Thursday, September 03, 2009

9/3/09 Infinite - Jest, pages 500-700

1. Randy Lenz. Good Lord. Wallace may not uncork a lot of narrative thrill-rides, but as I've written about before some pieces of this book could be made into some pretty intense short stories. Along with the horror of Hal's discovery in the microwave, James Incandenza's father shearing his knees off, and Joelle's overdose, add Randy Lenz and the Curious Incidences of the Animals in the Nighttime. Brrr. For a book without much overarching narrative drive, the shorter contained narratives can get pretty white-knuckled at times, as they do with Lenz's noctural adventures. Reading sections like this is kind of like seeing those early Picasso paintings where one realizes that he can paint realism that he wants to. It puts the cubism into context - makes the aesthetic choices seem more deliberate. Or listening to Jack White shred the guitar and then going back and listening to White Blood Cells. For a book whose overall plot is either static or vaguely non-existent, the micro-plots and character arcs can get pretty gripping.

2. Tonally, the mixture of menace and comedy of the A.F.R. is a pretty complicated cocktail. Wallace does a really masterful job of building them up as a threat, even though as a concept they're pretty ridiculous as a terrorist group. In some ways, Wallace's strengths as a humorist come from his ability to wield a certain deadpan tone of narrative voice when approaching patently absurd situations. In his fiction, he's able to lay out absurdities as he sees fit, and the A.F.R.'s danger/menace cooexists uneasily but effectively with their comedy. I particularly like the oft-repeated assertions that really, the only thing they fear is hillsides. It's a Monty Python touch for an organization that proves, in its murder of the Antitoi brothers, to be completely serious and brutal. It's a delicate shifting point, that murder of the brothers, because for so long Steeply and Marathe have been all talk, no action. We get the suggestion that the A.F.R. should be feared - the sound of the squeak, and all that, but it's played mostly for comedy. But when the broomstick comes out, it's like Wallace is pulling back the curtain on the comedy and saying hey, you know how it's really funny to have a terrorist organization with mostly legless members? They're still a terrorist organization - i.e. terror and fear are indeed their weapons.

3. The Crooner Johnny Gentle section (which we see through Mario's history film) ascending to the presidency is another place where the tone of the book shifts pretty abruptly. Despite all of the literary pyrotechnics, for the most part Infinite Jest seems to try to capture real people and real personality types - there aren't many flat, cartoony characters despite its occasional trips into satire. Gentle, though, really is more of a cartoon; more a collection of tics than anything resembling a real person. The picture that's painted is a kind of funhouse Reagan, I guess; with his history of artifice as a singer and the kind of intimidations-beneath-charm that seem vaguely Reaganesque, Gentle comes off as as Reagan moved to logical extreme. I think what Wallace is trying to do here is to draw out the American tendency to deify celebrity. The daily doings of Ben, Jennifer, Brad, Robert Pattinson, etc. etc. etc. are the subject of much ink (electronic and otherwise) and care, and for some reason celebrities exert an enormous gravitational pull on American culture and its members. I'm hardly immune - why should I know about Matthew McConaughey playing the bongos naked on his front lawn and get arrested? I have no idea, but I do. Gentle then is the logical extreme of this tendency to value celebrity as currency - he is put in a position of power by virtue of his celebrity, and allowed to run amok. I'm not sure what Wallace is suggesting by the fact that Gentle seems to be such a shrewd and ruthless negotiator, though. The whole execution of the Concavity/Convexity plan is like the way the CIA sees itself operating - coldly, efficiently, and for the National Interest (as opposed ot the way they seem to actually operate: blindly, confused, and with the lurching contradictions of any large organization).

4. The book seems unfair to Avril. It's clear that her family has issues with her which results in a fair amount of hostility (Orin demonizes her pretty unmercifully, but Hal also doesn't seem to have the most positive of feelings towards her), but the narration seems to suggest that there is something terrible and off in Avril's treatment of her family. The thing is that her openness to her sons seems genuine, and even though she may take pains to ensure that they know they are loved, it doesn't seem fair from a narrative standpoint to continually insert these suggestions that her love is smothering or somehow solipsistic. As an outsider, it seems to me that Avril is doing the best she can to hold together a pretty screwed-up situation - there are suggestions of infidelity and a certain locking-away-of-skeletons, but these seem like understandable human responses to the kinds of things that have befallen the Incandenzas. Not to mention whatever sadness she has around her life with Jim and his death; that remains unexplored so far. We have a scene from Jim's history; why is Avril's pain obscured and why is she painted as having some kind of sinister life-sucking presence hovering underneath her declarations of maternal love?

5. I love Gately and the Crocodiles. Wallace really dignifies these men that have survived despite everything, and captures something authentic about the way that confused people like Gately can accurately see that beacons of hope and wisdom are often contained within foul-mouthed individuals of seemingly foul countenance. Their sheer cussed tenacity and emphasis on confronting real shit head-on is such a contrast to Hal's fakery when it comes to dealing with real emotions/sadness.

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