Friday, May 15, 2009

Infinite Jest, Pandora's Star redux

I finished both of these novels today, but I don't really feel like I'm done with either.

Pandora's Star ends on a literal cliffhanger, some of our heroes going over a cliff in a raft. Luckily, I've already downloaded the follow-up, ready to see what happens. So I don't have any final thoughts, except that Hamilton has built an exciting story that I'm still not tired of, even at 900 pages in.

Part of that is thanks to the piles of details I mentioned in my previous post. Hamilton is writing an old-fashioned space opera, with more than a hundred planets, at least 4 alien races, and a threat to the whole human race. But, unlike, say, the Lensmen books, Hamilton wants you to feel the scope of it all. So we don't really need to know the history of the Tulip house, or Mark Vernon's home-world, or that New Venice denizens have a largely fish-based diet. But they add up, the weight of the details lending a sense that all of these worlds are different from each other.

Also, by flitting around the universe (I think there are at least 10 major point-of-view characters), he gives a sense of how vast his story is as it unfolds.

Infinite Jest, on the other hand, uses all of its details to create a sense of claustrophobia. Almost all of the action (so to speak) takes place in Newton and Allston, and even there, largely in a few square blocks. Wallace piles on the details so that we get the know the characters initimately, so that a few words tell us huge amounts, and create connections through the novel. It also means that new information dropped late in the book can have seismic effects in how we look at what has come before -- a few words from James Incandenza completely changes our view of his relationship to his children, that sort of thing.

One thing that I haven't seen addressed in the little bit of poking around I've done about Infinite Jest is the question of who is the narrator. Most people seem to think that Wallace himself is the narrator, just talking to us, but I find that position untenable. Wallace is obviously a careful writer, and there are verbal tics (such as the repeated use of "like") which appear too frequently for them not to be a signal of some sort.

For a while, I thought that there's no unified narrator -- the narrator in Hal's parts sounds like Hal, the narrator in Joelle's parts sounds like her, and so on. This is partly true, but I think it's misleading. Even in the Marathe sections, when the narrator sounds French, using tortured English syntax, we have the give-away "like" and the high-level vocabulary, which Marathe can't possibly know. I had a bit of an epiphany when I was reading one of the footnotes, a dry proof of the Mean Value Theorem, where all of sudden, Hal breaks in to say that he's not sure the proof is correct, but he's doing his best to transcribe Pemulis. Throw that in with the observation that there's only one first-person narrator, which is Hal, and notice that the first-person narrator occasionally refers to Hal in the third person, and I think it becomes clear that Hal is supposed to be our omniscient narrator.

So, what does all this mean for the novel as a whole? I'm not sure yet, which is one reason that I said at the beginning that I'm not really finished with the book -- I think there are a lot of details that will make more sense, or have more resonance on a second read (whenever I can spare that kind of time again...) I must say, though, I'm looking forward to tackling the novel again -- I felt that it was very rich, and I feel like it would gain even more poignancy on a re-reading.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Infinite Jest, Pandora's Star

It's a long while since I last posted, but it'll be even longer till I write anything substantive.

Since I last wrote, I've been wrapped up in Infinite Jest, which is insanely long, clocking in at 1000 oversized pages in small type. I've also been listening to Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star, which clocks in at a mammoth 40 hours.

Both are enjoyable in their own ways, and each one feels like it wouldn't be easy to trim substantially. (That is, I can see cutting some pieces I don't like, but not even 10%)