The Howling Fantods: Reading Infinte Jest

Just after the half way point in the Trans Mongolian Moscow to Beijing and just after 4000km mark I managed to complete David Foster Wallace’s Infinte Jest. It took me weeks to read. Made even longer by the long summer nights in the West Highlands keeping me away from my nightly reading routine, and the count down on the kindle. It was the first large book I read on the kindle, I had read “The Romanov’s” by Montefiore which google tells me is 736 pages, despite sometimes getting lost in the footnotes, it did follow a logical sequence and was okay. I felt lost in Infinite Jest, and recalled some research done by colleagues at the Open University (led by Anne Campbell) into e readers, which suggested that while learners appeared to find it easy to read, they also felt that “active learning”, for example preparing and evaluating discourses for an assignment, was much harder on these devices. So perhaps the sense of being lost in e ink when the reading materials demands more attention is not just my experience.

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Figure 1: The 4002km Mark Through the Dirty Window

It is a poor reader that blames the medium, so back to the book. The overlapping stories Centre round a tennis academy, a drug rehab house and a Quebec separatist group. When I say overlap, let’s be clear, it takes a while for them to intersect, and in the first parts of the book it is often by indirection, through following a deep description of what appears to be a minor character, a loose thread you think you are following away from the tight story ball, or at least it seems to, or at least you thought it was the story, but in the end it folds back in. There is an elegance to it, and according to the Guardian the author says it is based on the Sierpinski Gasket. 

It is a book that demands attention. So, even though it appears on those lists of very long books, being long is not the point, it does not lull like the prose in Remembrance of Times Past, or the even longer Dreams of a Red Chamber (which I am slowly reading on paper), it jars, it celebrates its complexity. It is not just the host of characters (see the infographic here) , it is also densely written, with shifts in pace, voice, vernacular and apparently style, which through its sheer length become it’s style. Through it you identify with different characters, Don and his story of redemption, Hal the prodigy (is he?), James the father film maker, Remy and his wife, and Joelle Madam Psychosis. Did I enjoy it. Is it a good book. I admit to points where I thought it over indulged, when I recalled an article about Raymond Carver where it suggested his terse style and brevity which drew comparisons with Chekov was his editor Gordon Lish, not his. If only Foster Wallace had such an editor. At other points it felt like the drug\drunk bits were overplayed, creeping into tourism  that for me seemed to date it – do you still read Eastern-Ellis, Bukowski, Kerouac, or Burroughs in your 40s.

However, other times it felt like some of the most finely crafted prose I had ever read. The characters richly drawn and viewed from multiple perspectives layering over each other, you felt their weight. This is one of the reasons for reading, to access other lives, not to live for a moment in those lives, but through those lives to think about your experiences, to spark your own hidden life. Did I enjoy it, well sometimes, I will admit I moaned to my partner about it, I am sure she was sick of it. Is it good, not sure, it is probably better to say it is a great book, as that just about accommodates the messy flawed magic.

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Lake Baikal and Olkhon

We arrived in Irkutsk with a few areas of uncertainty, would we be able to get out to the Airport and back in time to catch our original 10am minivan, when we got to the Airport would we have one bag, two bags or no bags. For speed we decided to get a taxi. Looking for the official yellow ones and drivers with badges. It seems even the official taxi do not use the meter. Aeroflot  and various guides say 350 Rubles, we managed to get the driver down to 500, and he was in a hurry, running a couple of lights. We arrived. I saw my big red bag through the glass, then my son also spotted his – at last, with some dismay we had proper large backpacker bags.
Coming out of the Airport we met peak taxi pestering. The yellow ones now wanted 700, though we got one for 600. We arrived at Master Grill opposite Irkutsk bus station the inauspicious pick up point for minivans at 930am. I called the company we found by googling. Could we swap back to the 10am slot. No. Then suddenly yes, and with our bags strapped to the top we headed out at speed. Great speed nervy speed helped by some heart raising over taking and near misses. A local Russian who worked on Olkon our ultimate destination told us the driver was a Buryat and they have their own rules, and so it proved at the ferry when he slipped the lengthy qeue and got straight on. At least he would slow down when on the dirt tracks I thought, unfortunately for my backside and nerves he did not.
The guide books tell you Khuizir the “capital” of Olkhon is a dusty and dung filled shanty town, and the real island is the rest, the wild parts. We stayed at Nikita’s Homestead, it’s a ramshackle series of wooden homes in a large compound where you get breakfast and dinner. Great homely Russian food like kasha and soups and millet porridge, and the local delicacy we quickly become obsessed by – Khushuur, a fried meat/veg pastry.
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Figure 1: Just one More …Dugald eating Khushuur
On the first full day we filled our bags with packed lunches and just walked. Following the shore line we went North, walking through sand dunes, wild flowers, cliffs, Russians camping and at play. We swam in the waters of Baikal, it is supposed to add five years to your life, I think perhaps the cold is more of test of your good health rather than a cause of it. We did two firsts, our first backpacker trip, around the North end in a TMZ van, our first old people’s trip a whole day on a boat with middle aged Russians visiting sacred Shamanic and Bhuddist sites.
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Figure 2: Cattle Grazing on Siberian Machair, Olkhon Island
Both were well worth it. They took us to extraordinary places, and it was fascinating to see how each group inhabited these places. My son says I overthought it. The backpackers seemed image hungry, often careful to set the scenes without people, or posing in the edge. The older tourists and families took similar ones, but also posed groups, they travelled in larger groups and enjoyed food and good company. Of course it is not as simple as that but I couldnt help thinking about the way visitors back home “consume” the Highlands, or bouncy yellow buses full of backpackers, or Lochs and Glens, same places, different stories.
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Figure 3: A Trip to the North End of Olkhon

In the evenings and afternoons we explored the muddy streets of Khuizir, grabbing a icecream or something for a packed lunch, I don’t know why, but to me the guide books seemed wrong, I liked the town. Perhaps it reminded me a little of the Highlands, laid back, in a time when every highlander felt a duty to have an old car rotting outside, maybe more, if you were really doing your duty. Or maybe it was hearing the same said of many rural areas which didnt have romantic old buildings, but was built  fresh and quickly often with cheap materials. Places to house people. Places people say are ugly places, to be used as a base to explore the sublime landscape. Things people say about Highland towns. One of “the Russians” who worked on the island in the summer told me in Winter the island dies, “it is just locals”. Something else I have heard before.
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Figure 4: A View of the Capital from the Homestead
On our last morning we rose early –  one final dip in the sea. The sun was just rising, the water even colder, we edged in for the briefest moment. Then back to the homestead for a shower and porridge and eggs.  We said goodbye to the fine people of Nikita’s, and bumped along back to Irkutsk. Stuck our bags in left luggage at the Bus Station, and wandered down to the central market, bought sausages, cheese, black bread, wet wipes and bits for the train, grabbed a coffee and went down to the river. Later at the train station we eat a snack in the canteen – just one last Khushuur. Then back on the train.