Matthew Baldwin

Dead Sea Diving

06.29.09 | 50 Comments

Fun fact I learned from the last book I read: the Dead Sea, with a salt concentration of 32%, is so saline that it practically precludes swimming. You can dive in (though heaven forbid you do so without hermetically-sealed goggles), but the density of the water will pop you back to the surface like a cork. Remaining underwater for any period of time requires a Herculean effort.

That’s an apt analogy for the first 100 pages of Infinite Jest.14 I’ve found it easy, in the pre-coffee morning or the laying-in-bed night, to simply float upon the surface of the narrative, consuming paragraphs without much regard as to whether or where or when we’ve seen a character before, or what major and minor motifs are currently being explored, or how this eight page filmography fits into the whole.15

At other times, when I am fully lucid and engaged (i.e., between the hours of Last Latte of the Day and First Beer of the Evening), I try to submerge myself in the text. But it is not without exertion, and I have to come up for air every 20-30 minutes. Indeed, it feels like exercise. Not “work” mind you, but an endorphin-producing, man-I-feel-better-about-myself-for-having-done-that workout.

Each dip into the novel also feels like a completely separate excursion. When I take a break from a conventional novel it’s like pressing pause on a video, with the narrative flow frozen on the screen, awaiting my return. But in reading Infinite Jest I have tended to stop at the chapter divisions, and nearly every chapter of the first 100 pages starts in a new place, with new characters, and often in a new time. It’s akin to reading a collection of short stories, set in a shared universe but with little else in common. I can see why many people–including myself a decade ago–put this novel down and never pick it up again. There is so little connective tissue thus far that the end of each chapter feels like a natural place to stop reading, forever.

And yet, 100 pages in, I sense engrossment on the horizon. With each additional chapter I find myself sinking into the salty tide. It’s probably only a matter of time before I disappear below the waves for good.

Some other observations:

Complaint: It totally sucks that pages 17-27 of Infinite Jest (Erdedy waits for pot) are 100 times better than any short story I will ever write, and yet are only 1/100th of the whole.

Confession: Endnote 40 marks my first genuine irritation at Wallace’s “pretentiousness” (real or perceived). It (the endnote) begins with “In other words”, implying that it is going to help the reader understand Marathe’s true allegiance, and then provides an explanation even more opaque than that found in the body of the novel. Maybe it just caught me in a bad mood, but I was confused, I wanted clarity, and phrases such as “the even-numbered total of his final loyalties” failed to provide.

Question: Has anyone yet deduced the meaning of the glyphs that sometimes precede chapter headings?

I have a sneaking suspicion that these are the true chapter delimiters, and that the year headings are but chyrons.