Friday, October 28, 2016

Blind Boys of Alabama – "Free at Last" (2008)

Free at last
Free at last
Thank God almighty
I’m free at last

Infinite Jest is a postmodern novel that is notable for its extravagant length (over 1000 pages) and its encyclopedic breadth and depth.  

Novels rarely include footnotes.  Infinite Jest has 388 of them, and some of them have footnotes of their own.

The book’s author, David Foster Wallace, suffered from depression for most of his adult life.  He hung himself in 2008 when he was only 46 years old.  

From his Los Angeles Times obituary:

[Wallace] was one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years . . . . one of the main writers who brought ambition, a sense of play, a joy in storytelling and an exuberant experimentalism of form back to the novel in the late '80s and early 1990s . . . . [H]e really restored the notion of the novel as a kind of canvas on which a writer can do anything.

Wallace was one of those writers I always told myself I should read someday.  But I’m a very accomplished procrastinator.

Then I saw The End of the Tour, a 2015 movie based on the conversations Wallace had with a Rolling Stone writer while on a book tour promoting Infinite Jest.  It inspired me to read two of Wallace’s nonfiction collections.  

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster consisted mostly of Wallace’s magazine articles.  Among other things, Wallace wrote about a day at the Iowa State Fair, a voyage on a large cruise ship, what a lobster feels when it is boiled alive, and what it was like to attend the Adult Video News Awards (the Oscars of the pornographic video industry).  

Most of those pieces were terrific, and reading them inspired me to tackle Infinite Jest

I downloaded the novel on to my Kindle before I got on a flight from Washington, DC to Las Vegas and read the book during that flight . . . in my hotel room while I was in Las Vegas . . . on a subsequent flight to Kansas City . . . while staying in my parents home in Joplin, Missouri . . . and on my return flight to Washington.  I continued to read it on my daily subway trips to and from my office.

David Foster Wallace
After about two weeks, I had only managed to get to page 211 out of 1079.  I couldn’t believe it.  I know I put in at least ten hours reading the book – I’m guessing I spent closer to twenty hours.

So I did something I can’t remember ever doing before: I quit reading it.

It’s no exaggeration when I say that giving up on a book in the middle is almost without precedent in my 60 years of reading.  

On occasion, I will read the first few pages of a novel and change my mind about reading it.  But I can only remember slogging through 200 pages of a book and then giving up one other time.  

That was a few years when I attempted to re-read Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Fariña’s legendary counterculture novel, which I loved when I read it a few years after it was published in 1966.  But when I picked it up again four decades later, I found it to be unintelligible gibberish.

Infinite Jest wasn’t so much unintelligible as simply dense and tedious.  God knows how long it would have taken me to finish Infinite Jest – assuming I didn’t follow Wallace’s example and commit suicide before I got to the end.

Reading Infinite Jest was EXHAUSTING.  The amount of effort required to keep going through it was mind-boggling.

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

And no matter how many times he has the Terminex people out, there are still the enormous roaches that come out of the bathroom drains.  Sewer roaches, according to Terminex.  Blattaria implacablus or something.  Really huge roaches.  Armored-vehicle-type bugs. . . . Orin stomped on one of them, only once, that had come hellishly up out of the drain in the shower when he was in there, showering, going out naked and putting shoes on and coming in and trying to conventionally squash it, and the result was explosive.  There’s still material from that one time in the tile-grouting.  It seems unremovable.  Sickening.  Throwing away the shoes was preferable to looking at the sole to clean it.

*     *     *     *     *

It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal.  The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown, NY boy . . . . The boy now attends college in Champaign, IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were maned Ward and June.

The noise of the herd is tornado, locomotival.   The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable – it’s that implacable-herd expression.  They thunder eastward across pedal ferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded.  To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly over fertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

*     *     *     *     *

“Obesity,” she says.  “Obesity with hypogonadism.  Also morbid obesity.  Nodular leprosy with leonine facies. . . . The acromegalic and hyperkeratosistic.  The enuretic, this year of all years.  The spasmodically torticollic. . . . Those with saddle-noses.  Those with atrophic limbs. . . . Scleredema adultorum.  Them that seep, the serodermatotic. . . . The hydrocephalic.  The tabescent and chachetic and anorexic.  The Brag’s-Diseased, in their heavy red rinds of flesh.  The dermal wine-stained or carbuncular or steatocryptotic or God forbid all three.  Marin-Amat Syndrome, you say?  Come on down.  The psoriatic.  The exzematically shunned.  And the scrofulodermic.  Bell-shaped steatopygiacs, in your special slacks.”

*     *     *     *     *

The incredibly potent DMZ is apparently classed as a para-methoxylated amphetamine but really it looked to Jim Pemulis from his slow and tortured survey of’s monographs more like more similar to the anticholinergic-deliriant class, way more powerful than mescaline or MDA or DMA or TMA or MDMA or DOM or STP or the I.V.-ingestible DMT, or Ololiuqui or datura’s scopolamine, or Fluothane, or Bufotenine (a.k.a. “Jackie-O”), or Ebene or psilocybin or Cylert . . . or the fly agaric fungus’s well-known muscimole, which fitviavi’s derived DMZ resembles chemically sort of the way an F-18 resembles a Piper Cub . . .

(I could give you dozens more examples that are just as bad, but you’ve suffered enough.)

Believe it or not, many critics and academics adored Infinite Jest.  It has been called “the central American novel of the past thirty years” and “a dense star for lesser work to orbit.”  Time included it on its list of the best 100 English-language novels written since that magazine was founded in 1923.  

But there were dissenting voices as well.  One reviewer said the novel is “in a word, terrible.  Other words I might use include bloated, boring, gratuitous, and – perhaps especially – uncontrolled.”  Another critic said the book’s elements “are impressive in the manner of a precocious child’s performance at a dinner party, and, in the same way, ultimately irritating: they seem motivated, mostly, by a desire to show off.”

"Bright Lights, Big City" author Jay McInerney
Wallace’s fellow novelist, Jay McInerney, reviewed Infinite Jest in 1996.  He loved it and hated it at the same time:

Reading David Foster Wallace's latest novel, Infinite Jest, I felt . . . admiration alloyed with impatience veering toward strained credulity. . . . If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you would be inclined to shoot him – or possibly yourself – somewhere right around page 480 of Infinite Jest. In fact, you might anyway.

(McInerney is made of sterner stuff than I am.  I was ready to pull the trigger by page 211.)

Alternately tedious and effulgent, Infinite Jest . . . sometimes [feels] cartoonish in the extreme. . . .  Mr. Wallace's earlier fiction revealed him as a student of literary post-modernists like John Barth and Robert Coover, flirting with metafictional tropes and self-referential narratives.  Here, despite the Gravity's Rainbow-plus length and haute science flourishes, Mr. Wallace plays it straight – that is, almost realistically – and seems to want to convince us of the authenticity of his vision by sheer weight of accumulated detail.  The weight almost crushes the narrative at times – as when, for example, we are treated to 10 dense pages about the disassembly of a bed, complete with diagrams.

(Barth, Coover, and Thomas Pynchon were favorites of mine when I was in college.  I would have told you back then that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was the greatest novel ever written – today I’m afraid to re-read it, fearing that doing so would prove beyond a reasonable doubt just how full of sh*t I was when I was 21.)

The mechanics and rituals of the recovering addicts are also represented with mind-numbing fidelity. Central to this narrative is [a character who is] a recovering burglar and Demerol man, the slogging Leopold Bloom to [another main character’s] Stephen Dedalus.  

(This reference to Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus – the main characters of James Joyce’s Ulysses – sent a shiver down my spine.  There are few terrible ordeals that I would not happily undergo if the alternative was reading Ulysses from start to finish.  Any book that is compared to Ulysses is to be avoided at all costs.)

Mr. Wallace's knowledge of pharmaceuticals and the psychology of addiction is encyclopedic; if not for the copious footnotes, which among other functions annotate the dozens of narcotics and psychedelics mentioned in the book, all but the most hard-core drug enthusiasts would need a copy of the Physician's Desk Reference just to keep track of who was up or down at any given moment.

(McInerney couldn’t be righter.  Reading about fictional drug trips is almost as tedious as reading about fictional dreams.  Wallace adds insult to injury by dropping in footnote after footnote about the various pharmaceuticals his characters consume.)

What makes all this almost plausible, and often pleasurable, is Mr. Wallace's talent – as a stylist, a satirist and a mimic – as well as his erudition, which ranges from the world of street crime to higher mathematics.  While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences. 

For me, the problem with Infinite Jest isn’t that it’s not interesting.  The problem with Infinite Jest is that it’s too damn much work to read.    

Prior to picking up Infinite Jest, I read the first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3600-page My Struggle.  

Most of My Struggle is a simple and straightforward account of the mundane details of the author’s daily life. 

Reading it is like watching hours of home videos.  There are occasional moments of drama or humor that demand your full attention, but the rest of the time your mind can go on automatic pilot and you won’t miss much. 

By contrast, Infinite Jest is like an avant garde movie in a foreign language – there’s a lot going on at any given moment, but it’s impossible to keep up with it all.  You just want the damn thing to end so you can go home and take a nap.

The next time you find yourself in a theater where such a movie is playing, don’t wait for it to end.  Get up and go home and take that nap sooner rather than later.

That’s pretty much what I did with Infinite Jest, and I’m glad I did.  I’ll never get the hours I spent struggling with those 211 pages back, but for a change I was smart enough to cut my losses.

*     *     *     *     *

The lines quoted at the beginning of this post closed the famous “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington, DC, in 1963:

[W]hen we let [freedom] ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:  “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Down in New Orleans album, which was released in 2008, won the “Best Traditional Gospel Album” Grammy.  “Free at Last” was the first track on that album.

Here’s “Free at Last”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment