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?

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