Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort – at least that is what I am hoping. Early last September, a tad too late to participate, I learned about Infinite Summer – a web site created to unite people from all over the world during a summer spent reading and sharing their thoughts about Infinite Jest. This behemoth of a novel was released in 1996 and appears on many “best of” lists, including one issued by Time Magazine critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. They picked the 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to 2005 and ran the alphabetic list in the magazine.

The title is a sly wink at the book’s massive girth—it’s 1,000-plus pages in most editions—but the reference to Hamlet is well-earned (Hamlet refers to the skull of Yorick, the court jester: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”); moreover, it’s supposed to be a damn funny book. The action takes place in Boston at two separate but curiously similar venues—an elite tennis academy and a drug rehabilitation facility—in a near future in which calendar years are available for corporate sponsorship (the Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar, the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and so on). The plot of Infinite Jest—which revolves around, among other things, a lost, unwatchably beautiful art film and a conspiracy among wheelchair-bound Quebecois secessionists—is decidedly secondary to the painfully funny dialogue and Wallace’s endlessly rich ruminations and speculations on addiction, entertainment, art, life and, of course, tennis.

There are, beside the challenge of the length of the novel, some stylistic challenges too. There are frequent references to endnotes throughout the novel. In an interview with Charlie Rose (on PBS), Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion. Acronyms are another signature device in Wallace’s work and are used frequently within the novel. Wallace’s writing voice is a postmodern mixture of high- and low-brow linguistic traits. He juxtaposes, often within a single sentence, colloquialisms and polysyllabic, obscure, or esoteric words.

The shy English professor from Bloomington, Ill., achieved “instant” rock-star fame with the release of Infinite Jest. Magazines demanded interviews; he granted some, but only one interviewer, David Lipsky of Rolling Stone, got to hang out with the rock star of novelists, at his home.

It’s interesting that this interview ever happened. Wallace probably allowed it because Lipsky was even younger, only 30, and was himself a novelist, having published The Art Fair to New York City acclaim that year. The two novelists met in Bloomington in 1996, then flew, drove, ate, smoked – “brothers of the lung,” for Wallace – and talked during the latter days of the book tour in support of Infinite Jest. However, Rolling Stone ultimately scratched the profile.

Then, in 2008, Wallace, 46, committed suicide by hanging. The public appetite for anything about Wallace meant that Lipsky’s notes from that five-day trip in 1996 metamorphosed into a Rolling Stone article entitled The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace. Lipsky won a National Magazine Award for this work.

David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, in Ithaca, New York and raised mainly in central Illinois, in a small town named Philo, by an English professor mother and philosophy professor father. It was no surprise when later, at Amherst College, Wallace graduated summa cum laude in both English and Philosophy, and subsequently pursued an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Wallace went on to write novels and to teach, first at Illinois State University and later at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

After receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona, Wallace published his first book, The Broom of the System, a comic novel that received national attention for its offbeat humor. Soon after, he moved to Boston to study philosophy at Harvard, but abandoned this pursuit, instead taking a position in the English department at Illinois State University where he continued work on his epic masterwork, Infinite Jest, which was eventually published in 1996. In 1997, David Foster Wallace received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. He continued teaching and publishing short work in various magazines, including Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, The New Yorker and the Paris Review. In 2002, he moved to California to become the first Roy E. Disney Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College. In 2004, he published his last collection of short stories, Oblivion. David Foster Wallace was well-known for his stylistic experimentation, often challenging word choices, and lengthy, demanding sentence structure. Wallace’s inventiveness often seemed to be for its own sake, but it made his work addictively fun to read, like the deciphering of a particularly challenging puzzle.

David Foster Wallace received various awards, including the Whiting Award, the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Paris Review Prize for humor, the QPB Joe Savago New Voices Award, and an O. Henry Award. He committed suicide on September 12, 2008, at the age of 46.

The Sea by John Banville

Booker Prize-winning author John Banville presents a sensitive and remarkably complete character study of Max Morden, an art critic/writer from Ireland whose wife has died of a cancer. Seeking solace, Max has checked into the Cedars, a now-dilapidated guest house in the seaside village of Ballyless, where he and his family spent their summers when he was a child. There he spent hours in the company of Chloe and Myles Grace, his constant companions. Images of foreboding suggest that some tragedy occurred while he was there, though the reader discovers only gradually what it might have been. While at the Cedars, he contemplates the nature of life, love, and death, and our imperfect memories of these moments.

As Max probes his recollections, he reveals his most intimate feelings, constantly questioning the accuracy of his memory, and juxtaposing his childhood memories with his recent memories of his wife Anna’s “inappropriate” illness and her futile treatments. Through flashbacks, he also introduces us to his earlier life with Anna and his fervent hopes that through her he could become someone more interesting. “I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone,” he says, confessing that he saw her as “the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight.”

More a meditation than a novel with a strong plot, The Sea brings Max to life (as limited as his life is during this time), recreating his seemingly simple, yet often profound, thoughts in language which will startle the reader into recognition of their universality. To some extent an everyman, Max speaks to the reader in uniquely intimate ways. In breathtaking language, filled with emotional connotations, he captures nature in perfect images, often revealing life as a series of paintings–“a Tiepolo sky,” a hair-washing scene reminiscent of Duccio and Picasso. He objectifies his thoughts about memory through Pierre Bonnard’s many portraits of “Nude in the Bath,” paintings of Bonnard’s wife in which she remains a young girl, even when she is seventy years old. Images of the bath and the sea pervade the novel–cleansing, combined with the ebb and flow of life.

Lovers of plot-based novels with snappy dialogue may find that the lack of external action and the novel’s focus on the interior battles of an ordinary man of about sixty fail to engage their interest. Other readers, who may have faced the deaths of family or friends and recognized the limitations of memory, however, may see in Max a kindred spirit to whom they respond with empathy.

I have rarely read such a short book so slowly–or reread with pleasure so many passages of extraordinary beauty and import. This is a stunning novel that requires a lot from the reader but the reward is more than worthy.

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Amid all the quips and clever comebacks that fly through the halls of the dysfunctional English department at West Central Pennsylvania University in this novel, you find the reason for both all the antagonistic levity and the book’s title. William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the story’s narrator, states clearly: In English departments the most serious competition is for the role of straight man. Hank Devereaux, temporary department chair and determined wild card, revels in creating harmless chaos in his little corner of academia, and so rarely gets to play that coveted “straight man” role. He’s a wisecracker who intentionally tries to hold the bad stuff in life at bay. He’s a convincing, friendly point-of-view man, however, and his voice succeeds at drawing us into this hilarious, poignant novel of academe.

Continuing funding slashes have got rumours of staff cutbacks running rampant, and Hank’s colleagues suspect him of having prepared a “list” that recommends who should get the boot, regardless of tenure. Hank hasn’t, but it’s not in his character to tell them if he has or not, and the English department threatens mutiny, calling a vote for a new chair.

That each and every member of the department should fear firing is not surprising, for paranoia is part of the academic game, and every person on staff has good reason for suspecting he (or she) won’t make the grade. There’s white linen-suited Finny, who outed himself just long enough to get divorced before reverting to claims of heterosexuality that no one believes, and who has a Ph.D. from American Sonora University, an institution that exists, so far as we’ve been able to determine, only on letterhead and in the form of a post office box in Del Rio, Texas, the onetime home, if I’m not mistaken, of Wolfman Jack.

There’s non-tenured Campbell “Orshee” Wheemer, the pony-tailed protofeminist who forbids books and writing in his classes (he uses taped TV sitcoms and makes his students turn in video cassettes for semester projects), who appends every use of the masculine pronoun in department meetings with “or she.” There’s the aging prima-donna poet Gracie DuBois, whom every man in the college lusted over back when she was hired twenty years ago, now gone to fat; she’s got a harassment suit in the works against Hank concerning his eternal wisecracking. There’s meek Teddy Barnes, Hank’s erstwhile best friend, who’s been a little bit in love with Hank’s wife for years; there’s June, Teddy’s wife, who is rumored to be having an affair with Orshee. There’s Paul Rourke, Hank’s nemesis and neighbor, who’s sworn never to laugh at anything Hank says. And then there is Hank, who hasn’t published a book since his own hiring almost half his lifetime ago.

While he wrestles with this motley crew over department matters, Hank’s got much more in life that demands his attention. His daughter, who has failed to inherit Hank or his wife Lily’s love of language and writing, is in deep debt moneywise over her house (a copy to the room of her parents’) and on the outs with her unemployed husband. Hank himself is unsure whether or not he’d care if he got canned. Lily is checking out distant job opportunities, and Hank vaguely suspects that she’s having an affair with his dean.

His adopted dog has developed enough self-assurance to “groin” everyone who visits. He worries that he’s developing a stone — as runs in the men in his family — due to his having one hell of a time trying to pee. The biggest thing is perhaps his mother’s informing him that the man he’s tried hard not to think much about for most of his life, the father who deserted Hank and his mother for a succession of trophy graduate students, is going to be making a reappearance, perhaps for good, in their lives.

This novel of campus, family, midlife crisis and death threats against ducks bursts with humor and tenderness. Richard Russo has created characters who come quickly to colourful life. You won’t want the story to end because you want to keep on seeing Hank Devereaux’s world through his incomparable eyes. You will, however, be happy that you spent some time along with him for the ride.

Writing about regular people with regular lives is Russo’s forte. His ability to turn the mundane or ordinary into nuanced stories is incredible. He also writes with amazing humour and wit. I laughed out loud reading this novel and give it 5 stars.

Deafening by Frances Itani

In Deafening, Canadian writer Frances Itani tells two parallel stories: a man’s story of war and a woman’s story of waiting for him and of what it is to be deaf. Grania O’Neill is left with no hearing after having scarlet fever when she is five. She is taught at home until she is nine and then sent to the ‘Ontario Institution for the Deaf and Dumb’, where lifelong friendships are forged, her career as a nurse is chosen, and she meets Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, with whom she falls in love.

The novel is filled with sounds and their absence, with an understanding of and insistence on the power of language, and with the necessity of telling and re-telling our stories. When Grania is a little girl at home, she sits with her grandmother, who teaches her: “Grania is intimately aware of Mamo’s lips–soft and careful but never slowed. She studies the word as it falls. She says ‘C’ and shore, over and over again. This is how it sounds.”

After she and Jim are married and he is sent to war, he writes: “At times the ground shudders beneath our boots. The air vibrates. Sometimes there is a whistling noise before an explosion. And then, all is silent.” When Grania’s brother-in-law, her childhood friend, Kenan, returns from war seriously injured, he will not utter a sound. Grania approaches him carefully, starting with a word from their childhood–“poom”–and moves through “the drills she thought she’d forgotten…Kenan made sounds. In three weeks he was rhyming nonsense syllables.”

A deaf woman teaching a hearing man to make sounds again is only one of the wonders in this book. Because Itani’s command of her material is complete, the story is saved from being another classic wartime romance–a sad tale of lovers separated. It is a testament to the belief that language is stronger than separation, fear, illness, trauma and even death. Itani convinces us that it is what connects us, what makes us human.”

I had the privilege of meeting Frances Itani in 2007 at an arts festival event. Her book Remembering the Bones had recently been released and Itani was on a book tour to support the novel. After her reading, I approached Itani and she was absolutely lovely, gracious and very funny. We chatted for many minutes about writing, solitude and the wonder of creating people and settings – for a living! I left the evening with a copy of Remembering the Bones, with a personalized autographed, and a feeling of great respect for a very talented Canadian author. I have yet to read it for fear of spoiling my wondefrul “Itani Moment”.

In the meantime, Deafening remains one of my favourite novels and I recommend the book as often as possible. It is beautiful ~ the words, the sentences, the story, the flow. I rate this novel 5 stars and encourage you to read this amazing book.

The History of Love

I live in a reasonably small community. We are lucky to have a great library system in our area and I enjoy knowing my librarian (yes, I get quite possessive of my library and my librarian, or as I like to call her “She Who Controls the Flow of Books”) quite well; I have been visiting her, at our local branch, at least once a week for eight years now! Each branch in our system runs a monthly book club meeting. I attended the one at my branch, once. It was a bad, bad fit and I never returned; no matter how much Penny (my intrepid librarian) pleaded or attempted to cajole me. Now way! No how!

A couple of Saturday’s ago, out of curiosity, I inquired as to how the club was doing? Penny informed me that the group had imploded and was, alas, no more. It was a club that had really struggled for a number of years and finally expired. “A-ha!” I thought, “Here is an opportunity.” and filed the information away in my mind.

Fast forward one week and I am out to lunch (ha-ha, I know!) with my friend Janet. She tells me she was talking with Penny (yep, the town is that small, we all know each other!) and wondered, since the library book club was dead, if I would consider reviving the thing? Well, talk about great minds thinking alike! By the end of our meal we were quite excited about the prospect of pumping a little life into the library book club. I asked Penny if this was okay and she was thrilled. So the wheels are in motion and the group shall carry on, although slightly differently than before.

The library has already determined the books through until August so we will just be picking up where things were left off. We are, however, working on a list of suggested reads for the Fall of 2010 and into 2011. I am hopeful the person who is responsible for this, for the library, is amenable to the ideas we come up with.

The first book we are doing is called The History of Love, written by Nicole Krauss.

I read this novel when it first came out, in 2005, and the last words of this haunting novel still resonate like a pealing bell. “He fell in love. It was his life.” This is the unofficial obituary of octogenarian Leo Gursky, a character whose mordant wit, gallows humor and searching heart create an unforgettable portrait. Born in Poland and a WWII refugee in New York, Leo has become invisible to the world. When he leaves his tiny apartment, he deliberately draws attention to himself to be sure he exists. What’s really missing in his life is the woman he has always loved, the son who doesn’t know that Leo is his father, and his lost novel, called The History of Love, which, unbeknownst to Leo, was published years ago in Chile under a different man’s name. Another family in New York has also been truncated by loss.

Teenager Alma Singer, who was named after the heroine of The History of Love, is trying to ease the loneliness of her widowed mother, Charlotte. When a stranger asks Charlotte to translate The History of Love from Spanish for an exorbitant sum, the mysteries deepen.

Krauss ties these and other plot strands together with surprising twists and turns, chronicling the survival of the human spirit against all odds. Writing with tenderness about eccentric characters, she uses earthy humor to mask pain and to question the universe. Her distinctive voice is both plangent and wry, and her imagination encompasses many worlds.

I look forward to re-reading this book and for leading a book club discussion about it on April 15th.