Monday, August 17, 2009

8/16/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 300-500

1. There seemed to be a point around page 300 where the book really seemed to click for me. I was loving it for the first 50 pages, and then the pace seemed to slow and slow and slow for the next 150 or so, but then sometime around 300 all of the setup that Wallace does up front really started drawing me in. I think I also finally got used to the rhythm of the book, which doesn't move at all like a classically structured novel. The interwebs have clued me in on the face that Wallace designed the book structure to be a "Sierpinski Gasket", a kind of triangle-based fractal, and parsing the structure of this thing definitely feels about like the kind of brain-heavy-lifting that the term suggests. One thing that felt crucial to locking in on the drive of the book was realizing that the plotlines aren't really set up to echo or converge - the themes are. So, for example, I spent a good chunk of the first couple hundred pages wondering how Wallace was going to link Ennet House and ETA, but now that I'm at page 500 or so it seems that the link is not one of plot (i.e. Hal is probably not going to be thrown into his whatever-it-is at the beginning of the book because of some run-in with Lenz or something) but rather of theme; ETA and Ennet House both being a repository of characters that use drugs to medicate their lives. Steeply and Maranthe's discussions on the clifftop regarding the conscious pursuit of deadly pleasure and choice reflect the daily choices that we see the ETA and Ennet House residents making. Choosing to watch the deadly Entertainment is much like the choice Joelle makes to suicidally overdose regardless of whether the plot strand following Joelle and the plot strand with Steeply and Maranthe converge or not.

2. One aspect of the book that just doesn't work for me is the constant humor regarding Steeply's cross-dressing getup and its various grotesqueries. What bothers me about it is that usually Wallace is sly about his jokes and doesn't belabor them; he's much more likely to get a laugh by spearing some absurdity or another quickly and out of the blue. For example: Pemulis ending his dictated footnote with "P.S. Allston rules". But in the case of Steeply he plays it broad and is needlessly repetitive. Every single description of any of Steeply's movements or looks reference some grotesque way that his costume or disguise appears - it seems to be going for observational humor but by this point in the book it's just tiresome; like the 3rd stand-up in a comedy club that comes out and notices the funny-looking dude in the front and makes the same jokes about him that the two preceding him did. For a book containing such varied descriptions and moments of humor and sadness, poking fun at Steeply's appearance seems unworthy of being returned to again and again, unless there's some kind of thematic point that I'm not aware of.

3. The Eschaton section is real tour-de-force. Again, it's a section in the book that could serve as its own taut, penetrating short story, and the fact that it's a small part of a larger whole is another reason to be in awe of Wallace's accomplishment in writing this behemoth. What's really impressive to me about this section is how well Wallace is able to work on multiple levels. On one hand, the sheer physical comedy of a mannered nuclear wargame being played by academically precocious 12-year olds descending into a physical fight is so well-delineated and true to the way that most activities of 12-years olds carry a real risk of just getting chaotic provides the kind of grounding drive that Wallace often achieves in his shorter set pieces, if not in the book as a whole. On the other hand, the postmodern contrasting of maps and territories and the way that Pemulis freaks out at the mixing of the two is a really clever way of unpacking the signs and signifiers conundrum that Saussure talks about. And the math is just ridiculous. To be honest, I skimmed it and didn't try to understand the calculus, because I started getting confused around pre-cal in high school. I do love the way that Pemulis's personality comes ringing through loud and clear with the naming of his diagram "HALSADICK" and with his final PS: Allston rules. The flight of Lord into the computer monitor is such a transcendentally hilarious and tragic climax of this section and really hits the tone that Wallace is going for a lot in the book - sadness with a lot of dark comedic overlay.

4. Lamont Chu's anxiety about reaching the pinnacle of success and getting caught up in Hype is a really trenchant section that plays on celebrity culture in America. One thing that I think it really illustrates is the way that for Chu the fallacy is that the accolades that come from success are connected on a 1:1 level with that success. What Lyle's attempting to get across to him in decoupling the Hype/accolades from the Success is the way that any sort of success in entertainment (and, as we are reminded multiple times, the Show is the name for making it in competitive tennis, the athletes are entertainers, and the biggest threat floating out there in the universe of the book is the Entertainment) is just an entry point into a very complex matrix of public approval/denunciation. I've mused on it a lot, but it reminds me of the Britney Spears experience, where a culture just all of a sudden elevated an individual up way past any sort of actual achievement into a heightened level of worship/lust objectification/etc., and then tore her limb from limb by labeling her stupid, crazy, slutty, and all of the 1000x pejoratives that greeted her long slide from grace. But all of that unconnected with the actual quality of music that she produced, which was, on balance, a handful of catchy and pretty great pop songs. But the tornado bore her away, and if her goal was to be an artist it got subsumed in her commodification. That's the nameless fear that grips Chu, and why Lyle is trying to help him decouple what he actually wants (happiness) from what he thinks he wants (success).

5. One thing that I really like about the book is the absence of James Incandenza. The impact of his suicide on Avril, Hal, Orin, and Mario, is obviously profound, but it's arrived at obliquely. The small slivers of the man that we do get are more powerful for their rarity, like a supernatural creature in a monster movie that's glimpsed rarely and mostly in shadow. So Wallace will throw out in description of the past that Himself was not in the position to meet people on some day, letting us fill in the blanks of the senior Incandenza on some ferocious bender, or senseless, or some combination of the two. It also echoes for the reader Hal's experience, since he has never really grieved for his father but rather put on the appearance of grieving and convinced everyone that he has grieved. It's pretty clear that Hal's self-medication and gradual cracks in his mental well-being can be directly traced back to the the suicide of his father, and the way that he pushes it out of his mind is similar to the way Wallace pushed the senior Incandenza off the main stage. Which of course, parodoxically, makes him loom larger over the entire narrative. It's his movie, after all, that everybody's after. It's his tennis academy. It's his sons that we follow around for a most of the narrative. And as we see with Gately, and many others, the sins of the fathers are absolutely and always visited upon the sons (and daughters).

Monday, August 03, 2009

8/3/09 - Infinite Jest, pages 150 - 300

Falling behind pace in Infinite Summer, so I'll throw up some of my thoughts on the section from 150 - 300. Coming on strong for the next section - I will catch up.
  1. Michael Pemulis is emerging as my one of my favorite character in the book, for his unbridled aggression and unpretentious teenager-ness. A lot of the characters seem to veer in and out of being actual characters and being mouthpieces or symbols for the complicated ideas that Wallace is trying to explore (I hated this about DeLillo's White Noise, and found that it ruined the book for me - "characters" just delivering didactic monologues to each other for pages, ugh - no thanks), but Pemulis is fully within the realm of fictional creation with his own personality and drive. Plus, he's the lowbrow comic relief of the E.T.A sections, and he reminds me of every student that I had in middle school whose sole aim was to get one over on any authority figure in range.
  2. Having started with DFW from the non-fiction end of things, I remember reading some of the stories in Oblivion and being surprised by just how dark Wallace is in his fiction. He goes to some really terrifying and dark places in the human psyche, and there seems to be a way in which the themes that he likes to tackle artistically (alienation, how to live/communicate with others, authenticity of thought/feeling vs. "faking it") are a lot easier to take when he's tied down to real-world subjects. He lets the subject of his essays serve as his anchor or tether, whereas his imagination is only constrained by its own limits in his fiction. Some of the stories in Oblivion parsed as horror stories, almost, although horror of the internal rather than external variety. The central character of "Mister Squishy", for example, is numbed by working in market research, but the suggestion that his attempts to deal with that involve manufacturing ricin to poison market research groups is way more terrifying and dark than Wallace's treatment of the soul-sickness of marketing in his cruise-ship essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". All of which is to say that the section in which Hal describes finding his father dead with his head in the microwave is straight-up terrifying, especially Hal's climactic confession to his brother that his first thought on entering the house was that something smelled delicious. that's the kind of grotesque detail redolent of something like Dahl's "Leg of Lamb" short story. Wallace can be extremely funny, and he can definitely get conceptual and intellectual and all of that, but there's a real core of anger/terror/sadness running through the heart of this book that can make it tough to digest, length/postmodernism notwithstanding.
  3. Similarly to point #2, Joelle's OD in the bathroom is straight up terrifying as well. Wallace gets so minutely detailed in everything that he writes about in Infinite Jest that when the subject really is horrible and/or scary, like a suicide by drug overdose or self-microwaved head, the details really make it loom large. He goes into as much detail with Joelle's OD as he does to the structure and layout of the Enfield Tennis Academy - not employing any allusive distance to scale back from her attempt to annihilate her own map, so to speak. Obviously, his own suicide looms large over a scene like this, not least because it can get really easy to project the the level of detail of thought and physical description of Joelle's attempt onto his own real-life map erasure. And suicide is all over this book - from the central one of James to Joelle's attempt to the Valium-addicted unnamed driver that destroys the Separatist terrorist mirrors in upstate NY.
  4. Wallace is great at capturing irritating personalities. Pemulis is one of these, but of equal delight is Day, the jc professor that shows up and uses academic jargon to attack the cliches that Gately believes in so desparately. Wallace is good at having his cake and eating it too in moments like these. It's an interesting rhetorical maneuver: AA is based on cliches, but Gately et. al draw real power from the cliches, and Wallace is most interested in the way that people live their lives, which for the members of Enfield House is dependent on believing in the central truth of cliche. Because the source of a cliche, really, is a very powerful statement. It's only the repetition that robs it of the power - it's not inherently false. But having Day around lets Wallace let the reader know that he's thinking actively about the contradictory nature of attempting to live by cliches. By making him such a buffoon, DFW shows he's on the side of the believers.
  5. I'm curious as to how non-tennis players react to the tennis sections. I find it all really facscinating, having played on my high school's tennis team (I wasn't that good), but some of the Separatist stuff, for example, is tough slogging for me at times. Thoughts?