Matt Bucher: The Anxiety of Influence

08.26.09 | Permalink | 28 Comments

Matt Bucher is the administrator of the David Foster Wallace mailing list and publisher of Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He is an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, runs a weblog about writer Roberto Bolaño and the novel 2666, and has read Infinite Jest at least three times.

Infinite Jest is an original novel. I mean that in every sense of the word. Wallace has constructed an original novel that is imaginative and fresh; each storyline drips with his distinctive style. It also is the origin point for a new type of novel writing, a path others want to follow. Let me go back and repeat part of that: Wallace has constructed an original novel. The act of constructing a novel of this size and scope invariably involves some degree of borrowing bits and pieces–either from one’s own drafts and notebooks, or from the writing of others–and stitching together many smaller pieces.

In addition to Wallace borrowing from his own work (c.f. Antitoi mentioned in his 1992 Harper’s essay “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes” (collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and available in PDF here), many of the details in Infinite Jest owe something to one or other of the thousands of novels Wallace had digested up to that point. Some of these references are homages, some are Nabokovian red herrings, most are just delightful. There are obvious references like Hamlet and Marathe/Marat, but the four influences I’ve chosen to focus on below might not be immediately apparent to the first-time reader.

These influences will be familiar to the members of wallace-l and I give that community credit for unearthing most of these connections.

  1. The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr: The Bruce Green–Mildred Bonk scene early on (p. 39) introduces us to Tommy Doocey, “the infamous harelipped pot-and-sundries dealer who kept several large snakes in unclean uncovered aquaria, which smelled, which Tommy Doocey didn’t notice because his upper lip completely covered his nostrils and all he could smell was lip.” Compare that description with page 76 from The Liar’s Club (1995), (a memoir, by the way): “I knew a drug dealer once who collected [snakes] in glass tanks all over his trailer. He had a harelip that somehow protected him from the stink, but the rest of us became, when dickering over pharmaceuticals with him, the noisiest and most adenoidal mouth breathers. We all sounded like Elmer Fudd, so a coke deal took on a cartoonlike quality: ‘You weally tink dis is uncut?’ It was particularly hard to talk this way when you were tripping your brains out on LSD and had gone there only as a last resort to buy something to help you come down.” Now, Karr and Wallace were an item (per The New Yorker and The Washington Post), but there’s no telling if he picked that bit up from Karr’s book or if he himself went to one of those buys at the real Doocey’s place. Karr’s version is arguably funnier.
  2. End Zone by Don Delillo: It would not be unfair to call End Zone the biggest literary influence on Infinite Jest (at least the E.T.A. half). That is somewhat ironic since End Zone is only 250 pages long. Several key details from EZ show up in IJ, but the biggest is probably the concept of Eschaton. The main character of EZ, Gary Harkness, is obsessed with nuclear strategy. He repeatedly mentions the term eschatology. DT Max tells us that one of the original titles of End Zone was “Modes of Disaster Technology.”

    Some other similarities:

    • The militaristic coach in a tower looming over the field;
    • The players (football college rather than tennis academy) over-intellectualizing their roles and future success;
    • The widow of the founder is the president of the school;
    • The powdered milk.

    Wallace and Delillo both spent time in Texas (the setting for End Zone)–Wallace on a Lannan grant in Marfa (you can read more about Wallace in Marfa in Sean Wilsey’s book Oh the Glory of It All) and Delillo researching Libra in Dallas (Delillo’s wife is from Texas).

    There are dozens of other nods to Delillo’s other books throughout Wallace’s work (“The Broom of the System” is similar to a phrase in Americana, the M.I.T. Language Riots are mentioned in Ratner’s Star, etc.) and the Ransom Center in Austin owns a set of correspondence between Wallace and Delillo.

  3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: Consider these two passages:
    Red Dragon: “[The gun] was a Bulldog .44 Special, short and ugly with its startling big bore. It had been extensively modified by Mag Na Port. The barrel was vented near the muzzle to help keep the muzzle down on recoil, the hammer was bobbed and it had a good set of fat grips. He suspected it was throated for the speedloader.” (RD, p. 137)

    Infinite Jest: “The Item’s some customized version of a U.S. .44 Bulldog Special…blunt and ugly with a bore like the mouth of a cave…The piece’s been modified, Gately can appraise. The barrel’s been vented out near the muzzle to cut your Bulldog’s infamous recoil, the hammer’s bobbed, and the thing’s got a fat Mag Na Port or -clone grip like the metro Finest favor…It’s not a semiauto but is throated for a fucking speed-loader….” (IJ, pp. 609-610)

    Wallace was admittedly a big fan of Harris’s writing. And he confesses that he loved the technical details of Tom Clancy novels. In this list Wallace included two Thomas Harris novels in his top 10. (A lot of people think DFW was joking or something when compiling that list, but I’m telling you it’s sincere.) I think this is a place where Wallace needed a detail about a beefy gun and either remembered or came across this in Red Dragon and ran with it.

  4. Super Mario Brothers: OK, this seems like a stretch and it’s not literary, but bear with me. Mario Incandenza, the middle child, is a “small hunched shape with a big head” (p. 32), extremely short, but he has a big head, an oversized skull on a little body. He sort of looks like Super Mario. And then there’s this on page 42:

    “Remember the flag only halfway up the pole? Booboo, there are two ways to lower a flag to half-mast. Are you listening? Because no shit I really have to sleep here in a second. So listen — one way to lower the flag to half-mast is just to lower the flag. There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? You understand what I mean, Mario?”

    For those of you who lived without electricity in Siberia during the late 1980s, the game Super Mario Brothers featured a character named Mario jumping up to a flagpole at the end of every level.

    Later, walking with Schtitt:

    Mario thinks of a steel pole raised to double its designed height and clips his shoulder on the green steel edge of a dumpster, pirouetting halfway to the cement before Schtitt darts in to catch him, and it almost looks like they’re doing a dance-floor dip as Schtitt says this game the players are all at E.T.A. to learn, this infinite system of decisions and angles and lines Mario’s brothers worked so brutishly hard to master: junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.

    So, Mario’s brothers play a game, but now Mario, not Hal, is the focal point–these are Mario’s brothers. (With respect to the Incandenza brothers, another connection here is with The Brothers Karamazov. Timothy Jacobs wrote his dissertation at McMaster University partly on comparing the Brothers Incandenza with the Brothers Karamazov.) The connection between Mario Incandenza and Super Mario Brothers is by no means rock solid, but the short, dark-haired Mario concentrating on that flagpole sure does conjure an image worthy of it.



08.26.09 | Permalink | 2 Comments

Two months ago Matthew Baldwin told the Guides that August 24-28 would be devoted to guest posts and Kevin Guilfoile, who is a professional, wrote this on a calendar, and Matthew Baldwin, who is not, did not, and, long story short, Kevin doesn’t have a post prepared, so we’re running the weekly guest post today and Kevin will do the Friday slot, and all of this is pretty much 100% Matthew’s fault, although, to be fair, who expects people to write things onto calendars in this day and age, I mean really.

Eden M. Kennedy

It Didn’t Make Me Happy but I Couldn’t Stop Watching

08.25.09 | Permalink | 1 Comment

As your least insightful and hands-down laziest guide, I fully admit that I’m 100 pages behind this week and I’m not even going to try to fake it. But I did spend a fruitful hour this morning browsing DFW reviews and interviews.

This from Newsweek:

NEWSWEEK: What’s your history with tennis?

WALLACE: I played serious Juniors, but I burned out. I play twice a week with friends.

And with 12-step groups?

I went with friends to an open AA meeting and got addicted to them. It was completely riveting. I was never a member — I was a voyeur. When I ended up really liking it was when I let people there know this and they didn’t care.

Was it therapeutic?

At that point, I was paralyzed about writing, and I was watching too much TV. Here were these guys in leather and tattoos sounding like Norman Vincent Peale, but week after week they were getting better. And I’d go home and work. Going to coffee houses and talking about literary theory certainly hadn’t helped any. Have you read the book?

I haven’t had the chance, but our reviewer just finished.

My hat’s off to him. Tell him Excedrin works best for eyestrain.

From The Chicago Tribune, a surprising claim about DFW’s familiarity with the Internet:

The research reaped personal as well as professional dividends. “If I hadn’t gone to a bunch of AA meetings, I wouldn’t have gotten rid of my TV, because I started to realize the TV didn’t make me happy, but I couldn’t stop watching it,” he said.

Still, he’s been fascinated by some reader reactions so far, including some who liken its jump-cut style and information bombardment to cruising the Internet. “I’ve never been on the Internet,” he said. “This is sort of what it’s like to be alive. You don’t have to be on the Internet for life to feel this way. . . .

“The image in my mind — and I actually had dreams about it all the time — was that this book was really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the 20th story of a building.”

Here Wallace and the director Gus Van Sant have a delightful phone conversation about Good Will Hunting and it makes me think about the similarities between Will and Hal Incandenza:

DFW: …The thing that interested me about Will — and of course this is like a stroke movie for me — is you’ve got like a total nerd who is incredibly good looking, can beat people up and has Minnie Driver in love with him, so I’m, like I saw it twice voluntarily. Most of the serious math weenies who I’ve met, and I’ve met a few, like who’ve graduated from college at 12 and stuff, they’re not all that smart in other areas. I’ve like never met any who’ve had photographic memories with respect to stuff like agrarian social histories of the American South or legal precedent in the American judicial system and stuff, and so he seemed as if he could almost have done anything that he wanted to do and that math was almost a kind of accident.

GVS: That’s the way we thought of him. But I always felt that his memory was something that was kind of like a bonus. And that mathematics was something that he had done when say he was alone as a child.

DFW: Uh-huh.

GVS: And he had learned and he had become very advanced but that his memory was maybe separate — the memory was like the trick part. So he remembered certain things that he had read in different books his retention was so phenomenal but it was almost like a trick so when he is defeating the guy in the Harvard bar by quoting from text books this sort of capitalist versus socialist…

DFW: Which trust me is every bonehead kid’s fantasy of being able to do that. (Gus laughs) Fuckwad with a pony tail in a Harvard bar, I’ve met that guy. The girl I went and saw the movie with first thought that the guy was like too icky and villainous to be realistic and I hastened to disagree with her.

And this is just funny, from an online chat Wallace participated in with a random sampling of users who had a lot of trouble staying on topic:

dfw: A carbuncle’s fucking HUGE, esse. Like an eggplant or something. Actually life-threatening — it can apparently explode like an appendix and spread toxins throughout your bloodstream. A small but riveting history of cases on death-by-carbuncle is avail

Marisa: I could beat Keats up if I wanted to.

dfw: able in back issues of “Mortality and Morbidity” magazine.

Keats: Oh well, in that case, dfw, I should not have made the comparison.

Keats: Since what I have doesn’t approach the gravity of a carbuncle.

Keats: I think I’m just going to ignore Marisa. She’s one of those live-chat troublemakers.

Matthew Baldwin

Else { Default }

08.24.09 | Permalink | 32 Comments

As details emerge about The Pale King, it’s becoming clear that the 2005 commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College is something of a bridge between Infinite Jest and his final, unfinished novel. Michael Piesch, Wallace’s editor, goes so far as to call “This Is Water” (as the commencement speech is commonly known) “very much a distillation” of The Pale King’s major motifs.

But if you look closely, you can see a lot of Jest in that commencement speech as well. Take, for instance, Wallace’s repeated references to our “default settings”:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth…

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Don Gately reminded me of this quotation, around the time he reverted to his default setting and beat the holy living shit out of them wayward partygoers.

Gately had been portrayed so sympathetically that his abrupt reversion to type feels almost like a betrayal. And in any other novel the transformation would have been shocking. But so much of Infinite Jest (as with nearly everything Wallace wrote) is about our perpetual war with our default settings, that it’s unsurprising that his characters lose a battle once in a while.

And this was not the first time I noticed the “default settings” undercurrent in Infinite Jest. The Eschaton set piece, in particular, struck me as something of an elaborate analogy for civilization’s struggle against primacy. Here stand dozens of teens in close proximity, armed with buckets of denuded tennis balls, playing at negotiation and diplomacy. But you know those tennis balls are eventually going to fly. There’s never any doubt. The reams of rules and elegant complexity and Extreme Value Theorem can stave off the descent into mayhem for a while, but cannot hold it back forever.

Of course the kids really have no incentive not to start lobbing warheads, and one gets the sense that Armageddon is the unspoken point of Eschaton. But in real life the consequences of surrender are considerably more dire (as Gately is presumably going to learn). Wallace makes it clear that the struggle against our genetic heritage–against territorialism and aggression and intoxication and passivity– isn’t easy. But he at least seems to believe that it is possible, if only barely.

And he clearly thinks that it’s something worth fighting for. Perhaps the only thing worth fighting for.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.


Hooked: During the roundtable I confessed that, while I enjoy the novel and love reading Wallace’s writing, “I don’t find the narrative to be particularly engrossing”. That is no longer true: I am now dying to know what is going to happen to Gately after his startling metamorphosis. Will he be forced to drift from town to town, letting the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him?

The Stars Are Right: Also during that roundtable, I predicted that the Bostons of H. P. Lovecraft and David Foster Wallace would eventually intersect. And:

‘But on this one afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head … As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner of my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I not had the slightest inkling was there.”

Yeah, well, called that one.

Lost and Profound: I’m slightly behind because I somehow managed to misplace my copy of Infinite Jest. I’m going to wear a button that says, “I Lost 12 Pounds–Ask Me How!”

Elsewhere Jest


08.23.09 | Permalink | 5 Comments

Man, everyone is doing this Infinite Summer thing. Here is a still from this week’s episode of Weeds.

“I’ll do that delivery for mom after I finish my chapter.
I’m sure this Erdedy guy won’t mind waiting ten minutes.”

(Thanks to Ed for sending us the screenshot.)

Matt of Wood-Tang is on page 700 of the novel. Jazz is also ahead. Mo Pie finished, as have a whole host of people on Twitter.

Recent posts from the folks on our blogroll:

Earlier this week, the NPR program To the Best of Our Knowledge devoted an entire episode to David Foster Wallace. In it they speak with (among many others) Michael Pietsch, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Lipsky, and David’s sister Amy Wallace-Haven.

And Dennis Cooper discovered something magical about the “statistically improbable phrases” that provides for its books. “What Amazon doesn’t tell you is that, in the case of fiction, their SIP feature does not merely hint at important plot elements but MAGICALLY DISTILLS THE ESSENCE OF THE WORK.” He then lists 69 books in SIP form. At #1:

medical attaché, annular fusion, entertainment cartridge, improbably deformed, howling fantods, feral hamsters, dawn drills, tough nun, professional conversationalist, new bong, ceiling bulged, metro boston, tennis academy, red leather coat, soupe aux pois, red beanie, addicted man, magnetic video, littler kids, little rotter, technical interview, police lock, oral narcotics, sober time, veiled girl


Infinite Summary – Week 9

08.22.09 | Permalink | 4 Comments

Milestone Reached: 664 (67%)

Sections Read:

Page 575:: Randy Lenz and Bruce Green continue strolling around Boston. We learn that Green’s mother died of fright after opening a novelty snake-in-a-fake-can-of-nuts gift that young Bruce had given her at his father’s urging, and that Green’s father went insane (and was executed for sending out deadly exploding cigars) sometime thereafter. Green and Lenz are separated; when Green next sees Lenz, the latter is killing a dog belonging to some partygoers. The partygoers see the killing and give chase, but Lenz manages to evade them.

Page 589: Mario’s nineteenth birthday approaches. He strolls near Ennet House, and we learn: (1) he “can’t feel physical pain very well”, (2) he can no longer read Hal like he once was able, and (3) Mario doesn’t understand why the E.T.A. students are embarrassed by genuine emotion.

Page 593: Don Gately’s Ennet House duties, divided into the “picayune and the unpleasant”.

Page 596: Orin answers survey questions from a man in a wheelchair, while the “putatively Swiss hand-model” hides under sheets of the bed.

Page 601: As Gately supervises the reparking of the cars in front of Ennet House, the partygoers arrive in search of Lenz. A confrontation ensues, and Gately is shot while apparently beating several of the assailants to death.

Page 620: An engineer for WYYY is kidnapped by a man in a wheelchair.

Page 627 – 11 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: E.T.A. students in the cafeteria, discussing a Hal / The Darkness match that Stice nearly won, and debating whether the milk is powdered.

Page 638 – 1 MAY Y.D.A.U. / OUTCROPPING NORTHWEST OF TUCSON AZ U.S.A.: Steeply reveals that his father had a literal and life-destroying obsession with the television show M*A*S*H.

Page 648 – 13 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: At Ennet House, Geoffrey Day describes a dark, billowing shape that he accidentally summoned as a child, the shadow of which left him bereft of hope.

Page 651 – 11 NOVEMBER / YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT: Steeply and deLint watch the Hal / Stice match. Steeply pushes for an exclusive interview with Hal, but is rebuffed.

Pages 663, 664, and 665: A correspondence between Steeply and Marlon Bain of Saprogenic Greetings. Endnote 269 contains extended excerpts from Bain’s replies.

Characters The characters page has been updated.

Sources consulted during the compilation of this summation: JS’s Infinite Jest synopses, Dr. Keith O’Neil’s Infinite Jest Reader’s Guide, and Steve Russillo’s Chapter Thumbnails.


John Green: Why I’m Behind

08.21.09 | Permalink | 22 Comments

John Green is the Michael L. Printz Award-winning author of Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska, and An Abundance of Katherines. He is also the co-creator (with his brother, Hank) of the popular vlogbrothers channel on youtube, which spawned the nerdfighter community, a tight-knit group of a hundred thousand nerds who use the internet to celebrate intellectualism and nerd culture.

Okay, so full disclosure: I am behind. (I’m only on page 350.)

I first read Infinite Jest in the summer of 1996, the summer after my freshman year of college. I had a beautiful first edition80 that I’d bought entirely because of a review in Time Magazine. (Off-topic, but remember magazines?) I lived that summer with three friends from high school and a juvenile pet squirrel named Trippy in a two-bedroom apartment in Birmingham, Alabama. We slept on these four full-sized mattresses we had kind of half-stolen from our friend’s dad, who owned a Days Inn.

My memories of that summer:

  1. The squirrel died. I came home from work one day, and the squirrel was dead in its cage, and I knew I had to tell my roommate Todd, who was particularly attached to Trippy and who was also reading IJ. I When he came home that day, I said, “I think Lenz got a hold of Trippy,” which in the end was, like, way too casual a way of telling Todd that his squirrel had died.
  2. I spent a lot of time lying on the bare Days Inn mattress, an unzipped sleeping bag over me, my forearms aching from the size of the book.

This time around, reading Infinite Jest has been an exercise in delighted confusion. But for me, in 1996, all reading was a matter of delighted confusion, and if I didn’t understand something, I just kept reading. Of course, I had no idea what was happening in the book.81 All I knew was that I liked Hal, and that I liked mmmyellow, and that even though it was horrible and all I kinda wished I was good at tennis.

When I finished the book, I immediately flipped to the first page and started reading again. For me, that summer, IJ achieved its craziest ambition: It became my Entertainment.

When I got back to school that Fall, one of the first things I did was get on the Internet, which was then capitalized, to find out what other people who’d read IJ had thought of it, whereupon I learned that even though I’d read IJ three times in three months, I’d had absolutely no idea what the book was about and had totally misunderstood everything. So it has been nice to read it with y’all this time around, because it keeps me on track.

I write novels for teenagers now—such books are colloquially called “Young Adult books” or just YA—and whenever I’ve had about two beers and find myself with other YA authors, I always start in on this soliloquy about how the contemporary young adult novel was not invented by J. D. Salinger or Judy Blume or Robert Cormier but by David Foster Wallace, whose ETA scenes more closely resemble what most YA writers are after. Like, for one thing, the best contemporary young adult fiction moves effortlessly between high and low culture in that way that only teenagers and David Foster Wallace can. I mean, my favorite books when I was eighteen were IJ and The Babysitters’ Club #43: Claudia’s Sad Goodbye.82 DFW proved that one way to bring readers to complex ideas is to utilize the sentence structures they hear every day; YA fiction has been trying to do this ever since.

Also, there’s the whole thing of treating teenagers as intellectually capable and genuinely funny people, which IJ did not invent but did master. Plus, YA novels on average are more likely to use footnotes than novels for adults.83 It’s actually pretty stunning how massively so many YA writers (I mean, me especially, but also other people) have ripped off ETA and Pemulis and Hal, how deeply DFW has shaped our understanding of what it means to be smart and talented and scared and 17.

So now, 13 years after first reading the book, I find myself treasuring the ETA scenes more than I did when I was of the age when I should have been treasuring them. Any book worth its salt has any many readings as it does readers. My reading has been slow going because it is such an awful pleasure to be in the shadow of my 18-year-old self, that skinny kid who was learning that unprecedented intellectual feats were not resigned to history.

But this makes it sound like reading IJ has been some rosy-fogged visit to the past. What I’m savoring so much, I think, is not remembering the me who first read the words, but … well, here is the truth: It is the lamest thing in the world to feel like you are alone and then to read a story that makes you feel unalone. Great books like IJ can and do accomplish so much more than this small trick of direct identification, but even so: For me to read a book that so expertly articulated the obsession and narcissism and sadness of the glass eye turned in on itself kind of made my life that summer and moving forward more bearable.

That was no small gift to me at the time—and it is no small gift this time, either.

Avery Edison

Everybody Hurts (Except Mario Incandenza)

08.20.09 | Permalink | 52 Comments

I am coming to believe that there is not one normal character in this book.77 We see characters with physical deformities (the wheelchair assassins, Mario); mental problems (Himself, Kate Gompert, others); substance addictions (the Ennet house gang, a vast number of students at E.T.A); sociopathic tendencies (Lenz, Lenz, Lenz); obsessive compulsions (Avril Incandenza, Lateral Alice Moore); and gender dysphoria (Hugh Steeply, Poor Tony). But no one ‘normal’.

This has been distracting to me in the past. The world of Infinite Jest already requires such a suspension of disbelief — what with the concavity, and the subsidization, and the idea that people are scared by a group of assassins that could be thwarted by a set of stairs78 that adding in a cast of characters all so uniquely deviant stretches that disbelief just a mite too far. Of course, this can be a problem with fiction in general, and is preferable to a set of perfect players. After all, “perfect characters are boring, and sometimes even annoying … character flaws = sources of conflict.

But these flaws are such an integral part of IJ that I’m beginning to think that David Foster Wallace is trying to achieve some goal other than making sure no character is too idealized to be interesting. Because it’s one thing to make a character too arrogant to achieve their own goals, or blinded by greed, or any other of a number of common tropes. But Infinite Jest takes things to extremes, with Orin engaging in ritualistic seductions to fulfill some Oedipal desire, with Joelle feeling the need to cover her face due to severe deformity79 and with Lenz killing small animals at night.

These are all extremely negative deviancies. That’s what I keep getting caught up on. No one seems to be particularly happy with how different they are, except Mario. And we really can’t trust his opinion on such matters, because he has “a neurological deficit whereby he can’t feel physical pain very well” (p. 589). Mario’s experiences with feeling — at a very base level — are so wildly different to every other human that he cannot be counted on for a reliable comparison of relative happiness.

I feel like this theme of difference is meant to be a lesson — stray too far from the norm, and you will be deeply, deeply unhappy. Do drugs, and you will be unhappy (like the majority of the Ennet House residents). Be too much of a winner, and you will be unhappy (as demonstrated by Clipperton). Be too smart, and you might well erase your own map (perhaps with Himself’s microwave method).

This unhappiness will be permanent, too. No one in the book so far has managed to deviate from a societal norm and come back from the other side unscathed. The addicts are eternal addicts, doomed to become the old men of Boston AA — forever believing that they must Keep Coming Back, lest they fall back into addiction. And even doing that may not be able to save them from true, visceral hideousness; Lenz is hitting meetings like a champ, but they’re not stopping him from killing small creatures on the way home.

The tennis players are incessantly protected from hype, lest they come to see themselves as exceptional — as beyond the average, the normal — and lose their on-court edge. The novel’s many geniuses fall victim to punishments for their difference, too. If we’re not watching Himself kill himself, we’re seeing the hyper-smart and closed-off Avril having sex with under-age boys (p. 553 if you don’t believe me), or listening to Hal assure us the he is “in there”, as the world around him sees nothing but a seizing, “sub-animalistic” boy.

Which brings me to my real concern in all this: Hal. I’ve mentioned before that I’m curious as to how Hal comes by the disability that serves as this book’s very first ‘shocker’. I’ve been hoping that it will be something temporary — perhaps a drug dose that I can hope he one day recovers from, or a stray tennis ball to the head that may cause brain damage that science or time may one day fix. But you see, Hal is committing a number of ‘crimes of difference’ throughout this novel. He’s exceptionally smart. He’s a superb athlete. And he’s using drugs.

Going by the established pattern, that’s a trifecta of deviancy that Infinite Jest can only punish. And I’m worrying that — like Himself’s death, Marathe’s disability, and Don Gately’s addiction — it will be a very permanent punishment indeed.

Kevin Guilfoile

I’ve Seen the Future, Brother, It Is Murder

08.19.09 | Permalink | 66 Comments

In the underrated Mike Judge film Idiocracy, Luke Wilson is unfrozen centuries in the future where people have become so stupid that a two-hour video of a man’s naked, farting ass wins four Oscars, and Wilson has to run around desperately trying to convince everyone on the planet that humans will go extinct unless they stop irrigating their dying crops with Gatorade.70

Which got me thinking: Will anybody still be reading Infinite Jest 100 years from now?

One of the enduring appeals of writing a book has always been that it doesn’t seem so ephemeral. Especially in an age of new media, a book feels like a lasting creation, a thing of permanence. We still have Bibles that rolled off Gutenberg’s press lying around our climate-controlled archives, and so there’s no reason someone couldn’t be curled up with that romance novel of yours late at night in the year 2525.

This is a self-delusion of authors, of course. Very few books outlive the people who wrote them. Looking back at the publishing year 1896 (100 years before IJ) the only novels I can see that anyone’s still reading with any regularity were both written by HG Wells.71

In 2005, the Guardian polled 500 British book clubs book club readers and asked them which novels written in the 20th Century (and the first few years of the 21st Century) would be considered classics a century hence. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the sample, the list is about half-filled with recent book club faves–The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Star of the Sea, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Atonement, The Handmaid’s Tale.72 The Guardian kind of sneers at this result,738 but it might not be so far off. These are works of popular fiction with a lot of copies in print and a large group of individuals evangelizing for them. There are reasons to think some might have a chance at enduring

Infinite Jest, at least in 2009, certainly has plenty of rabid evangelizers. It has some apparent obstacles to its longevity, however. Infinite Summer started with thousands of enthusiastic and determined readers. Based on activity in the comments and the forums and on Twitter, I’d guess that through attrition we are already less than half what we were. That kind of drop-out rate could be punishing to the book over the years. The amount of time and effort it takes to read, digest, and discuss makes it an unlikely candidate to be taught widely in undergraduate classrooms (although obviously it can be done). Wallace’s persistent, casual use of brand names and pop-culture references74 would make this novel considerably more difficult to read down the road–imagine what adding a full complement of footnotes on top of the original endnotes would do the level of difficulty.75 IJ is also distinctly American, which cuts a couple of ways, I suspect.

As deliberately tempting as Wallace makes it to quit reading this book, you have to figure, in the long run, that everyone might take him up on it eventually.

On the other hand.

I’ve had a lot of people over the years try to pass Infinite Jest into my hands, and there was always a kind of urgency to their plea that was frankly kind of off-putting. I think now that urgency might be related to this sense, perhaps unconscious, that this book by its very nature might be in jeopardy of deleting its own map. I don’t think I’d ever say that any single book is necessary, but anyone who connects with a novel the way so many have with Infinite Jest is clearly going to be distressed by the possibility that it might be on the endangered list, even a few years down the road. I suspect the intensity with which people try to push this novel on other readers is related to the sense that it might be endangered, somehow. That as epic and important and groundbreaking as it is, its future might not be ensured. If there has been a level of desperation in the pleas to me by IJ lovers over the years, I now understand it.

In Idiocracy, Luke Wilson eventually convinces the morons of the future that water isn’t poisonous. Addressing them he says, “There was a time when reading wasn’t just for fags.76 And neither was writing. People wrote books and movies–movies with stories that made you care about whose ass it was and why it was farting. And I believe that time can come again!”

I might even work on a version of that speech when it’s time for me to start pushing Infinite Jest on my friends.

Eden M. Kennedy

Thanks, but I Don’t Particularly Like to Hug

08.18.09 | Permalink | 13 Comments

I’m a little behind in my reading, I’m smack in the middle of the whole Lenz thing and it’s kind of making me sick, so I’m going to backtrack a little.

Last week I accused Infinite Jest of having kind of a Kubrickian sterility about it at times, but as I continue reading and the novel continues to blossom for me, I realize how much life is flowing under that apparently detached, often affectless surface.

The scene where James’ father asks for his help to move the mattress, of course, is a classic example of the sort of achingly slow emotional reveal that takes place in small ways throughout the entire novel — and is starting to encompass my experience of the entire book. In the bed scene you’re directed to focus on the physical detail, at first seemingly for its own sake, until it all adds up to reveal a horror recollected with not only the detachment of time but the precision of someone either so removed from or else so overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the sudden, strange death of his father that the physical details of the morning take on a ravishing Technicolor quality. They say time slows down for some people when they’re in car accidents or disasters, they remember the strangest details later — the song on the radio when the phone rang, the dust on the windshield before your head crashed through it. And once you have the whole picture, no matter how blandly or sharply or affectlessly it’s described, a boy running from his parents’ bedroom to his own and jumping on the bed, the slumped mattress in the hallway and the ring of the glass pushed into the carpet all bear the emotional weight of a man watching himself cope with tremendous loss from a distance. A man with a supremely focused scientific mind that can compartmentalize information and zoom in on a detail — a slowly rolling doorknob — that changes the course of his life.

The mirror cracks in the most delightful way, of course, in the very next scene, when Erdedy tries to refuse a hug. All the hemming and hawing and sweaty palms of someone who doesn’t have Himself’s muscular mind to use as a shield, or “Joe L.’s” veil, who uses drugs to keep the world at arm’s length because the fragile infrastructure of his addiction can only remain intact if no one gets close enough to breathe on it, it all gets crushed so shockingly and wonderfully by Roy Tony.

‘You think I fucking like to go around hug on folks? You think any of us like this shit? We fucking do what they tell us. They tell us Hugs Not Drugs in here. We done motherfucking surrendered our wills in here,’ Roy said. ‘You little faggot,’ Roy added. He wedged his hand between them to point at himself, which meant he was now holding Erdedy off the ground with just one hand, which fact was not lost on Erdedy’s nervous system. ‘I done had to give four hugs my first night here and then I gone ran in the fucking can and fucking puked. Puked,’ he said. ‘Not comfortable? Who the fuck are you? Don’t even try and tell me I’m coming over feeling comfortable about trying to hug on your James-River-Traders-wearing-Calvin-Klein-aftershave-smelling-goofy-ass motherfucking ass.’

Erdedy observed one of the Afro-American women who was looking on clap her hands and shout ‘Talk about it!’

‘And now you go and disrespect me in front of my whole clean and sober set just when I gone risk sharing my vulnerability and discomfort with you?’. . .

‘Now,’ Roy said, extracting his free hand and pointing to the vestry floor with a stabbing gesture, ‘now,’ he said, ‘you gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?’

If Erdedy were a different man, a man whose mind was so strong it could shield his heart from both its own needs and the needs of others, he wouldn’t have climbed up on Roy Tony’s neck and not let go, I suppose. But I love that he had enough strength and trust to desperation to give himself over and let Roy Tony destroy his pathetic facade. And we get to see that Roy Tony, as he clears his addiction away, has the heart of a lion.

This is getting long so I’ll just add that I’m also very interested to see if Joelle can continue to justify her own draped existence.

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