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

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?


  1. I haven't really been commenting so far because it's hard to say much without giving other things away. I don't really want to spoil it for you by telling you when you've focused too much on a thread that isn't going anywhere or patronise you by congratulating you on every insight.

    I am really enjoying the analysis though and, at the risk of sounding patronising, I feel like you're picking up a lot more than I did on my first reading.

  2. Thanks, Shane. One reason I started the blog was to stop myself from skim-reading the difficult bits too much; I wanted to be able to at least offer a sketchy synopsis of each chapter. One drawback is that I'm reading each section two or three times, just to ensure I’m getting it right, which means I’m going even more slowly than most people seem to. I know a lot of the things I pick up on will turn out to be dead ends but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

    Isn’t it?


What do you think of it so far?