Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ezra Pound's WWII radio broadcast scripts online

The worst embarrassment in the history of American Modernism is the fact that one of its greatest poets, Ezra Pound, passed through World War Two with his lips firmly pressed to Benito Mussolini's ass. When Pound did come up for air during those years, it was only to spew lame-brained, pro-fascist, anti-Semitic bile over Mussolini-controlled radio. This should serve to remind us that great poets can also be major assholes. Harold Bloom has written that Pound's broadcasts "ought to be read by admirers of his poetry, since they feature virulent anti-Semitic diatribes, exactly contemporary with Hitler's Holocaust..." There is also the matter of The Cantos, Pound's large-scale masterpiece and one of the undeniable monuments of Modernism. Some Pound scholars would prefer to think that the poet of the Cantos is somehow a different man from the fascist ranter of the radio broadcasts, but even a cursory reading of the Cantos shows that this is hardly the case. Some of the poems are infected with the same strains of anti-Semitism and fascism we find nakedly displayed in the broadcasts.

I've recently discovered that all of Pound's scripts are now online at the following webpage: Ezra Pound WWII Broadcasts. Anyone interested in reading Pound's worst writings (that judgment is both moral and aesthetic) can now do so.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

PNIN by Vladimir Nabokov

Near the middle of Pnin, Nabokov pulls out of his stylistic hat a gorgeously lyrical sentence that proves there's nothing necessarily fallacious about imitative form:

The brook in the gully behind the garden, a trembling trickle most of the time, was tonight a loud torrent that tumbled over itself in its avid truckling to gravity, as it carried through corridors of beech and spruce last year's leaves, and some leafless twigs, and a brand-new, unwanted soccer ball that had recently rolled into the water from the sloping lawn after Pnin had disposed of it by defenestration. (108)

Look beyond the alliterative music of this lovely line and notice that it's an overloaded, 'flooded' sentence that flows meanderingly down the page in a formal parallel to the swollen stream it describes. This is writing and wit of a very high order.

Unfortunately, the novel is not as good as its best moments. Pnin contains beautiful, unexpected passages on painting (94-98) and an equally unexpected, moving digression on the Nazi genocide (133-135), but as a whole it's an oddly disjointed novel, a loose collection of academic episodes that can be read as a more traditional precursor to that academic novel to end all academic novels, Pale Fire. Pnin's most important relationship, that between Pnin and the unnamed, Nabokov-like narrator who is 'unmasked' in the last chapter as Pnin's erotic and professional rival and who is possibly--or even probably--Nabokovianly mad, is a distant but distinct pre-echo of the relationship between Pale Fire's John Shade and his mad annotator, Kinbote. To better understand Pnin, however, we should perhaps ignore this precursorial significance and think more deeply about the relationship itself. For it seems that Pnin's narrator, a shadowy and almost purely grammatical presence until he usurps Pnin's story and academic position in the surprising final chapter, significantly changes over the course of the novel. (And this change itself might be Nabokov's sly, subtle parody of the obligatorily altering 'round' characters prescribed by E. M. Forster and his followers.) In the beginning, the narrator is a cruel caricaturist of his central character, inadvertently constructing a case study in the cruelty of the comic. But just as we the readers begin to settle comfortably into this interpretation, this appreciation of the narrator's ironic unreliability, that narrator becomes more sympathetic toward his antihero, even as he vanquishes him. (It's easy and costs nothing, of course, to sentimentalize those we have destroyed, but the narrator in the novel's latter half exhibits sympathy toward Pnin, not sentimentality.) The turning point may be the aforementioned passage on the Holocaust near the end of chapter five: these pages mark the narrator's unwritten realization that he's telling a tale more tragic than comic, that his caricatural project is foredoomed because his real subject is the impossibility of comedy in a world of genocide, death camps and the Gulag... But I hesitate to push this idea any further. Like all Nabokovian word-worlds, Pnin is a place of irony abounding. It is a realm where all interpretations are but castles built on quicksand. A deconstructive reading might find the novel issuing in an aporia (what a surprise!) between Pnin's and the narrator's versions of Pnin, but this attempt comes quickly and obviously to shipwreck on the fact that we only have 'Pnin's version' as mediated through the narrator, a character who knows Pnin, for the most part, at second- and third-hand--who doesn't really, in short, know Pnin at all. So if this text does in fact vanish into a postmodern fog, it's not the De Manian pea soup of undecidability but the more immediately troubling ground-cloud of individual unknowability. And aren't we all lost in that fog? this novel finally asks. Forced to know the characters of our world through the mediation of others, we muddle through a life that's half-mystery, half-conjecture, only to find ourselves at the end of it in thrall to that ultimately unsettling other, memory, that unreliable narrator inside our heads. Yes, we too are such stuff as Nabokovian novels are made on. And our little lives are rounded with copyright pages.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Time and Narrative in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" by Gerard Genette

Gerard Genette, a good example of the critic as technocrat, whose commentary on Proust's masterpiece contains such illuminating lines as "...the relationship between the time of events and the time of the narrative could be summarized as follows: N(arrative)1=H(istory)4; N2=H2; N3=H4; N4=H2; N5=H4; N6=H1(Swann's love); N7=H3," opens this brief (and obvious and labored) essay with a "hypothesis" that is surely the reductio ad absurdum of reductive literary criticism: "...all narratives, regardless of their complexity or degree of elaboration...can always be considered to be the development of a verbal statement such as "I am walking" or "He will come" or "Marcel becomes a writer." " Genette grants that this is a "rudimentary analogy" but then proceeds to base his entire argument (in a sentence that is, incidentally, a little masterpiece of the non sequitur) upon its "strength." The structuralist commentary that follows contains no insights that could not be gained from a reading of Proust and is thus, quite literally, worthless (and as such, it's probably the worst entry in an otherwise impressive anthology, Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, Hoffman and Murphy, eds.) And so as I read the essay, my mind kept returning to that opening paragraph and an activity that I'll call "Gerard's Game": the moronic reduction of complex fiction to denuded, 'see Spot run'-style statements. Here are a few that came to mind:
  • Ahab chases a whale (Moby Dick)
  • Caddy leaves home (The Sound and the Fury)
  • Connie gets laid (Lady Chatterley's Lover)
  • Gatsby loses everything (The Great Gatsby)
  • Sebald walks (The Rings of Saturn)
  • Austria sucks (pretty much anything by Thomas Bernhard)
  • Tristram tells a tale (Tristram Shandy)
  • Hamlet sees a ghost (Hamlet)
  • Lad kills Pop, fucks Mum (Oedipus the King, sounding like a classic tabloid headline)
  • Bloom poops, walks, drinks, wanks, thinks (Ulysses)
  • Marlow does the Congo (Heart of Darkness)
  • Burroughs does smack (Junky)
  • Randy Romans roam the Roman realm (The Satyricon)
This could go on indefinitely...

Genette's fundamental "hypothesis" tells us nothing about the books in question, but I'm intrigued by its similarity to the "high concept" pitches so beloved by Hollywood executives ("It's Field of Dreams meets Rambo"). I guess all unimaginative technocrats think alike. (Well, of course they do. That's how they recognize one another.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Plot in the Modern Novel" by J. Arthur Honeywell

Honeywell's brief 1968 essay "Plot in the Modern Novel" (included in the admirably readable anthology Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, edited by Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy) outlines a historical narrative of the development of novelistic plot that is as powerful as it is questionable. Building on the work of R.S. Crane, Honeywell writes that 18th-century novelists "tended to construct their plots around definite beginnings and endings" (the novel-initiating birth and novel-terminating marriage of a Fielding hero, for example), while 19th-century novelists "began to subordinate the problem of beginnings and endings to the problem of constructing a logical sequence of events." So far, so good. All of this is greatly oversimplified, but the relative privileging of beginnings and endings as opposed to 'middles' captures the way 18th-century novels generally feel 'looser' and closer to the picaresque than the more carefully structured works of the following century. The Honeywell scheme continues into the twentieth century with the contention that Modernists turned away from 19th-century causational structure and toward "structuring the events of the novel so as to present a coherent 'world' or vision of reality." Along with these supposedly distinct--but actually interpenetrating--tendencies, Honeywell finds three corresponding tendencies of plot movement: reversal of fortune in the 18th-century (Tom Jones, Clarissa), reversal of moral intention in the 19th century (Crime and Punishment), and in Modernist novels "a movement from appearance to reality constituted by the emergence of structural patterns which give coherence and intelligibility to facts previously seen as unrelated and incongruous." Honeywell's description of Modernist plot tendencies initially reads like a pretty good description of the process of understanding Joyce or Proust, but the more I think about it, the less it satisfies me. Its most glaring weakness is a reliance on that hairily hoary critical cliche, appearance versus reality. (That's the way it's expressed, as I recall, in elementary literature textbooks: appearance versus reality, as though we are to imagine a football game between the two: the fist-pumping Hemingwayish he-men of Reality against a cadre of opiate-fogged Wildean aesthetes who wave their perfumed handkerchiefs in support of Appearance. It's a duality with all manner of nasty little sociopolitical undertones; homophobia and misogyny are but the tip of its berg.) First of all, the revelation of reality was less a twentieth-century innovation than a nineteenth-century fetish and one of the important engines of 19th-century novelistic production (think of all those Zola novels no one reads anymore, all dedicated to anatomizing a hard, 'scientific' reality beneath the appearances of French society). Bumping this tendency up to the next century in order to preserve a moralistic view of 19th-century fiction is woefully ahistorical. If we focus instead on Honeywell's description of the Modernist process of the revelation of reality, we still face the problem of Honeywell's understanding of appearance and reality as a simple opposition. It's truer to the facts of twentieth-century literature to view them as a dialectical pair. While the 19th-century saw reality as the material basis of existence and appearance as a sentimental veil, Modernism exploits and constructs a dialectic of appearance and reality. Material reality determines appearances, as in the vulgarist Marxism (when someone once accused me of being a vulgar Marxist, I corrected him thus: "I'm a fucking vulgar Marxist!"), and appearances also determine reality, as in the most decadent Wilde-ism. Much of Modernist literature, up to the present day, concerns itself with the latter side of this dialectical interpenetration: the way appearance (or representation, or discourse, or [place your favorite jargon word here]) constructs a 'reality' that demands Nabokovian scare quotes. There is much more in the heavens and hells of Modernist literature than is dreamt of in Honeywell's philosophy.


Anyone seeking an introduction to the work of Harold Brodkey should probably leap right into the story "Innocence" from Stories in an Almost Classical Mode and not bother with his debut collection, First Love and Other Sorrows, published in 1958 and seriously dated today. There's not much to be said about the stories in First Love save that they're Fifties New Yorker stories and typical of that breed, less interesting than Salinger and much safer than Cheever at his risky best. Brodkey was in his twenties and still searching for his voice when he wrote these works. There are a few brief flashes of the writer who will emerge in the Classical Mode stories, but for the most part these are unexceptional works, apprentice Brodkey. Get a copy of Classical Mode and check out "Innocence" if you want to read a writer who can pull off sentences like "To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die." (I'm still not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds wonderful. In a subsequent sentence, Brodkey attempts an explication, but he only shows us that he doesn't really know what it means either--a fact that, curiously, takes nothing away from the brilliance of the sentence.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Finite Notes on INFINITE JEST : part 2

   (Continued from the previous post)

DFW in the heart of the heart of William Gass Country

11. "Dave, dude, why's your book so white?" This is not an idle or PC-motivated question. Whenever we consider a work as large and seemingly all-embracing as Infinite Jest, we should think about what it excludes and/or marginalizes. There are African-American characters in IJ, but they are without exception minor and/or stereotypical. In terms of memorable characters, this novel is as white as a Woody Allen film. A brief early scene narrated by Clenette in the first person (37-8) seems to promise an expansion of the novel's range into the African-American housing projects of its Boston milieu, but the end of the novel leaves this promise unfulfilled and Clenette never becomes more than a minor resident of Ennet House, an extra, a 'figurant.' In the early scene, Wallace briefly opens a window upon a true American hell a world away from the absurdist pseudotragedies of E.T.A. But that window is just as abruptly closed and never really cracked again. This single scene aside, the color line is a boundary IJ doesn't even attempt to cross.

12. The book's first truly batshit barrage of endnotes comes on page 53 in a paragraph discussing recreational drugs. This is a rare case where Wallace's favorite fallacy (the one about imitative form) serves him well. The footnotes druggily break up the documentary realism of the text, sending the reader to the back of the book and then back to the text in a dopily confused state, not quite remembering the beginning of the sentence he's now reading, forced to read it again, then encountering another superscript numeral, flipping 900 pages to the signified endnote, reading it, flipping 900 back pages to the text, maybe finishing the sentence, maybe encountering yet another endnote. It's enough to give the soberest of readers a taste of pothead consciousness.

A still from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960)
 13. William Shakespeare shakes hands with Michael Powell when we read Infinite Jest intertextually. The novel's relationship to Hamlet is obvious (the title, Hal as Hamlet, Tavis as usurping uncle Claudius, James Incandenza as the Ghost, Avril as Gertrude, E.T.A. as Elsinore), so obvious, in fact, that we should be suspicious of it. It seems more a facile parody of Modernist intertextuality than a genuinely powerful and deepening relationship to another work. More important, I think, is the book's less obvious relationship to Michael Powell's great 1960 film Peeping Tom, a movie that reads today like Hitchcock postmodernized. (In one of the flashbacks to James Incandenza's youth, we glimpse several Peeping Tom posters on his bedroom wall [502].) Like Psycho, Peeping Tom is a thriller and shocker, but unlike Psycho it is a completely self-conscious film, commenting directly, not symbolically, upon the medium of film and its potential for sadistic cruelty. In a scene crucial to understanding the film's significance for IJ, we learn that the central character, an obsessive serial killer-cameraman, was in childhood the object, and hence the product, of his father's sadistic filmed experiments. Once again, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..." It's also worth noting that Hamlet's father didn't do him a bit of good, either.

14. Speaking of intertextuality, Wallace explicitly references the influence theories of Harold Bloom on page 911 and note 366, and his reference is so unaccountably angry and palpably defensive that we can only diagnose a major anxiety of influence on the part of our author/narrator. More seriously, this is Wallace at his most petty, using his novel to score an easy and trendy academic point. (When IJ was written, Bloom was an anti-PC lightning rod and seriously out of fashion in English departments.) Likewise, the book's earlier reference to Bret Easton Ellis is a case of killing a fly with a howitzer. The sad truth is that DFW today, mouldering in his grave, is a more talented writer than BEE (or Bloom, for that matter) ever was.

15. Kate Gompert. Suicidally depressed 21 year-old Kate Gompert is the most uncompromising and affecting character in this entire novel, and perhaps the biggest bone I have to pick with the late Mr. Wallace concerns his failure of her. For this is a case where we actually can speak of an author failing one of his characters. When she is introduced in a 10-page scene beginning on page 68, she seems (like Erdedy) to be destined for a major role in IJ, but (also like Erdedy) we only have a couple scenes and a few brief glimpses of her thereafter. (It occurs to me that in both these scenes DFW is playing with readerly expectations, artificially heightening and then gradually dashing them.) She is a character strong enough to carry an entire novel and to be at least the equal of Hal and Gately in this one, but after the strong intro, Wallace uses her briefly and then drops her cruelly to her death. And the word 'uses' is carefully chosen. Kate Gompert provides the thin, U.H.I.D.-style veil through which DFW tells us all he knows firsthand about the suicidal depression that will eventually kill him. If you read nothing else in Infinite Jest, read pages 692-698, where Wallace dons the mask of Kate Gompert's free indirect narration to write a 12-years premature suicide note. They're some of the most brilliant and moving pages ever written about suicide, and they're well worth the price of the book. When Wallace is done with them, however, he's pretty much done with Kate. A couple hundred pages later she falls unwittingly into the hands of the sadistic "wheelchair assassins" and presumably becomes a "test subject" victim of Infinite Jest V. The character Wallace created deserves better than this; her author fails her.

16. Another note on Wallace's prose. One of his stylistic tics, the sentence-terminal supernumerary adverb, is a sign of pernicious David Markson influence, really. Wallace overvalued Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress (a book I, obviously, didn't like very much), and Hal's interior monologue in the last 100 pages of the book has a decidedly Marksonian flavor. Compare the paragraph on pages 897-898 that begins "After a time, Sleepy T.P. Peterson..." with any page of Wittgenstein's Mistress, and you'll see what I mean.

17. Coach Schtitt's philosophy of tennis and life provides Wallace with an opportunity to state the novel's thematic core on page 84. (IJ is filled with explicit statements of its themes; Wallace is no obscurantist; he wants his book to be understood; and IJ's not really a difficult novel compared to, say, Gravity's Rainbow or even Sebald's Vertigo. Infinite Jest is too long, but not too hard.) What I'm calling the 'thematic core,' then, is the essential tragic bind of human life, what Schtitt calls "the real gem: life's endless war against the self you cannot live without"(84). That line is Infinite Jest bounded in a nutshell.

18. The first flashback to James Incandenza's childhood (157-169) takes the form of an extraordinary dramatic monologue spoken by Incandenza's father and concerning his own father--a little tennis lesson in the familial etiology of alcoholism and depression. This is one of the many surprises hidden inside Infinite Jest, a novel that turns out to be Sam Shepardishly rich in American monologues--and even includes one Irish monologue that's scatologically, floor-rollingly hilarious.

19. The maternal side of the novel's parent-child theme lies at the heart of the fatally entertaining final film by James Incandenza, Infinite Jest V. Of what does this mysterious, unsurvivable movie consist? By novel's end it seems that most of the film is an apologetic monologue spoken by a dazzlingly beautiful mother-figure to a camera mounted in a crib and giving a baby's-eye view of the woman. Most of the novel's discussions of the film present its content as secondary to its technique, a wobbly lens developed by Incandenza that mimics the blurry vision of infancy. But since yet another of the themes of IJ is the use of technique as a flight from psychological self-investigation (whether that technique be the dogma of Alcoholics Anonymous, the systematic regimens of sports training, or the science of optics), we should probably read 'against' the novel here and think about the extraordinary power of the film's content. It's a powerfully regressive, infantile, infantilizing image that cuts deeply into the viewer's psyche and activates pre-oedipal centers of polymorphous perverse pleasure. Need we wonder why 'subjects' would saw off their own fingers to keep watching this thing? It's simultaneously the most pleasurable and the cruelest film imaginable.

20. Wallace stated in a 1996 interview that the form of the first draft of Infinite Jest (not, importantly, the shorter final draft that became the published book) was based on the Sierpinski gasket, a fractal-like triangular form from which an infinite number of progressively smaller but angularly identical triangles have been removed:

Fragments of this original formal conceit (along with a Sierpinski gasket poster in Pemulis's dormroom) apparently survive in the published version as a fascination with synecdoche and self-similarity (e.g. many of the films described briefly in the Incandenza filmography can be interpreted as miniature versions of the novel in which they are contained, small identical triangles within the larger one; likewise the monologues and self-contained narratives that repeat on a smaller scale the themes and rhythm of the novel as a whole).

21. But it's more helpful to visualize the final published version as a much simpler geometrical form, an ellipse with its twin foci at Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, E.T.A. and Ennet House, the upper class and the underclass. Hal and Don never meet in the book, but the borders between the places and classes they represent are more porous. Both Mario and Hal visit Ennet House (although only Hal enters), Ennet House residents work at E.T.A., some Ennet residents are middle-class professionals. Over the course of the book we can perceive the foci of the ellipse moving closer together, promising to form a perfect circle.

22. That promise remains unfulfilled at the end of the novel. In fact, the ending isn't much of an ending at all, except for Fackelmann, whose horrifying Peeping Tom-meets-Clockwork Orange death is left mostly to the reader's imagination. To any readers disappointed by the inconclusiveness of Wallace's conclusion, I can only scream: What, you expected an ending?! You expected a novel called Infinite Jest to actually end unjestingly?!?! In fact, this novel doesn't end (how could it?), it stops. Its language ceases, but its story continues in Wallace's cleverest and most audacious formal move. The story continues in that great, unwritten, year-long arc of space-time that connects page 981 to page 3, the ending to the beginning (which is also the end of the story). This circularity is the 'infinite' aspect of the book's form, its circular synthesis of endlessness and boundary. And at some point along this unwritten arc, as we know from Hal's flashback and Don's flash-forward in the text, princely Hal meets the recovering Falstaffian Don Gately (the ellipse becomes a circle) to exhume Hal's father and recover the master of Infinite Jest V, probably in an effort to save either Orin or Joelle (or both) from the tortures of the A.F.R.... But none of this actually happens. It's only implied, pointed toward, represented--like everything else in the book.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Finite Notes on INFINITE JEST : part 1

David Foster Wallace and Gromit
(image stolen from here, with ironic apologies to Michael Ward)
1. This book and I have a history. Long ago, shortly after the last Ice Age (the Vanilla Ice age), when Infinite Jest was first published and hyped to the Moon (hell, to Jupiter and beyond the infinite), I saw the author on Charlie Rose and, to put it mildly, I was not especially impressed. I watched Wallace, with his bandanna and his grad student angst, and I thought: jackass poseur. Nonetheless, something about the interview--and the hype; I'm not immune--led me to pick up his book and give it a try. I read the opening scenes and concluded that IJ was a seriously overrated, and not particularly well-written, late addition to the School of Barth--in short, not worth my time. The book impressed me so little that I eventually gave my copy away. Fast forward about a decade to see me ordering the tenth anniversary edition of IJ from Amazon. Something about the book had stayed in the back of my mind, and I decided to give it another chance. This time I read the first hundred pages before concluding that it was a weak pastiche of Barth, Pynchon, etc. and, as before, not worth the required reading time. I skim-read the bulk of the book, finding a few scenes of interest, and then returned it to the shelf. Four years later--a week and a half ago--I retrieved it and decided to force myself to read the damn thing, the whole damn thing, footnotes (endnotes, technically) and all. Imagine my surprise when at page 150 I realized that I was no longer forcing myself, that the book held me and compelled my forward progress and was (gasp!) actually worth the time. I still have serious criticisms of and reservations about Infinite Jest, and I read the book with some resistance throughout, but this reading has forced me to more positively reevaluate both the book and its author.

2. First things second: You'll need two bookmarks to read IJ properly, one for the text and one for the endnotes. This fact places the novel in rather elite company upon my bookshelf: My only other two-bookmarks-absolutely-required books that I can recall at the moment are The Annotated Lolita and Allen Mandelbaum's great translation of Dante's Divine Comedy (available in three extensively footnoted paperbacks from Bantam Classics). It probably doesn't need to be said that both these works kick IJ's ass--but I said it anyway. And if you're trying to decide which English translation of Dante to read, take Hugh Kenner's advice and mine: choose Mandelbaum.

3. In the beginning is the end. The first scene of Infinite Jest (Hal Incandenza's ill-fated university admissions interview) is chronologically the last scene of the story. This perfect inversion of fabula and syuzhet is the sort of thing that would've caused the Russian Formalists to cream their jeans--if they had worn jeans, and if the Party had approved of cream--but Wallace is doing something more and riskier than mere formalist play. The fact that this scene is the end of the story is not made immediately clear and the reader cannot be certain of it until he has read the final page, but the realization/suspicion came to me somewhere around page 80, and it utterly transformed the tenor of that opening scene. What upon first reading seemed a fairly standard bit of postmodern dark comedy became a much darker and even tragic scene, a tragedy of postmodernity. This movement from comic to tragic recurs in many different scenes throughout the novel and should be considered one of its signature rhetorical devices. It's probably the most effective way in which Wallace critiques postmodern fiction even while writing it.

4. The opening interview scene and the lengthy Erdedy scene that follows hard upon show us, respectively, the best and worst of Wallace as a narrative artist. The interview scene effectively places the reader inside the monad called Hal Incandenza and permits us to feel the pathos of his crippling self-consciousness and surreal inability to communicate (both 'postmodern conditions' par excellence, the latter being one of the novel's major themes; I'm surprised, in fact, that Wallace doesn't explicitly quote Cool Hand Luke at some point, given that throughout Infinite Jest we have scenes of a tragicomic "failure to communicate." He probably does quote it, somewhere), and it achieves all of this in a prose that is both fluid and metaphorically rich. The Erdedy scene, by contrast, finds Wallace in full fallacy-of-imitative-form mode (a mode all too familiar to readers of his late story collection, Oblivion), evoking the obsessed, repetitive, boring life of a drug addict through deliberately boring and repetitive prose. Granted, we are inside Erdedy's consciousness, but the representation of oppressive boring obsession need not itself be oppressively boring. Only one passage in this entire section impressed me: Erdedy sees/imagines a bug crawling in and out of a hole on a girder that supports his stereo and thinks of his stoned self in terms of the bug: "It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question"(20). Here is the infinity of Erdedy's subjectivity bounded in a nutshell. His overwhelming desire is to disappear into the lack that defines his self, a lack he simultaneously acknowledges and refuses to examine, a refusal aided by the very substances that help him disappear. It's the first appearance of an idea crucial to the novel as a whole: characters seek oblivion in flight not only from the world but from the self, from the psychological traumas that they, Bartleby-like, prefer not to explore, the deep, individual, psychological factors beyond the reach of pop discourses of therapy and recovery. This is the scene's key passage; the rest might as well be silence. I suspect that Wallace places this scene--one of the work's most tedious--close to the beginning as a challenge to the reader. Only those readers who make it out of Erdedy's room can explore the riches hidden beyond.

5. Most of the time, Wallace's prose fails to impress me. I'm not a fan of his hyperactive transitional 'and so then but's, and his like totally like compulsive use of the word 'like' never ceases to annoy me. Even as I read some of Infinite Jest's best sections--and there are many amazing ones that stand out like prime numbers in the novel's endless but not insoluble equation--I usually heard Wallace's prose rattling and buzzing in my mental ear like a mild case of tinnitus. One aspect of the Wallacian style that I find interesting and worthy of deeper thought is its frequent deployment in free indirect narration of 'dictionary' words that the character upon whom the narration is focalized would never use. Poorly educated and unread drug thug Don Gately, for example, uses the adjective 'Nietzschean' at one point. A critic biased against Wallace (James Wood, to pick a name out of thin air) would interpret this as a failure of free indirect narration and congratulate himself on catching DFW in flagrante. But a complete reading of IJ shows us that something much more complex is going on here. Most of the time, Wallacian narration is an interplay of two distinct voices: the voice of the character represented via free indirect narration and the voice of the narrator (who both is and is not, must be and cannot be, Hal Incandenza). Wallace, that is, elaborately constructs a series of free indirect narrative voices only to deliberately puncture their fabrics with alien words. This creates a tension between the characters' and the narrator/author's voices that's more 'realistic' than the elaborate ventriloquism of free indirect or first-person narration. It foregrounds the constructed nature of the text, the linguistic foundation of all its representations. (It's also worth noting here that Wallace defuses potential criticism by foregrounding this very technique late in the book, when the feverish Gately is 'lexically raped' by the wraith of James Incandenza.)

6. One fruitful way to read Infinite Jest is to listen for those moments when it indirectly comments upon itself:

The whole thing is almost too involved to try to take in all at once. It's simply huge. (67)

The whole thing's unpleasant and dry and repetitive and mostly dull. (1012 n.110)

...[I]s the puzzlement and then boredom and and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film's audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff? (947)

It is an index of Wallace's deliberateness as an artist, of the extent to which he knows exactly what he's doing, that some of the harshest criticisms to be levelled against IJ are to be found within the book itself.

7. To state the most obvious and scariest thing about this novel: it's fucking huge. Infinite Jest is a 'loose, baggy monster' (one of the Leavis siblings, I think, on Dickens's huge late works). It's baggier than a pair of hip-hop pants, and its individual parts are hypertrophied like its athlete characters' arms and legs. It has the body of a Dickensian megalosaurus, the oversized legs of a field goal kicker, and a brain the size of the M.I.T. student union. It's so enormous that it excretes almost a hundred pages of endnotes--in which pile of scat some of the book's best and most important passages are to be found.

8. The annotated filmography of James O. Incandenza in the multi-page note 24, for example, is a miniature comic-satirical masterpiece that brings Borges to mind. Incandenza is surely the greatest American avant-garde filmmaker never to have existed. Even if he hadn't created the fatally fascinating Infinite Jest V (and he didn't, of course, due to his aforementioned nonexistence) his reputation would've been secured by the Artaudianly cruel The Joke (two cameras trained on a cinema audience that watches itself onscreen until its self-consciousness turns into rage) and the dialectically mind-blowing Cage III - Free Show, synopsized thus:

The figure of Death...presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators' eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life...uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs. (988 n.24)

It's Hegel's master-slave dialectic transferred to the society of the (sadistic) spectacle, resulting in American literature's most horrible reimagining of Emerson's transcendental 'transparent eyeball.' Romantic nature epiphany becomes sideshow horror in a world where spectation is all.

9. Because Infinite Jest is also a horror novel. Yes, it is screamingly funny at times, and it fits easily into the comic tradition of the novel from Cervantes to Sterne to Joyce to Pynchon (a tradition we might as well call the 'history of the novel,' sidelining the nineteenth-century novel of 'high seriousness' and its social realist descendants as an important aberration, but an aberration nonetheless), but much of its comedy walks a black-comic tightrope and often tumbles into tragedy, and some other scenes give us sheer, unadulterated, nearly unbearable horror: Hal's nightmare of the 'face in the floor' (the novel's scariest moment, worthy of Stephen King at his best), the horrible death of Bobby C., the even more horrible death of Lucien Antitoi--impaled on a broomstick that's forced down his throat in a parody of fellatio and rammed through his gastrointestinal tract until its end protrudes from his anus like a surreal erection, a homophobic execution comparable to the finale of Marlowe's Edward II.

10. And while we're thinking about the nightmarish images of Infinite Jest, let's consider Orin's Magritte-ish oedipal dream in which his mother's disembodied head is bound face-to-Bergmanesque-face with his own, firmly tied like an unremovable phylactery (46-47). If we think about the subterranean connection between this dream and Orin's brother Hal's nightmare of being trapped on a gargantuan tennis court the lines of which demarcate "systems inside systems"(67) too convoluted to comprehend, we might come close to uncovering one of the most important secrets this novel asks about. (See note 10a below.) For IJ is an enormous "systems novel" that concerns itself with the various systems that form and inform the subjectivities of its characters (and by implication, its readers)--sports, the academy, addiction, AA, religion, social class, etc.--and the most fundamental of these systems, the one that the novel repeatedly indicts as the etiological site of psychopathology, is the modern nuclear family. Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse" might as well be the epigraph to Infinite Jest:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

10a. The following quote from Kundera is probably apposite to any consideration of the relationship between the characters in Infinite Jest and their author:

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own "I" ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become. -- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Paris Review Interviews and KCRW's 'Bookworm' archive online

I've been spending altogether too much time recently digging around in a couple of amazing online literary interview archives. Most readers already know that a large number of the classic Paris Review Interviews can be read online at no charge. (More fool me for buying two volumes of these interviews a couple of years ago.) The Harold Bloom interview is especially enjoyable. I'll probably be reading my way at random through many of the others over the next several years.

Less well-known is the enormous online archive of audio interviews recorded for Michael Silverblatt's gloriously highbrow and unapologetically intelligent KCRW radio program "Bookworm." Here you can  listen to twenty years worth of highly informative 30-minute interviews with the likes of W. G. Sebald (listen to his gorgeous Germano-British accent), Camille Paglia (who gives new meaning to the word 'motormouth;' she seems to have downed a bottle of amphetamines with a Jolt Cola chaser immediately before her 1993 interview), William T. Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux, William H. Gass, and just about anyone else a serious reader wants to hear seriously interviewed. And Silverblatt is a very good interviewer, knowledgeable and impressively well-read. Just listen to the first two questions he asks Sebald, and then ask yourself, "Why doesn't this guy have a show on PBS?" (America's best writers deserve better than a few predictable minutes around Charlie Rose's big round table.) Check out the Bookworm archive--but be warned: it's a labyrinth of Daedalus, and you might not find your way out.

Lezama, Arenas, Beauty and Dictatorship: A Quote for Egypt

Last night I watched from the safety of a television set half a world away as the citizens of Cairo fought for their freedom and--to put it bluntly--their lives against a mob of Hosni Mubarak's paid thugs. (And not particularly well-paid, either. According to news reports reaching the U.S., the going rate for a headbreaker in Cairo is half a chicken. That's exactly how much a human life is worth to Mubarak and his cronies.) As I watched the nighttime battle of stones and Molotov cocktails taking place around the massive Cairo Museum, one of the treasure houses of human civilization, the anti-Mubarak demonstrators on Tahrir Square impressed me as the most courageous people in the world right now. They are risking nothing less than everything in an increasingly desperate struggle to achieve the basic human rights that we in the liberal 'West' take for granted: the right to free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from being dragged to a torture chamber and electrocuted. If the defenders of Tahrir Square lose, their leaders will disappear one by one and reappear a few weeks later as broken men and women, the tortured 'confessors' at their own show trials. We have seen this sickening spectacle too many times in too many countries to sit back and watch it happen again--this time in the cradle of our culture. The citizens of Egypt are fighting today against an ugliness that will become even uglier before the present crisis ends. The ugliness of Mubarak's fascism is equivalent to the totalitarian ugliness Reinaldo Arenas writes against in his memoir, Before Night Falls, in a passage paraphrasing the great Cuban poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima:

A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police. Being independent and outside of their domain, beauty is so irritating to dictators that they attempt to destroy it whichever way they can. Under a dictatorship, beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque; to a dictator and his agents, the attempt to create beauty is an escapist or reactionary act.

The anti-Mubarak protestors have now become soldiers of freedom, allies of beauty. May they always remain so--even after they win.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


On this fete de groundhog, this 129th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce, I've just finished reading the best-known work of Joyce's Yugoslavian reader, Danilo Kis. Somewhere in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, a character remarks upon the historical irony by which Kafka's darkest fantasies (an atmosphere of general paranoia, absurd accusations, arbitrary arrest and execution, secret attic rooms) became the reality of the next generation of European Jews. Kis (whose work was introduced to the English-reading world in the great Penguin 'Writers From The Other Europe' series, edited by Roth) comes at the tragedies of midcentury Europe from the other side. Instead of reading Kafka into reality, Kis tells ostensibly realistic tales in a style that evokes both Kafka and Kafka's Argentine disciple, Borges. And instead of focusing on the crimes of the Nazis (presumably a politically 'safe' subject in Tito's Yugoslavia), Kis here writes of the crimes of our late, unlamented century's other titanic ideological monster, Djugashvili the Terrible. With only one exception, all the stories in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are variations on a single theme: the tragic irony of Stalinism. Kis explores the terrible ironies that result when an ideal for which you are willing to die is hijacked by people who are even more willing to kill you. (The one story that doesn't deal explicitly with Stalinism, "Dogs and Books," the tale of a 14th-century pogrom, is thematically related to the Stalinist tales and can be understood as an attempt, not entirely successful because too forced and explicit, to thematically expand the book into a more general statement on a 'tragic sense of history.') This is a necessary book--probably more necessary than brilliant. For Kis's variations are of uneven quality, and once you've read the first two, the rest are fairly predictable. Boris begins strongly, with two tales of impressive formal originality and moral force, "The Knife with the Rosewood Handle" and "The Sow that Eats Her Farrow." The next two, "The Mechanical Lions" and "The Magic Card Dealing," contain interesting passages but impressed me less. The title story is very good, an impressive Kafkazation of Koestler's Darkness at Noon with perhaps a dash of the later chapters of 1984 thrown in. The last two tales are shorter and lesser works, although the book's final line, on writing and testicular elephantiasis, is an instant classic. So while A Tomb for Boris Davidovich doesn't impress me as much as it impressed William Vollmann, for example, it's still artistically and historically important enough to demand to be read.