Kevin Guilfoile

I Got This Fire In My Heart, Won’t Let Me Sleep, Can’t Concentrate…

09.16.09 | Permalink | 45 Comments

NOTE: I realize some Infsumerians didn’t like the (fully disclosed) spoilers in my last post. There’s a big one (a nuclear one) in this post, too, but I’m wrapping up the novel this week and it would be difficult for me to do that without making this point, so here’s my apology in advance. If you haven’t yet finished, I would think twice before venturing past the spoiler tag.

I’m sure it never even occurred to Harper Lee that she could end To Kill a Mockingbird right before the trial starts.

That’s because probably the most basic axiom of storytelling, so obvious it’s rarely said out loud, is that you have to tell the best part. And another obvious thing you should especially never do is Show Spoiler▼

Eden M. Kennedy

The Floor Dodged His Foot And Rushed Up At Him

09.15.09 | Permalink | 12 Comments

Over the course of my reading I became aware that DFW liked Cormac McCarthy’s novels a lot, especially Blood Meridian and Suttree. As it happens, those are my two favorite Cormac McCarthy novels as well, and even though it’s been fifteen years since I read either of them, once I became aware of this bibliographical fact I began to pick up threads of McCarthy in Infinite Jest, and threads led to whole hand-loomed rugs bordered with Byzantine pornography.

McCarthy’s and DFW’s writing share several things, including a keen attention to physical and emotional detail, but it’s the way they delve into violence that seems to both unite and separate them. McCarthy, for example, considers the whole scene but then gifts you with just a sketch of the worst details — reading him is like looking at one of Bacon’s howling Popes, it’s the details you have to fill in for yourself that make it ten times worse. But DFW doesn’t let you look away. Think about how the Antitois brothers died. It’s horrible. But their deaths were described with so much detail that by the end I had almost no emotion about them. The image of a man with a spike through his eye or a broomstick shoved all the way through him is, on its own, nearly unbearable. But in IJ these images ride a wave of words that’s already pounded us into submission, and we only come up for air when Lucien Antitois floats cleanly away from his body over the Convexity toward home to the ringing of bells.

The scene where Gately takes the brunt of one Nuck’s aggression toward Lenz and the girls are on the lawn working over the other one echoes this scene from early on in Blood Meridian:

. . . Toadvine seized him about the neck and rode him to the floor and held him by the hair and began to pry out an eyeball with his thumb. The man grabbed his wrist and bit it.

Kick his mouth in, called Toadvine. Kick it.

The kid stepped past them into the room and turned and kicked the man in the face. Toadvine held his head back by the hair.

Kick him, he called. Aw, kick him, honey.

He kicked.

Toadvine pulled the bloody head around and looked at it and let it flop to the floor and he rose and kicked the man himself. Two spectators were standing in the hallway. The door was completely afire and part of the wall and ceiling. They went out and down the hall. The clerk was coming up the steps two at a time.

And so on.

Later on, the way the M.P. beats Gately’s mom in such a slow, considered fashion shows a little more of McCarthy’s restraint. Ultimately I find McCarthy pretty much riveting because he leaves so much out, but the world he creates is one I am heartily glad I don’t live in. Whereas the world of Infinite Jest, despite the horrible things that can happen in it (the family dog being dragged to death and reduced to a nubbin, my God), is one I feel I could navigate maybe just because the nape of the carpet is familiar and I have an accurate sense of how high the nets are strung.

Or, as Gately learns in the midst of his agonizing stint in the hospital bed, focusing on the small things helps you to endure the larger ones.

DFW also alludes to A Clockwork Orange a couple of times, which is well known for its own particular brand of joyous degradation. I think Gately has the self-awareness not to get off on beating the shit out of people the way Alex and his Droogs do — he doesn’t have the heart of a rapist –  and the spoiler line limits what I can say about Sorkin’s crew, but I do know that for me, Gately’s redemption and Hal’s trying to Come In and Mario’s sweet nature and a thousand other moments of true humanity balance out the psychic impact of all the brutality in this novel, described in numbing detail though it may be.

Matthew Baldwin

Sincerely Yours, David Foster Wallace

09.14.09 | Permalink | 31 Comments

Until recently I had no idea what this book was about. I don’t mean to say that I couldn’t follow the plot (although that happened on more than one occasion), but rather that it was unclear to me whether this was a book about tennis or addiction or entertainment or families or friendships or pet-murdering psychos or what. It seemed to be about all of the above, each in turn, but none for very long.

But from where I now stand–9/10ths of the way through and surveying the path I have trod thus far–it now seems obvious to me what the book is “about”. Infinite Jest is a novel about sincerity.107

The question now becomes: why does it take so long to realize this? Surely this does not reflect well on Wallace, that he so thoroughly buried the lede that someone could abandon the tome 800 pages in and still not know the point. In fact, it seems as though those with only a superficial knowledge of the book–having read only the first 50 pages before giving up, say, or basing their opinion solely on synopses of the plot and setting–describe the book as the very opposite of sincere, as ironic and cynical and dark.

My theory is that Wallace has pulled a reverse Mary Poppins, here. Rather than using a spoonful of sugar to disguise the medicine, he set his novel in a borderline dystopia, full of depression and suicide and malcontents, effectively disguising the simple and (dare I say it?) sweet message at it’s core. And he spreads it out over a solid k of pages so that, at no given moment, are you aware of what you’re imbibing.

No moment except perhaps this one:

The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one, and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability. The whole issue was far above Mario’s head… And Hal was for once no help, because Hal seemed even more uncomfortable and embarrassed than the fellows at lunch, and when Mario brought up real stuff Hal called him Booboo and acted like he’d wet himself and Hal was going to be very patient about helping him change.

That passage is found just shy of 600 pages in. And I can’t help but wonder what my reaction would have been if it had appeared on page 13. Would I have rolled my eyes, or laughed in a way that isn’t happy, or chalked this novel up as just a bunch of glurge best suited for the Oprah bookclub?108 Would my Sincerity Deflector Shields been reflexively raised, and remained in battle position for the remaining 950 pages?

As Kevin noted earlier, my generation has been steeped in irony since the get-go, and plunging into a novel that argued against such modes of thinking would have been the literary equivalent of Cold Turkey, the Bird, white-knuckling. Instead, what Infinite Jest provides is a 13 week irony detox program,109 designed to reduce the cynicism in your system at a slow enough rate that you don’t go all P.T.-Kraus-on-a-subway.

And then at some point you realize that Wallace has been performing something like a spiritual transfusion, that he hasn’t simply been leeching you of cynicism but also craftily impressing upon you the usefulness, the importance, the utter necessity of sincerity. The dude is like a giant ATHSCME fan, keeping the miasma of toxicity at bay.

As we reach the end of Infinite Jest the question becomes: can we retain the message that DFW struggled so mightily to impart, or is a relapse inevitable? It’s too bad there isn’t something like an Ennet House for IJ veterans, designed to keep us from drifting to our old ways of thinking, our “default settings” as it were. I can see now why people feel the need to reread the novel on a regular basis: “Keep coming back”.

Living a life of sincerity is a challenge, but Wallace is going to be very patient about helping us change.

Miscellaneous

Announcements

09.13.09 | Permalink | 8 Comments

Infinite Summer: Dracula

… is a go. Please visit (and circulate) infinitesummer.org/dracula.

After Summer Parties

There are a number of post-I.S. parties in the works. Here are the ones of which we are aware:

Andbutso (Austin):

Skylight Books (Los Angeles): A party to celebrate the completion of Infinite Jest by people all over Los Angeles, the country and the world in conjunction with Infinite Summer 2009. We also would like to celebrate the life and work of David Foster Wallace, a writer who so many of us deeply admired. We are hoping to have people who knew DFW personally in addition to members of the media and the general public. We will have refreshments (both AA and non-AA versions) and desserts which will include a custom cake from StraightOuttaChocolate and cookies which DFW himself enjoyed when he read at Skylight a number of years back. There will be a limited number of custom commemorative tennis balls courtesy of Sideshow Media, publishers of Elegant Complexity (an Infinite Jest guide). Update: John Krasinski, actor/director/writer for the movie Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, will be joining us to promote the movie (which opens the same day). He will read a bit from the book and sign movie posters.

Booksmith (San Francisco): Monday, September 28 at 7:30 p.m.. Let your social life commence again! Join other IJ readers – face-to-face, this time — to discuss the intricate complexities of a novel that has changed your perception of light reading. Bring your beaten and battered copy of Infinite Jest to enter a contest to see whose copy has been most abused. Suggested $5 donation covers wine and food.

We’ll supplement this list as more celebrations are brought to our attention.

The Remaining Schedule

The Guides will provide one more week of essay-style posts, followed by an “End of Summer Roundtable” from the 21st to the 25th.

Miscellaneous

“It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know”

09.12.09 | Permalink | 30 Comments

You Are Loved

Guests

John Moe: I Did Not Read Infinite Jest This Summer

09.11.09 | Permalink | 70 Comments

John Moe is a writer and public radio host now living in St Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the book Conservatize Me and his short humor pieces appear in several anthologies as well as on McSweeneys.net.

I’m still upset at the author for being a thief. Ever been robbed? Like had your house burglarized and your stuff rummaged through and stolen? There’s this period right after it happens when you can’t believe that someone got into where you live, the space where you sleep and bathe and eat, and just took stuff you had bought and taken care of. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone. Don’t bother calling the goddamn cops, they won’t do anything.

Or, okay, different analogy. We’re an urban metropolis that’s collapsing under the weight of corruption and moral degradation, gangs are everywhere and no one collects the garbage. Dystopia, right? But! We do have this one super hero who occasionally rescues us and occasionally he can’t quite rescue us but even then he provides us with the idea of hope, the idea of salvation and redemption being possible from our little hell. Only now David Foster Wallace has hanged himself and so our superhero has just announced that screw this city, I’m moving to Australia and you’ll never see me again and so we’re just left with rot and sorrow and no one will even collect the garbage and the cops are shooting people for no reason and everything’s on fire. Wallace left us. I hate that guy. And I love that guy, of course, but you know that by now. Fucking guy. Fucking Wallace. I should explain. On April 4, 2007, I got a phone call at work from my wife. She said my brother Rick had shot himself in San Diego where he was living. I was sucked up out of my chair (never to return fully to Earth) and calmly asked if he was dead. She didn’t know. Within a few hours, I was on a flight from Seattle to San Diego and drove straight to the hospital where Rick was. His brain was already gone, his body soon followed. The next several days were spent performing small tasks that all weighed a ton: collecting his personal effects at the hospital, figuring out what was to be done with the apartment he shared, all his books. I had to get a ride to the gun range where he had shot himself, talk to the manager who had been on duty about what happened, he told me about the employees who were on duty that day who still hadn’t come back to work. I had to drive my brother’s car from there back to the hotel where I was staying, leave it in the parking lot, and figure out what the hell was to happen next. Some tasks weren’t so straight forward, like getting to know the ex-girlfriend who would, in three months, give birth to a daughter Rick would never hold.

After a few days, I returned home to Seattle and all I was left with was, essentially, research material. Accounts of friends and co-workers. I also had my memories of him. The early ones were all viewed through a lens of him being The Greatest Guy Ever because he was my older brother and that’s how it works. The later memories are more painful: Rick being high at family gatherings, Rick asking for money, me not allowing Rick to meet my kids because I simply didn’t trust him any more, coming to the beginnings of a reconciliation with him months before he died, confident there would be years and years more time. The thing is, when someone decides not to go to work one day and instead puts a bullet in their head, everything else they do is a prologue to that act. So every camping trip anecdote, every story told by a trucking company co-worker about Rick’s penchant for adopting injured animals, every joke shared by a fellow volunteer at the sobriety hotline where he dedicated his time, it all leads up to what he did and that’s how you understand it. Their lives read like a suicide note. The howl Kurt Cobain produces on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” from the Unplugged in New York album is terrifying to me, or would be if I could listen to Nirvana anymore. I picture every Wallace book I see on a shelf as being soaked in tears. David Foster Wallace and Rick Moe, born just six months apart, were completely different people. I know that, but I have pretty hard time drawing distinctions sometimes. They both had brains that didn’t work in the same way as most other brains. I admired them both in ways that transcended any other admiration I had felt. With Rick, it was, again, the golden glow that older brothers have, on their bikes and skateboards, with their strength and jokes and cars. With Wallace, it was reading some of those Harper’s essays and experiencing Shea Stadium Beatlemania and a kind of loving fear all at once. Oh, so that’s a writer, I thought, sweating, screaming on the inside. As someone who wanted to be a writer, it was incredibly inspiring and absolutely soul crushing. Being a writer in a world that features Wallace would be like playing basketball in a world that has Michael Jordan, only none of us even know how to play basketball and we’re all injured toddlers with broken lacrosse equipment. A few years ago, I was working on a narrative non-fiction book and had a chance to go on a cruise as part of my story gathering. I knew not to bother. Maybe someone else could dare write about cruise ships, but what kind of sucker do I look like, you know? I loved my brother and I loved Wallace.

Then on September 12, 2008, fucking Wallace fucking killed himself. Look, I know well that depression is a disease. I know he fought it like a gladiator his whole life. I know, too, that he didn’t get the help he needed from the rest of us. I know that if we as a society approached depression and mental health with the same dedication and persistence with which we approached drunk driving or smoking or, hell, littering in the past, we’d bury a lot fewer of our brothers and daughters and heroes. We might have new Nirvana albums and Elliott Smith albums to enjoy. But I’m still angry at the events that took place and I’m still angry with these two heroes of mine who killed these two heroes of mine. I’m still angry for having my house burglarized. Wallace’s death brought for me a fresh version of the dread I was already experiencing after Rick’s suicide, this knowledge that life will never be like it was, it will be weirder and darker and happy at times and always always always more sad. I know now that everything Wallace wrote will be different for me than it was before. Even memories of his funniest writing include memories of the sorrow and desperation packed in there. My struggle when I do reach back into Wallace’s words will be to see beyond the shovel to the gut I felt when I heard he had died. I’ll need to get past the anger I feel for fucking ripping us off and denying us those future tomes. I’ll need to see David Foster Wallace for more than just the last thing he did. I need to remember wrestling with my brother in the rec room and going off jumps on bikes instead of his body hooked up to machines in a San Diego hospital. A few months after Rick died, I was given a notebook that he had kept as part of his ongoing recovery program. It was a journal of his fight to stay straight, to make a new life for himself that wasn’t built around drugs. I kept this notebook on a high shelf in the back of my closet for weeks, eyeing it once in a while as I passed through the room, thinking about it constantly. I had to know that there was something to Rick that I had not yet discovered, maybe some insight, at least some humanity. Finally, I took the notebook down, went to a Starbucks for some reason, got a big cup of coffee and entered his loving and terrible world. Then closed it, went to my car, and wept. Then ran some errands.

Infinite Jest is on my shelf now. Sure is big. Man, look at that thing. I hope to get to it soon. I hear it’s really great.

Avery Edison

Grapes of Wraith

09.10.09 | Permalink | 58 Comments

Yes, I’ll start off by apologizing for that post title. It’s an awful pun, rendered more awful when viewed in light of the fact that it doesn’t even make sense. Still — we’ve just spent the summer reading Infinite Jest, so hopefully we’re used to things not making sense.

I, for one, thought I was used to it. Wheelchair assassins, massive concavities, an institute full of jocks who somehow posses higher brain function — these were all concepts that astounded and befuddled me, but they were at least possible according to physics, if a little unlikely. Or a lot unlikely, in the case of the clever athletes.

However.

To me — an avowed atheist who has occasionally been referred to as “too rational” — the wraith that visits Don Gately in the hospital room doesn’t so much test my suspension of disbelief as it does rip it apart and stomp on the broken remains whilst screaming “You’re damn right there’s ghosts now, Avery. How you like me now!?”

Of course, this book is far from didactic and should not be taken literally. So it it’s okay with you guys104, I’d like to explore some possibilites that could explain the presence of unusual words in Gately’s head and the rather personal details of Himself’s life that have also found their way into Don’s indestructible noggin’ without having to resort to The Haunting Of ICU Ward 7.

The most boring answer105 is Joelle. Pages 856-7 show her recounting — with no consideration of the “anonymous” part of Alcoholics Anonymous — the partial life story of the hatchet-dented Little Wayne chap. It’s not beyond the realm of rationality to conclude that she might also tell Don about the Incandenzas, and that the bizarre and sudden appearance of the ‘wraith’ can be put down simply to the delusions that accompany massive physical trauma.

We’ve already witnessed Don claiming that he doesn’t understand Joelle’s speech at times (during their first few conversations at Ennet House), and it’s quite possible that this is another of those times — hence the words appearing in Don’s head.

Alternatively, Joelle could have left behind some tapes of Sixty Minutes More or Less to keep him company whilst she is gone, hoping that her voice is something that would comfort him. The show often consists of nothing but words that Don wouldn’t understand, often without context and daunting even to those who haven’t just had their shoulder blown off.

Another explanation is that Gately, in his capacity as one of the Ennet House Staff, may have watched some of J. O. Incandenza’s works and been subjected to some kind of info-dump. We already know that Ennet House — care-of Clenette — has recently received some cartridges from E.T.A, and has apparently been a beneficiary of the tennis academy’s generosity before. Perhaps Himself’s experiments into the technical capabilities of film enabled him to create a Work that taught you things on a strictly subconscious basis.

One can assume that, towards the end of his life, the Mad Stork was sufficiently mad enough to encode his biography into the annular pulses of his movies. Perhaps Gately, reviewing cartridges donated before his hospitalization, viewed just the right combination of entertainments to unlock this knowledge. Perhaps the aforementioned trauma has done so instead.

My third theory106 is far more outlandish, while still fitting in to a world that doesn’t include supernatural beings (yes, I’m still annoyed about the ghost. Okay?) Perhaps Don Gately has been unfortunate enough, after assaulting the three Canadians, to fall into the hands of the Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents.

Perhaps the A.F.R. are under the impression that Gately’s murder of Guillaume DuPleiss (infamous anti-O.N.A.N. organizer) coupled with his association with Joelle, mean that Gately is some kind of government operative or otherwise shady person with knowledge of the location of the master copy of Infinite Jest. Perhaps the A.F.R. are — with their demonstrated ability to play the long game — attempting to fool Gately into thinking he is in hospital, and are providing actors or masked decoys or people he knows to try and coax this highly sought information from him. Perhaps the Wraith is Gately’s mind’s reaction to such a terrible and insane situation.

Perhaps if you think such a plan is too outlandish or nonsensical for the AFR to enact, you have a wonderful seventy-five pages ahead of you.

Kevin Guilfoile

Where Everything Was as Fresh as the Bright Blue Sky

09.09.09 | Permalink | 24 Comments

(Note: I’m going to bend the spoiler line in minor ways with this post, but we’re on the steep downhill to the end and I think most of us are either ahead of the calendar or so far behind it the spoiler line is almost meaningless.)

When I was young–at whatever age it was when I first had an awareness of sex, albeit one poorly informed by nascent hormones and edited-for-TV James Bond films–I can remember being very concerned that when I became old enough to have sex I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I was years and years from having the means, motive, and opportunity to have sex with anyone, but I had this idea of sex as being pleasurable to the exclusion of everything else. And it scared me a little bit because I wanted to be a professional baseball player, which presumably involved a lot of practice time.

Kids are incredibly efficient pleasure seekers who spend every minute of the day trying to evade boredom, so it’s probably not surprising or unusual that a child could conceive of a concept that so mirrors The Entertainment. It’s far more surprising that Wallace had the empathy to conceive of it as an adult.103

As ETA custodian Kenkle says to custodian Brandt on p. 874:

‘And then the Yuletide season, Brandt my friend Brandt — Christmas — Christmas morning — What is the essence of Christmas morning but the childish co-eval of venereal interface, for a child? — A present, Brandt — Something you have not earned and which formerly was out of your possession is now in your po-ssession — Can you sit there and try to say there is no symbolic rela-tion between unwrapping a Christmas present and undressing a young lady?’

Kids have this incredible capacity for happiness. They can give themselves an endorphin rush the likes of which you and I haven’t experienced in decades from just the sight of a new stuffed animal or the mention of chicken nuggets. And although they get sad, for most kids sadness is fleeting. When one of my kids cries because he doesn’t want to go to bed, all I have to do is remind him of some small thing that makes him happy to start him trembling with joy. (“Guess what? We’re going to the dry cleaners tomorrow and you know what they have at the dry cleaners? Lollipops!”) Most kids can choose to be glad almost whenever they want.

To adults this ability to choose happiness seems like a superpower, as enviable as the ability to fly.

Because when you become an adult, the whole happy-sad axis gets inverted. Adults have a limited capacity for happiness and that happiness is always fleeting. On the other hand, it seems like our capacity for sadness is almost bottomless.

This (a little bit spoilery) is from a discussion on page 880 Show Spoiler▼

References to adult longing for the childhood capacity for happiness are everywhere in this book. Mute in his hospital bed, in terrible pain, Gately alternates between feverish adult dreams conflating pleasure and death, and persistent memories of childhood, where he watches TV and trades small kindnesses with a neighbor who, feared by all the grown-ups, eventually hangs herself; Hal stumbles into what he hopes is an NA meeting only to find a group of burly, hairy, sobbing men holding teddy bears and trying to coax out their “inner infant”; Mario, who has managed to prolong childhood into adulthood is worshipped by his mother (who is having sex with a student 40 years her junior) and envied by his brother (who gave up his childhood to pursue greatness in tennis, a profession where you retire when you’re still in your twenties), wonders how you can even confirm when someone is sad.

And of course there is Joelle:

(T)hings had gotten first strange and then creepy as Madame Psychosis entered puberty, apparently; specifically the low-pH father had gotten creepy, seeming to behave as if Madame Psychosis were getting younger instead of older: taking her to increasingly child-rated films at the local Cineplex, refusing to acknowledge issues of menses or breasts, strongly discouraging dating, etc. Apparently issues were complicated by the fact that Madame Psychosis emerged from puberty as an almost freakishly beautiful young woman, especially in a part of the United States where poor nutrition and indifference to dentition and hygiene made physical beauty an extremely rare and sort of discomfiting condition, one in no way shared by Madame Psychosis’s toothless and fireplug-shaped mother, who said not a word as Madame Psychosis’s father interdicted everything from brassieres to Pap smears, addressing the nubile Madame Psychosis in progressively puerile baby-talk and continuing to use her childhood diminutive like Pookie or Putti as he attempted to dissuade her from accepting a scholarship to a Boston University whose Film and Film-Cartridge Studies Program was, he apparently maintained, full of quote Nasty Pootem Wooky Barn-Bams, unquote, whatever family-code pejorative this signified.

Of course, it was her father’s attempts to regress her to childhood that eventually led to her disfiguring.

I don’t have anything to add on the subject that Wallace doesn’t say more eloquently. But one of the real wonders of Infinite Jest is that DFW provides the reader with so many prisms through which to read it–I won’t even pretend to believe I’ve discovered them all–and while the core themes of happiness and sadness remain constant throughout, the experience of the book changes depending on the glass you pick up.

Eden M. Kennedy

Often He Reckons, in the Dawn, Them Up. Nobody is Ever Missing.

09.08.09 | Permalink | 8 Comments

I recall going to see The Sheltering Sky, which was based on the novel by Paul Bowles, at a theater on 34th Street in New York. I found the film a little dull, frankly — like the book itself, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. But there’s a scene at the end where Debra Winger’s in a bar and Paul Bowles himself appears before her and asks her, “Are you lost?” And somehow the fact of the author himself showing up in the film, the presence of the man through whom the story had actually flowed, reduced me to tears. And not just a little wet-eyed sniffle, but true and gut-wrenching bawling. My embarrassed boyfriend supported me for the entire walk to Paddy Reilley’s, a bar on 2nd Avenue which held a variety of liquids he hoped one of which would calm me down. I did eventually, reluctantly, still unable to explain what had hit me. I’d had a similar weeping fit sitting crumpled in a chair outside Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. I don’t know what it was, exactly, that got to me — all those writers! who mean so much! right here! — but I know it hit me hard. I once told someone it felt like God was pressing his thumb right down on my skull.

It’s true that while I’ve enjoyed Infinite Jest very much, this summer has been rough going for me in ways that have tested my focus and resolve on several fronts, and it’s confirmed for me that I’m not really cut out for this Guide business. I’m fascinated by other people’s analysis but I’m not much of an analyzer myself, and I’m sorry if you’ve rolled your eyes more than once reading what I’ve had to offer. I’m a fan of this book, but sometimes fans can’t always summon the kind of commentary that the object of their, uh, fandom (that’s a word, right?) . . . oh, you know what I mean.

The last and maybe only big book I had trouble shutting up about in a way that compares to how many people feel about IJ — the book I bought for friends who I’m sure never read it, and which I have no doubt would have spawned a hideous number of mailing lists had the Internet existed when it was published in 1982 — was James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. A 560-page long poem, is what it is, and it changed my life.

I don’t think there are a lot of parallels between Sandover and IJ, though like many IJ fans, I’ve read Sandover multiple times, and soon as I’ve finished the last page I loop right back to page one and let the momentum carry me through the beginning all over again. Like IJ, Sandover has actual literary critics who appreciate its many levels of intricate discourse (I just made that up! “Levels of intricate discourse”! Jesus, I’m tired), but in Sandover‘s case, the more literary readers view the “fans” as uncritical knuckle-draggers who believe in astrology and collect commemorative shot glasses. IJ‘s community doesn’t seem to fall apart along those lines, and for that I’m grateful. Either that or Matthew’s done a hell of a job of deleting the withering comments before I’ve ever seen them.

See, this is another mark of a terrible critic — I’m making this whole thing about me.

As we lead up to the first anniversary of DFW’s death (this Saturday), just the thought of that event starts to choke me up. I get a tinge of that God-thumb-skull feeling, frankly, which is no good in public. I try to let it ride. Breathe and keep reading. These last 200 pages are turning into exactly the kind of steep-grade toboggan ride I’ve been hoping for, and I’m so grateful I stuck it out. Thanks, you guys. Thanks Matthew, thanks Kevin and Avery, thanks and thanks again to Michael Pietsch, and to all the guest commenters. Almost done. Almost ready to start again.

Matthew Baldwin

Hollow Man

09.08.09 | Permalink | 19 Comments

I love Nashville. Not the city (I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting), but the 1975 film by Robert Altman. Altman was something of a cinematic David Foster Wallace, creating long and sprawling narratives that were superficially “rambling” and profoundly intricate, and which focused almost exclusively on the characters and the relationships between them. Nashville tackles half a dozen stories at least, some big and some small, and all in parallel. That is to say, it’s more like a collection of loosely knitted short stories than a single chronicle–minor characters occasionally stray from one plotline to another, but by and large the narratives are like strands in a rope, twined but distinct. The only thing resembling convergence in Nashville is the end, when most of the characters find themselves attending the same political rally (long story).

Twenty years later, Altman made a similarly structured film entitled Short Cuts and, in this one, there’s no unifying event whatsoever.99 And Short Cuts is often cited as a progenitor for another of my all-time favorite movies, Magnolia (this one by the wonderful Paul Thomas Anderson), which also features a number of stories that fail to fully intersect.100

This type of film doesn’t really have a strict genre classification, but henceforth I shall call them: anticonfluential.

Of course, I did not know such a word existed until recently. And maybe the term didn’t exists, until Wallace-via-J. O. Incandenza, made it up. But once I saw it, the word, “anticonfluence”, in the pages of Infinite Jest, I thought I knew what I was in for. I figured that the three storylines–E.T.A., Ennet, and Marathe/Steeply–would never merge, that the rich kids would do their drills on the hill, and the down-and-out would keep coming back, that Marathe and Steeply would talk and talk and talk, and never the thrain would meet.101 And where this would catch others by surprise, I would close the book with the smug satisfaction of having foreseen all this as early as endnote 24.

And then Steeply appeared in the stands of an E.T.A. game, and Marthe rolled into Ennet House. And no sooner had I hastily adjusted my hypothesis to fit the new data (Steeply and Marathe will serve as the bridge between E.T.A. and Ennet, but the school and the shelter will not directly interact) when Hal arrives at Ennet, asking for NA brochure. Even Lenz and P. T. Kraus shared an alley, albeit briefly.

The moral here, methinks, is: stop trying to outguess Wallace, because that dude will punk you hard.

With all this anti-anti-confluence afoot, it would be easy to overlook what is, to my mind, the biggest revelation in the book thus far. Waaaaay back on page 693, Hal muses on anhedonia:

Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being — but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne. One of his troubles with his Moms is the fact that Avril Incandenza believes she knows him inside and out as a human being, and an internally worthy one at that, when in fact inside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.

Since the first page of Infinite Jest (or, rather, since page 223, when we learned that the first page falls chronologically after the rest), the big question in my mind has been: what terrible thing happens to Hal, that leaves him sounding like “Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet”? But this passage turns that first chapter on its head. Because although Hal feels empty inside in Y.D.A.U., by Year of Glad he’ll be saying “I am in here.” The question now becomes what wonderful thing happens to Hal, that makes his life complete?

Misc.

Thumbs Up?: Of the aforementioned Nashville, Roger Ebert said: “after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser.” And after his recent column about A.A. garnered multiple recommendations for Infinite Jest, Ebert said of the novel “I have it right here. Started it once, am starting again.” One can only imagine what kind of review he will provide at its end.

Zeno’s Paradoxes: As Kevin and others have noted, Wallace said he structure the novel “like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal”. By fractal, I took Wallace to mean this: that there exist in the book large “things” (themes, motifs, situations, events) that appear nearly identical to smaller “things”, save only scale (in much the same way that the large triangular Sierpinski Gasket is composed of smaller triangles, which are composed of smaller triangles still). But endnotes 324 and 332 are showing the novel to be fractal in yet another sense.

One property of fractals is that they can expand endlessly.102 The example commonly given is the coastline of a fjord. From a high altitude there is a ragged but definite coastline, of what appears to be 100 kilometers. But when you zoom in a bit you see that the ragged bits meander in and out to such a degree that the true length of the coast is a few more kilometers than you had originally thought. You zoom in more and discover that there is still more coastline, this adding additional meters to the total. Zooming in further adds centimeters. And then millimeters. And then microns.

So too does the total page count of this novel seem to be growing right in front of our eyes, now that we are finding entire chapters squirreled away in the endnotes. I get into bed, flip ahead to see how many pages I have to read to read before reaching the next break, and discover it to be eight; 14 pages later I close the book, having reached it. It’s like a house in a Harry Potter novel, that appears to be a hovel from the outside and yet somehow contains 12,000 square feet inside.

Pre-quadrivial : Oh god, that “17 can actually go into 56 way more than 3.294 times” flier made me laugh and laugh.

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