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.


Zim said...

Hi Brad,

I just stumbled upon your blog after finishing IJ this afternoon, which I have to say felt something akin to the sensation expressed in the exultant Irish AA member's scatalogical monologue. Looking for somewhere to turn, and not ready to binge on the mountain of goodies on the Infinite Summer website like poor old Fax, I found this post thoroughly enjoyable. Especially illuminating, for me anyway, was were the final points about the ellipsoid structure and the relationship of the Enfield House members of ETA as being the same side of the same systematic dependent coin,

Just a couple points to throw onto yours. I think you're spot on about reading away from DFW's insistance that IJ5 is all about optics, especially when considering the mythology of the death-mother system introduced in Gately's hospital bed. I thought this mythology heavily informed the novel's views on family structures as essentially corrupt and perverse systems, as well as giving an eternally large scope to the ellipsoidal understanding.

Secondly, as a filmmaker, I couldn't help but read IJ story with an amputated third act. Not that the third act doesn't exist, but that it's been exorcized in the detached, technical way of Bresson, Goddard and J.O.I. himself (no pun intended). Having not read too many post-modern novels, I'm not sure whether this connection to New Wave film is intentional, but I find it certainly serves the novel's underlying theme about the ubiquity of entertainment. I enjoyed your take on the novels "ending", but when I closed the book I found my understanding to be much darker. In its own self-conscious way, I think the story can almost be seen as a pre-apocalyptic fabel, with the horror and destruction that amass at the book's fringes as the totality of the missing third act.

Anyway, having no one else to discuss the novel with, I very much enjoyed your post and look forward to checking out the rest of your site.

BRIAN OARD said...

For reasons unknown, the above comment was sent to my spam filter, where I just found it.