Monday, July 06, 2009

7/6/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 81-150

Whoa boy. Things are heating up around IJ way. I'm going to break this down bullet-point style, not as any sort of DFW homage, but because the sprawl of the book is starting to get downright unruly, as Wallace hits page 150 still in setup mode; that is, he's still laying down new track as the book heads toward the second century mark. So, here goes:

1. Expanding on something that I wrote about the first 80 pages ("What also stands out is Wallace's Jules Verne-like take on entertainment in the future"), I found the brief digression on the history of the video-phone in the imagined future of Infinite Jest to be an example of Wallace at his best, writing the way that very, very few people are capable of. In a few short pages, he melds a very prosaic sci-fi conceit, the invention of the videophone, with an exploration of the ways that people adjust to new technologies in terms of the presentation of their public selves, complete with a rigorous examination of the cause-and-effect nature of social pressures on individuals. In addition, it's got very funny moments, like Wallace's tossed-off asides regarding certain investors in videophone technology losing their shirts, and some absolutely terrifying images (the description of the masks hanging on hooks next to the phone and getting mixed up by family members rushing to the phone). Really, it's almost like a self-containted short story, so to find it as background coloring the setting just points up the genius to spare that Wallace possessed. It's also an exaggerated version of the dilemmas of Facebook, wherein a new medium demands the new presentation of one's public self. Just as the videophones evolved to a static presentation of an attractive celebrity, so has Facebook evolved to present people's semi-public selves. Also, as someone who uses videoconferencing technology at work, I can vouch for Wallace's observation that observing oneself having a conversation, and observing the conversation partner, is terribly awkward. Videoconferencing is here, and it is just as alienating from a connection perspective as Wallace predicts in this short sketch.

2. When critics get on Wallace for being concerned mostly with his own cleverness (Michiko Kakutani's New York Times review: "Indeed, the whole novel often seems like an excuse for Wallace to simply show off his remarkable skills as a writer and empty the contents of his restless mind."), I feel like they're referring to material such as the sequence between Maranthe and Steeply in which Wallace breaks down the levels of betrayal/loyalty going on with Maranthe. Not going to lie - I'm pretty sure that Maranthe is ultimately compromised and loyal to Steeply's bosses, but I lost track of all of the ping-ponging descriptions of his loyalties. I am positive Wallace had worked out exactly what was was going on, and who thinks Marathe is betraying whom, but I got lost. And I'm not quite convinced that it's necessary to have all of the back and forth to get at the idea that loyalty and compromise quickly become very blurry things. Thoughts on Wallace's intentions at all the double-blind explications of Maranthe dilemma?

3. Also, the 2 footnotes that really take up some serious space: the filmography of James Incandenza and the explanation of the Wheelchair Assassin's origins (the latter being footnote 304, and the background exposition coming through Struck's plagiarized paper on the organization). One of my favorite books of the last couple of years is Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and she uses footnotes even more extensively than Wallace, usually in the style of these two expansive footnotes. I really enjoyed these, because, as with any sci-fi or fantasy endeavor - though this isn't straight-up sci-fi as much as sort of "contains sci-fi elements" in movie rating parlance - world-building is crucial. It doesn't make sense narratively to come to a full stop and inform the reader exactly what the contours of this fictional society are when those contours are presumed understood by the reader; how then to get the exposition across? I would say that these two footnotes are great examples of Wallace's intelligent solution to the problem - setting off the main narrative with deliberately place-less exposition that nonetheless more fully builds out the world Infinite Jest inhabits. I blew through both of these footnotes, especially the filmography, but from what I'm reading elsewhere there's plenty of narrative grist in there as well.

4. Steeply's grotesque appearance - I'm not sure what to make of it, but it resonates with the grotesque image of the steadily evolving videophone masks referenced above.

5. I loved the section in which Wallace pivots from mentor to mentor in the Enfield Tennis Academy, capturing vividly the cross-section of different kinds of advice and worldviews that can be possessed by various people, even when those people are bound by common cause and parts of their identities. The contrast of Hal's brilliant observations about the way that ETA positions the boys to bond against the administration as a way to develop their mental games with Struck's more prosaic advice regarding in-match flatulence provides both a sweeping continuum of Wallace's engagement with the issue of enacting one's place in modern society, and also some prime juxtaposition based humor.

1 comment:

CAlex6977 said...

I love everything you said and explained here except number 2.
Step back from your explanation and realize that DFW created in you the exact feeling he was attempting. Frustration and confusion with the back and forth and loyalities. I think it was amazing and frustrating and overdone as well. However, I also think thats exactly what DFW wanted to get from reading that section. Anything less and we might have understood everything or actually drawn a different conclusion. Thats the DFW genius I guess. Thanks so much for your post it helped me find another level of understanding in my reading.