I’ve been thinking for a while about possibly starting up a read for the summer. I have George Saunders on the brain. Before I put in the work, I wanted to collect some feedback to gauge interest. Please lodge your interest or lack thereof below. Note that if you express interest, you can also volunteer to participate more actively by writing for the blog, and you can express preferences about the scope of the project. I imagine we’d start in July sometime if the read materializes.
As you’re planning your summer reading, you should be aware that a new Infinite Jest reading group has sprung up. Summer of Jest starts in just a few days and may be of interest to those who’ve landed on this post either because they’re long-time readers of the site or because they did a search for Infinite Jest and landed here by accident.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I keep my eye on tweets mentioning Gravity’s Rainbow and today saw one asking if GR was readable and worth it. The person also asked if his followers had read Infinite Jest, and which of the two books was better. Well, that judgment is awfully hard to make, but it sent me off to think about which was more difficult, since I tend to think Pynchon’s book is a lot harder to read than Wallace’s and so in some ways is less pleasurable and by extension not as good.
As evidence of GR‘s difficulty, I cite the fact that I read IJ for the first time in a 10-day marathon of 15-hour days over a Christmas holiday while in college. I pretty much couldn’t put the book down. As further evidence, I cite the probably half dozen times I read the first half dozen pages of GR before putting it aside. I believe I once read significantly more of the book but put it down again.
So, why was GR so much harder a book for me than IJ was? Part of it has to do, I suppose, with the fact that Pynchon writes about a lot of more or less factual things, and when confronted with so much real-world information that I didn’t know, or knew only very shallowly, I felt stupid and inadequate and didn’t want to feel that way anymore, so I quit. Wallace, on the other hand, writes less with history in mind and about experiences that aren’t so terribly different from my own. I never attended a tennis academy, but I have been a young man in locker rooms, and I’ve been to summer camps and eaten in cafeterias. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a halfway house, but the experiences as Wallace presents them are very human experiences, whereas Pynchon so often writes at a greater distance from the people whose trials he’s documenting, and with a much greater emphasis (generally) on the technology and the argot of the fields and histories he writes about.
But there’s something else, too. (Well, there’s lots else, but one something else I’ll write about for now.) For all the guff Wallace took about writing a too-long book, being self-indulgent with the end notes, needing an editor, etc., it occurred to me tonight that IJ is actually very user friendly in a way that certain important books we’ve read here (or may yet read here) are not.
It all starts with Ulysses, of course. Joyce gave us pretty much unfettered access to the inside of Leopold Bloom’s head and wrote often without much in the way of transition or explicit stage direction. It’s really hard to get oriented within the book, and by the time you settle in to the style of one episode, Joyce goes off and changes the game on you by writing in another mode altogether. In 1973 and 1975 we got Gravity’s Rainbow and Gaddis’s JR. Gaddis too puts you inside the heads of his characters with precious little in the way of landmarks to help you navigate the prose. Written almost wholly in unattributed dialogue, JR requires that you learn how to read it before you can really begin to understand what it’s even saying. It’s fun, but capital-D Difficult. Pynchon’s not as freewheeling as Gaddis, since Pynchon at least breaks his book down into sections and provides exposition. But he also makes those crazy leaps. Miss a “. . . .” in the text as he jumps from one time or place to another and you’ll find yourself suddenly lost. Wait, when the fuck did I start reading about dodo birds? I thought this was a story about Hansel and Gretel.
Infinite Jest covers a lot of people over a period of time that’s kind of hard to pin down as you’re reading. Like Pynchon, Wallace provides landmarks in the form of clear section breaks. But unlike Pynchon, he tends to stay within the boundaries of a defined section. If he’s writing about Mario, you don’t suddenly find an unmarked leap over to Marathe and Steeply at another time and place within the same section. Further, Wallace conveniently puts a lot of the extra, technical, information in end notes. He’s been accused, on the basis of the 100 pages of notes, of being antagonistic to the reader, but it occurs to me that maybe putting the tangential information in end notes is his attempt at something like mercy. Where his forebears just dump the info on you inline, Wallace gives you a little break, slows down the information intake just a touch.
It’s as if Joyce came to the conclusion that he could lay on his readers everything in a character’s head and the postmodernists extended that idea, trying to give their readers not just the contents of their characters’ heads but everything under the sun and doing so in a way that sort of mimicked the awful burden of information-influx after the rise of radio and television and billboards. Wallace, then, says “too much,” or, if not “too much,” something like “slow down; let’s take this in pieces.”
And for me, I think that’s part of what makes Infinite Jest a much easier book than Gravity’s Rainbow. For all the information Wallace’s book contains, its information flow is more modulated than these earlier books, and it’s a relief. One reads that Wallace was also a proponent of a new sincerity, that he rejected the postmodern tendency toward irony as ultimately a non-productive (if not outright toxic) mode to write in. It’s interesting to me to suggest, then, that he sought to throttle information overload as he hoped to throttle irony, that he was pulling back from his smirking, hyper-intelligent forebears in a couple of ways, an après-garde all his own.
This isn’t likely to make too much sense if you haven’t read Infinite Jest, and it may also contain mild IJ spoilers. I offer it more as a set of idle observations than as any sort of thesis.
In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, we meet womanizer Orin Incandenza, about whom I wrote the following a few years ago:
A bit more on Orin. His name can be switched around to “iron,” “noir,” and “orni,” which, this last, makes me think of ornithology. He plays football for the Cardinals and is actually made to don fake wings (I think) and like a jetpack and fly down onto the field earlier in the book. Then a bird falls out of the sky into his apartment’s pool (oddly reminiscent of the end of Barton Fink, starring John Turturro, whom I peg as a shoo-in for playing JOI and/or JOI’s father in a movie adaptation of Infinite Jest). Then, on page 294, we have Orin engaging Joelle “entirely through stylized repetitive motions,” making me think of the mating dances of birds.
Orin has a habit of tracing the infinity sign with his finger on the flanks of the girls he has bedded. Like Orin, Slothrop traces a mathematical sign as he sows his oats, though in his case, it’s a Poisson distribution scrawled over a map of London.
And like Orin, Slothrop is frequently associated with birds, especially in the pastoral section 1.4, in which he appears in the company of an owl, girls called Wrens, peacocks, and hummingbirds and in which he sports an erection (his “cock,” if we want to stretch the bird motif a bit) as a rocket explodes. This section also happens to deal pretty heavily in the contrast between the earth and the sky, a dichotomy the sky-bound but (if I recall correctly) acrophobic Orin also contemplates.
Both men sport a very special appendage, and both are subject to paranoia. As Orin begins to fear that he’s being followed and ultimately has his fears confirmed and culminating in his being taken prisoner, so Slothrop begins to feel as if he’s being watched, and as if his cubicle is a trap (early in 1.15). Also probably not significant but certainly attention-getting for me was the reference early in 1.15 to “Enfields” — a name whose singular form will resonate with readers of Wallace’s novel.
Unlike Orin, Slothrop at least writes nice letters home to his mother.
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.
I got an email this weekend inviting me to publicize a project pertaining to Infinite Jest. From the email:
Open call for selected adaptations from “The Complete Filmography of James O Incandeza”. A previous iteration of this exhibition took place at Columbia University this past winter, in which a number of specific artists were invited to participate. We would now like to invite artists, film makers, and gifted amateurs world-wide to submit their work. There are no restrictions in terms of content, length, or genre. Accomplished auteurs and YouTube uploaders alike are encouraged to participate. In our last exhibition, we presented everything from 16mm film to cellphone video.
Information is available at www.failedentertainment.com
Any questions may be directed to email@example.com
Seems like an interesting project.
The New Yorker this week published online an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that has stirred quite a bit of discussion on the wallace-l mailing list, most of it centering, as the fragment does, on religious feeling. As an atheist myself, I have a tendency to think/wish/hope that smart people I admire are also atheists. It’s strange, I know, but why not hope for an extension of affinities into that area of thought and feeling? Although I don’t feel as if I really need (as in emotionally need) external validation of my position, it’s still neat to share a viewpoint with people you admire. It’s not really clear what Wallace’s beliefs with respect to religion were, though. We know from various sources that he went to church but wasn’t raised religious. He certainly seemed, in Infinite Jest, to acknowledge that there was value in recognizing a higher power. Yet he wasn’t the evangelical sort by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty easy, from where I sit, to imagine that he valued the cultural and communal bits of religion while relying more on secular thought for his personal ethics. We’ll probably never know exactly where he stood in real life. In the new fragment, entitled “All That,” he seems to be pretty open to religion and to a sort of spiritualism.
Here I’ll begin to talk about the story, so if you haven’t read it yet and are anti-spoiler, you might want to mosey on along.
The narrator gives accounts of two events in his life that were instrumental in helping him form a religious sensibility. The first, in which his parents convinced him that a toy truck was endowed with a sort of magic, speaks (I think) to the idea of faith and how the not knowing via evidence that what you have faith in is true is a part of what makes it special. How sad it would be, he suggests, to actually trap the tooth fairy. And, by extension, how disappointing it would be, I suppose, to finally find empirical evidence of God. A belief system constructed around the idea of faith becomes meaningless when faith is no longer a necessity. Magic tricks aren’t as fun to watch once you know how they’re done. Faith, which people like me see as a flaw of religion, may in fact be one of the points and joys of religion.
The second formative event centers on the narrator’s recollection of a movie’s plot and how it differs from his father’s recollection. The difference has less to do with faith than with actions. I guess it has something of love thy neighbor in it. More on that in a moment.
At the heart of both episodes is a sort of duality. The narrator says the following about differing perceptions:
Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed.
Later, we have the father and son’s vastly different recollections of the movie. And within the movie itself, we’re told of a prevailing sentiment and a sentiment (on the part of the narrator within the movie) at odds with it. In all cases, given the same objective inputs, opposite subjective conclusions are reached. There’s a failure to align perceptions.
Interestingly, our narrator hears voices as a child whose speakers do inhabit the same space he does. Their perceptions agree with his in a way that, he figures, biological adults’ perceptions can’t, and the voices are a source of real fits of ecstasy (as in rolling on the floor, capital-E Ecstasy) on the boy’s part. Of that ecstasy, we learn the following:
[M]y father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.
I suppose there are certain resonances of this fragment with parts of Infinite Jest. There’s the infantilization of rolling around on the floor, being stroked lovingly by his mother, being more or less cradled in the father’s lap, and of course this idea of being the center of a happiness conspiracy. But the first of Wallace’s works that sprang to mind when I read the fragment was “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (the state fair essay), in which Wallace writes the following:
One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? — that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?
Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the sort of regally innocent solipsism of like Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.
Back to the story at hand, we begin with the narrator making discoveries about faith and about his own agency. But there’s a sort of inversion from what Wallace writes about in the essay excerpted above: the world (or the cement mixer’s drum) revolves (he believes) only when the boy isn’t looking at it vs. the world existing only when Wallace, as a child, was looking at it.
In the essay, Wallace writes specifically of solipsism, of being trapped more or less within yourself. I am in here. In the fragment, I think he’s writing about getting outside yourself. It’s not that the world stops when you close your eyes to it but that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really see or understand certain forces external to your direct experience. So a certain amount or sort of faith becomes useful. Wallace first gives us something of a thought experiment with the toy cement mixer, but in the movie scenario, he gives us a more complex situation to ponder. The conflict in that scenario is whether it’s nobler to protect your own or to protect others from your own. It’s a very complex question within context, for you have to consider the broader war itself, the particular roles of the participants in question within that context, the particular moods of and recent influences on all participants, and so on. But if we’re a little more reductive about it, I think we can boil the scenario down a bit and understand it as a consideration of the other vs. the self (another duality), with Wallace suggesting that reaching out to protect the other — getting outside your self — may sometimes be the nobler path.
The narrator views the movie’s lieutenant’s last noble act (as the narrator remembers it, that is) with a sort of ecstasy that calls to mind the ecstasy he felt as a younger child when listening to the voices in his head. But this ecstasy is the result of external forces rather than of internal agreeable voices and so shows a sort of development outward from in here.
There’s a lot I’m still trying to unpack about this fragment, and I’m not at all satisfied with what I’ve written above as an interpretive essay. There’s some big connection I feel like I’m missing. But it’s a start.
A couple of other things have come up on the list. For example, why did the narrator’s parents screw with him with the whole magic thing, especially if they’re devout atheists who you wouldn’t think would want to promote superstition? I think the simple answer is that sometimes parents just say silly things because it’s fun to joke around. Every morning that I drive my daughter and a neighbor to kindergarten, I ask if I should speed up and jump the railroad tracks (it’s a big hump and would cause a lot of damage to my vehicle if I jumped it). When they scream gleefully that I should, I slap my thigh and lament that I thought of it too late, that there’s simply not enough runway to get adequate speed. Remind me tomorrow, I tell them. Ever since my children were old enough to understand and respond to language, I’ve presented them with goofy scenarios and waited for them to correct me. Parents just do this sort of thing. In the fragment, it does seem that the parents play an active role in perpetuating the magical thinking, but the germination of the thing doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. And sometimes you just want your kids to work things out for themselves. We do the whole Santa thing, but when my kids start thinking critically about it and questioning the stories, we’ll encourage it obliquely so that they arrive at appropriate conclusions without being force fed the truth.I can’t help thinking that Wallace is saying something else about faith here. There’s plenty of magical thinking involved in faith. You can never really know for sure that God’s there behind the scenes making stuff happen, and maybe the harder you look, the more likely you are to determine that God’s not really there — that the drum isn’t spinning after all. If we think of it this way, then the parents almost become God surrogates, providing information about the truck (or about reality) but requiring that the child work out on his own whatever his beliefs about the truck are. The narrator doesn’t understand why his parents have made a puzzle of this for him any more than people understand why God isn’t more obvious about his existence and plan, and yet the fact that it’s a puzzle has turned out to be valuable to the narrator. Faith, as I suggested above, may be one of the joys of religion.
Another issue that came up on the list was the narrator’s statements that he wasn’t very articulate and the fact that he is actually pretty articulate. Whether it points to insecurity or to false modesty or to real modesty I’m not sure. It certainly seems like one of those framing or narrative tricks that Wallace has used before to remind us that what we’re reading is mediated.
Not discussed as yet on wallace-l is the Catholicism present in the story. It’s minor, but the boy mentions going to Mass with neighbors. Given my last paragraph, I’m having trouble not saying something about the mediation inherent in that religion, though I don’t think Wallace is really doing anything with that here. But the ecstasy, in association with the presence of Catholicism, calls to mind the various references to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest, and I wonder if more couldn’t be mined out of this material. In the gruesome ecstasy scene in IJ, there’s actually quite a bit more Catholic subtext than is apparent to a recent or non-Catholic (do a little research on the titles of the magazines named in the scene, if you’re curious), and that makes me all the more curious about the reference to Catholicism in this fragment.