This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “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!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.

Love At First Glance

woman with parasol
Woman With a Parasol, Claude Monet

The idea of “love at first sight” originates in Greek and Roman literature. Images of love arrows from the God’s Eros and Cupid causing someone to fall in love with someone upon meeting them for the first time have survived over the centuries. The Greeks used the expression theia mania, meaning madness from the Gods.

It seems that the expression “love at first sight” makes its first appearance in 1598 in English literature with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander.”  Marlowe, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, is concerned in one section of the poem with how Fate influences our life choices.

It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

hero and leander
Hero and Leander, 1801, William Hamilton, PD

Although you have certainly heard tales of people who had an instantaneous attraction to someone, most people dismiss such things as not being true “Love.” In modern times, you might even hear someone say about a house or a car that it was love at first sight.

When I saw the film Citizen Kane at age 16, I had already experienced not only love at first sight but also what I call love at first glance. I identified immediately with a scene in the film in which old Mr. Bernstein tells a story. Here’s the dialogue (clip at the bottom)

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

That kind of phenomena is what I call love at first glimpse because the sighting is probably one-sided, brief, and with no possibility of any further interaction. It is a phenomenon because it is a situation that though it happened, its cause or explanation is in question.

I can think of many examples in my life. It is the woman I see pass my sidewalk cafe table and continue down the street. The waitress who I saw and immediately was attracted to and see occasionally and who seems flirtatious beyond trying to get a good tip is not love at first glance (though she might be at first sight).

In Milan Kundera’s novel (also a good film) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes about how love heightens all of our senses and how the novel’s protagonist, Tomáš, finds himself in love with someone he barely knows.

He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger… But was it love?… Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?… Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

When I first confessed to my mother at age 13 that I was in love with a girl from my class who I had never even spoken to, she dismissed it as “puppy love.” She said you can’t fall in love just by seeing someone.

My mother was not a believer in love at first sight or first glance. Hero and Leander’s love story didn’t have a happy ending. But Tomáš’s object of love does become his wife.

Science and love don’t usually mix very well, but decades of research have led psychologists to suggest that the notion of love at first sight is a myth. True love, as my unscientific mother told me,  takes some time to develop. One study described love at first sight as a “positive illusion.”

Love at first sight suggests a possibility – a possibility that that might not really be possible. Love at first glance offers no possibility – and therefore no chance of failure. I’m with Mr. Bernstein.

Mr. Bernstein

The Mystic of Mysteries

Navajo Beautyway Teachings
Image by Dine’ Navajo Wayne of a Spiritual Awakening of Walking The Corn Pollen Path that leads upon the Rainbow Path

Tony Hillerman was an American author of detective novels and nonfiction works and known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

He was not a Native American. Tony Hillerman was born and raised in Oklahoma. He did not have Native American ancestors but attended elementary and high school with Potawatomi children and that certainly influenced him. Potawatomi people were from the Great Lakes area, but many Potawatomis were relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma during the Indian Removals that began in 1830. His writing took a different, sympathetic approach to the portrayal of Native Americans that is unfortunately not always been the case with non-native writers.

I started listening to his novels as audiobooks, but I had gone through earlier mystery novel phases in print. In high school and college, I was reading hardboiled, noirish classics by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and others and then I went to some more “literary” ones, such as those by Graham Greene.

I got into audiobooks in my teaching years and the attraction of listening to a book while driving or on my long walks has remained. Generally, I finished a book in less than two weeks – something I no longer am able to do reading on a page or screen.

I started borrowing cassette tapes from the library and listening in the car commuting to work. I worked my way through contemporary authors that had a number of books on the shelves – Ross MacDonald, the Sue Grafton alphabet, and Harlan Coben (who had been a student of mine.) And I discovered Tony Hillerman.

His novel The Blessing Way was the first book in his series of Navaho Reservation mysteries featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police and it was the first of his I read since I wanted to read them in order. The library had his first four novels on the shelf when I started.

In this novel, an anthropology professor is interested in Navajo witches and the role they play in the culture. As one might expect, there is a murder, but the corpse has a mouth full of sand and there are no other clues. Leaphorn, a modern law officer, still considers what he knows of his people and considers the possibility of a killer involved with the supernatural. The pursuit of a Wolf-Witch mixes mysticism and murder.

What I liked about the novel and the ones that I have read since is that I learned things about the cultures of the Navaho, Hopi, and Zuni and the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. Most of these murder mysteries touch on the mystic aspects of the word.

I went on to the second book, Dance Hall of the Dead, which is about the disappearance of two Native-American boys who “vanish into thin air” leaving a pool of blood behind.

One of the boys is a Zuñi and the laws and sacred religious rites of the Zuñi people are a mystery in themselves and not to be revealed to others which impedes the case.

Tony Hillerman was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, attended the University of Oklahoma, married and have one biological child and five adopted children.

He worked as a journalist, but in 1966, he moved his family to Albuquerque, where he earned a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. He patterned his fictional Joe Leaphorn on a sheriff he knew from Texas. He started writing novels while teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. That is where he lived with his wife of 60 years until his death in 2008.

18 of his 30+ books are in his Navajo detective series. Joe Leaphorn was eventually partnered with the younger Jim Chee who was introduced in the fourth novel, People of Darkness. The two first work together in the seventh novel, one of the best in the series, Skinwalkers.

Although Hillerman credits Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler as influences, his main influence did not come from those popular writers. He credits the mysteries by British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield. I’ve never read any of them but they are set among tribal Australian Aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. Upfield’s indigenous character and the harsh Outback geography are much like “Hillerman country.”

Hillerman said, “When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony [Upfield’s protagonist] made 50 years ago.”

This fall I returned to Hillerman country and started listening to the novels where I think left off years ago with book #11, Sacred Clown. It begins with the murder of a scared clown being killed at a Tano kachina ceremony. The brutal bludgeoning is the same as what happened to a reservation schoolteacher who was killed just days before. The book gets into the closely guarded tribal secrets and also crooked Indian traders, in sacred artifacts.

“Mystery” has an interesting etymology. Though today we mostly think of it as a fiction genre, in Middle English it had more of a sense of a mystic presence. It was associated with hidden religious symbolism. It comes from Old French mistere and before that Latin mysterium and Greek mustērion. Hillerman’s novels, in using the beliefs of native peoples, come closer to the mystic sense than most modern mystery stories.

Scarlet Letters

I had to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school. I didn’t enjoy it. The premise sounded interesting and a bit sexy but the novel didn’t hit me in either way. I wasn’t ready for it. (There were several TV and movie versions of the novel. One starred Demi Moore as Hester. That might be the version I was hoping for in high school.

I read it again in a college course and it made more sense.  It is a truly American novel. It has strong men and women characters. Even if you never read it, you might know the basic story. It is set in Puritan Boston in 1642-1649 and tells the story of Hester Prynne. She had an affair and got pregnant and has to wear the scarlet letter A to show she is an adulterer. That situation still doesn’t sit well with American society but in the 17th century, it was almost inconceivably unacceptable. Lots of sin and guilt.

One of my favorite novelists is John Updike. He wrote a kind of trilogy of novels that bring aspects of The Scarlet Letter into modern times.

His A Month of Sundays is about a clergyman gone bad. Reverend Tom Marshfield is a Puritan Arthur Dimmesdale who is sexually disgraced and gets sent away from his parish to a desert retreat for some spiritual renewal.

The novel is a collection of his weekly journal entries about a variety of topics including his wife (the daughter of his ethics professor) and the organist he had an affair with at the parish. While in the desert, he finds himself desiring the woman who runs the retreat –  Ms. Prynne.

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered
as to which may be the true.”  –  Hawthorne

In Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, Roger Lambert is a middle-aged dignity. professor of divinity and Roger’s version of the story is a modern version of Roger Chillingworth’s version of the love triangle from Hawthorne.

Roger, the modern cuckold, is battling a computer scientist named Dale who believes he is gathering evidence of God’s existence. Professor Roger debates Dale and is determined to disprove Dale’s evidence.

Being it is an Updike novel and related to Hawthorne, Roger’s much younger wife, Esther, ends up having an affair with Dale.

Like A Month of Sundays, there is humor and allegory here and a battle of faith and reason with a shot of revenge,

HawthorneBefore I get to Updike’s third novel, you need a bit of background. In 1841, Hawthorne became a charter member of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley. It was near Boston and Hawthorne thought this farm life would give him some inspiration and time to write. It didn’t work out that way.

This transcendental sort-of-utopian commune had him cutting straw, milking cows, and shoveling manure. He left after just a few months, but he did use the experience in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.

Updike’s comparable version is simply called S. He plays off both Hester’s story and some of the idealism of Blithedale which falls apart as egos clash and the idyll proves unsatisfying.

The “S”  is Sarah Worth. She is a descendent of Hester and a native New Englander.  Sarah leaves her husband and children and heads to a commune of Buddhists led by a mystic called the Arhat. At this ashram in Arizona, she tries to find salvation.

Updike’s form for the novel is Sarah’s letters and tapes that she sends to her husband, daughter, brother, dentist, hairdresser, and psychiatrist.

Updike completes his trilogy with this Hester Prynne version of the story. I liked this book but I wasn’t happy with the parodies of the spiritual pilgrims, Buddhists and enlightenment. Then again, Hawthorne also satirized the people of Blithedale, so I suppose it fits.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

Charly and Algernon

Cliff Robertson as Charlie with Algernon and the maze in the film Charly.

Daniel Keyes wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a novella called “Flowers for Algernon” about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced and an experiment with a human subject.

I read that story in a high school English class and it sent me to find his 1966 novel-length expansion. Later that year, I saw the movie adaptation titled Charly. A decade later, I taught the shorter story to middle school students. I like all the versions and students usually liked the story and the film.

The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon. He is a janitor with a quite low IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject in an experiment to raise IQ.

I read some biographical info on Keyes. He was pushed to study medicine by his parents and struggled with the coursework. At some point in his studies, he began to wonder if it was possible to someone make someone by an intervention. He left medicine behind and later taught English to a class of special-needs students. The idea for his story was formed through both experiences.

“Flowers for Algernon” won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. He was encouraged by his publisher to expand the story into a novel. They also wanted him to write a happier ending to the story. He refused.

The versions of his story have been around long enought that I don’t feel like it is a spoiler to say that the experiment works and Charlie becomes very smart, but the change is not permanent.

The book is written as Charlie’s journal entries and so the writing style, grammar and spelling change as Charlie changes. Algernon is a mouse that was an early test subject in the experiement. In a maze test, the mouse consistentlt beats Charlie in that task at the start of their experiment. But after the treatments, Charlie catches up and eventually is able to beat Algernon.

The story is science-fiction and certainly about experiments in increasing intelligence, but it is also a social commentary on how we treat mentally disadvantaged people in schools, the workplace, and society in general. It always sparked interesting classroom discussions.

The story ends with a poorly spelled note by a regressed Charlie to the reader to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave.

The novel version was published in 1966 and has sold more than five million copies and it has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times. The feature film Charly (1968), won Cliff Robertson the Best Actor Oscar as Charlie. 

I also read Keyes’s book The Minds of Billy Milligan which is non-fiction written in novel form. It is the story of Billy Milligan, the first person in U.S. history acquitted of a major crime by pleading multiple-personality disorder. Milligan had 24 distinct personalities battling for control inside him. It’s quite a story.


Revise and Relive Your Past

Image by chenspec

I just finished reading The Midnight Library, a novel by Matthew Haig. In this story, a woman, Nora, is given the opportunity to revise some of her life choices. The opportunity comes on a night when she attempts suicide and she finds herself in a library managed by her beloved childhood school librarian. This library, where it is always midnight, is between life and death. It has an infinite number of books filled with the stories of her life if she had made decisions differently. By choosing another alternative path from her “Book of Regrets” she can try to find the life in which she’s the most content.

The opportunity sounds great but – no real spoiler – most of her alternate life stories are not ultimately much better than her “real” life.

I also discovered this weekend Reminiscence, an upcoming science-fiction film, via a clever piece of promotion that had me enter a bit of information about myself and upload a photo which was then animated and used to create a short “memory” of mine. A false memory, of course, but then as my memory deteriorates, maybe I would believe it to be real.

One of the trailers for the film

The promotional campaign says that “Nothing is more addictive than the past.  Nick Bannister (Jackman) offers clients the chance to relive any memory they desire. Looking into other people’s memories – especially people who you become romantically involved with – can turn up unexpected results.

This is director Lisa Joy’s first feature film.  She is best known as the co-creator, writer, director, and executive producer of the HBO science-fiction drama series Westworld. She is married to screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, the younger brother of director Christopher Nolan. Sci-fi must be floating in their home as Jonathan is the creator of the CBS science fiction series Person of Interest (2011–2016) and co-creator of Westworld. He collaborated with his brother, on the adaptation of Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori” into the neo-noir thriller film Memento (2000), and they co-wrote the scripts for The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and the science fiction film Interstellar (2014).

The film is written and directed by Lisa Joy and stars Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, and Thandiwe Newton. It is scheduled for release by Warner Bros. Pictures in the United States on August 20, 2021, and will also have a month-long simultaneous release on the HBO Max streaming service.

The film and the novel share a pretty universal idea that if we could go back into our past memories and select a point of departure, we could lead a better life. Change the college you attend, change your major or your career, pick a different spouse or no spouse at all, have children or don’t have children. There are so many possibilities.

You can’t change anything without changing everything. You change your college choice and your major might change and so your career changes and also the people you meet and where you live and so you end up marrying someone else or not getting married in that life. Maybe your life is longer. Or cut short.