I am attempting to read David Foster Wallace’s very large novel and write about the experience as I go. That is all.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Twelve: Winter B.S. 1960 – Tucson AZ (B)

Sorry, was distracted again.

In the “SELECTED TRANSCRIPTS OF THE RESIDENT-INTERFACE-DROP-IN-HOURS” we’re essentially presented with clips, samples of dialogue, which are unattributed but we’re presumably supposed to be able to place (some of?) them by reference back to previous sections in the book that made no sense whatsoever at the time, but it all falls together when we realise that these disconnected individuals are all residents at Ennet House. It’s almost as if DFW wants to check whether you’ve been paying attention, I suppose.


So I’ll infer that the first speaker, the one annoyed by the drumming fingers, is Kate Gompert; the one who demands a definition of “alcoholic” (and refers in passing to the Kemp and Limbaugh administrations, alt-history of the scariest kind) is the lawyer Tiny Ewell, in the same chapter; but then it gets blurry. Whoever complains about the contents of the toilet bowl does do in terms (“All I can say is if it was produced by anything human then I have to say I’m really worried. Don’t even ask me to describe it.”) that echo the deans’ response to Hal’s voice in the first chapter. The one talking about the harelip is Bruce Green (see the reference to Mildred); and I’m guessing that Erdedy and Gately and others are in here as well. Can anyone offer anything more coherent?

There’s definitely a feeling of strands being pulled together here; if one is allowed to be a wee bit poncy, and it’s my blog so why the hell not, it’s as if Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey has been rewritten in the style of USA by John Dos Passos. This seems to be a novel with multiple beginnings, or maybe none.

Onwards...

Thursday, 6 December 2012

What words really mean

OK, OK, the Ennett House unattributed speech thing is nearly done. Meanwhile, a little something about DFW’s experiments in lexicography.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Twelve: Winter B.S. 1960 – Tucson AZ (A)

Without getting too ideological on your ass, Infinite Jest seems (so far at least) to be a rather blokey affair. OK, we’ve had The Moms and Millicent, Kate Gompert and Clenette and Mildred Bonk; and we might even be generous and include Helen/James Steeply. But there’s far more about Hal and his brothers and his variously gifted colleagues.


And now the chapter begins with a bit of chest-beating self-pity; James (Himself) is that way because his dad was that way and so was his dad and so on. The child is father to the man, we deduce through the gaps in the thicket of sport and cars and booze and Marlon Brando. “I’ve seen your long shadow grotesquely backlit,” the father bellows from 1960, but his shadow is just as long, haunting down the generations like Old Hamlet. [Thinks: A production of Hamlet with 1950s Brando as the Prince and late, fat Brando as the Ghost.]

...and it’s Pemulis again, going about his shady business, with another passing reference to Ennett House. The narrative shifts from the well-dressed piss-dealer to a discussion of DMZ, a drug I’d assumed to be fictional until I came across this:
I have two questions related to the steroid DMZ. First being is it safe to take? I am an 18 year highschool student at about 6'2 170, extremely lean and very athletic (I'm going to a large SEC school on a full scholarship for tennis in the fall) but I'm looking to put on some size. I have been working out hard and smart for the past 8 months, been taking protein daily and have pretty much doubled in strength but I'm not put on the visible size I was expecting.
...which could all be an elaborate bit of role-play on the part of an over-zealous DFW fan, but the responses seem to suggest that DMZ is a drug, albeit a steroid rather than a hallucinogen. Of course, they may be in on the act as well.

And as Pemulis gets back to ETA he finds Hal reading Hamlet. See, told you. And Hal’s speech for Mario’s film feels at first like one of the droney self-help mantras accompanied by footage of Stan Smith but it’s more father-son-father stuff:
Have a father whose own father lost what was there. Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn’t seem just a whole hell of a lot happier than his own failed father, leaving you yourself in a kind of feral and flux-ridden state with respect to talent.
And for some reason I start to think of:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (Hamlet, act IV, scene 4)
Essentially, the inevitable futility of trying to live up to any standards other than one’s own; whether you’re trying to impress a father or a country. And for more disappointment, meet the inmates of Ennett House (coming next).

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Eleven: 3 November Y.D.A.U. (C)


 
Videophony is one of Wallace’s predictions that really has come to pass, even if some of the incidental details are different. Of course, it didn’t require an enormous imaginative leap on DFW’s part, as one-to-one audio-visual communication has been a science-fiction trope going way back; see Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), for example.

So I’ve known about it for far longer than it’s existed in practical form; and yet I’ve never particularly liked the idea. Now I have Skype, but I have no particular wish to inflict my horrible face upon the person to whom I’m talking and to be honest I can take it or leave it whether I can see them or not. And Wallace’s farcical description of “video-physiognomic dysphoria”, and the “optimistically misrepresentational masking” and “transmittable tableaux” used to combat it, sums up all my reasons for resistance. (Although to be honest, I’ve never much liked audio phone conversations either; or, for the most part, face-to-face contact. The first time I sent an e-mail, in about 1993, I experienced a dizzy little rush, similar to when I first heard a song by The Smiths; it just felt right, somehow.)

Of course, Wallace’s satire is not directed at the technology per se. It’s about the many madnesses of consumer capitalism; punters are encouraged to make incremental spends on innovations that supposedly cure one problem (that you never knew you had) only to throw up a new problem (that you never had before but, hey, here’s someone with a cure that you can buy). And they all become agoraphobic but that doesn’t matter; capitalism can find you, wherever you are.

…and the clearest manifestation of such capitalism at the Enfield Tennis Academy is Michael Pemulis with his “warm pale innocent childish urine”, sold from a battered hotdog tray. But Wallace is rather less cutting about this example of entrepreneurial spirit; it’s more of a hook upon which to hang various members of the ETA community and the respective roles they play in the big, dysfunctional family structure:
...Mario will be the only one of the Incandenza children not wildly successful as a professional athlete. No one who knows Mario could imagine that this fact will ever occur to him.
I do like Wallace’s treatment of Mario, refusing to let us feel any pity for him. Ennet House also gets another mention, as a source of cheap labour for Michael’s endeavours, helping to facilitate the very “self-abuse” that got them into trouble in the first place. Also, note the ONAN heraldic design:
...a snarling full-front eagle with a broom and can of disinfectant in one claw and a Maple Leaf in the other and wearing a sombrero and appearing to have about half-eaten a swatch of star-studded cloth...
The various components of North America are all present and correct, but why the cleaning materials? Wasn’t there a waste truck involved somewhere during the Mario/Millicent encounter? Clean? Getting clean (Ennet; Michael’s clean urine)?

Oh, incidentally, do check out the ever-droll Expat@Large on fat and/or difficult books in general, including Infinite Jest.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

This is fun

 
The People Holding Infinite Jest tumblr; and an interview with the person behind it:
"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrHrhjs
"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrO6YQq

"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrO6YQq
"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrO6YQq
She was there for hours... She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it? She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers...
"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrHrhjs

"She was there for hours," he says. "She would read for about 15 seconds and then stop and tweet something, and then read. Was she tweeting deep observations in the handful of pages she got through in the number of hours she was reading it?
"She got through two pages and tweeted 10 times. There was underlining involved. The Decemberists were playing over the loudspeakers.


Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/life/118683-does-this-book-make-me-look-smart/#ixzz2DOrHrhjs

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Eleven: 3 November Y.D.A.U. (B)

Bad writing – writing that’s deliberately bad – is a hard trick to pull off convincingly. At its best it can be the literary equivalent of Les Dawson’s piano playing; but context is all and often the reader can be left confused. Is this a good writer doing bad writing or is it just bad writing? To pick another example from a different discipline, is it something akin to the acting of Hannah Lederer-Alton in the hugely underrated postmodern TV soap Echo Beach?

Well, because DFW has written well elsewhere, we have to assume that the following examples of bad writing are Les, not Hannah. The first is Hal’s, and it can be excused by the fact that he wrote it when he was 12 or 13. In fact, its main flaw is that the writer’s ambition oversteps his abilities, packed with words (“defendress”; “Irishized”) that sound as if they ought to be real but aren’t; and notions (“‘post-post’-modern culture”; “retrograde amines”) that probably need a tad more explication than Hal gives. But hey, what’s wrong with a little “rhetorical flourish” anyway? B/B+ sounds about right. The capitalised introduction does help to put things into alt-historical context; this is the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken; there is no more broadcast television; and Himself died when Hal was in sixth grade. Also, we may infer that in this parallel history, Hawaii 5-0 and Hill Street Blues were as popular and successful as they were in our world. Wallace wouldn’t dare mess with that reality, would he?

Incidentally, when you type “Steve McGarrett” into Google Images, you’re on the fourth row before you even get to a picture of Jack Lord. This is just wrong. Reboots be damned.



The second example will provoke an involuntary constriction in the guts of anybody who has worked as an editor. This is the work of an adult who, like Hal, had delusions of literary ability at the age of 12; but she (since this is Helen, not James) never managed to shake them off and nobody had the heart to disabuse her of them. The world of self-publishing is full of these delusions and, yes, so is blogging. And today, since conventional news print media is running on empty and can’t afford to pay for decent writers or editors, it’s entirely feasible that drivel such as Helen Steeply’s could make it into a Boston newspaper. It’s all there: the repetitions; the split infinitives; the misuse of “tragic” and “ironic”; the glum reality that many readers would fail to see how bad it is.

Question: is the transvestite heart thief actually James/Helen Steeply?

And then there’s the list of variously separatist organisations, some of which (BQ, FLQ, PQ) are almost real, even if Wallace gets Québec’s gender wrong and misses an acute accent from “Québécois”. His system of initials for determining the categories into which each organisation falls (“VV=Extremely Violent”, etc) feels familiar but I can’t recall where I’ve seen it; and then it comes to me. It was used in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (2000) for their entry on Kurt Vonnegut; which was written by Dave Eggers; who wrote the foreword to Infinite Jest.

Which may mean something. But before we go down that route, or get onto videophony, may I draw your attention to The Method Reader blog, which is leading up to a visit to the DFW archives on December 14. Could be intriguing...

Friday, 23 November 2012

Eleven: 3 November Y.D.A.U. (A)

Sorry, that was a longer hiatus than I’d expected. Although I could just cover my tracks by following DFW’s example and throwing everything out of chronological order. But that would be confusing.

OK, Hal again, presumably back at ETA, and his brother Orin calls to accuse him of self-abuse. Which of course is a pretty accurate accusation, if not in the way he means it. And then:
Hal estimated over 60% of what he told Orin on the phone since Orin had abruptly started calling again this spring was a lie. He had no idea why he liked lying to Orin on the phone so much.
If he’s lying 60% of the time to his brother, how much of the rest of what he says is a lie? And if we make the lazy but possibly justifiable assumption that Hal is some sort of stand-in for the author, how much is he lying? Of course, he’s writing fiction, so it’s all a lie; but fiction writers can still wrongfoot their readers, break the rules, lay false trails. And Wallace has already laid so many trails, at least some of them are going to be false, surely?

Orin’s “Phoenician felled by the heat” sounds like a quotation from something, but I’m not sure what. There’s a Phoenician in The Waste Land, but he drowns. Any ideas, anyone? The image does make me think of this:



And his remark about missing New Orleans reminds me that the first time I heard the song ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans’ I seriously thought it was about a beauty queen. But who is his “special somebody”? And does his question about separatism mean that we’re any closer to finding out how all these pieces, these trails, fit together?

Ennet House. I’m guessing at least some of the characters we’ve encountered so far are going to end up here, but not sure which ones. Hal, certainly; is this where he meets the Cuban orderly? Erdedy? Maybe Kate Gompert? Apart from that, this seems to be little more than a set-up for a good joke; “...known in Boston AA simply as the Guy Who Didn’t Even Use His First Name”. Well, I laughed.

I also laughed at the story about the bricklayer. More specifically, I laughed when I first heard a recording of Gerard Hoffnung telling it; and I’m sure Laurel and Hardy did a similar routine and I’ll bet you they weren’t the first. Which doesn’t mean that DFW shouldn’t tell it again, but I’m not entirely sure why he does.

OK, let’s break it there. McGarrett & Furillo next. And it won’t be the best part of a month, I promise.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (F)

 
I’m a little uneasy about the description of the tryst between Mario and Millicent, to be honest. It’s funny and sweet, but there’s something a tiny bit exploitative about it as well; she’s enormous and he’s labouring under an unspecified array of deformities, held together with an “extendable police lock” and, well, that’s it, really.

But is this really about them, or about us watching them? When they discover the camera in the thicket, they know that they’ve been under surveillance but they don’t know that we’ve been watching as well. Simply for being readers, we’re implicated as voyeurs. And Millicent’s father was doing fine prancing around in his daughters’ leotards until he knew he was being watched. Think back to the last section in ETA, where the students were all watching their cartridges and the screen was described as a window; they were watching, but were they also being watched?

Back to Marathe and Steeply, and back to Wallace’s habit of dropping reality bombs into his fiction. There really was a group called the FLQ, which actually stood for the Front de libération du Québec (not sure if DFW is really getting his genders wrong). They were involved in a number of terrorist attacks in the 1960s and early 70s, and one of their leaders wrote a book with the provocative title White Niggers of America. I’m just wondering whether this has any bearing on the time Steeply spent pretending to be a “negroid” Haitian. Or could he be... no, hold that thought.

The notes give more background to various political upheavals, which have left Quebec in a state of pretended independence from the North American behemoth. Marathe’s wife is dying and the footnotes implicate the toxic events that have occurred since Interdependence. Some of Marathe’s comrades believe him to be eidetic; which may offer some sort of link with Hal Incandenza; but in any case, Marathe knows it not to be true.

And I just don’t get that lost fragment about walled and murated nations. I mean, “murated”, I’m guessing, derives from the Latin “murus”; but if you Google the word, the first hit you get is a reference to, um, Infinite Jest.

The Spandex-clad guru comes as something of a relief. Is it Millicent’s father? Unlikely, since she came to ETA partly to escape from him. But I like the idea of literally living off the sweat of others; so is he just a metaphor for the ETA management, thriving from the exertions of their charges?

Am I over-thinking this?

And then we’re back amidst Wallace’s attempts to invoke the demotic. Is this Clenette again? If so, she’s certainly become a bit more assertive. And I’m wondering whether Steeply is somehow involved, in his previous persona. Or am I being racist to assume that just because Steeply was pretending to be a Haitian, that he’d get involved in criminal acts? OK, is that more or less racist than pretending to be a Haitian in the first place?

Hey, is that the end of the chapter? I knew we’d get there eventually.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (E)

We discover how the tennis prodigies cope with the effects of their high-pressure environment and, as we might have guessed, it’s with those wonderful cartridges. The viewing rooms are windowless, but the screen looks like a window, a trompe l’oeil, a false vision of a world outside. But – just wondering here – can someone else see in through this window?


And the cartridge they’re watching is of a tennis player. Now, I vaguely remember Stan Smith; or maybe it’s the trainers named after him that I remember. (If you Google the name, you get far more images of the shoes than you do of the balding tennis player.) As with Bouchard and Charest, I wonder whether I’m supposed to know whether he was real; and whether some of the other characters that I’ve assumed to be fictional, actually have some kind of historical basis. Is there really, for example, a Kent Blott? (His dad is an ENT oncologist; did he perhaps treat the snot-filled DuPlessis, or maybe meet the Saudi attaché at a conference? All that gunk; see also Schacht’s demonstration of how to floss.)

Although the Smith footage is meant to be educational, it’s also hypnotic; “Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow”. They’re watching the seam, calculating the spin, but what’s really important is the near-catatonic mindset that the cartridge provokes. Did Hal’s dad direct the film? Do all his works have this strange effect? As Troeltsch says:
It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut... Just do it. Forget about is there a point, of course there’s no point. The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways.
Over and over, looping and looping, like the cartridge in front of the attaché’s recliner. And then, bathos: what to do if you feel a fart coming on.

OK, Mario next.

PS: By a long margin, this is the page that has attracted the most views. And the majority of search terms that end up here are about Stan Smith.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (D), plus Note 304

Sorry for the hiatus. Real life, work and all that.

We’re still with Marathe and Steeply, “the feminized American”, and they’re still talking funny. I’ve remembered two more examples of this translation-engine English: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (which is a good book) and Ludmila’s Broken English, by DBC Pierre, which is a book.

And the unlikely pair are discussing love, initially in terms of romantic archetypes, although Steeply’s grasp of detail is a little loose. Love of country? Love of Marathe for his wife? Love of Steeply for his car? But what’s really significant here is the tortuous link to note 304. (Well, it’s tortuous if you’re reading on a Kindle; note 45 refers to 304 but there’s no link per se, so you have to search for it, without really knowing what you’re looking for.)

We’re brought back to the tennis academy, where Jim Struck is desperately trying to piece together a paper for “Ms. Poutrincourt’s History of Canadian Unpleasantness course thing.” And I’m suddenly reminded of another book that appeared in the late 1990s, Stephen Fry’s Making History. It’s also an alternate history (this time on the evergreen what-if-Hitler-hadn’t-been-born? model) and it includes a sequence in which an aspect of the invented timeline is explained to the reader by means of a character viewing an academic text using equipment that exists only within the reality of the novel. As far as I recall, the medium for data in Fry’s parallel world is called a cart, short for cartridge.

Anyway, what’s important is what Struck – acting as our representative in the fiction – reads in the course of his research. We discover the full scope of the terrorist activity against ONAN, which is (I think) for the first time revealed to be the Organization of North American Nations. Intriguingly, the list of politicians who “heard the squeaky wheel” of their amputee assassins includes at least a couple of real individuals: Lucien Bouchard, who was prime minister of Quebec at the time Infinite Jest was published, and Jean Charest, who held the post for nearly a decade until he was defeated in last month’s election. (I don’t know about Schnede or Remillard; perhaps someone with a better grasp of Canadian regional politics could let me know whether these names ring any bells.) Are there any moral or legal implications in describing the deaths of real, living individuals in a fictional context? (1) Bouchard, incidentally, lost a leg in 1994, but to necrotizing fasciitis rather than a train.

Oh, and the shit pie attack is a delightful image. Thanks for that, DFW.

The description of the train jumping (“le Jeu du Prochain Train”) is intriguing. Clearly it’s meant to be something more than mere adolescent bravado, a simple game of chicken; it’s regimented, ritualistic, with the numbers of participants strictly prescribed. I’m guessing its origins go rather deeper than the collective existential death wish of the kids of asbestos miners. Who would gain from killing and maiming so many adolescent Quebeckers?

Another question: is Bernard Wayne, the one who ignominiously failed to jump, any relation to ETA student John Wayne?

Of course, just because Struck is reading all this, doesn’t mean it’s true; any more than the fact we’re reading Infinite Jest makes it true.

Do we get to plagiarise it?

1. In his novel, Fry killed Stalin with a nuclear bomb and had Churchill and George VI executed, but they were in reality dead before he wrote his book. (2)

2. Woo! Footnotes! Well, it was inevitable, wasn’t it?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (C)

...and back into the locker room.

It’s a male teenage fantasy – according to many lowbrow Hollywood movies, at least – to have access to the female locker room, which is presumably peopled entirely by leggy, toned cheerleaders in various states of undress. I’ve never seen a male locker room identified as a fantasy zone for heterosexual women. Wallace’s depiction of the environment, with its zit-picking and exhaustion and socks, digestive disorders and boils and Lemon Pledge, doesn’t attempt to undo that.

This isn’t just a nest of ghastly adolescent males, though. The ETA Big Buddy system seems to provide a pretty good family unit, in contrast with the dysfunctional Incandenzas; “Hal’s next-oldest brother Mario doesn’t seem to resemble much of anyone they know” is pretty poignant. The banter between the students feels pretty aimless, but I suspect we’ll come back at some point to sift through it for significance. There are too many speakers, too many voices for a start. One phrase leaps out, as the boys equate tiredness with drugs and yearn for a state of intellectual oblivion:
It’d be like a pleasant fatigue if I could just go up after dinner and hunker on down with the mind in neutral and watch something uncomplex.
We still don’t know how the attaché’s getting on.

Also of note, maybe; a reference to “Interdependence Day”. What exactly is it that’s happened to North America?

I’ve got a horrible feeling that by the end of this chapter I’ll be taking it one line at a time.

On to Arizona...

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (B)

OK, next bit.

We’re in the Tennis Academy again, not only physically, but immersed in the timetable, the workings of the thing, in the guts of the machine. And it’s pretty banal, isn’t it? I don’t mean that Wallace’s prose is banal – simply that he’s depicting a state of banality. Adolescent boys doing adolescent boy things, distinguished from their peers solely by their ability to do one thing well. But what they’re discussing as we begin to eavesdrop is not tennis, but Tolstoy; and specifically Tolstoy’s syntax, not the accuracy of what he says about families, just in case any of us might be drawing any conclusions from that.

And then a brief, tired silence.

And then they move on to communication technology, allowing Wallace to create things that must have seemed pretty exciting back in the mid 90s but now feel either quaint or ordinary or mildly steampunk or just plain wrong. Of course, now we know that the boys are discussing the technology that played the work of James O Incandenza and allowed it to cause the unspecified paralysis of the attaché and those around him, and that has some link with the nefarious goings-on being discussed on that hillside in Arizona. But do we need to know how it works? (By the way, I saw the film Looper yesterday, and one thing that impressed me was that nobody wasted time trying to explain how the time travel technology actually worked. It didn’t matter. It was a plot device. Move on.)

That said, it’s the little passing references that come up in the course of the discussions that matter to us, almost the gaps between the things that are important to them. The red weal that Stice’s waistband leaves feels pretty irrelevant; the stuff about halation, “that most angelic of distortions”, takes us back a few pages to Marathe’s Bröckengespent. And of course, we are reminded that Hal has a big vocabulary.

And then we’re back to Marathe and Steeply again. But nothing happens. Which makes me think of Godot, but specifically Godot’s syntax, not the accuracy of what he says about life, just in case any of you might be drawing any conclusions from that.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Ten: 30 April – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (A)

And so we reach the chapter in which things finally start to come together, with one or two strands looking for the first time as if they ought to belong inside the same novel. And it’s also the point at which I first start asking myself what the hell I’m doing here, as the chapter begins with a few “a-ha!” moments and then tails off into a whole load of “what?” Of course, the Luddites will insist, if I’d been reading a dead tree I could have just used page numbers. But I’m not. So I’ll just have to break this monster down piece by arbitrary piece.


Anyway, we’re back in Arizona, where we last saw Orin. Someone, who turns out to be Marathe, but we don’t yet know who Marathe is, “sat alone above the desert” and immediately I’m thinking of Jesus in the wilderness, with Satan offering him “all the kingdoms of the world”. But maybe that’s just me. OK, there he sits in his wheelchair, which is described as a “fauteuil de rollent”, which isn’t any flavour of French I know. Goethe’s “Bröckengespent”, on the other hand, is legitimate, as well as being the sort of word Gerhardt Schtitt might have come up with; Marathe’s shadow is immense, giving a false sense of his importance. And then a man in a frock arrives and they start talking strangely.

Now, answer me this: is the whole Marathe/Steeply thing meant to be funny? It’s as if DFW is trying to conjure up a pair of Beckettian augustes, but ends up settling for some of the less enduring tropes of lowbrow British comedy, such as unconvincing transvestites and linguistic ineptitude played for laughs. It’s as if Bernard Bresslaw were to make a guest appearance on ’Allo! ’Allo! Which is a shame, because amidst all the pratfalls there several highly useful nuggets. “A cartridge-copy of a certain let’s call it between ourselves ‘The Entertainment’” is implicated in the peculiar incapacity of the Saudi attaché and his associates; and it’s implied, via passing reference to Avril, that this Entertainment can be found in James O Incandenza’s filmography. The unfortunate, snot-choked DuPlessis is also mentioned; so was his death not a stupid accident after all?

But just as DFW starts to hint at explanations, more questions arise. Has Canada in fact taken over great chunks of the north-eastern United States? Is this whole cloak-and-dagger-and-wheelchair-and-fake-tits thing about a plot to get it back? And what’s with the feral hamsters named after the parents in another unfunny sitcom?

I think one of the problems I’m having is not so much the shifts in time and place and between characters and plot lines, but the jarring shifts in tone. Right now it feels as if I’m reading five or six novels at the same time, apparently by different authors, with individual chapters shuffled like cards. Although the cards are all different sizes, some the size of bus tickets, some more like billboards. And I was never good at card games at the best of times. Or tennis, for that matter.

And on that subject...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

One moment, please

OK, I really thought I was getting somewhere, as one or two of DFW’s loose ends began to tighten a little but then the prospect of wading through 20 more pages of adolescent tennis prodigies whining at each other in various states of undress began to take its toll, and I experienced my first real wobble, wondering what the hell I’m doing with this book, this blog. And then the toad work got a bit squatty and overbearing and then the news that Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman are splitting up sent me into an emotional tailspin and I found myself staring at the words and nothing was going in.


But no, I’m sticking with it. This next bit might take a little longer, that’s all. In the meantime, I direct you to Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s review of Wallace’s essay collection Both Flesh and Not in BookForum and suggest you read the footnote about DT Max’s biography and wonder if it’s possible to know too much about an author; and then consider the comment from one pchris56:
Every time Lewis-Kraus singled out one of DF’s sentences for excessive dickheadery, I would sit there for a minute going, “What's the problem?” It took several paragraphs before I figured out that GL-K’s only issue with these sentences is that DFW treated his readers as if they may have at some time read other writers.
WTF.
I mean, I read because I like words and I like knowing things. It’s fun. Sorry if my freak pleasures offend you, but there they are. If I have to look something up or learn about one of history’s seminal philosophers, it doesn’t harsh my buzz that much. The writing that really makes me feel condescended to is the stuff that talks down to me. Or the writing that reproves a great writer because he didn’t.
Well, exactly. Well, except for the “harsh my buzz” bit, that’s just silly.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Nine: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

When I come to one of these episodes, the ones that appear, on first reading at least, to have no particular connection with anything I’ve read so far – no Incandenzas, no tennis, no piss-stained attaché – I have to create my own context, my own meaning. And although I’ve tried very hard to avoid reading anything else about Infinite Jest or its author, it’s widely known that DFW, like the character Kate Gompert, suffered from severe depression. Moreover, his suicide gives this whole episode a post hoc melancholy resonance. Kate Gompert may not have been intended as a stand-in for Wallace, but she becomes one after the fact.

At the same time of course, Kate is a fictional creation, and on more levels than it first appears. Wallace created her, of course; but the doctor also creates a version of her through his diagnosis; and that diagnosis seems to be that she has created herself, almost as a pastiche of something else:
Something almost too overt about the pathos of the posture: this exact position was illustrated in some melancholic Watteau-era print on the frontispiece to Yevtushenko’s Field Guide to Clinical States.
...which apparently isn’t a real book, but probably should be. Wallace conjures up clinical psychologists named after Russian poets and epistemological philosophers; the revenge of the arts graduate. Later, the doctor himself gets confused as to which parts the patient is creating and which are his own work:
He couldn’t keep himself from trying to determine whether the ambient blank insincerity the patient seemed to project during what appeared, clinically, to be a significant gamble and move toward trust and self-revealing was in fact projected by the patient or was somehow counter-transferred or -projected onto the patient from the doctor’s own psyche out of some sort of anxiety over the critical therapeutic possibilities her revelation of concern over drug-use might represent.
There are further reminders that the whole scene, the hospital, Kate, the doctor, is a fiction; the pillowcase is described as “either green or yellow”. A real case would be one or another or both; the “either” implies that Wallace hasn’t decided what colour to make it yet, like a Biblical god dithering over how many humps to give to a camel. Kate’s mother, meanwhile, goes in the opposite direction, wondering whether she’s hallucinating, refusing to accept the horror of reality.

In fact, the only person that appears to have a grasp of reality is Kate herself, supposedly the mad one, refusing to dramatise her actions or attitudes, coolly analysing why she wanted to kill herself:
“I wanted to just stop being conscious. I’m a whole different type. I wanted to stop feeling this way. If I could have put myself in a really long coma I would have done that. Or given myself shock I would have done that. Instead.”
...and also cutting through the bullshit about why people take drugs. It’s because taking drugs makes you feel good. Although it also makes you get Jack Nicholson’s name wrong.

And the attaché’s wife finally gets home and finds him frozen and apparently happy and she turns to see what he’s seeing. Possibly not a wise move.


And then back to ETA. Gerhardt Schtitt in his boots and helmet appears on the face of it to be a slightly kinky comedy Gestapo officer from ’Allo ’Allo! and the corny ““Verstiegenheit.’ ‘Bless you.’” gag could easily have come from that fondly-remembered-but-not-by-me sitcom. Factor in the “creepy wiriness” that Wallace ascribes to him and one immediately wonders about the purity of his intentions towards the trusting, apparently naïve Mario. But all seems well as Schtitt holds forth on tennis and mathematics; even his pipe-smoke is geometric and his obsession with lines apparently echoing parts of the dream sequence in the previous chapter, although we still don’t know for sure whose dream that was.

It’s not just hypotenuses though. Schtitt is also a philosopher on Nietzchean lines, seeing tennis as an essentially tragic pursuit, “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.” Hamlet again, anyone, arms against a sea of troubles and all that? “And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?” And by opposing end them?

In the midst of this, we get the first reference to a year with a number, BS 1989, although whether that’s the same as our 1989 is another matter. Also, the note informs us that subsidization was introduced by one President Gentle. Lots of jigsaw pieces, still no picture...

There’s no time to dawdle, though. Now we meet Tiny Ewell, who is indeed tiny. He’s also – in common with so many of the characters we’ve met so far – overly fond of mind-altering substances and finds himself in a detox facility, the hideous banality of which Wallace sums up thus:
They gave him slippers of green foam-rubber with smiley-faces embossed on the tops. The detox’s in-patients are encouraged to call these Happy Slippers. The staff refer to the footwear in private as ‘pisscatchers.’
But it’s Tiny’s room-mate who really grabs our attention, gazing “with rapt intensity” at the vents of the air conditioner: “His face produces the little smiles and grimaces of a person who’s being thoroughly entertained.”

...which inevitably takes us back to the attaché and his wife, not to mention their various visitors, who are captivated by the looping images, even through the stench.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Note 24


James O Incandenza, in addition to his skills in the sporting and scientific fields, was also a film-maker; and here are the films he made. The list certainly goes some way to expressing the conflicts in the personality of this looming figure. We can infer that, with his directing hat on, he was something of a maverick, possibly deluded, Quixotic even, but able to enthuse a semi-regular repertory company of collaborators; I’m thinking of Ken Russell at the end of his career, making movies in his garage; Orson Welles forced into European exile; a generous dash of Ed Wood. Very few of these films you’d actually want to sit through, but the ideas are delicious. I’m particularly taken by Immanent Domain, in which three actors play memory neurons fighting to prevent their displacement by psychoanalysis (Woody Allen with even more Freud than normal); and Cage III – Free Show, which plays ingenious games with notions of the spectator. “Conceptually unfilmable” is a nice challenge as well. Wallace also drops plenty of real-world references (DW Griffith, Ed Ruscha, Steven Pinker, et al) into the fiction.

The films themselves are something of a MacGuffin, though; what’s important is the light the filmography shines on some of the ambiguous passing references in the preceding chapters. For a start, the abstruse chronology that Wallace has developed starts to fall in place. There was a time Before Subsidization (B.S.), which implies that the coming of sponsorship was a turning point to rival the coming of Christ, although it also makes me think of Huxley’s Before and After Ford (Henry, not Gerald) in Brave New World. And the first year of the new era was the Year of the Whopper. That said, we still don’t know when that turning point was; and all the B.S. years are crushed together into a homogeneous then-ness.

The winks at Wallace’s invented history really come in the synopses, although sometimes this just adds another layer or two of confusion. We get the soft propaganda for the energy technology that Incandenza invented (Annular Fusion Is Our Friend, akin to those promotional films for nuclear power in the 1950s); but we need to know more about the Bay Area health care reform riots of 1996 and the M.I.T. language riots of B.S. 1997. (The latter, incidentally, confirms that Avril’s academic specialism was language, not drugs. Sorry about that.) And the whole Canada thing seems to be falling into place, after a fashion. References to North American Interdependence and Continental Reconfiguration imply some kind of continental megastate, NAFTA on steroids, a North American answer to the EU.

On a smaller scale, the films refer to elements of Incandenza’s own life and the disparate plot details we’ve picked up so far. So we meet a medical attaché and a professional conversationalist; and also witness the collapse of a man tormented by alcoholism, phobias, self-pity and the trauma of his wife’s persistent infidelity, not to mention occasional hints at pederasty (although whether James O is the victim or the perpetrator is as yet undisclosed). But I guess the most significant revelation is when we discover that Incandenza made (and remade) a film called Infinite Jest, although we have no idea as yet what it’s about. And his production company is Poor Yorick. And then all the other stuff makes sense, the adultery and madness; for the moment let’s say that he’s the dead king, Hal’s Hamlet, the Moms is Gertrude and Charles Tavis is Claudius, with Mario maybe as Horatio.

And if we’re really going to push that analogy, are Incandenza’s latest films an attempt to get at the truth, just as Hamlet tried to force an admission from his uncle with the Murder of Gonzago? Or is the filmography simply the map of a cataclysmic breakdown? Both interpretations come together in his last definitively completed work, his adaptation of Peter Weiss’s Marat-Sade. Already a play within a play (within an asylum), Incandenza’s efforts add fresh layers of reality, murder and vomit, although never forget that this puported reality is just another fiction, the work of one David Foster Wallace, himself no stranger to mental imbalance.

But back to that final Infinite Jest, in its ambiguous state of completion and availability and even existence, a sort of Schrödinger’s cartridge. After suffering (subsidized) years of critical opprobrium (“the stupidest, nastiest, least subtle and worst-edited product of a pretentious and wretchedly uneven career”), suddenly James is everybody’s darling. But what’s this? One hack draws attention to the film’s “radical experiments in viewers’ optical perspective and context”,  which reminds us of the director’s academic background in the physics of vision and also prompts the question: how’s that medical attaché doing on his recliner? Still watching?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Eight: As of Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

“As of...”? So it begins in Incontinence-Pant-Time and then progresses? Or what? The ETA has been running for eight of these pesky Subsidized years, so presumably Depend is the eighth of those; and there’s a reference to the days before Subsidy, so *something* happened, *something* changed. We’re working towards a revelation, I’m guessing.

But not right now. Instead, we get the back story of James Incandenza, aka Himself, and a man, it seems, of multiple parts. For a start, family dysfunction is not simply something he spawned; he was born with it coursing through his veins, courtesy of his “dipsomaniacal tragedian” father, hinting at something tragicomic and Dickensian. Young James O is bred to be a tennis prodigy and an inventor, the skills from the former and the cash from the latter – “after an early retirement from the public sector” – combining to build the Enfield Tennis Academy. But via the potted biography, we get some pretty good hints at what’s been going on in this alternative timeframe. The “Federal interval G. Ford-early G. Bush” represents (unless history began going askew before this) 1974 to 1992, from the fall of Nixon to the arrival of Clinton. But why is it described thus, as a discrete segment of time? Is it something to do with Incandenza’s research that helped the US towards energy independence; the early 1970s being the time when oil prices really kicked off? Was 1992 a time when everything got better? And what happened to Ronald Reagan? And, while we’re at it, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had oblique references to Canada, which seem to imply that all is not well within that delightful, if climatically challenging land. Are they at war with their loud southern neighbour?

Ah, the Moms was a professor of Prescriptive Usage, which – one might assume, given the various goings on we’ve seen already – is something to do with drugs. But at the same time it might be about language. Or both, of course; and the language of drugs has occupied a decent chunk of the footnotes up till now. Talking of which, it’s here that the footnotes really start to take on a life of their own and the monumental note 24 (Incandenza’s filmography) really deserves a post in its own right. So that’s what it’s getting.

Two more things: we’re still using ARPANET, which predated the internet; and an explanation for Orin’s huge limbs appears to be imminent.

And while we’re on the subject of Orin, here he is in Denver, skydiving onto a football field, dressed as the bird that gives his team. For all I know, this is how NFL games begin these days; when I watched the last Batman movie, in which a game is interrupted by the pitch opening up and swallowing most of the players, I thought it might be a pretty cool way to inject some interest into a pretty stupid pastime. Didn’t they talk about Gerald Ford having played football without a helmet? Well, then.

Oh I get it now. Arizona Cardinals... New Orleans Saints... Do the Browns dress up as turds?

And now I’m really confused, because we have one of those circle motifs that herald a new chapter, but there’s no title and in Kindle terms it’s not a new chapter and now we don’t know when we are. Still in Depend, I’ll have to guess. And presumably at ETA, where Hal’s classmate Michael Pemulis is giving a lecture on drugs (prescriptive?) to the younger students. But they’re not desperately interested in such matter-of-fact analysis, which hints at the notion that if all drugs were legal they’d lose their outlaw cachet and usage would fall off.

This segues into a meditation on drug use at ETA, which first of all I think might be delivered by Pemulis, then I think Hal, and finally Orin, but I’m still not sure. No, it’s not Pemulis, because he refers to “the Moms”. Unless, of course, the Moms is an ersatz mother figure to all ETA students? In any case it turns into a dream, so any search for logical links might turn out to be a waste of your time and mine. The court becomes some unnecessarily complex construction, as if MC Escher had taken up real tennis. Although inevitably a dream/nightmare court summons up images less of tennis, more of a prosecution, more Kafka or A Matter of Life and Death.

Not that tennis courts can’t be disturbing. “We sort of play.” Which makes me think of this:

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Seven: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (B)


First – and this will be old news to those among you who read my other blog – I’ve run a few samples from this blog through the rather nifty I Write Like only to discover that I Write Like David Foster Wallace. But mostly when I’m writing about David Foster Wallace; otherwise I write like HP Lovecraft, or occasionally William Gibson. Except when I’m writing about Haruki Murakami, in which instance I write like Cory Doctorow, or occasionally David Foster Wallace. David Foster Wallace, you’ll be pleased to hear, writes like David Foster Wallace; although Bret Easton Ellis writes like HP Lovecraft.

Glad that’s all sorted. OK, a new year – Dairy Products from the American Heartland – and a new person, one Don Gately. But not a new chapter as such. I do wonder whether the difficulty that people have with Infinite Jest is not so much a matter of its length as of basic planning and presentation. Even the greatest writers need a decent editor; DFW, it seems, wanted a secretary.

Anyway, Don Gately. He seems like a bit of a rotter, all things considered. He takes a lot of drugs but then so do several of the characters we’ve encountered so far. Don’s a gifted burglar and, like Mario Incandenza, he has an enormous head, which one might have thought to be something of a professional drawback, especially when attempting to negotiate narrow entrances and/or exits, but apparently not.

The story about the rectally-inserted toothbrushes sounds too much like one of those tiresome urban myths that that was prevalent around the time that e-mail became a standard accoutrement of your average office slave’s working life; around the time that Infinite Jest was published, in fact. You can see it coming, even if the ADA doesn’t. Interesting, though, that the ADA (Assistant District Attorney) receives a brochure created by the ADA (American Dental Association). Deliberate? Meaningful? Not sure.

Gately’s next escapade, though, makes the brushes-up-arses thing look like positively benign. The house he breaks into isn’t empty as he imagines; the owner is in bed with a stinking cold. (Maybe all those dairy products from the heartland have brought him a nasty case of catarrh.) And once again, we have a failure to communicate; first, Guillaume DuPlessis speaks Québec French, then Gately does his best Hollywood gangster voice, until finally
...the honking adenoidal inflection the guy’s grippe gives his speech doesn’t even sound like human speech to Gately... 
which sounds remarkably similar to the deans’ reaction to Hal’s “animal” speech in the first chapter. And pretty soon, DuPlessis chokes on his own snot and the dentally violated A(ssistant) D(istrict) A(ttorney) waits to take his revenge on Gately. Although whether any of this has any bearing on the rest of the plot, we do not know. And yet again, the whole thing may simply be another narrative played out...


...the InterLace Telentertainment thingybob. (So you then man what’s your story?) Hmm, DFW’s geeky enumeration of all the gadget’s features rather remind me of Bret Easton Ellis (him again!) fetishising Bateman’s home entertainment hardwear in American Psycho. Starting to see where the bad blood came from.

But no, keep up, ladies and gentlemen, do try to keep up. We’re back (forwards, maybe?) in Depend Year and we’re back in Enfield Tennis Academy. But this time we’re in the company of Hal’s classmate Jim Troeltsch, who is watching a cartridge – possibly on the machine just described. Now Jim’s not a well boy, and his ailments sounds pretty similar to those suffered by poor old Guillaume DuPlessis; “and the stuff he sneezed out was thick and doughy”. Nice. Where he does touch base with Hal is in the fact that takes lots of drugs, which may be intended to quell his feverish snotting, but don’t appear to do much good in that respect. I get what DFW means by “literally ‘daydreaming’ sick” but does that equate to the next, untitled section, which flips into second-person narrative (which I was pretty much expecting to happen at some point) and it’s all some nameless, unmentionable dread, which is probably like something out of HP Lovecraft, even though – as I think I mentioned – I’ve never read any Lovecraft.

So who is it who’s left lying there, “all ribs and elbows and dilated eyes”? I’m guessing it’s Jim himself. But until someone confirms otherwise, it’s you, just you, only you.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Seven: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (A)

We’re back with Hal and we’re back with drugs, specifically that high-resin stuff. But Hal uses a one-hitter, as distinct from Erdedy’s bong. As was the case with Erdedy, however, there’s something going on other than the desire to get high. The Hungarian Jimmy Cliff was addicted to the ritual; Hal is “attached to the secrecy” that he can attain beneath the tunnels.
American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret.
That’s right, Dave. It’s called writing fiction.

Question: do you need to be interested in the mechanics and lore of marijuana to care about all this? Maybe the same question applies to tennis. Or will it be more like wrestling in the works of John Irving, an obsession of the author’s that you don’t need to share, but you need to accept as part of the cultural furniture? Or, hey, will it all turn out to be a metaphor? I’m guessing this may end up being significant somehow – “Total utilization of public resources = lack of publicly detectable waste.” – but I’ve no idea why or how. Waste? WASTE? Wasn’t that an acronym in Pynchon? DFW uses lots of abbreviations and/or acronyms. I’m rambling now. Anyone might think I was stoned. But seriously, this is running off in multiple directions, a bit like the tunnels under the ETA.

I’ve already broken my self-imposed rule about avoiding other sources of information/insight about Infinite Jest. For one thing, it would have been discourteous not to acknowledge The Howling Fantods, a site about all things DFW-related, not least because its onlie begetter Nick Maniatis has been very encouraging about this blog. And through Nick’s vast academy of ones and zeroes, I’ve come across such labours of obsession as Infinite Boston, which offers a virtual tour of the city where much of the action takes place (does it?) and the Infinite Map which plots them in much the same way that devotees of Joyce impose the action of Ulysses onto a map of Edwardian Dublin. (It’s been said that if the Irish capital were to be wiped off the face of the earth, it could be rebuilt from JJ’s prose alone. I wonder if such a claim could be made for DFW.)

I’ve also been seeking hints about how other readers/writers keep tabs on where they are in the action and how they communicate reference points to others. If one follows the advice of this live blog, it seems that it’s all about good, old-fashioned page numbers, which assumes there’s only one edition of the book with one pagination (maybe there is); but in any case, it isn’t much help if you’ve gone down the Kindle route. Should I be measuring out my reading in percentages? A number of blogs have suggested that something seriously important is going to happen at around the page 237 mark, which I suppose is somewhere in the vicinity of 22%. Bearing in mind I don’t really know what I’ll be looking for, will I need to read a bit more slowly there, just in case I miss something? Chapter headings, as I soon realised, aren’t much help, so I’ve had to impose numbers on them. And those chapters veer off into multiple sub-sections anyway. And then there are the footnotes; are they integral parts of the chapters, or separate entities? Ambassador Wallace, with these questions, you are really spoiling us.

So, as I sit down to write this chapter and see it spooooling out in multiple directions ahead of me, I hope you’ll be accommodating if I take a break at some roughly-halfway point.

OK, back to Hal’s secret spot for his solitary smokes. Apart from its practical benefits, his hideaway beneath the school is as much a vantage point from which he/we can observe/ruminate on the academic and sporting and personal and physical structures in which he operates. It’s like a big body, with its Lung Room, its Pump (heart?) Room, the tunnels serving as blood vessels or maybe nerves. That said, sometimes this book feels as if it has tunnels running off in all directions, half of them apparently containing dead ends. There’s one footnote in particular, number 21 (in the Troeltsch section) that redirects you to number 211, which in turn necessitates flicking through dozens of notes to things that haven’t happened yet and you start to realise the sheer immensity of the operation, that several of the notes alone have the potential to spawn a novel of more normal proportions and you feel humble and a little bit scared and you start to wonder why you started this bloody thing. You become aware of your own insignificance. Forgive me for another Douglas Adams reference – has anyone asked whether DFW was influenced by DNA, by the way? – is there a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Infinite Jest? – but it’s a bit like the Total Perspective Vortex.

And, bloody hell, how come it took me so long to realise it, is Hal in fact Hamlet? An emotional basket case with a dead father whose role in the family and the state (ETA) is usurped by a relative. Duh. The title again. Is Orin Yorick? Maybe? Or is that Mario, with his big, weird skull?

And suddenly we’re back with the attaché in the recliner and once again I wonder whether he’s been watching what we’ve been watching (Hal getting off his face, mostly) or watching us. Or is he watching the videos that Mario’s making? Whatever, it is, it’s pretty compelling stuff, as the attaché’s still watching it, now in a puddle of his own piss.

And, since Mr Wallace suddenly elects to take us on a journey to another trademarked year – dairy products this time – that might be a good moment to take a rest.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Six: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

And so we’re back with Hal and Mario (aka Booboo), and we’re back with tennis. I’m trying to avoid relying too much on data from external sources here, but we know that DFW was pretty handy at tennis and that he also had mental health problems, so is it too soon to agree that Hal is David? Hey – Hal David! I only just noticed that. Now I’ll be on the look out for quirky internal rhymes among the melancholy.

And there’s something *wrong* with Mario, even though he seems to be the happiest, best adjusted character we’ve encountered do far. The big head has already been mentioned, even if we don’t know quite how big. But then:
“You think I think fuzzy thoughts all the time. You let me room with you because you feel sorry for me.”
So is Mario somehow mentally damaged? Does his big head house a small brain? Or are his thoughts only fuzzy when compared with the dictionary-consuming mind of his brother? That said, Hal’s currently musing on God, a practice that rarely benefits from the deployment of rigorous logic. And then we discover that Himself, their father, the one with the stained sweater-vest, is no longer with us (although given the unorthodox chronology at work here, I rather suspect this is not the last we’ve seen of him). The brothers discuss grief, specifically the different ways members of the family grieved for Himself. Hal listened to Puccini; the whole bow-tie thing fits.

Then there’s some schtick about raising the flag pole instead of lowering the flag, which could have come out of The Goon Show (although they would have raised the whole ground). And then a brief status report on the medical attaché. Has he been watching what we’ve been reading? Or is he watching...

Orin? No, that can’t be, because it’s now October, YDAU, and the attaché was watching the cartridge in April. Orin is soaked in sweat and he got laid last night. Why is he #71? Is it his house number? His tennis ranking? Are we really in The Village? And what’s Ambush, with its damp scent? Ah, apparently it’s a perfume from the 1950s. (I’m allowing myself to use Google, but in regard to things that are specifically created as part of the Infinite Jest universe. Of course, Ambush might have been a DFW invention. But it isn’t. So that’s OK. And to be honest, I nearly had to Google all that stuff about free safety and reserve guards but some vague memory from when I was at high school in Canada suggested that it might be something to do with that peculiar game that North Americans persist in calling football. So is #71 Orin’s team number?)

At first glance, Orin appears to be normal, at least within the context of his peculiar family. But gradually the differences begin to leak out. His left arm and leg are noticeably bigger than his right. And he doesn’t like heights. And he has dreams about his mother’s detached head (and note that the shower/coffee combo is necessary “to loosen the grip on his soul’s throat”, echoing Hal and Erdedy with their variations on oral drought). On top of that, he can’t stand the cockroaches that infest his living space, but he also can’t bear the explosive results when he tries to kill them, so he’s developed a weird method of suffocating them, that ends up creating dozens of translucent little roach tombs around his apartment. And he chooses to watch cartridges about schizophrenia. And there’s a dead bird in his jacuzzi. Even the serial shagging seems to hint at something a little more pathological than the easy gratification that comes to a professional sportsman. So, yeah, he’s another damaged Incandenza:
Even when alone, able to uncurl alone and sit slowly up and wring out the sheet and go to the bathroom, these darkest mornings start days that Orin can’t even bring himself for hours to think about how he’ll get through the day. These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light – the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer...
...which somehow makes me think of this recent cartoon from XKCD. But the footnote tells us that he’s “never once darkened the door of any sort of therapy-professional” (What? Not even a conversationalist?) so he may have a fighting chance. And while we’re in among those notes, the Kindle tells us that they begin at the 86% mark; approximately one-seventh of the book is given over to DFW’s “oh-and-by-the-way”s. Which sounds hefty, but I recently finished Arguably, the almost-posthumous collection of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism, and the notes in that began at 75%. Readers of my main blog, Cultural Snow, will know of my fondness for such embellishments, and my championing of works such as Pale Fire and The Waste Land, where the footnotes run riot, trampling over what claims to be the main text until it disappears under the mud and scuffmarks.

And in the may-or-may-not-turn-out-to-be-significant file:
  • More Töblerone; still with umlaut.
  • “Pandora’s box of worms”? Eh?
  • Actually, you shouldn’t shave south-to-north because it’s bad for your skin. Although maybe that’s another parallel universe thing.
  • And the line about Rod Stewart’s hair. Nice. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Five: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment


And another character who appears, so far as we can see, to have nothing to do with the main narrative; which, in the absence of any compelling alternative, is Hal and his tennis and his speech problems and his lexicographical obsessions. He’s an Arab-Canadian doctor and we don’t know his name, but it’s his birthday tomorrow. While we’re on the subject, do birthdays, or tomorrows for that matter, work the same way in this age of sponsored calendars? For the first time the whole process, “the promotional subsidy” is addressed, and mocked, especially when we realise that now it’s OK to desecrate national landmarks in the cause of consumer capitalism; although since Bartholdi’s birthday present to America has now be renamed “the Libertine Statue”, perhaps the damage was done ages ago.

Hang on. Töblerone? With an umlaut? Like Motörhead? I suppose if there are an infinite number of parallel universes there must be one that’s just like ours but with a few very tiny superficial differences; say, one where Mitt Romney has a moustache and Antwerp is the capital of Belgium and one or two confectionery brands have odd diacritics on their names but apart from that everything’s the same. Anyway, in case you were wondering about those entertainment cartridges...

The medical attaché, worn out by a long day tending to the prince’s yeast imbalance, wants to cast aside all responsibilities, decked out in his ironed bib and a feeding tray, absorbing the entertainment on offer. But he returns home unexpectedly early – having angered his petulant, monovore boss – and for once his silent, veiled wife (stereotype?) is not available. His wife is out and, left to his own devices, the attaché must make his own arrangements for entertainment and comes across an envelope from Phoenix, Arizona, containing an unmarked cartridge. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking this isn’t a good move. Have you never seen Ring?

But what’s happening now? It’s a new year, but is this a new chapter? The type size says not, but that’s about the only clue we’re getting. So is it the content of the mysterious cartridge? Is this what the unnamed attaché is watching or hearing or reading, beginning at 1927h?

It’s definitely a new year, with a new sponsor. We’re in the world of Clenette, attempting to do what’s right amidst abuse and violence and non-conventional verb structures; another flavour of family dysfunction, more toxic than the Incandenzas’. (Is it placed here to put their own problems in context?) Some clarification needed; Wardine says that she and Clenette are half-sisters but they (presumably) have different mothers, so the shared parent must be the father, the errant brother of the homicidal paedophile Roy Tony. And who’s the father of Clenette’s own child? Not that it’s necessarily important because...

...suddenly we’re somewhere else (but presumably still in the same time, Dove Bar year). We’re with Bruce Green, whose problems are insignificant compared with Clenette’s, but don’t feel that. He’s “dreadfully in love with a classmate who had the unlikely name of Mildred Bonk”, who despite her name is blonde and gorgeous. (I don’t know what sort of girl should be called Mildred Bonk, though. I’m thinking someone sullen and dark-eyed and big-booted, pre-makeover Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club or Thora Birch in Ghost World, maybe. Just the sort of girl I would have fallen dreadfully in love with at Bruce’s age, in fact.) And then it all starts coming together, with another child and more drugs and then that’s it again.

Some questions:
  1. Do any of these people exist? Well no, duh, obviously, they don’t, this is fiction. But do any of them exist within the framing fiction that Wallace – for the moment at least – appears to have created, the one inhabited by Hal? Or are they just elements of stories related within that fiction?
  2. If they do exist, will they begin to meet, or otherwise interact? Or will they at least leave tiny traces in each other’s stories, like the characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which has been made into a movie, which I’m very much look forward to seeing, and completely dreading at the same time, if you get my drift.
  3. Without wanting to seem facetious (oh, perish the very thought), has it started yet?

Friday, 21 September 2012

Four: 9 May – Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

Yes, true. About the voices, I mean. One of the milestones on my windy* road to adulthood came when I’d answer the phone and the person on the other end would assume it was my dad. Not ask whether it was him – “Michael?” – but just plough on regardless – “Hi, Michael...” – and then it was up to me to interject and disabuse them; which for someone who was pretty socially inept and awkward anyway, and hated using the phone, was a big ask. And what about when someone called asking for “Mr Footman”?

Anyway, we’re back in tennis mode and racket geekery and back in Depend Year; although we don’t know how that fits in with Hal’s chronology because when we were last here we were with Erdedy, waiting for the dope. Did Hal mention Orin being his brother before? Maybe he did. (Downside of the Kindle – harder to flip back and forth when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for.) We know Mario is Hal’s brother, but what’s this about his “four pillows” and an “oversized skull”? Shades of Joseph Merrick, perhaps, or Rocky Dennis?

Oh. That was a bit quick.

* I don’t know whether this should be pronounced with a long or a short ‘i’.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Three: 1 April – Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad

In the last post I mentioned the shift from first-person to third-person narration, and raised the transgressive spectre of the second person, but this chapter bypasses the whole notion of points of view. It’s entirely conducted in dialogue, with the exception of a few sound effects. There’s no indication as to who might be reporting the action, whether it’s Hal or the professional conversationalist – who eventually turns out to be something else entirely, although we’re not entirely clear what – or some other character or just a run-of-the-mill omniscient narrator. In that sense, it’s more like a film or theatre script than conventional prose; although it’s even stripped of attributions, so we have to search for internal clues to work out who’s speaking. This is an unusual technique, but not entirely unprecedented: Nicholson Baker used it in Vox and Checkpoint; further back, Evelyn Waugh tried it out in a couple of chapters of Vile Bodies (which happens to be the best novel ever written, which is nice). There are doubtless more; feel free to fill in the holes.

Anyway, pretty soon we’re clear that one of the characters is Hal. So we’re back in the realm of the first chapter again; although if Hal is now 11 years old as he claims, we’ve fallen back a few years. There’s still the possibility, of course, that this is a tale told by Hal at the prompting of the Cuban orderly at the mental hospital; indeed, the whole book could turn out to be that. Which sounds pretty postmodern but again, nothing new; it’s an old, old technique, employed by Chaucer and Boccaccio and Emily Brontë and many more.

(To go off-piste for a moment: alerted by mention that there might be rude bits, I once decided to leaf through my mother’s Everyman edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron. And rude bits there were indeed, but – as was the convention until the Chatterley trial threw such squeamishness to the winds – the very rudest passage of all was left in the original Italian. The implication being that such matters were too disgusting for the delicate sensibilities of good Anglo-Saxons, but filthy, libidinous continentals might be able to cope. The fact that at the age of 13 or so I was searching for smut, not in a furtively half-inched copy of Men Only, but in a 14th-century allegory suggests that I had rather more in common with Hal Incandenza than I might have liked. Not the tennis skills, though.)

OK, here’s young(er) Hal. We’ve already deduced that he’s a somewhat unusual young man, and he confirms the fact once more:
That I’m a continentally ranked junior tennis player who can also recite great chunks of the dictionary, verbatim, at will, and tends to get beat up, and wears a bow tie?
...so the likelihood that he’d be sent to some kind of therapist is high. And we’ve had hints at the dysfunctional nature of his upbringing, so it’s quite feasible that nobody would think to explain to him the nature of the therapy. A professional conversationalist, though? Well, that may be perfectly normal in the parallel/alternate/future reality that Wallace is in the process of creating; although it soon transpires that even Hal finds it a bit weird. And his scepticism quickly extends beyond the walls of the consultation room: “Is Himself still having this hallucination that I never speak?”

And it starts to go downhill from there, as Hal recognises his father’s sweater-vest and queries the authenticity of the conversationalist’s moustache (cf Erdedy’s counsellor Randi, “with a mustache like a Mountie”) and nose. Any pretence at a conversation has ended here, as the two of them fire questions at each other, echoing (perhaps) the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses and (perhaps again) anticipating Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. But Himself has the last word, although whether that’s because Hal really has lost the power of speech; or he’s decided to stop talking; or something more sinister; we’re not told. And is his father, moving from regular text to italics, as horrified by whatever it is that Hal presents to him as the deans were?

One more thought, that doesn’t fit easily anywhere else; is the five-walled room a reference to breaking down the fourth wall, a key technique of self-reference, especially in film and theatre? So many questions. Damn, he’s got me doing it.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Two: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

Now, is this chapter in fact the story that the Cuban orderly asks Hal to tell? For that matter, is this Hal? He suffers from a dry mouth, the way Hal does. No, this is Erdedy, although it’s too early to say whether Hal and Erdedy are one and the same; or, if they’re not, what if any relationship there may be between the two. A name like Erdedy makes him sound like the Swedish Chef’s Hungarian boyfriend, but this is just a guess. I don’t think he’s Hal; he asks questions without using question marks, a quirk that the pedantic tennis whiz wouldn’t countenance.

Erdedy is alone, so there is no potential for an interlocutor to fill in the biographical details, as the various deans did for Hal; the insect he observes going in and out of the girders does not count. And we’ve switched from first- to third-person narrative, although I still harbour a sneaking suspicion that Hal may be telling the story, which would mean the narrator wouldn’t have changed, even if the voice has. (Incidentally, have you ever read a novel with a second-person point-of-view, in which “you” does all the work? Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney, that’s one. The effect is disconcerting, to say the least. Oh well, it’s better than the film.)

Erdedy is waiting for a large delivery of high-quality marijuana, which he intends to consume all by himself. He claims this is part of his attempt to give up the habit, by over-indulging until he can’t stand the stuff. It’s almost a ritual thing; his pathetic desire to impose pain on himself by putting his thumb on the rough edge of the bong is Opus Dei-style self-flagellation for someone with a very low pain threshold. The implication is that he’s deluding himself, or maybe channelling Mark Twain a little. And to support him in his quest he’s meticulousy stocked up on the right sort of junk food, possibly a nod to the cold turkey scene in Trainspotting. His paranoia, his delusion, his self-justification are all amusing, but who is he? Do we care, or should we?

We’re still fiddling around for clues, hoping they may fall into place a little further down the line. So what fragments have we got? After Hal’s mysterious ROM-drive, Erdedy enjoys
“film cartridges” on a “teleputer”; he uses “modem” as a verb; he receives “protocols” and “e-notes”. Are we in fact in the future, or a future, or a parallel present? And since DFW was writing nearly 20 years ago, his imagined future could well be seen as a parallel now. And those wild and wacky chapter headings; is this future and/or now a time in which whole years are sponsored by brands and corporations. Glad-Wrap and Depend, both means of protecting by sealing stuff in. (Makes note.)

The first footnote appears, but it’s depressingly straightforward; “methamphetamine hydrochloride” is translated as “crystal meth”. Might as well have got the Kindle to explain it.

“He went to the bathroom to use the bathroom,” writes Wallace. Is this meant to be silly? I’ve heard Americans speak like this in all seriousness. But no, it’s silly, whether it’s knowingly so or not. Although he redeems himself with Erdedy’s response to thoughts of masturbation: “He didn’t reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch it as it floated away.” Which sounds like prime Douglas Adams to me, which is a good thing.

And then the end, as Erdedy stands “splay-legged” between two competing calls on his attention, and all I can think of is Jimmy Cliff.


But we still don’t know who this Erdedy is or why we’re being told about him. It’s partly a matter of structure. If the two opening chapters had been switched, we’d regard Hal’s experience at the university as an intrusion into the main narrative of the protagonist Erdedy. As it happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if we never hear from the deluded dope fiend ever again. On the other hand, I don’t know for sure whether Hal will make a reappearance. Still, it’s early days yet. Very early.

(And I know I said I’d try to avoid other sources of DFW-related comment for a while, but this insight into the Ellis/Wallace spat is too good to pass up. Thanks, Slaminsky.)