Just over 300 pages into Infinite Jest I was beginning to despair. I needed support. A pep talk. Someone to say: Soldier on! You can do it!
Things seemed to have stalled. Where was this going? Where had we been? What was the point of this whole Québécois separatist thing? How in the world were Hal and his drugs and the tennis academy and the N.A. meetings and Eschaton and the complete filmography of James O. Incandenza and those dazed, stranded cartridge-watching victims ever going to fuse together in a coherent whole? I did love certain set pieces, taken alone: the stuff about the addict preparing for his four-day high-octane ganja binge; much of the tennis stuff, which in its micro-obsessiveness reminded me a lot of my old ballet stuff. But the long, wide, paragraphless pages of obscure acronyms/abbreviations and tennis-camp architectural detail and patience-trying forays into bizarre dialects? A bit much. The scenes between Marathe the Yoda-like Québécois and Steeply the cross-dressing U.S. agent? Meh.
But then I got to p. 320, and lo: breakthrough. In a passage starring Marathe and Steeply, no less. Here the two fall into heated exchange — in a scene that led me to think about, of all things, Jonathan Franzen and Freedom:
Marathe’s chair squeaked slightly as his weight shifted. “Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. … But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”
And so I found myself appreciating anew the tingly satisfaction of reading across a breadth of contemporary texts, sensing how they speak to one another, inform one another, whether consciously or not. I thought of Hemingway and Faulkner and their drive-by intertextual tweakings (the Charlotte of Wild Palms, the Catherine of A Farewell to Arms). And I imagined DFW and Franzen perhaps conversing on the subject of “freedom” — via dial-up e-mail, say — and wondered whether Franzen had felt a reverberation in the force, felt the frisson of echo when he’d landed on his driving theme; whether he and his friend had indeed discussed “freedom,” and whether each had agreed it was The Issue of our time; or whether it was simply inevitable that a certain kind of author, independently, should gravitate toward “freedom” as a thing to interrogate. And I imagined Franzen grappling with what to call his Big American Novel, and harking back to a conversation he might have had with his friend DFW, or even perhaps to his own reading of his friend’s Big American Novel, and possibly, maybe, to this particular passage on p. 320, and deciding to use “freedom,” to own “freedom,” to write it across his novel’s title page in a sort of cosmo-literary high-five to his old friend (shouting, “Freedom! Freedom!”). And although this is all pure speculation and most likely silly — and by no means am I implying the idea was a theft (which would be totally absurd): no, quite the contrary, this is about connection and fraternity and maybe in a way kismet — I have to say, something about considering these coincidences and possibilities was rather nice. It made me suddenly like Marathe and Steeply — and spurred me to read on.