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

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.)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

(The percentage)

When you read a novel –  a conventional, book-shaped novel, with paper pages and a cover and the like – there’s a fairly easy way to judge how far you’ve gone. You just look at the book side-on and compare what’s on the right of the point you’ve reached to what’s on the left. The critic and novelist David Lodge has argues that this is a key difference between the construction of novels and films, especially when it comes to endings. If you come to what appears to be the explosive climax of a book, but there are still 50 pages to go, you’ll work out that the author has something else to offer; whereas you’re less aware of time remaining when you’re watching a movie. Of course Lodge wasn’t taking into account the fact that the back ends of many modern novels are packed out with author interviews, suggestions for book groups, maybe even the opening pages of the writer’s next work. Or that it’s easy enough to work out when a film’s real end is approaching, provided you check beforehand what the running time is.

Books on Kindle are different. They have no size or weight, above all no thickness. People who have embarked on reading Infinite Jest in all its 1000+-page glory can mark their achievements as the left-hand side gets thicker and the right decreases. Kindles have a little percentage counter that tells you how far you have to go, which is handy, but it lacks the emotional heft that comes from seeing the pages conquered, the pages still to come. And of course, when you get into the really big numbers, percentage points start to feel pretty vague. At the end of the first chapter, the indicator still says 1% – and I don’t even know how far into that first percentile I’ve got.

Was this really a good idea?

Friday, 14 September 2012

One: Year of Glad

So when you’ve hacked through the title page and the all the copyrighty gubbins and the foreword and the first chapter heading, you get to the meat, or at least the vegetable-derived protein-rich alternative. You get to the first sentence. The first sentence of Infinite Jest is:
I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.
Sudden memory eruption. I remember from my university days a particular tutorial on Great Expectations. More specifically, thanks to the brilliant, irascible Dickensian who was my tutor for 19th-century literature, I remember that it went on for over two hours and only covered the first paragraph of the book. Unfortunately, that’s what I remember, the length and the focus, rather than any particular content. Apart from when the tutor observed that Pip, the name of the central character, is something small and apparently irrelevant, something that might be spat out, to which I responded “Great Expectorations!” to which he responded with a despairing sigh and I don’t think I said anything else thereafter.

This may come in useful later. But what can we get from this first sentence? What immediately springs to mind for me is Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work ‘I am sitting in a room’, in which a text is recorded and re-recorded until the specific resonances of the recording space begin to take over the sound of the words, which gradually become unintelligible.

Oh God, that does sound a wee bit poncy, doesn’t it? Maybe I should flag up such moments of self-indulgence, perhaps highlight them in a some bright and startling colour, so as to alert anyone who might be disturbed. Maybe they should have warnings before more challenging TV or radio programmes: “Viewers are warned that this programme goes up its own arse from the start.”

I probably think about Lucier because ‘I am sitting in a room’ is one of the main pieces of music discussed in Paul Morley’s flawed, frustrating but utterly essential 2003 tome Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (the other being Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’). And it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Morley’s book also comes to mind because of what Kevin said a few days ago about DFW’s use of footnotes. Morley likes footnotes. Morley uses lots of footnotes. Morley has footnotes to his footnotes. And its only now, nearly a decade after I first read Morley’s book, that what he was doing, piling footnotes on top of each other, was analogous to what Alvin Lucier was doing with his own layers of text, stacking and re-stacking in a way that risks obscuring the original meaning, but at the same time takes a punt on synthesising a whole new meaning from the mess and noise. Will Wallace do the same? We haven’t even got to the first footnote yet...
...surrounded by heads and bodies.
Ah, ambiguity. If the narrator, the “I” (Who s/he?) is surrounded by heads and bodies, the thought that immediately arises is that the heads and bodies are detached, dismembered, dead, like something nasty from Goya’s bleak imaginings.

But of course that’s not explicitly stated. The heads and bodies might just as easily be attached and arranged in a conventional fashion, still able to do the things that heads and bodies do. And the fact that we have been led into “an office” rather than a battlefield or a mortuary suggests that’s more likely to be the case. So why is it said? Are we in the realms of synecdoche, where a part of a thing is used to refer to a whole (eg, “50 head of cattle”)? Maybe. But even if these body parts aren’t strewn around the fax machines and filing cabinets, we still have the notion that this could happen. This is not a normal, banal encounter in an office. It Will Not End Well.

Not that we know for certain, because Wallace has plunged us in media res (and I’m sorry about these dead-language tags – it’s a passing affectation – it won’t last). We don’t know who’s sitting in the office because we haven’t been introduced. (Compare this with Pip in Great Expectations, who in common with several other Dickens protagonists, is much more punctilious about such social niceties. See, I told you the studenty nostalgia had a point. Ishmael, in Moby Dick, is more grumpy, but he still gives you something to go on. And so forth. ) Such artlessness is discouraged by today’s creative writing tutors. “Don’t tell, show,” they entreat us. In fact, simply telling us who’s who and what’s going on is a perfectly respectable tactic, but it needs to be used with an element of discretion, or it looks as if you think your readers might be a bit simple. Dan Brown, I’m looking at you.

After a few paragraphs of clarity slowly asserting itself; we’re in a university, presumably North American, if the number of deans is anything to go by; some of the deans are introduced, as is the narrator’s uncle; there are some sporty ramifications going on here; Wallace pulls off a neat trick. To let us find out the narrator’s identity, he’s going to show us; but he’s going to tell us he’s showing us. So Hal Incandenza (for it is he) refers to:
...a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me to me.
which the lean, yellowish dean proceeds to do, filling in the fictional facts that we might want to have about our apparent protagonist. Wallace also seems to be setting up the trick with the last line of the chapter – So yo then man what’s your story? – although in that case we are to be denied, at least for the time being.

Hold on, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Where are we, roughly, thematically? US campus fiction. The Secret History; The Rules of Attraction; The Marriage Plot. Something along those lines. And there are tennis references, which make me think of The Royal Tenenbaums; and didn’t Dave Eggers say that DFW was a good tennis player? I think he did. Hal is a talented tennis player, and bright as well, but he appears to be socially awkward in the extreme, fascinated by language but unwilling and/or unable to use it in everyday discourse. Via him, Wallace observes the weirdness of speech when it’s transcribed accurately, especially when the speaker is lunging for a fluency and profundity that’s beyond his grasp. His Uncle Charles, who also happens to be the head of the tennis academy he attends, tries to articulate the enthusiasm that his nephew won’t or can’t express:
“And let me say if I may that Hal’s excited, excited to be invited for the third year running to the Invitational again, to be back here in a community he has real affection for, to visit with your alumni and coaching staff, to have already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition, to as they say still be in it without the fat woman in the Viking hat having sung, so to speak, but of course most of all to have a chance to meet you gentlemen and have a look at the facilities here. Everything here is absolutely top-slot from what he’s seen.”
He’s speaking on Hal’s behalf, which seems an odd thing to do – but isn’t that what writers of fiction do all the time for their own characters? Or is it the characters who do it for their authors? This may or may not be important. We’ve already got the tennis angle; is Hal a stand-in for David Foster Wallace himself?

And then the trouble starts. The dean of admissions queries the legitimacy of Hal’s academic record and Uncle Charles and his colleague deLint are asked to wait outside. The hope is, we assume, that Hal will speak up when left to his own devices, but it’s only when the deans drop the obfuscation and euphemism and accuse him of being “a jock with doctored marks and a store-bought application” that the prodigy deigns to defend himself. But what exactly is going on? Hal lapses into a childhood recollection of a time when he ate a patch of multi-coloured fungus, to the consternation of his mother (“the Moms”). By the time he returns from this reverie to conclude his defence, he’s sounding almost like the Elephant Man asserting his own humanity: “I’m not just a creātus...” Note the accent over the “a”. And you thought I was poncy.

The deans’ response is indeed that of the Victorian mob to the disfigured Joseph Merrick, although it’s not clear what it is that horrifies them so; something about the sounds that Hal is making; “A goat drowning in something viscous”. They manhandle him to the bathroom, where again they become disembodied body parts, as all that Hal can make out are feet and occasional hands. He’s disgorged into “a special ambulance, dispatched from I’d rather not dwell on where...” but we get the idea. And via a Canadian obsessed with her own breast and some aimless wondering about the tennis tournament, we meet the Cuban orderly who asks what Hal’s story is.

A couple more points, both of them technological in one sense or another. First, and this will be of little moment to those of you reading a real book, what is the bloody point of the Kindle’s built in dictionary? It tells you what “office” and “chair” mean, “heads” and “bodies”; but it can’t explain “Remington-hung” (I’m guessing it’s a reference to the artist of the Old West, not about typewriters or rifles) or “creātus”. Is the average Kindle user expected to have a feeble grasp of English, but pretty good Latin? Ignorant, except when it comes to cowboys-and-Indians kitsch?

The other is that Hal makes a passing reference to a “ROM-drive”. Now, I’ve never heard of such a thing. I know about CD-ROM drives. In fact, at around the time Infinite Jest was first published, I was involved in the development and release of an educational CD-ROM that was going to change the way people made their choice of university. It was the future. Then a different future happened. But we know that Hal is very precise about his choice of language. What is this ROM-drive of which he speaks? I’m intrigued. OK, then, David Foster Wallace; what’s your story?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Now, when I started this adventure, I decided that I would try to avoid other reviews, blogs and similar discussions of Infinite Jest. I must have read some of these before, of course, possibly when the book was first published, certainly in the intervening 16 years, but not with a view to actually reading the bloody thing. It’s a bit like an actor who’s taking on a role made famous by someone else; he’ll almost certainly have seen the earlier version, but once he’s decided to take the part, he won’t go back to it.

But somehow I’ve got it into my head that Infinite Jest will be a tad postmodern; possibly ever so slightly metafictional, even. (Metafiction: that thing that Ian McEwan does at the end of his books, as if to say “Hey, look! It’s a novel! It’s all made up! By me!” I discussed it here. It can be good, but somehow not when Ian McEwan does it. Sorry, Ian)

So, anyway, yeah, postmodern and all that. I start with the foreword and I immediately assume that it’s part of the main text, written by Wallace himself, possibly commenting in a slightly arch manner on his own work, even referring to himself in the third person. Because that’s the sort of thing that authors do; see Nabokov, for example. And because I haven’t actually read anything by David Foster Wallace before, I have no idea if this is how he writes, what his authorial voice sounds like. But it does sound oddly familiar. And when the book is described as “drum-tight and relentlessly smart”, all the alarm bells go off. No author would have the chutzpah to describe his own book in that way; well, Gore Vidal might, but that’s about it. So I flip to the end of the foreword and see that it’s written by Dave Eggers, who wrote A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which once held the same sort of reputation that Infinite Jest now bears (it’s quite long, but not that long) and I did actually read it about 12 years ago but I can recall very little about it. But I do remember his voice, his style, his tone and I suspect that’s what flagged up my suspicions. Hang on – I’m suspicious of a foreword actually being a proper foreword, written by someone other than the author, and not being some sort of self-referential contrivance? This can’t end well.

This brings up a point that Kevin made with relation to the last post; the Kindle is already making a difference. Although Kindle books have covers, when you open [sic] one for the first time, it tends to take you to the first page. Had I gone back to the cover, it would have told me that Dave Eggers wrote the foreword. Anyway, a question has been raised: since Wallace didn’t write the foreword, is it an integral part of the text, and should I be writing about it? Well, since Eggers wrote it in 2006, when DFW was still alive, I guess he approved of it. So I should at least acknowledge its existence, no?

So. The foreword exists. I won’t go through it line by line – Wallace didn’t write it, after all – but I’ll draw your attention to three things that Eggers says. The first:
It’s to be expected that the average age of the new Infinite Jest reader would be about twenty-five. There are certainly many collegians among you, probably, and there may be an equal number of thirty-year-olds or fifty-year-olds who have for whatever reason reached a point in their lives where they have determined themselves finally ready to tackle the book, which this or that friend has urged upon them.
Now, I’m not sure how I should take that. He gives me permission to read (I’m not 50, but I’m closer to 50 than to 30 and certainly to 25) but has decided (how?) that the archetypal reader will be younger. So is it too late for me? If so, I was already 28 when Infinite Jest was published, so I never had a chance. It seems that Eggers is trying to be inclusive, but I still feel a tiny bit discouraged. As if I’m wearing the wrong shoes for such an event.

(Incidentally, when the recent death of Neil Armstrong prompted people to reminisce about watching the moon landings as they happened, I rejoiced in the fact that I had no such memory. It was the first time in a while that I’d actually felt excluded from an event thanks to my youth.)

But then Eggers offers me a glintlet of hope:
If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs [sic], for which Stephin Merritt wrote that many songs, all of them about love, in about two years.

Now, this is good, because I do like the Magnetic Fields, especially their magnum opus, the 69 Love Songs triple album (23 on each disc, conspiracy theorists). Do you know the band? Oh, you should check them out. Perhaps I should listen to the album while reading the book. Except I don’t like songs with words playing when I’m reading. Unless they’re in a language I don’t understand. Whatever, this is A Good Sign.

But Eggers has a question. Or rather, Eggers has the answer to a question, and one that I’ve been asking into the void over the past few days; at least I hope he does:
Here’s a question once posed to me, by a large, baseball cap-wearing English major at a medium-size western college: Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest? This is a good question, and one that many people, particularly literary-minded people, ask themselves. The answer is: Maybe. Sort of. Probably, in some way.
Well, thanks, Dave. No, seriously, thanks.

I’d better get on with the actual book now.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Some background notes (potentially skippable)

My name is Tim Footman and I am 44 years old. I was born and brought up in England but I’ve spent quite a bit of the past decade in Asia. Sometimes I’ve been a writer and sometimes I’ve been an editor and quite often I’ve been a bit of both. I’ve written seven books and either edited or contributed to about the same number. All are non-fiction, mostly in the realms of pop music/pop culture. I’ve also worked in magazines, newspapers and I’ve done a bit of broadcasting. A little judicious Googling will bring more details, if you’re at all interested. I’ve been blogging for about seven years now; my main blog is called Cultural Snow.

My favourite modern novelists – the qualification being that they’ve published at least one novel in the past 10 years and I’ve read at least half of their total published output – include Martin Amis, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Coe, Douglas Coupland, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michel Houellebecq, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt, David Lodge, Armistead Maupin, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters. Actually, looking at that list, some of them don’t really qualify as favourites. Sometimes it’s more of a case that I read and enjoyed one book and then ploughed through subsequent volumes hoping to recapture the magic. And let’s not talk about the ones that I’ve bought in similar circumstances and not finished.
Or the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn't drink;
But at least you thought you wanted it, that’s so much more than I can say for me...
Or something like that. If Elvis Costello wrote novels, I think I’d be responding in a similar way to his more recent works. Still staying with the list, I’m not sure what it betrays, beyond an unfortunate preference for male authors; and and odd but less reprehensible tendency to favour authors the initial letters of whose surnames come in the first half of the alphabet; with the exception of the two women. Again, I’m not sure if any of this means anything, but it may help to lay out my predilections and prejudices before we begin.

You will notice that David Foster Wallace is not on that list. As I explained in the previous post, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by David Foster Wallace. I have no idea what Infinite Jest is about; I just know that the title is a reference to Hamlet’s Yorick speech, which explains the picture at the top of the screen. Once I discern a theme, the picture may change. Or it may not. And the title is a gentle nod to Keats. If that matters.

I should state from the beginning that I’ve downloaded Infinite Jest to my Kindle. This may or may not affect my reading experience, but it’s a purely practical decision, as much of my reading takes place away from home and Infinite Jest, as I’ve mentioned already, is quite a big book. The last big book I bought before I got my Kindle was 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and it’s still glaring at me by the side of my bed, the bookmark sticking out disapprovingly, well before the halfway mark.

I rather think Mr Wallace would have disapproved of the whole Kindle thing. He liked writing in books, pen on paper; here are his thoughts on the opening page of a Don DeLillo novel:

This blog, I guess, is the equivalent of all that red ink. But more legible. If not so coherent.

One thing that I’ll avoid by reading the book in electronic form – apart from crippling back pain – is the sense that I’m in any way showing off to casual passers-by what I’m reading. I know that Infinite Jest is something of a cult novel. I’m sure there are plenty more blogs about it (although I’m avoiding reading them, at least for the time being). I’m sure that it’s the sort of book that, if you sat reading it in a coffee shop in London or New York or on a park bench in Paris or Barcelona, people would occasionally react, make eye contact, maybe even strike up a conversation. That said, as I start this adventure I’m in a part of the world where people don’t seem to read very much at all, at least not in public. And this blog, I suppose, takes the place of an analogue book cover; this is what I’m reading people; make your assumptions about me; come over and say hello. (This is as good a place as any to mention a vivid mental image I retain from a concert I attended a few years ago in London’s Hyde Park, featuring the quirky, sensitive, rather literary Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian. During one of the less quirky and sensitive support acts, a young woman sat on the grass, her back defiantly to the stage, furiously reading a Sarah Waters novel. Whether it was a conscious pose or not, it was delightful.)

Oh dear. I suppose I’d better get on with reading the book now.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The tweet by Bret Easton Ellis

So, Tim, how did it all start?

Well, I suppose it started, as so many things do these days, on Twitter. And then it somehow migrated onto Facebook and now it’s on a blog. Whether it ever graduates to the dull, analogue grind of real life, we’ll just have to wait and see. But this is what happened.

First, the author Bret Easton Ellis (1964—) made some disobliging remarks about the author David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) on Twitter. You can get a pretty good overview of what happened in this Guardian article, although the details aren’t particularly important. What matters is that the remarks were made. A modest commotion followed. (Makes note of phrase “A modest commotion” for use as a title for something or other. Is it a quote? It sounds as if it may be. It is now, I guess.) Of course, these things are all relative. It was a commotion among some people who read contemporary American literary fiction. It did not provoke any so-called water-cooler moments, not in my workplace at least.

Then the baton was taken up by Dan Waites. You may not have heard of Dan Waites, but he’s a writer too, in this case of occasionally pungent reviews of restaurants in the Bangkok area. Do check him out, he’s good. Anyway, he took to Facebook to say:
I’ve never read a Bret Easton Ellis books (I had to throw out American Psycho after puking off the side of my bed on it). But I’m pretty sure he isn't fit to write the full stop at the end of a DFW sentence.
Now, I responded in defence of Ellis, especially of American Psycho, which I still maintain is one of the greatest novels of the past few decades. But my ammunition in the debate was just as depleted as Dan’s because I hadn’t read anything by David Foster Wallace. I hadn’t even puked on anything by David Foster Wallace. I knew he was American; I knew the titles of some of his books; I knew that he’d written a very big book called Infinite Jest, about which many people said good things; and I knew that in 2008, he killed himself. But apart from that, not much. So I decided to remedy this.

The sensible thing to do, I suspect, would have been to start off with one of Wallace’s shorter, more manageable books. This is a pretty good rule of thumb when you’re confronted by a literary work that’s big and a bit scary. Have a go at A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a dry run for Ulysses. Before you plunge in Gravity’s Rainbow, dip your toe in the paddling pool that is The Crying of Lot 49. But that’s what I did in my teens and twenties. I’m 44 now. I’m 10 years older than Wallace was when Infinite Jest was published. I’m only a couple of years younger than he was when he died. Is there time for this suck-it-and-see approach to literature? I decided I would have to pass up the more accessible delights of (checks DFW’s Wiki page for titles) The Broom of the System or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and take on the big scary one itself.

It’s still pretty intimidating, though. Infinite Jest runs to over 1,000 pages in most editions. My comfort zone runs out at around 350. However good the book turned out to be, I realised I’d need some sort of support mechanism to help me through the bad bits. A book group might have seemed like the obvious answer; and I’ve nothing whatsoever against book groups; but I don’t know of any such groups in my immediate vicinity; and even if there were I’m not sure I could convince many book groups to take on Infinite Jest (Don’t they tend to prefer stuff like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? Although to be fair I haven’t read that either.) and I know I’d start getting a bit snotty and overly theoretical after a few meetings; and I’d probably object to somebody’s taste in chocolate biscuits; yeah, I think I probably have got something against book groups...

So I decided to write a blog about it instead.