I think I've mentioned that I'm reading three books this year: Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, and Finnegans Wake. Why? Because I'm not feeling as accomplished as one ought to at the ripe age of mid-30s. And also, it's fun to be an intellectual.
NOTE: Spoilers are in this, but not until the end, and they're clearly marked, so you can read half of this post and then ignore the rest if you want to.
I'm about 250 pages into Rainbow right now; the only problem I have with it is I keep flashing back to Jest, which is a truly incredible book that achives the impossible: even after finishing the 1,000+ page book, you want more. The only other book(s) I've read that've accomplished this feat are the Ring trilogy tomes.
(Get it? Ring tomes! Funny!)
Anyway, I finished Infinite Jest in March and it continues to stick with me. In fact, I find myself eschewing GR some nights, in order to re-read a favorite section of the Jest. There are many: The end. The beginning. Eschaton. Standardized Time, and the creation of O.N.A.N. (which hearkens to the Sin of Onan). The fight with the pissed-off Hawaiians, brought to a head by scumbag Randy Lenz. The hugging at the NA meeting. The dissection of the personality of Charles Tavis. The defenestration. Oh, somebody stop me.
I think that it's important, when embarking upon a major work of literature, NOT to read any introductions or essays on the subject until you've completed the work. Otherwise, how can you come up with your own idea of what really happens, and why the book is important?
(Granted, I'm ahead of the game with GR, because Monstro's read it three times and has regaled me with the best and worst parts of it for years now. I am not to be held accountable for the ideas of the man to whom I am married. Anywhoo…)
The Jest kept me reading because 1) it's funny and 2) its wordplay is extraordinary. Beyond that, the freedom of writing a book that takes a ream of paper to print is that the author has plenty of room to expand his secondary, tertiary, and quadriary (sp? if it's a word at all) characters. The brothers Pemulis, Ortho “The Darkness” Stice, Bruce Green (sweet old Bruce). Their well-roundedness only enhances the IJ universe. And while I could have done without the mostly expository meeting of the operatives/spies on the hill, such expansion keeps the novel interesting, even when the main characters (mostly Hal) start to sink into inexcusable self-pity.
In addition, the hundred-plus pages of footnotes at the end of the book are granted the same treatment as the tertiary characters — they bestow additional information upon the lucky reader. While much of this information is pharmacological to the point where your garden-variety reader (moi) isn't enlightened by it, other bits are informative, educational, hilarious, or a combination of the three. It is in the footnotes where we first learn to what the title refers. And it's fun to read a book that requires not one, but two bookmarks. (One of mine was a Mary Engelbrect that said “Miss Smarty.”)
The parallel time of the beginning and the end of IJ hearkens to Richard Powers and Hamlet. But (and the rest of this post is a SPOILER, but only if I'm right), nobody I've read seems to understand what actually happens. Here's my take on it:
Don Gately's on his way out at the end of the book. In fact, the last 100 pages of flashback of his big drug binge gone bad dovetails beautifully with Hal's drug binge gone bad at the beginning of the book (which is truly the most surprising opening 30 pages of any book I've ever read). With his binge at the opening of the novel, Hal has cemented his impending junkie-dom. This is why he and Don have a melding of the minds. Don is dying, and Hal is taking over Don's path from addiction to redemption. They are both trying to save the copy of IJ from the grave of Hal's father; a film that reduces its viewers to a junkie-like state, but more dangerous because the people watching the film can watch it on infinite loop, never needing to sober up enough to go score again.
Hal's memory of eating the mold is the first step he takes toward becoming a drug addict, though he's too little to even be aware of it at the time. We never learn how he gets ahold of the DMZ(?), which is frustrating and yet true-to-life; can anyone be aware of when it is they turn the corner to Addiction Road?
Could David Foster Wallace have tied things up a little more neatly? Sure. It feels like we're missing a number of weeks between the end and the recursive beginning. But these weeks, I think, are covered by Don Gately's hospital-bed stream-of-consciousness thoughts, which means he is thinking of Hal at the same moment Hal thinks of Don. It's done the same way as the end of Richard Powers' Plowing the Dark, only it's done in a more creative and brilliant manner, because the book Infinite Jest is the same as the film Infinite Jest — a mobius strip, with no beginning and no end. Much to the dismay of the film's viewers, and the book's readers, because if I don't stop re-picking through the Jest, I'm never going to finish Gravity's Rainbow, to say nothing of Finnegans Wake.