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

Thursday, 25 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we get to plagiarise it?

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

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

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

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

...and back into the locker room.

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

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

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

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

On to Arizona...

Sunday, 14 October 2012

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

OK, next bit.

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

And then a brief, tired silence.

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on that subject...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

One moment, please

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

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

Friday, 5 October 2012

Nine: Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Note 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 2012

Eight: As of Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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