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.


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.


Back Home it is Yesterday

We arrived at Yaroslavsky station quite close to departure as my son and I had made one more pointless journey to the Airport as our luggage was apparently found – sadly it was not. We had anticipated something like this and looked around the station the day before. Across the road their are a number of shops where you can stock up on provisions. The most vital things are just add water food and drinks, toilet paper and set wipes (which are actually a form of currency on the train), sweet things. While you can acquire most  stuff on the platform when it stops I never saw wet wipes.

At the time of writing Komsomolskya Metro station is undergoing works so areas are closed off. But you exit the Metro sort of at the back of the station and you need to go right and then left to get to the front. Russian stations all have scanners and security so be prepared. We were in the 04 Chinese train, one of the older carriages in 1st class with a shared sink and shower of sorts. We had bought all sorts of things with us backgammon, go, a handpresso machine, cups, sporks, towels, slippers and sandals and a sleeping insert. We ended up with none of these. However, the only thing I missed were sandals, the coffee, and the spare battery and charger for my phone. We had ereaders, bought cups spoons and Turkish style coffee, plastic storage containers. On day one we fashioned a Go board from paper and coloured pistachio shells, we just looked out the window realised our mobiles couldn’t capture it. We read and we eat.

Figure 1: Staring out the Window

Over the 4 days we fell into a pattern quickly. Morning coffee with black bread and those strange croissants in packets, lunch black bread sweaty curd cheese and meat, afternoon the loose leaf green tea we bought by accident brewed in the plastic pots purchased last minute. We got to know people,  the journey is very socialable.  I met my shared shower neighbour through his concern for the water coming up through the shower drain and the odour, I met others through shared wonder at the view, and generally people kept their doors open. We had “people round”, someone around my age heading home to Australia the long way, a young Austrian couple on a world tour, before going to find work in New Zealand. Meanwhile the Chinese gaurds prepared amazing noodle meals for themselves most of the rest of the train lived through collecting boiling water from the samovar at the end and pouring it over dried noodles.  As we went back and forth it became like a familiar street where people know you, they stop talk, kids play, often you just stand staring out the dusty windows.

Figure 2: After the Birch, endless fields

You can easily lose yourself on the train, lulled until you arrive at Irkutsk at around 720am. Collecting hot water and visiting the bathroom we nodded and talked through the open doors. Travelling East in a train and adding +1 to local time once a day does something to your sleep patterns. In 4 days it’s 5 hours. On the last day we woke at 5am – midnight in Moscow.  It was a bright morning and we eat the last of our provisions. Going along the corridor I noted the open doors, and others also awake and wondering why. My son pointed out he was wide awake, yet back home it was yesterday.