Not-so Infinite Summer

So while the good people over at Infinite Summer are sedately working their way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the reasonable pace of 75 pages per week, the students in my ENG 590 class have committed to reading all 1079 pages of the novel in three weeks. Where’s their prize for the speed round?

In keeping with their hard and earnest work with this behemoth (which they’re assiduously blogging and wiki-ing as well!), I thought I’d try to keep up with them, so here are my rather scattered thoughts on pp. 198-299. Primarily, this section gives us detailed information about Joelle Van Dyne and the lead up to her suicide, as well as Hal’s reaction to his father’s suicide. [Basically, there’s a whole lot of suicide going on.] In addition, however, we get the back story on Orin—his shift from tennis to football, his relationship with Joelle; we also get our first clear look at the culture and rhetoric of AA at Ennet House. From a pedagogical perspective, I had a brief moment of panic: what are we going to talk about in class?!! Not much “happens” in this section. Needless panic, of course. Judging from the blog posts, the students are off and running with their own theories about characters and relevant themes and the overall reading experience of the novel itself.

For my part, I find that I now want to go back and re-examine prior passages to see if new information lends them new significance. In particular, I can’t get this description out of my head:

“locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern… a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely—of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth—each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses 2n possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone…as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skil and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of the self.”

Since we’ve been talking a bit about form and the experience of reading the novel, and since some of the students have pointed out the ways in which tennis can stand in, on a meta-level, for reading strategies, I wonder if there isn’t room to think a bit about how the quote above outlines a model of an infinite text. For all that we’re encouraged to see the deep structure of the novel (e.g., Sierpinski gasket, etc.), here we see a “game” that’s both infinite and contained by the self and its own boundaries—the infinities of choice and reactions to those choices. Incandenza spectrally speaks to the aesthetics of expansion without pattern—unmappable excess that can still have limits. Readers certainly find their own reflections of their own proclivities in this novel and its encyclopedic tendencies. Is it a text that promotes reading as a system of choice? If we’re good readers, we’re bound by the limits of the text, and yet have choices and responses to those choices that guide our interpretations, our foci within our individual experiences of reading. The self bounds the text, as the text reciprocally bounds the self?

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