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



stuey said...

let me apologize now for comments that in tone will sound condescending at best, and pedantic at worst. i love the history you provide on your attempts to read ij and especially your honesty in presenting your opinions that arose at the time of the failed events...a topic that most lit crit guys would wave off as frivolous, their turgid disembodied egos unable to even begin to fathom that the putrid mayonnaise on their advertisers delight sandwich has given them a case of the runs that is seriously i
pacting their ability to discern pynchon from pinchoff...
i violently disagree with you about the erdedy episode but again dig the fact that you are willing to take it on. that dfw places it so upfront has to be of the utmost importance. our agreement on that might in fact trump our disagreement as to why. in that regard im being pretty nasty though because our reasons couldnt be farther apart. thank you for a setup on the order of ronald reagan in his iq 90 persona fielding a slow rolli g grounder to short and say "well, now there you go again." dfw's marijuana addiction as embodied in erdedy and get ready, kate gompert, is wallaces most painful and denial ridden admission/avoidance cry for help. a marijuana addiction so akin to pure obsessive/compulsive disorder that admitting toit ( the first half of the first step in aa) is an emasculationof the highest order,which is why erdedy is saddled with the painful but more masculine qualities of ocd that involve a tortured mathematical precision. gompert gets the pure unadulterated suicidal mania WHEN she quits smoking pot!

where i also agree with you very strongly is your passionate perhaps hysterical) admission that hal has to be. the narrator throughout ij. but we both know he is not. one of my early insights about ij was that the on-the-spot narrator was always present at the scene and therefore the narrative voice, if this were true and that wallace didnt f it up ( he doesnt) would limit perspective, experience, vocabulary, presentation quite frankly very much in the way you describe it per the lexical rape of gately. i resent your characterization of gately it is too dismissive and reeks of a lack of subtlety and discernment having to do with topics like education versus native i telligence, socio-economic strata versus caste, surface versus the irrational not so sure that the wraith is a wraith; im much more inclined to simple explanations like hal very shrewdly and wisely asks for and gately too both shrewdly and wisely accepts to be hals aa sponsor. at least one interpretation of the chro ogically late but early placed "poor yorrick" scene which finds gately and hal gigging for joi as a mask wearing john wayne looks on. iirc jois head wasnt much of an option given he blew it up in a rigged microwave. the fact that gately is saddled with typical blue collar predisposition and is too busy to help poor hal because he is eating is nothing more than hals guilt. hal confessed to oi that moments prior to discovering his dads null head that he smelled something very appetizing emanating from the kitchen. gately and hal digging up jois head is simple metaphor for doing aa stepwork with a sponsor and hals frustration that a sponsor can only do so much...

Andrew H said...

I am experiencing a desire to abandon IJ. I am at page 100. A little self-description is perhaps relevant re my lack of connection to this work. I am in my mid-50s and read almost no fiction at all. However, I do read a lot, and have(for my engineering job) developed the discipline of not giving up on "demanding" material. I am also entirely untouched by depression, drug use, and overt feelings of dislocation / alienation. In fact, I would say that I am happier than my life circumstances would justify, and have been that way all my life.

Why this personal story? In short, I wonder whether IJ really only resonates to those who have a certain kind of personal history. There is no intended value judgement here - I am entirely open to the possibility that I am "happy" largely because I live in a kind of "avoidance" mode, unconsciously deciding not to tangle with certain issues and problems. Again, I am not consciously aware of such a mode of living, but I acknowledge its possibility.

In any event, I am interested in your (and others) thoughts about whether IJ appeals to a certain "personality type" and is very difficult for others to identify with the novel. It is interesting that you - a person who clearly is far more interested in reading fiction than I am - struggled with the book at first, but then found it satisfying later on. Is there any advice you can offer re a "mindset" that might make the project less daunting.

A very good friend of mine is a huge DFW fan, and I would, all others things being equal, like to finish the book.