A Quest Through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 2

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996 / David Foster Wallace
[Pages 300 – 640
Endnotes 102 – 240]

Others referenced:
Blood Meridian / 1985 / Cormac McCarthy
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption / 1982 / Stephen King
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest / 1962 / Ken Kesey
To Kill a Mockingbird / 1960 / Harper Lee

 

 

i.  And with a Howling Fantod…

…you’re back in the room. Like taking a dive in David Lynch’s blue box, or being transfixed by Kubrik’s obelisks, Infinite Jest has a way of consuming your attention completely. Not unlike the mythical videotape that draws a through-line in its labyrinthine plot. Characters who watch it cannot turn themselves away, their lives shrinking, catatonically, down to the sole desire to watch it once more.

It’s a symbol whose power resonates today: in Father John Misty tracks and imminent Arcade Fire albums, in promises of ‘limitless’ internet & data bundles, in the recent surge of Virtual Reality goggles, in IMAX screens with the same peripheral-spanning[1] scope. I’m not crazy about everything in Wallace’s magnum opus – and sometimes it feels like he has put everything in here – but his discussion of entertainment addiction is dead on.

So, to the second instalment. This meaty section was more of a slog than the first, and that’s saying something. At no times was it more slog-y than at the novel’s one third waypoint.

ii. Pages 300 – 400

Some reviewers have been kind enough to call parts of this book ‘intentionally frustrating’. But in traversing what I would call Infinite Jest’s deepest trough (so far), I came out thinking: was Wallace’s editor on sabbatical?

There’s so much that doesn’t need to be here.

First, the novella-length chronicle of an Eschaton game. Eschaton is Enfield Tennis Academy’s (ETA) own creation, where different parts of the court stand for countries of the world. The students are then assigned global powers, and make nuclear strikes at each other by lobbing tennis balls toward other territories.

Eschaton has doubtless potential, with international disputes being played out in pubescent microcosm. But Wallace’s incessant level of detail strangles it. The ending fracas and a few engaging images notwithstanding, it’s a gleaming example of unedited prose. We don’t need to know the complex algorithms that determine this game. Or the recent histories of its bit part players. Or the details of Eschaton’s creation. It’s over-facing, and maybe that’s the point, but reading is a dredge here.

This overripe section is chained to another: Mario Incandenza’s puppet-show re-tread of his late father’s political satire flick. Prose breaks into a screenplay transcript, which is mired in near-future history, unfriendly acronyms and discussions that dance along the edge of the ‘Great Concavity’; by inference, we eventually guess that this is a new mega-landfill on the US/Canadian border. Wallace here makes it hard to appreciate his niche commentary by not saying what it is he’s satirising. Several series of mental gymnastics too far, I’m afraid.

At least this section is redeemed by its cutaways. These follow the academy enrolees’ visit to Lyle, a cross-legged shaman who advises the boys on their psychiatric troubles. Scenes here are deliciously odd, and funny, a breath of fresh air from the political commentary in the room down the hall.

It’s about the only light relief in this section. Page 400 rolls up through laboriously recounted AA meetings, replete with horrific stories of stillbirths and sexual abuse. They contain some of the darkest prose I’ve ingested since McCarthy’s relentless Blood Meridian. They reaffirmed my avoidance of hard drugs, but I won’t thank them for some of the images still seared to my retinas.

So, not much fun. Good job the next part ramps up.

iii. Pages 400 – 500

Infinite Jest is at its best when it sticks to one solid idea. Then Wallace is free to flog it to death with enrapturing sentences and dry, gallows humour. This combination abounds in both the ETA drill sessions and in Don Gately’s nightly plight as Ennet House’s drug enforcement officer.

Both settings are contained environments, with subjects that seem worthy of obsessive study. Their daily site rituals and long term confinement make a sturdy backdrop, the variables being inmate/enrolee friendships and personality quirks. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I can relate more to a group of characters when they’re contextualised against an oppressive institution. Like the prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the courtroom and legal system in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the psychiatric hospital, which Ennet House reminds me of, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions also provide a vehicle for Wallace’s misanthropic humour, which expertly picks out maddening ironies latent in most oppressive regimes.

ETA is overseen by Nazi-ish drillmaster Schtitt, who works the boys to within an inch of their muscular breaking point. For Gately, the authority figure forms more in drugs themselves, referred to as The Substance, although he does have a Greek boss in his side job, who literally makes him scrub shit. There’s more room for comedy here, resolute low-key wit in the face of hardship. Maybe it’s especially appealing for Brits.

In less harrowing fashion than the AA horror-stories, centre stage is taken by those who suffer with deformities, biological conditions, and the deleterious effects of substance abuse. Wallace seems obsessed with whatever is abnormal, and how the ‘normal’ majority treat it. Perhaps it’s his duty as a novelist, to take us closer to things we naturally, and unjustly, avert our eyes from. It doesn’t stop some knee-jerk repulsion when Wallace writes about these subjects, but his empathy and compassion for each tragic human case he deals with is heartening. Even if, in finding black humour and irony in their situations, he strays into some controversial areas. It feels risky, daring and worthwhile, though it must have been punishing to stare so many of life’s duff hands dead in the face.

 

iv. Pages 500 – 640

By introducing a new main character at 500-plus pages, Wallace is either ballsy or delusions-of-grandeur-level gormless. Luckily, recovering drug addict Randy Lenz is disturbing enough that I’d give it to ‘ballsy’.

Lenz copes with going Cold Turkey by stalking Boston’s back-alleys, then killing whatever small fauna he finds there. He is dark and twisted but elucidated by Wallace’s intimate understanding of addiction. Wallace takes us down the cyclic levels of rush, tolerance and dependence like spiralling steps into hell. Lenz’ descent is maddening and addictive in itself, and is one of the intermittent sections that make the book feel conversely short, pages turning freely, momentum propelling it forth.

Lenz later graduates to dogs, which gets him in trouble with some Québécois. It’s a game of ultra-violent dominoes that comes crashing down on Don Gately, sacrificial guard dog of Ennet House, who is shot defending in-patients from Lenz’ pursuers. In a novel beset with dense prose and Academic level arguments, such an emotional moment is tremendously refreshing. I’ve yet to read on and see if Gately makes it to the conclusion, but his jeopardy confirms I cared for him, which is a bit of a rarity in this over-analytic tome.

Who else do we care for? Probably the three Incandenza brothers, Pemulis, Joelle, and perhaps Lenz. The others, forming one multitudinous mass of side characters, seem peripheral. Occasionally sympathetic and always tragic, but kept at a distance.

I’m excited to tie off Infinite Jest, if just to clear its mammoth cache from my mind’s-eye bookshelves. But I’ll need a break before I let Wallace put me under again.

[1] In Wallace terms, ‘map eliminating’

A Quest through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 1

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996/ David Foster Wallace
[Pages 1 – 300.
Endnotes 1 – 102.]

Others referenced:
Underworld / 1997 / Don DeLillo
Catcher in the Rye / 1951/ J.D. Salinger
1984 / 1948 / George Orwell
Bleak House / 1853 / Charles Dickens

i. Why Read It?

There are some books that beg to be read. Cultural touchstones that single-handedly reinvigorate their contemporary public’s imagination, and publishing industry to boot. By this measure, 50 Shades of Grey should hold great appeal, and I suppose it does, in a perverse guilty-pleasure type way.

In the Venn Diagram of touchstone-books though, it’s that middle section where things get interesting. Where segments of ‘cultural effect’ and ‘enduring quality’ overlap. It’s a lonely cornerstone where precious few authors get to sit, especially as we narrow our focus to the last century or so.

Who qualifies? J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye? George Orwell for 1984? Don DeLillo for Underworld?

It’s a tough debate. But it would be hard to argue against including David Foster Wallace’s epic and ironic tome Infinite Jest. Its sheer size is remarkable enough – 1000 odd pages, plus a couple hundred more tacked on in ‘Footnotes and Errata’. What’s particularly striking about Infinite Jest however is the size of its cultural impact.

As of 2016, it has sold more than 1,000,000 copies. It is a bestselling literary fiction novel – how many books can claim that? TIME included it on their 100 Best Novels since 1923[1]. Foster Wallace is credited with, among other things: typifying an overwhelmed public’s generational angst; influencing a generation of new writers; and meaningfully building on the work of his fellow American literary greats, DeLillo and Pynchon.

Reviews both at the time and since herald it as a seminal book. They are liberal in their use of the adjective ‘momentous[2]’ and it’s easy to see why. In terms of resonance, it was (and is) an undisputed ‘book-of-the-moment’, while its writer-ly construction and reader-ly effort to digest is monumental.

So. Let’s dive in.

ii. The First 100 Pages

All books, long books especially, take time to bed in. I look at it like a batsman’s innings in cricket. You need time to get used to the pace of the ball, the lie of the pitch.

In literature’s case, it’s the author’s delivery and outlook: their way of seeing the world and how they relay that experience, that takes a while to grasp.  And boy, is Foster Wallace a tricky bowler.

He serves up multi-syllabled words that will have you delving through the dictionary (a medical one at that). Acronyms abound (‘O.N.A.N.C.A.A.’; ‘N.A.A.U.P.’) for sub-divisions of fictional organisations. A litany of chemical substances is referenced, each one accompanied by a footnote detailing its composition, effects, and street-aliases. Wallace spoke of writing about ‘communities’ not specific characters, and we get that right from the off. There are more than a dozen personas whose lives are loosely linked by Boston, and tangential occurrences therein.

If you commit to the aforementioned footnotes, which you should for the full experience, you might need a magnifying glass. They are often lengthy, dense, and served up in eye-straining-ly small font.

Not to put you off, mind. Just be prepared for a bit of an early slog. I read Bleak House not too long ago, and Dickens’ grim 19th century patter was a stroll in the park compared to Wallace’s obsessive eye for detail.

Here’s the saving grace: the rewards are as vast as the intricacy of the task. The minute detail of the delivery makes for crystal-clear visual compositions (often very filmic). There are laugh-out-loud moments, from slapstick to black comedy, hidden in the dense paragraphing. Most of all, there’s an overwhelming sense of irony and tragedy, where characters are shown as bundles of teeming consciousness, raging against an isolating world which makes no sense. It’s a feeling which really kicked in, for me at least, around the 120-page mark.

iii. Pages 100 – 300

Familiarity with the ‘main’ characters sets in around this point. Boston spanning settings have boiled down to two key locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House (a drug rehabilitation centre). The rhizomatic plot seems to regulate its orbit around a few narrative bodies. One being the mythical release of ‘Infinite Jest’, a movie so entertaining it paralyses viewers with pleasure. Another one, a more general line, following the Tennis training of the director’s son Hal Incandenza, intellectual and sporting prodigy.

Director of the film ‘Infinite Jest’, James O. Incandenza, is an absent centre-piece to the jigsaw.  He committed brutal suicide by sticking his head in a microwave – a fact we learn through a traumatic discussion between Hal and his brother, Orin.

It’s a troubling revelation, typical of Wallace’s mercilessly bleak (yet funny) take on existence in modern consumerist society. The oft-hyphenated, double-barrelled nature of his descriptions soon reveal themselves to be a sales-patter pastiche of constant, never-ending marketing campaigns. The incessant selling of products reaches an absurd pinnacle in the novel’s internal calendar: its years revealed to have corporate sponsorship (i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Big Whopper). The narrative voice speaks like consumerism and surface-deep culture has taken over its brain. The buy/sell dynamic has become the filter by which all stimuli is experienced.

I’ll confess it took this long for me to realise the book takes place in the near future. A discovery made harder, I hope, by the time-period Wallace uses being now rendered a 90s retro-futurist one to modern readers.  He gets some calls eerily right. Such as the selfie-obsessed narcissism of video-calling, where people spend half the time looking at themselves instead of the other person. Although in Infinite Jest, people’s self-image worries are taken to next-level extremes, hiring celebrity look-a-like avatars to play themselves in video correspondence.

One of Wallace’s prevailing themes is addiction. It seems you have to be addicted to something. Most characters use some Substance or other, while some use the cradle of regiment and ritual. Linked to this, you have to worship something. As he relates in interviews with Charlie Rose[3] and ZDF[4], Wallace maintains that society can kid itself it’s gotten rid of God, but impulses of devotion, subjugation and ritual are still there, embedded deep within our primate-aping psychological origins.

Addiction and Worship are similarly self-consuming, and beautifully dove-tail in Wallace’s descriptions of Tennis[5]. He makes Hal hitting the ball thousands of times a simultaneously superstitious, meditative and metaphysical experience. The tennis court becomes a mecca for clear-minded thought and organised chaos. As Norm MacDonald’s recent tweets attest, sport remains ‘the last untainted zone’ – a medium bereft of politics or scaremongering, where rules are plainly set, where human excellence can be distilled. I’ve come to savour the tennis sections the most – they are Wallace at his most breath-taking and effortless.

‘[kinetic beauty]…is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body’
      – DFW on tennis, in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, PLAY Magazine

iv. Errata (Erratic Thoughts)

A few more things. Each character has an intelligence factor that is off the charts. They universally have vocabularies wider than Stephen Fry channelling Oscar Wilde. This community, disparately connected, is plot-able on a MENSA-level IQ-line of subjects. Perhaps there are a few anomalies. In what I’ve learned is the infamous ‘Wardine’ section, where Wallace inhabits the colloquialisms of a black, ghetto-raised woman, the language is notably toned down. Or again in the furtive prose which embodies a heroin addict in the throes of addiction. But even in these cases, the insights alone are far beyond normal human capacity.

So it’s hard to believe these aren’t just embodied versions of Wallace’s best ideas. Some have labelled him a show-off as a result. But I don’t mind it that much. It gives me more time with him. And it is getting easier to inhabit the world more fully as I read on, without having to pause and reflect on a complex idea (you get served so many you get used to them) or trying in vain to remember who a character is.

Join me next time, where I’m predicting the process will have become even smoother. At present, I’m hooked. I’m lugging this masterwork-cum-brick around with me like a flagellating monk mid-penance. But I guess you’ve got to be addicted to something, right?

 

N.B. There are a number of excellent David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest fan sites, including http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ , a Wiki of sorts, and http://infinitesummer.org/, which includes along-the-way essays from a group who tried to read it over one (hopefully long) summer. Worth a look.

 

 

[1]http://entertainment.time.com/2005/10/16/all-time-100-novels/slide/infinite-jest-1996-by-david-foster-wallace/

[2]http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/jest1a.html ; https://nplusonemag.com/issue-1/reviews/david-foster-wallace/  to name a few

[3]

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkxUY0kxH80&t=2422s

[5] Wallace writes about sport like no-one else. Here he is on the beauty of Roger Federer: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html

 

The End of America: near-distance dystopia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Mandibles’

Books referenced:
The Handmaid’s Tale / 1985 / Margaret Atwood
The Mandibles: A Family
/ 2016 / Lionel Shriver

Ideology, man. What a trip. Sounds like the study of lightbulb moments; actually, a way of umbrella-ing stories we collectively tell ourselves to make the world work. Stories of Religion, Money, Nationalism, and as Yuval Noah Harari unnervingly points out, Human Rights.

 ‘if you take a human being and look inside…you don’t find any rights.[1]
– Yuval Noah Harari, EconTalk podcast

Harari argues that shared myths are the only thing that enables large scale human cooperation. Capitalism, for example, is based on the enticing fiction that money has inherent value. While physical, concrete exchanges take place (of green pieces of paper for limitless types of goods), it is a system based on an arbitrary[2] series of human beliefs.

Changing the stories that society believes in is the basis for social change, moral progress, and in the most dramatic case, revolution.

In novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mandibles, society’s internalised story is wrenched out from the communal unconscious and forcibly retold. Atwood creates Gilead, a military dictatorship which (re)installs morals and social practises from Christian fundamentalism. Here, women are reduced to breeding-facilitators. They are denied basic human rights. They are not allowed to read. Principles of liberty and equality are revealed as contingent on the ruling class’ taking part in ‘retelling’ their doctrines.

In Shriver, narrative change is forced by a failing economy. The US national debt reaches astronomic levels. An alternative world currency is created. The ‘Bancor’ becomes more secure than the dollar, and soars above it in conversion rates. Blind faith in currency begins to erode. As hyperinflation hits, citizens hoard physical objects to trade: medical supplies, food, tools. Newly printed Dollars feel plastic-y, inauthentic, crudely clad in garish-green (a little like post-Brexit bank notes, whose remodelled, small, rubbery nature seems intertwined with Britain’s ‘exit’ from exalted nation status). Promises of pensions, potential wealth stored in government bonds, and even agreements to pay employees for past work are revealed as contingent parts of the modern Capitalist system. People’s promise to repay debt only holds if faith in the currency remains. Without the fictional medium, the narrative falls apart.

Both Atwood and Shriver’s dystopias extend from the worst caprices of contemporary society. Atwood critiques Puritan-influenced conservativism, where appeals to ‘return’ to old morals are used to justify elitism, austerity measures and gross inequality. Shriver focuses on ballooning national debt, hand-wringing attitudes to international issues, and the cognitively-dissonant contortions of late stage Capitalism.

Handmaid’s is prescient enough to warrant a modern-day Hulu adaptation, which surrounding press has sought to label the first ‘post-Trump TV show.[3]’ It is Trump’s America that Atwood herself describes as most in danger of embodying Gilead[4]. The Mandibles takes the celebrity-takeover of politics to blackly comic new levels: Judge Judy on the supreme court, Schwarzenegger taking a run at the Presidency, Strictly Come Dancing stooge Ed Balls installed in Britain’s Prime Ministerial position. Crucially, it’s the Nationalist narrative which takes the biggest hit in both novels.

“We lived in the gaps between the stories”
– Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

In Handmaid’s, America has become synonymous with an overbearing male aggressor[5]. It is a brutally efficient patriarchy suppressing its citizens through subjugated classes. And, through a postscript from future scholar Professor Pieixoto, we learn Gilead is the ‘North Korea’ of its contemporary world: bottom of the pecking order, keeping its citizens in near-poverty to compete on the international stage. It conducts business in terms of veiled masculine rivalry with other nations: who has the best morals? The biggest guns? Internally, its authoritarian regime betrays an insecurity on the world stage: brutality and dominance overcompensating for a sliding national status. Remind you of another administration? Whose leader ran on isolationist grounds, but continues to throw weight around in willie-waving, war-mongering fashion[6]? One who just took away $880billion in healthcare funding for its nation’s poorest citizens[7]? Make Gilead great again, right?

margaret-atwood-039s-the-handmaid-039s-tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, art by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Shriver sequesters America from the rest of the world too. References to flourishing countries overseas, where the Dollar-alternative ‘Bancor’ currency has taken affluent hold, include China inheriting superpower status. Chinese tourists swamp New York streets, taking advantage of favourable exchange rates. Mega-Hooverville settlements spill over from Central Park. All personal Gold reserves are called in by the government. The devaluing of the dollar effects not just the country’s material wealth, but the characters’ sense of self-worth. Their soft power is melting. They are being dressed down, de-masculinised.

Atwood and Shriver are arguing that Nationalist narratives foster division, short-sightedness, and corruption. In an unholy hybrid with masculinity and Capitalism, Nationalism is a mega-ideology which spells bad news for peace-loving humans.

New states in Handmaid’s and Mandibles form a vacuum where ultra-nationalist experiments are given free reign, whose test subjects are drawn kicking-and-screaming from ‘the land of the free’. These novels do not discuss the end-of-the-world as much as the end-of-America. Their dystopias deal with the crumbling USA empire; oft prophesised in fiction, but whose morals, Constitution and cultural standing in the real world seem more at risk than ever. We await the arrival of America’s future with Atwood and Shriver’s conceptions in mind. Neither are optimistic regarding the Republic for which it stands: one nation overwrought, incapacitated: sans Liberty, injustice for all[8].

Read more…

Margaret Atwood: http://margaretatwood.ca/

Lionel Shriver: https://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103190/lionel-shriver

Sam Harris, ‘Waking Up’ Podcast feat. Yuval Noah Harari:  https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/reality-and-the-imagination

[1] http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/10/yuval_harari_on.html

[2] In the sense of ‘it could have been otherwise’, not ‘randomly assigned’

[3] http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/the-handmaids-tale-tvs-most-chilling-trump-era-series-w478718

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-trump.html?_r=0

[5] ‘The Missionary Position’: Feminism and Nationalism in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Sandra Tomc: https://canlit.ca/full-issue/?issue=138-139

[6] See American interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/yes-house-republicans-the-heartless-health-care-vote-will-define-you/2017/05/05/86994c02-31cc-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?utm_term=.ba36dc2b6886

[8] https://www.sos.wa.gov/flag/pledge.aspx