your posts about this book is going to make me very curious about it.

  2. Danielle — yes, absolutely, hearing that other people have the same questions I do is valuable in and of itself. I think a flow chart would help tremendously, but I’m not willing to work that hard :) I’m just going to get out of it what I can and leave it at that. Lots of people on the forums have talked about rereading this book, which sounds like an excellent idea, if I do continue to enjoy it the first time around.

  3. This makes me feel very guilty about William Gaddis – which I know you have finished. I wonder whatever happened to the man in the interview – are we supposed to think he’d broken down medically or that he seemed mentally unstable? I have to say, that kind of lack of clarity might irritate me. But then it all depends on how it’s done, I guess. Well, it will be very interesting to see how you get on with it, Dorothy!

  4. I hope you find out what happened to Hal. I want to know what he said that got them to call an ambulance! I was also thinking along the same lines as Danielle–flow chart :)

  5. The Infinite Summer site has been fantastic in encouraging all to read along. So accessible, so funny that even those of us just treading water here in the beginning feel empowered.

    Also enjoying this book. Really enjoying. But my first post today, 9% through, is just a big jumble of all those impressions that keep hitting me (literally it seems) as I read.

  6. You know Dorothy, I saw Infinite Jest at the used book sale, like new and yes, for a dollar. But I just didn’t have the courage and stamina to pick it up. I’ll be following your blog for more of Hal.

  7. Litlove — no need to feel guilty! I’m very grateful to have had our little group for a while and that I was able to read the book. We really aren’t told — yet — what is going on with Hal in his interview, whether he’s the one with the communication problem or whether it’s the people doing the interview or what. I suspect it will become clear over time though.

    Stefanie — I suspect I will find out what happened to Hal eventually — but then again, with this book there’s really no knowing! And I don’t feel frustrated by not knowing — it was a great scene, no matter what the cause behind it.

    Frances — I’ve enjoyed the IS site as well. I did get annoyed when they picked a “guide” who said he doesn’t read fiction much — I mean, why pick such a person? But that aside, I’ve enjoyed the posts and the forums have been very helpful.

    Arti — It’s definitely an intimidating book. I may never have gotten around to buying it myself, but then my husband bought it for me. I’m glad he did!

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