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Infinite Jest Reread, pages 49 – 87

September 19, 2012 5 comments

As noted the other day, there’s currently a group reread of Infinite Jest in progress on the wallace-l mailing list. We’re only on the second week of it, so there’s time to catch up if you’re interested. I introduced pages 49 – 87 last night and have pasted in my introduction below. If you find it at all enticing, be sure to tune in via the list, as the discussion that follows these intro posts tends to be really good. If you fall asleep or die before you manage to get to the end of this thing, I’ll hardly blame you. Since this is a reread, the spoiler rule’s out the window.

Main things that happen and concepts that appear in this section:

  • Hal gets covertly high.
  • Oh look, an underworld in the form of tunnels (even including a sort of limbo for the poor protectors).
  • Gately dons a toothbrush.
  • A weird detached list on page 60 that I didn’t give any attention to below but that maybe merits some attention for its weird detachedness.
  • Note 21, the first of a series of inter-referential notes.
  • A face in the floor (and other nightmares).
  • Note 24, the filmography (brace yourself).
  • Orin in cardinal gear, reluctantly.
  • Pemulis teaches his little buddies about shrooms.
  • Kate Gompert, reluctant to admit to a pot addiction, wants ECT.
  • The medical attaché’s wife comes home to find him enthralled. Others follow.
  • Schtitt and Mario go for ice cream.
  • Tiny Ewell goes to detox.

I actually write about very little of that stuff below.

A theme that runs through this section and in fact through the whole book so far is failure to communicate. It begins of course with Hal at the university and moves back through time to Hal being interviewed by a father who doesn’t believe he speaks. But we also see it in things like Erdeddy’s inability to choose between answering the phone and the door, his habit of cutting off communication with anyone he’s dealt with before to get pot. We see it also in Gompert, who for example displays sometimes a flat affect and sometimes forced facial expressions (recall Hal at the beginning) while speaking with a singsongy voice that leaves the doctor (also trying hard to communicate using both voice and mannerism) confused.

I think there’s also some interesting stuff pertaining to communication going on in the end notes. For one thing, they are themselves a sort of barrier to direct communication, and even today I think sometimes about skimming the ones that just give drug info or don’t seem to relate in terribly important ways to the main story. In the big note 24, the matter of communication gets really out of hand, though. The editors of the book that the note quotes haven’t seen some of the films they describe, for example (some of which weren’t ever filmed), and yet they write about them, communicating in some cases non-information, which if you think about it is very strange indeed.

Consider the film Annular Amplified Light: Some Reflections. Well, its title is a silly pun, first off, but that’s superficial. It’s got sound and is sign-interpreted for the deaf, but although it purports to be a “nontechnical explanation of the applications of cooled-photon lasers in DT-cycle lithiumized annular fusion,” it’s hard to imagine that one could do such a topic any justice in a nontechnical film, much less in one whose almost certainly specialized language it’s hard to imagine could be signed efficiently.

And: Union of Nurses in Berkeley, silent and closed-captioned interviews with hearing-impaired RNs and LPNs. I suppose it’s silent either to elicit a sort of empathy with the interviewees or maybe to avoid what could be a comical treatment of audible interviews of people whose pronunciation and enunciation may have suffered thanks to their hearing impairment. It’s a strange audiovisual blend, at any rate, that seems to be fooling around with ways in which people communicate.

And: Cage II in which a blind convict and a deaf-mute convict placed in solitary confinement attempt to figure out ways of communicating with one another. This is a bad joke, of course (and calls to mind the old Wilder/Prior movie), but it also demonstrates a concern with how people manage to connect. It’s a wonder this one wasn’t at least captioned if not signed.

And: Death in Scarsdale, in color, silent, with closed-caption subtitles, which almost becomes hard to visualize once you’ve got all this business on the brain. In this one, an endocrinologist begins to sweat excessively while treating a boy who sweats excessively, which again, with this stuff on the brain and maybe under no other circumstance, makes me think of things like how you never stutter until you find yourself speaking with somebody who stutters, when you suddenly start channeling Porky Pig out of maybe sympathy or self-consciousness.

A couple of the other films are sign-interpreted as well, and in general, JOI’s films demonstrate an awareness of the interplay between sight and sound, different ways of perceiving things, of being perceived, and of being perceived while perceiving things such that you morph from subject into object and back into subject again.

All of this of course is mediated through films and (usually) soundtracks themselves devised by makers whose communication with you is from the past and not at all personal, which can be a little creepy if you think about it too much. And all of that is further mediated through a book of fiction and yet further through end notes that put it at an even greater distance.

Early in the book we’re exposed to Hal’s precocity with respect to grammar and usage, given to him by good old Avril. She and Steven Pinker make appearances in the filmography in a silent, closed-captioned film documenting a grammar convention. This strikes me as kind of funny and really quite interesting, since closed-captioning would have the effect of memorializing in print the words spoken by the grammarians. Grammar being generally a little looser for even the strident among us when speaking aloud than when writing formally, the idea of capturing in print any non grammatical speech by these super-grammarians would be kind of tantalizing, and of course I can imagine that making the viewers of the film read the language while connecting it to the images moving onscreen could have a weird effect (in the way that watching subtitled films if you’re not accustomed to doing so can make a movie a lot of work and hard to trust that you’ve really grokked). I guess it’s worth noting that though Hal speaks, his father hears no words coming from him, and this film seems to capture the effect.

Grammar of course is just a map of our language. Descriptivists will say that if it’s spoken naturally by a native speaker, it’s grammatical and ought to be recorded, while prescriptivists tend more to demand adherence to an existing set of written rules. (This is a gross oversimplification, I know.) In either case, we can see grammar as a sort of map of language, and the main thing at issue is whether the map ought to change along with the terrain or not. “Map” and “terrain” turn out to be loaded terms when talking about IJ, of course, and they make appearances in the filmography, if obliquely. In the most oblique treatment, we see Every Inch of Disney Leith, in which the eponymous man has his innards mapped. Comically, the title uses the Imperial measure, while in the film he listens to a forum on metricization in North America, which is another way of communicating the same things using different terms. Later, in No Troy, we learn about the erasure of Troy, NY from both terrain and map (by, explicitly, cartographers). Sort of humorously, archivists don’t list the title by the name given here but variously use the names The Violet City and The Violet Ex-City.

So then to me the threads of language as communication, language as a construct (i.e., grammar), and map/terrain — which roughly corresponds to the relationship between language as construct and language as communication — begin to become intertwined very early in the novel in the notes about the filmography, which is itself, of course, nothing if not a map whose aim is to relate the technical features of JOI’s films with what they communicated across his career.

Every time I read the filmography, I spot some new fun detail I had either overlooked or forgotten or just not given enough thought to on previous reads.This time it was the appearance of C.N. (presumably Charles Nelson) Reilly as a narrator in a couple of the early, sign-interpreted documentaries. The idea of CNR as a narrator on a documentary (even a whimsically titled, nontechnical one) is kind of a laugh, and then the idea of someone trying to interpret his self-interrupting, story-nesting style for the deaf is even more comical. Maybe he’d stick a bit closer to the cards in a documentary, though. But it’s also worth noting that CNR was basically ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, crossing stage, film, and TV shows in the form of game shows, talk show appearances, and television series, so that it’s hardly inconceivable that an aging CNR would dip his wick into the documentary wax late in life (and yet no less the funnier). This inter-“text”-uality all seems kind of relevant to the sort of things Wallace was considering in “E Unibus Pluram,” which of course informs a lot of IJ.

I also love how you can see little sub-plots within the filmography if you pay attention to the names. For example, P.A. Heaven becomes Paul Anthony and then goes back to using initials, and one wonders why. And Soma Richardson-Levy apparently marries an O-Byrne and later a Chawaf (also credited within the filmography) and just keeps collecting hyphenated suffixes to her name. Then of course there’s the interplay of the films with things happening in JOI’s life and at ETA.

Now moving away from the end notes for a bit, I’ll note that I like how Wallace is already setting us up for things to come with little one-off references to things like the O.S.U.O.S, cartridges (note 18, page 58), DMZ/M.P. (note 8), DuPlessis, experialism, and annular hyperfloration cycles. These things are easy to read past but all become pretty important later, so it’s neat on a reread to see where he’s left these little breadcrumbs.

It’d be just short of criminal not to at least mention the face in the floor dream even if I don’t say much about it. I love that whole passage, and the way he just slips the face in there is horrifying and I suppose embodies the thing we’ve read before about how the thing that’s great about Lynch’s surrealistic horror is that almost everything has to seem normal for the really bad thing to be really bad.

I haven’t even touched on Schtitt and Mario or on similarities between some of the things we learn about Erdeddy and Gompert, but I’m really just out of wind, and so, I imagine, are you. I feel like the filmography tends to get short shrift, so maybe I’ve corrected that some (however clumsily and single-purposedly) and others can fill in the other huge gaps I’ve left.

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Infinite Jest and The Tunnel

September 17, 2012 2 comments

A couple of years ago, I got a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel and burned through the first 100 or 200 pages of it before some shiny object distracted me and I put the book down. I had considered starting up a group read here sometime to force myself to pick the book back up and finish it. In fact, it was included among options for future reads on a poll I posted after the Gravity’s Rainbow read. Well, Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading has scheduled a group read on the coattails of Gaddis’s J R. If you’re game, you can see the (I think) ambitious schedule here. Although I doubt I’ll have it in me to write much about the book, I hope at least to read along.

In progress on the wallace-l mailing list is a reread of Infinite Jest. This reread is part of why I won’t be putting as much time as I’d like into The Tunnel. I haven’t reread IJ since Infinite Summer a few years ago, and I had been wanting to. When D.T. Max’s biography came out, it made me really want to dig back into Wallace’s book again. And then the wallace-l reread was proposed and I was hooked. You can get a peek at the schedule here. I’ll be introducing the second chunk on the mailing list in a couple of days. It won’t be a group read proper here at IZ, so if you want to play, I encourage you to subscribe to the mailing list, where you’ll get a broader and smarter range of opinions and interpretations than mine anyway.

I hate that these reads are happening at the same time, as the result’ll be that I’ll do kind of half-assed reads of both. I’ve been through IJ enough times that I can afford to half-ass it, but The Tunnel‘s a different story. Still, I can’t resist trying to keep up with IJ too.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

September 3, 2012 2 comments

Over the weekend, I read D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. If you’re reading this, it seems vanishingly unlikely that you haven’t first heard about the biography elsewhere. So in a way, I feel silly even mentioning it because my doing so seems a little bit like cheering for a game that’s already over.  All the people whose opinions people want to hear have already spoken up. But it’s a book about stuff that’s important to me, so I also feel weird just not saying anything at all.

I had written a long rambly thing connecting my affinity with Wallace’s work when I first encountered it in the form of Infinite Jest 15 years ago to an affinity that Holden Caulfield expresses for Thomas Hardy and Ring Lardner. It was self-indulgent and stupid and all a round-about way of saying that Wallace’s work has been a major influence on the way I read, write, think (and think about thinking), and live.

Unsatisfied with the long preface I had written for what would be a very brief review of Max’s book, I put it aside and thought about abandoning it. But then a few comments about the book landed on the wallace-l email list, one of which curtly described the book as “thin.” A follow-up comment expanded by saying that the biography gave us little that we didn’t already pretty much know from Wallace’s own words in his books and interviews.

Well, this is partially true. But I think it also misses the point. You can’t exactly pry secrets from a ghost, and there’s something grave-robberish about digging for too much grit from family and friends for whom Wallace’s death is still no doubt a bit of a wound. Although Max does give a fair amount of background about Wallace’s early struggles both personal and authorial, it tapers off substantially as we move to Wallace’s years post-Infinite Jest. If you’re hoping to read Wallace’s suicide note or to learn lots of new information about the circumstances of his last decline and death, you’ll be disappointed; there’s very little substantially new information here about his last days beyond what came out in a couple of long articles shortly after Wallace’s death.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a book more about drawing broad lines between things that happened in Wallace’s life and things that appeared in his writing than about divulging every nasty or saintly thing he ever did. Although the author of the “thin” comment seems to have wanted the latter, I’m grateful that Max gave us the former. I feel like it helped me to better understand Wallace’s Gately-ish transformation as both he and his work matured, which made me feel good about where Wallace had been headed, if also really sad about where he wound up.

I think a book divulging many more details of Wallace’s life would have been simply sordid. And a book doing much more in the way of line-drawing and analysis would have been tiresome and speculative. What Max gives us instead is a book that provides a comfortable balance of detail and analysis. It’s a sympathetic and gentle book in the way that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was, and like Lipsky’s book, I think Max’s is a sort of gift.

Infinite Boston

A quick program interruption here to announce Infinite Boston, in which a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work shares photos of some of the real life places in Boston that we find referenced (some modified, some not) in Infinite Jest. So far, he’s covered the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House, Comm. Ave., the Green Line’s T-Stop, Enfield Tennis Academy, and several other spots. If you played along with Infinite Summer a few years ago or are just a fan of Wallace’s work, it’s definitely worth a look.

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Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est

September 12, 2011 2 comments

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions. #4’s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4’s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods. One ancient retired Air Force nurse does nothing but scream ‘Help!’ for hours at a time from a second-story window. Since the Ennet House residents are drilled in a Boston-AA recovery program that places great emphasis on ‘Asking for Help,’ the retired shrieking Air Force nurse is the object of a certain grim amusement, sometimes. Not six weeks ago, a huge stolen HELP WANTED sign was found attached to #4’s siding right below the retired shrieking nurse’s window, and #4’s director was less than amused, and demanded that Pat Montesian determine and punish the Ennet House residents responsible, and Pat had delegated the investigation to Don Gately, and though Gately had a pretty good idea who the perps were he didn’t have the heart to really press and kick ass over something so much like what he’d done himself, when new and cynical, and so the whole thing pretty much blew over.

‘d been a confarmed bowl-splatterer for yars b’yond contin’. ‘d been barred from t’facilities at o’t’ troock stops twixt hair’n Nork for yars. T’wallpaper in de loo a t’ome hoong in t’ese carled sheets froom t’wall, ay till yo. But now woon dey . . . ay’ll remaember’t’always. T’were a wake to t’day ofter ay stewed oop for me ninety-day chip. Ay were tray moents sobber. Ay were thar on t’throne a’t’ome, you new. No’t’put too fain a point’on it, ay prodooced as er uzhal and … and ay war soo amazed as to no’t’belaven’ me yairs. ‘Twas a sone so wonefamiliar at t’first ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo, do you new. Ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo as Good is me wetness. So doan ay bend twixt m’knays and’ad a luke in t’dim o’t’loo, and codn’t belave me’yize. So gud paple ay do then ay drope to m’knays by t’loo an’t’ad a rail luke. A loaver’s luke, d’yo new. And friends t’were loavely past me pur poewers t’say. T’were a tard in t’loo. A rail tard. T’were farm an’ teppered an’ aiver so jaintly aitched. T’luked … constroocted instaid’ve sprayed. T’luked as ay fel’t’in me ‘eart Good ‘imsailf maint a tard t’luke. Me friends, this tard’o’mine practically had a poolse. Ay sted doan on m’knays and tanked me Har Par, which ay choose t’call me Har Par Good, an’ ay been tankin me Har Par own m’knays aiver sin, marnin and natetime an in t’loo’s’well, aiver sin.

It kind of enrages Lenz to like somebody. There would be no way to say any of this out loud to Green. As it gets past 2200h. and the meatloaf in his pocket’s baggie’s gotten dark and hard from disuse the pressure to exploit the c. 2216 interval for resolution builds to a terrible pitch, but Lenz still can’t yet quite get it up to ask Green to walk back some other way at least once in a while. How does he do it and still have Green know that he thinks he’s OK? But you don’t come right out there and let somebody hear you say you think they’re OK. When it’s a girl you’re just trying to X it’s a different thing, straightforwarder; but like for instance where do you look with your eyes when you tell somebody you like them and mean what you say? You can’t look right at them, because then what if their eyes look at you as your eyes look at them and you lock eyes as you’re saying it, and then there’d be some awful like voltage or energy there, hanging between you. But you can’t look away like you’re nervous, like some nervous kid asking for a date or something. You can’t go around giving that kind of thing of yourself away.

And a lot of the people in the different brick houses are damaged or askew and lean hard to one side or are twisted into themselves, through the windows, and he can feel his heart going out into the world through them, which is good for insomnia. A woman’s voice, calling for help without any real urgency — not like the screams that signify the Moms laughing or screaming at night — sounds from a darkened upper window. And across the little street that’s crammed with cars everybody has to move at 0000h. is Ennet’s House, where the Headmistress has a disability and had had a wheelchair ramp installed and has twice invited Mario in during the day for a Caffeine-Free Millennial Fizzy, and Mario likes the place: it’s crowded and noisy and none of the furniture has protective plastic wrap, but nobody notices anybody else or comments on a disability and the Headmistress is kind to the people and the people cry in fron tof each other. The inside of it smells like an ashtray, but Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.

I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death. I twice try to roll over the side of a tall Swiss hill but cannot bring myself. I curse myself for cowardice and inutile. I roll about, hoping to be hit by a vehicle of someone else, but at the last minute rolling out of the path of vehicles on Autoroutes, for I am unable to will my death. The more pain in my self, the more I am inside the self and cannot will my death, I think. I feel I am chained in a cage of the self, from the pain. Unable to care or choose anything outside it. Unable to see anything or feel anything outside my pain.

Sometimes Gately would come out of a Demerol-nod and look at pale passive Pamela lying there sleeping beautifully and undergo a time-lapse clairvoyant thing where he could almost visibly watch her losing her looks through her twenties and her face starting to slide over off her skull onto the pillow she held like a stuffed toy, becoming a lounge-hag right before his eyes. The vision aroused more compassion than horror, which Gately never even considered might qualify him as a decent person.

And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

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The Pale King

My copy of The Pale King is set to arrive in just a couple of days. Several have mentioned doing a group read, but I’m feeling selfish about this book. I kind of want to read it on my own first, to gulp it down at least once before I begin to pick at it like the scab I half fear it will begin to feel like. I don’t intend to participate in a group read right away. Maybe I’d do one in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, or maybe it’ll be a couple of years before I’m up for it. It’s hard to say. Still, this site was founded in response to Infinite Summer, so a response to Wallace’s last seems appropriate.

If there are past participants who would like to use the site as a venue for discussion of The Pale King in the coming weeks, I’ll be happy to set up user accounts and try really hard to look the other way so as to avoid the discussion (which, I’ll admit, will be hard to do). Speak up if you’re game (especially if you want to write for the blog; I’ll decide more or less arbitrarily when to stop adding new bloggers, probably somewhere around the half-dozen-participants-in-all mark). If there seems to be interest, I’ll set things up and let those who wish to drive the read run with it.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Of Katherine Hepburn’s death, Zadie Smith wrote the following:

Two days ago she died, aged ninety-six. I don’t know why I should be surprised, but I was, and when I found out, I wept, and felt ridiculous for weeping. How can someone you have never met make you cry?

I’m not the first to express a similar sentiment about the death of David Foster Wallace. There’s a crucial difference, however. His death, for those of us well outside of his intimate circle, was a very big surprise indeed. Still — Smith gets this part just right — to have felt so ragged after his death felt strange. I felt somehow orphaned.

Intimacy is concentric, and fortunately for those of us stuck in orbit on the outer rings surrounding the bright light that was David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky was admitted to a nearer circle during the final week of the book tour for Infinite Jest. Or, I should say, he was admitted to one slightly more interior circle and seems to have worked his way yet closer. And he recorded it all.

Just out from Broadway Books, Lipsky’s chronicling of a handful of days on the road with Dave (I’m going to call him Dave sometimes from here on out, because it makes me feel better and because the book made me think of him as Dave) might have been a savage, painful read. I expected as much, imagining myself with a box of tissue in a dimly lit room trying once again to work out how a guy like Dave could be gone and what the ramifications of that were for a know-nothing yutz of a no-talent hack like me.

With one minor exception in part of the afterword, Lipsky has avoided the maudlin, and instead of finding myself wallowing in the book and the sadness that attends the realization that its subject is no longer with us, I found it invigorating and validating and playful and fun and mostly delightful.

Lipsky gives us something of a soft landing in the preface, which provides just a teensy bit of background information before setting us gently on our way. The afterword he places curiously before the main body of the text, but even this turns out to be a considerate gesture, for Lipsky wants to leave us with the words of the living Wallace rather than sending us home from the journey with a meditation on his death. Read the afterword when you will, Lipsky advises us, at some break of your own choosing within the text.

I, being sort of rigidly conformist in some ways, chose to read the afterword last, and even that turned out to be an ok decision. For though there was that one crushing moment in the middle of the afterword, Lipsky leaves us with two wonderful things. First, he has given us a picture of Dave as a real live human being (with flaws, yes, but with many personalizing charms as well), which sister Amy had written that she hoped might happen. And second, looking back to a conversation about books as a way of seeking refuge from loneliness, Lipsky closes by saying this lovely thing about his road trip with Dave: “I’d tell him it reminded me of what life was like, instead of being a relief from it, and I’d say it made me feel much less lonely to read.”

This sort of escape from the loneliness of the inner self was, of course, one of Wallace’s projects. Late in the road trip, Dave says, of the particular edge good fiction has over other art forms:

And the big thing, the big thing seems to be, sort of leapin’ over that wall of self, and portraying inner experience. And setting up, I think, a kind of intimate conversation between two consciences.

I am in here.

I’ve listened to many interviews and readings Dave gave, and so I have something of an idea of what he must have been like to listen to. Yet in interviews and readings, people tend to speak in different registers than in everyday life. (I’m reminded of the distinction Dave makes in the grammar essay between time and place for saying “that ursine juggernaut bethought himself to sup upon my person” and “goddamn bear!”) One of the great pleasures of Lipsky’s book for me was his emphasis on Dave’s midwesternisms. They reminded me always that Dave was, mostly (especially after the first day or so of the trip), just a guy having a conversation. Taken in hand with the audio I had previously heard of Dave, they made Lipsky’s transcription seem real and alive. I felt as if I could hear Dave himself speaking the words. It was kind of Lipsky to have emphasized this for us.

Some have complained that Lipsky himself was too present in the text, that he peeks in with a too-high frequency with brief bracketed interpolations. I found the interjections helpful and well-meaning where others have found them self-serving and annoying.

The deeper into the book I got, the more pages I dog-eared, so that by the end, I figured I might as well just enlist the help of a strong friend and fold the corner of the whole book down on itself. The two men talk about movies, parties, fame, loneliness, the genesis of Infinite Jest, and much more, and it’s all riveting.

Lipsky’s book is a real gift. He brings us maybe one concentric ring closer to a sort of intimacy with Wallace, who sought in his work to learn how to leap over (and outward from) the walls of the self in which he was (we are) imprisoned. While Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself can’t help but remind us of Wallace’s death, it is most concerned with a pivotal point in his life, and it was — contra my fears — a real joy to read. Gaudeamus igitur.

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