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

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?

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