July 10, 2012

Review: Infinite Jest, The Audio Book

In March, Hachette Audio released an audio version of David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, in two versions, as an audio download (56 hours) and as a Playaway - an iPod-sized device that runs on a battery.

Hachett advertises the recording as "unabridged", but, as I'll explain shortly, the audio book is definitely not unabridged. In fact, roughly 10% of the novel - the famous endnotes - is missing.

Note: My review of the recording (I received a Playaway from Hachette) is at the bottom of this lengthy post. But first - Wallace's novel is read by Sean Pratt, who was also kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email.

1. When did you come into the project?

I first heard about it from the producer, John McElroy, in 2009, when he mentioned the possibility that he'd be producing IJ for Hachette. We talked about the project for over nine months, until it was green-lighted.

2. Are you a big fan of Wallace and/or the book?

I'd heard of DFW and IJ, of course, but like most people, I'd never read any of his work. Once, I knew we were a "go" for the project, I did watch some interviews, etc. on YouTube as well as read about the book itself. I thought both he and his work were very interesting and complex.

3. What are some of the other books you have narrated?

I've done a LOT: about 660 titles in 16 years. They include almost every genre you can think of....and some I'd rather not discuss... :-) Favorites would be Ben Hur, Raintree County, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Michael Burlingame's Bio of Abraham Lincoln, The Drunkards Walk, many of the Robert Heinlein books, and A Death in the Family.

4. How did doing this book differ from the others? If you have done non-fiction books, then this one is quite different, with a non-linear manuscript, nearly 400 endnotes/digression, and a cast of hundreds. How was it decided how to read it, techniques to use ...?

It's unlike anything I've narrated! Period. Is it like anything you've read?

The demands are enormous. Wild syntax. Serpentine sentences. Unattributed dialogue. Foreign language (some of it made-up). Crazy characters who come and go, willy nilly. Yikes! But I can always tell when an author has taken the time to read their work aloud in order to hear what the words sound like. The flow is always better, the tempo is consistent and the words and phrases have a real melody to them. When you narrate a well written book, like IJ, it's like a surfer catching a wave; it just carries you along. Without doubt, though, it's the most difficult, most rewarding book I've worked on.

5. How many hours a day did you work? How long did the project take? (Is that different than other books?)

First of all, the decision was made not to read the endnotes. As a narrator, that seems right to me. IJ is difficult enough to follow, at times, without creating yet another level to distract the listener. Don't get me wrong, the endnotes are great, but given the constraints of our format, I can't see how they'd have worked. I know that's not what DFW's biggest fans want to hear, but as a performer, that's what I believe. What we have here is the pure narrative as it unfolds.

Second, to some extent, you need to trust the narrator to make choices. They're not always the choices the director or another actor would make, but they're his. John gave me a lot of leeway on my performance. Still, there were moments where I understood his reservations and made adjustments. One, actually involved DFW's use of abbreviations. I wanted to spell all of them out for the listener as a courtesy; it's hard to comprehend what's going on in an audiobook when you're not spelling things out. I mean, while most people know what "i.e." or "Dr." means, not many know "e.g", "Q.v.", "c", "A.D.A" or some of the more idiosyncratic ones that DFW came up with. But John convinced me that they were many instances where they needed to be kept "as is" and so that's what we did; that's why they call it a collaboration.

6. With so many uncommon words (Madame Psychosis's radio show has a ton of them), did you have phonetic cheat sheets? Multiple takes?

If you count "scoring" the text - when to breath, what's the most important word or phrase in each sentence, is this parenthetical phrase more or less important than the main sentence, circling words to be looked up later, etc - that takes a significant period of prep, especially for so long a novel. Our recording sessions ran five to six hours, with breaks every hour or so.

7. With two-page sentences and odd sections (i.e., James Incandenza's filmography), what kind of a challenge was this book? (Did you have phonetic cheat sheets?)

On two-page sentences: That's where the scoring comes in. They're too hard to tackle, otherwise.
On keeping characters straight: I had separate sheets with all the characters and their voice notes, a pronunciation guide, and a blank sheet to take notes on.

And as I said, note 24 (J.O.I's filmography) isn't included in the recording. It's a PERFECT instance of why the endnotes present such a challenge for the audiobook format: a long list of discrete subjects, punctuated with technical language, and parodic precis of each film. Works on the page, but man, it would be quite another experience to listen to it.

8. Did you listen to Wallace reading from IJ and, if so, how did that influence your approach? (I heard a small part of The Pale King being read (the opening section) and I thought the reader lacked DFW's voice's warmth.)

In general, I don't listen to the author because...

1) For good or ill, I want my interpretation to be first and foremost in my head. Does an actor watch Oliver's Hamlet before he starts rehearsals? I sure wouldn't!

2) Authors and narrators have very different jobs: one writes, the other reads aloud. I think if you'd listened more to Robert Petkoff's performance (which I thought was great, incidentally), you'd see where he takes it. As an actor, his range is necessarily broader than Wallace's, and that makes all the difference.
In another interview, Pratt conceded that "I had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to it ... Not just the length, but the depths of people's devotion [to the book]. ... It was the hardest book I ever had to narrate... it was maddening, engaging, enlightening, frustrating and entertaining."

For those people unaware of Infinite Jest, here's Hachette's description:
A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
As Pratt noted, this audio book does not include the 388 endnotes - which are nearly 10% of the book. I think that is a huge mistake, because they are not necessarily any harder to read or understand than the main portion of the book. Hachette includes a PDF file of the endnotes with the audio download, but that's not much help if you are listening while in transit, or blind. At Goodreads, someone quipped, "That is like reading Finnegans Wake and not including the words that make no sense."

Hachette spokeswoman Megan Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post that the decision to ignore the endnotes was an "incredibly difficult decision for all involved, and we debated different options for a long time before beginning production. Because some of the endnotes are pages-long digressions, if we had them read in line with the main narrative, we would have run the risk of making the already complex story unfollowable for listeners."

Nick Maniatis of The Howling Fantods website wrote in mid-April that the "endnotes are essential to the enjoyment and understanding of this novel [and] there is much significant material missing if the endnotes are excluded". I agree. While some endnotes are simply casual asides offered by the narrator, many others include key information to the book's many subplots.

Roughly one month later, Maniatis spoke with Hachette Book Group's Vice President of Audio, Anthony Goff, who confirmed that the audio endnotes will be recorded and available. Maniatis reported on May 24 that Goff "understand[s] that having recorded end notes are essential to Infinite Jest".
By way of explanation it was made clear that current audio book technologies (both in file size support by digital delivery, and sheer file management if end notes are recorded as individual files make it very difficult to do things exactly as they would like. i.e. 450-ish files if the content was produced in order to allow readers to skip end notes - though why you'd want to skip them when the first 350 pages are already dizzying is another question - the novel trains the reader to cope...

The Audible UK version of the original audio book will become available for purchase around September (pdf end notes), and the 6 hours of recorded end notes are expected to be available in the summer for everyone (for an additional, smaller, cost).

The end notes will not be integrated, but it does sound like Hachette Books have long term plans for making this work as the technology allows it. Maybe some enterprising person (or Hachette Books...) will take note of where each end note occurs so people who've purchased the whole text can integrate them somehow.
I note that the issue of the limitations of current technology was not mentioned during the initial complaints about the missing endnotes, although, in retrospect, it was hinted at. Statements from Hachette mentioned "the complexity of the endnote issue" and conceded that it was "unable to include them".

Once the endnotes are released, however, I have no idea how a listener would use them with the original release. Do you need to switch between two devices? How would it work with separate mp3 audio files? Because new chapters or sections of the book often begin within a track, I don't see why endnotes could not similarly be included within the respective tracks. Not every endnote would need its own track.
So (finally) what do I think of the actual in-hand recording?

I love it. I love the fact that Infinite Jest exists in an audio format at all. (I wish they had used the original hard cover art for the Playaway rather than the 10th anniversary paperback version.) The reading, while abridged, is thoroughly enjoyable. Any fan of Infinite Jest should be thrilled with Pratt's performance.

(The Playaway consists of 55 tracks, each roughly an hour in length. The back of the Playaway has eight buttons (play/pause, reverse, forward, volume, speed of playback, etc.) and a little window displaying the track number and time remaining). It requires a AAA battery.)

I listened to various parts of the book, mostly a few sections from near the middle of the novel:
Gately driving Pat Montesian's Aventura through the Boston streets for food supplies for Ennet House (pages 461-69 and 475-79)

The AFR's murders of the Antitoi brothers (480-89)

A conversation between Gately and Joelle and the question of her beauty/deformity (531-38)

Randy Lenz's night-time activities (538-47)

Gately's midnight showdown with the Nucks (601-19)
Pratt's different voices seem true to the book's many characters, though I was distracted by the voice used for Joelle van Dyne, which sounded like a slightly effeminate man.

Listening to someone read a book forces you to listen to every word, whether you want to or not. It both slows the text down and opens it up, so you really hear the rhythmic repetition and hard snaps of consonants in a sentence like "She pulled some Commonwealth Substance-Abuse study in a black plastic binder off a long black plastic bookshelf filled with black plastic binders."

Pratt's reading gives a entirely new perspective to Infinite Jest. What comes through in his reading is Wallace's extraordinary linguistic dexterity, his unerring ear for dialogue, his care in crafting sentences, and his sly and understated wit. I found myself grinning at various sentences, the casual humour of which I almost certainly missed when reading silently to myself.


laura k said...

What comes through in his reading is Wallace's extraordinary linguistic dexterity, his unerring ear for dialogue, his care in crafting sentences, and his sly and understated wit.

Sounds like a masterful job. Great review.

laura k said...

I think you should cross-post this to the other blog.

allan said...

I did.

Zenslinger said...

I gotta go with them on the endnotes. Trying to include them would be just too crazy.

I read books aloud to my wife. It really does bring a different appreciation to a well-loved work (I never try to read it for the first time) because it forces you to slow down.

Zenslinger said...

I say this as someone who didn't finish the book, and enjoyed the footnotes. The filmography is very illuminating as to the main (at least at that point) character's relationship with his father. But that narrative thread (such as it is) has to be much more important in this context.

laura k said...

When you narrate a well written book, like IJ, it's like a surfer catching a wave; it just carries you along. Without doubt, though, it's the most difficult, most rewarding book I've worked on.

Very nice.

laura k said...

Another thought...

This post is a great example of the relative strengths and weaknesses of print books vs books in other media. You found that the audio format gave you something that print couldn't, yet the audio format didn't support the endnotes (or so the publishing team believed). This balancing seems appropriate for a book that supposedly rewrote the rules.