Infinite Jest

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

I am still reading Infinite Jest, and I am still enjoying it. At certain moments in the text, “enjoyment” may not be exactly the right word. A number of bloggers and commenters over at Infinite Summer have commented on the parallels between the novel and Alcoholics Anonymous. Wallace spends a great deal of time (a great deal of time) describing AA meetings and members, and one of the central themes of the Boston AA groups that he describes is: “For God’s sake, keep coming back.” This phrase (along with “trust Wallace”) is offered to the reader of IJ who gets frustrated or hits a lull or thinks about quitting.

I haven’t really considered quitting, but I have certainly met some lulls while reading the book. Four straight pages of Don Gately’s thoughts about “the program” (AA) with no paragraph breaks? It can be rough. But those slower patches are followed by storylines that I love and that I want more of. I can’t wait to find out more about Orin’s run-ins with the wheelchair people (Canadian Separatists) or about Hal’s eventual inability to interact with the outside world (I have an idea about how this happens…but I’m waiting for confirmation).

I’ve also been thinking some more about one of my previous posts regarding IJ as a new media object. I recently finished Collin Brooke’s Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media, a book that gave me yet another way of thinking of Wallace’s novel as a new media object. Brooke’s book is an attempt to rethink both rhetoric (specifically, the canons of rhetoric) and new media. The book deserves its own post, and I hope to get to that soon. But with regard to IJ, Brooke’s text offers an interesting way of thinking about how English studies can/should shift it’s unit of study from “object” to “interface.”

Brooke argues that literary criticism “depends on the shared experience of a text, something that the standardization of print publication allows us to take for granted” (11). However, new media changes things as “the absence of shared experience can become part of the infranstructure of the text” (11). This is particularly easy to see if we consider hypertext fiction. Readers of Patchwork Girl each experience a different text. As Terry Harpold argues, those different experiences are due to different paths taken through the narrative and also (just as importantly) different versions and/or interfaces. Every reading has always been a singular experience. Even those people reading the same edition of a book experience that text differently. This is not a brand new problem, but electronic text make this problem much more apparent.

IJ is a perfect example for this discussion because it is a print text that, I think, should be seen as a new media object. Discussing Infinite Jest with another reader (let alone attempting a critique of the book) in terms of narrative is not impossible, but it is difficult. There is such a large amount of narrative information provided, that readers are bound to experience the narrative differently. However, the interface of the text is something that can be discussed. This is the shared experience of IJ. Criticism of the novel’s interface would not only discuss Wallace’s famous footnotes, but it would also discuss the book’s dealings with time, its different genres of writing (letters, manuscripts, filmographies), or even something as simple as the need to have multiple bookmarks. If the shared experience isn’t necessarily the narrative, this can open up a lot of interesting questions for criticism. To my mind, this is an exciting thought.

Anyway, I hope to finish IJ in the next week or two. I have some concerns about letting my Infinite Summer bleed too much into my very Finite Fall.

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