A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 14, 2009

What we talk about when we talk about IJ

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 6:32 pm

By Annie Lowrey

So, I’m back with a much sunnier post than my last.

First, foremost, it’s been delightful reading this book in tandem with a lot of other readers from sundry backgrounds, on this blog and others. Normally I adore the cloistered and exclusive relationship the reader has with a book. (It’s like best friends.) But IJ has proven itself a more social creature. The advice — to read passages aloud, create a timeline, get to page 300 etc., to realize that 2009 may well be the year of the adult undergarment — has been especially useful.

To turn that point in, it’s been interesting to consider what we post about when we post on our blog. Thus far the posts have been, for the most part, miniaturist and intensely focused on aesthetics. We’ve appreciated individual turns, or little rhetorical tics, or other minutiae. And we’ve discussed the book’s style — Woods, realism, hysterical realism, the fractured text etc.

It’s not a big mystery why. First, the style is the most overwhelming and most obvious thing about the book. It begs to be analyzed and discussed. Second, before you have any idea what’s going on, it’s the only thing you can talk about, really.

And I think the fact that character and plot development have been so scant also explains, in part, why the posts have been negative and cagey. DFW’s style can be hard to acclimate to, even if you’re really liking the book at large and are still game to get through it. We should all be on page 300 now — and I think the discussion will broaden a bit from here on out.

It reminds me — I had a professor in college who would only talk about books during re-reading — everyone needed to get through and then we’d discuss, piece by piece, on the second go-around. I think there’s some wisdom there, at least in an academic setting. It’s much more interesting to argue about a book when you can consider all its elements — philosophy, plot, narrative arc, allusion, style, aesthetics, whatever.

But, of course, reading isn’t just about getting through a book in order to make clever observations on it and formulate a clever opinion about it. It’s also about the act reading, and all the things that entails. And IJ insists upon careful attention in the act of reading — the pinging back and forth to the footnotes, the heft of the text, the typeface and everything. It’s been fascinating to note the process of reading IJ in a community of readers — particularly outside an academic setting.

Another thing from college — it was always verboten to discuss things that you liked and disliked. Those were naughty words, unsupportable words, not words which had to do with intellect and argument. Not so on a blog, where I get to prattle on about things I like and dislike all I want.

And, on that note, I’ll admit that I did eventually get through the yrstruly section and that it does improve on the second-go around. Particularly when read aloud.

July 13, 2009

The Importance of Reporting

Filed under: Uncategorized — ezraklein @ 7:18 pm

By Ezra Klein

Chris’s post touches on one of the surprising revelations of Infinite Jest so far: David Foster Wallace is an excellent reporter. But he’s a bit more uneven as a novelist.

The best sections of the book — the sections with the most truth and texture and voice and immediacy — are the sections that Wallace has essentially reported out. That reporting didn’t always take the form of a plane ticket and a notepad. Sometimes, Wallace simply lived the experience. But it’s unmistakable: The descriptions of tennis, of the odd camaraderie of young male athletes, of addiction, of rehabilitation clinics, of sudden obsessions, and of Boston, all have a startling clarity to them. They are verbose and circular, like much of Wallace’s writing, but that’s only because Wallace understands these places well enough that he doesn’t just let you see what the character would see. He lets you think what the character would think. It’s a messier, but altogether more impressive, achievement.

The sections that are more imaginative are strikingly less proficient. The vignette with Poor Tony felt false in terms of everything but the drive of addiction. The language (“But C was not 2Bdenied”), the setting, what Annie called “the hysterical moment of hysterical realism,” it felt like a writing exercise more than a part of the book. It’s generally a truism in journalism that the glitzier the writing the less that’s being said. And so too here, where the fireworks and gimmicks and flourishes seemed like the point of the passage, not the markers of authenticity. The section rang about as true as a poorly autotuned bell. And I’ve felt that way — and some will find this more controversial — about the Quebecois separatism and the Prince and much else. When Wallace is speaking of what he knows, he is describing life. When he is not, he has a tendency to simply display talent. It’s a good reminder for us bloggers, who, compared to Wallace, have rather less talent to fall back on, but, like Wallace, have rather too much space to fill.

July 12, 2009

A Story of Short Stories

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 4:14 pm

By Dayo Olopade

There’s a robust, perpetual debate about whether parties interested in the drafting of fiction and/or poetry ought to attend creative writing programs that would give them structure and discipline, a master’s degree and then hopefully a book deal. There’s an advantage to the MFA route, of course: A scholastic setting affords a budding novelist the time, motivation and feedback loop that might not be available to the writer “living in a tent in a basement in Vinegar Hill.”

Whatever the sundry benefits of the University of Arizona creative writing program that Wallace attended–benefits he attempted to impart to the hundreds of writers he would later teach at Amherst and then Pomona College–one faculty stands out. Each time he sets ink to paper, Wallace exhibits a remarkable fluency with different genres, voices and structures. Rather like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Julian Barnes History of the World…, Infinite Jest inhabits several different skulls: that of the desperate, bloodless depressive (p. 73), the rueful sports washout (p. 175), the fart-parsing tennis geek (p. 119), and several more. It is one of the Very Impressive things about Wallace’s writing.

Some of these short-story length vignettes are phenomenal; “Mario Incandenza’s First and Only Even Remotely Romantic Experience, Thus Far” would have been a hit in any workshopping session. There are limits, however, to the worlds Wallace’s capacious imagination creates. Take this section of the novel (pp. 128-135):

[After] stifing the Santaclaus we watch he picks a direction finally at last up Mass Ave toward the Central Squar on foot, and Poor Tony always knows how over to the dumsters; alley by Bay Bank off Sherman St, and yrstruly and C crew on the individual and and roll him and C messes up his older map to a large degree and we leave him in no condition to eat cheese in a show drift of matril under the dumster, and C again wants to siphon out a vehicle on Mass Av and set him on fire but he has 400 $ on his person and then some and a coat with a fury collar and a watch we really scored and C even gosofar to take the non studns’ shoes which they dont’ fit, and in the dumster they go.

This ghettolized portrait of Boston/Allston, dripping with the procedural postmodernism to which Wallace has elsewhere seemed allergic, reads precisely like the byproduct of some boundary-pushing group exercise slash weeklong retreat. I don’t mean to suggest that Wallace should not attempt to inhabit “street language” and settings–but this effort, unlike an earlier passage in a similarly disjointed voice (pp. 37-38), is not conceptually coherent. Is this scene written or aural–drugged or illiterate? There is also some confusion about the line between Wallace’s overly articulate authorship and the maleducated voice he is inhabiting. “C crew on the individual”? “He has 400 $ on his person”?

I know Annie particularly dislikes this section (happily, there aren’t many more like it). And yeah, Wallace is no Richard Price. But the passages describing the Canadian separatists are far more numerous, and very dreary. Here is an early example:

The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas; peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

Yikes. I’ll talk more about this as the book continues, but here, I find this talk of violet a bit too precious, the whole separatist narrative too calculatedly gruff–not to mention derivative of better “martial-chic” writers like Orwell and Hemingway.

Maybe this is the essential difficulty in a picaresque book such as Infinite Jest. Or maybe it’s the problem with MFAs. I’m being reductive–but we might get fewer of these off-kilter thought expriments had Wallace followed the well-worn substitute for formal training: counsel to “write what you know.” Wallace’s tales of debilitating addiction, the rituals of tennis, college radio stations, and even the unique topography of Arizonan suburbs are far more entertaining. And who knows what that Brooklyn tent might have taught him.

July 9, 2009

Bow & Arrow

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 10:32 pm

By Matthew Yglesias

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Unlike Annie I liked the written-in-voice section about Poor Tony and Roy Tony. But more to the point I wanted to blog about it for the sake of mentioning that though the Bow & Arrow Pub, which comes up a couple of times in the sequence, no longer exists it once did. Indeed, there’s an entire Infinite Jest Tour of Boston up on Flickr courtesy of Tim Bean that offers this photo of the block it used to be on until its closure sometime in, IIRC, late 2000. In addition to its cameo in Infinite Jest, the bar is notable for being the location of the “how do you like THEM apples” scene from Good Will Hunting. I may be wrong about this, but even though the old Bow & Arrow was at 1 Bow Street, I think its physical location actually wasn’t the current 1 Bow Street but rather than storefront next door that currently houses Grafton Street.

At any rate, Wallace’s fairly scrupulous attention to real Greater Boston geography and locations is an interesting counterpoint to the fact that he’s fabricated an entire town, Enfield, and plopped it down next to Allston where I guess Brighton would be in the real world.

Reduce, Reuse, Rewrite

Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbeam @ 2:37 pm

By Chris Beam

A great journalist once said: Write every piece twice.

David Foster Wallace seems to have taken this advice to heart. Reading Infinite Jest, it’s hard not to notice a lot of overlap with his non-fiction.

Sometimes it’s a quick turn of phrase, like when Hal teaches his mentees that tennis is “an individual sport. Welcome to the meaning of individual. We’re each deeply alone here. It’s what we have in common, this aloneness.” To which one kid, Ingersoll, replies, “E Unibus Pluram.” (p. 112) Infinite Jest was published seven years after a Wallace essay called “E Unibus Pluram” about the alienating, ironizing effect of television on human communication. Clearly playing tennis and watching TV are very different activities. But they’re similar in that no matter how many people you play tennis or watch TV with, they’re ultimately solitary acts. The same phrase applies to both.

Other times it’s a momentary name-dropping that you know Wallace knows more about, but is holding back. For example, the offhand reference to Schitt’s knowledge of “Cantorian” mathematics (p. 82). In a footnote, we learn that German mathematician Georg Cantor was “the man who proved some infinities were bigger than other infinities.” What we don’t learn is that Wallace wrote an entire book about this guy and his theories. In Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, Wallace tells us that Cantor is also the poster boy for genius mathematicians gone mad. But Wallace says that’s not fair:

“In modern medical terms, it’s fairly clear that G.F.L.P. Cantor suffered from manic-depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what this was, and that his polar cycles were aggravated by professional stresses and disappointments, of which Cantor had more than his share. Of course, this makes for less interesting flap copy than Genius Driven Mad by Attempts To Grapple With [Infinity]. The truth, though, is that Cantors’ work and its context are so totally interesting and beautiful that there’s no need for breathless Prometheusizing of the poor guys’ life. The real irony is that the view of [infinity] as some forbidden zone or road to insanity—which view was very old and powerful and haunted math for 2000+ years—is precisely what Cantor’s own work overturned. Saying that [infinity] drove Cantor mad is sort of like mourning St. George’s loss to the dragon: it’s not only wrong but insulting.”

Setting aside parallels to Wallace’s life, I just want to point out how, even in the quick scientific and pop culture asides—the stuff most people would copy from Wikipedia, paste, and reword slightly—Wallace has some pretty deep grounding in the subjects. Who knows, maybe there’s not a story behind every obscure pharmaceutical he mentions. But I bet there is. It gives you the frightening sense that the endnotes, if Wallace wanted, could have extended forever.

But the most obvious overlaps are the ones where entire portions of his fiction seem lifted from his non-fiction, or vice versa. See his description of the video of lifelong tennis player Stan Smith “hitting textbook forehands, over and over again, the same stroke, his back sort of osteoporotically hunched but his form immaculate, his foot-work textbook and effortless … [H]e looks desiccated, aged in hot light, performing the same motions over and over, for decades … The soundtrack says ‘Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow’ over and over, if you turn it up.” (p. 110) The idea being that tennis players become good not by thinking but by doing, over and over, for what seems like forever, until perfection becomes instinct.

That theme is familiar to anyone who read his review of tennis pro Tracy Austin’s memoir (“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”), about how genius on the tennis court by no means translates to genius in, say, forming sentences. Quite the opposite, he concludes. The mental flatness required to practice the rote repetition of ground strokes for years and also achieve serenity in the heat of competition is poorly suited to dramatic retellings. Austin’s book, which Wallace savages for its failure to transcend cliché, could easily be called “Don’t Think Just See Don’t Know Just Flow.”

The list goes on. Wallace’s elaborate descriptions of tennis form in Infinite Jest predict those in his rhapsodic New York Times Magazine essay on Roger Federer. His obsessions with authenticity (the stodgy authority figures), hierarchy (the tennis ladder), and complex systems (the ventilation system Hal uses to smoke up before practice) are everywhere in his non-fiction too.

One area Wallace never did explore much in his non-fiction—at least from what I’ve read—was depression. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) It’s on full display in Infinite Jest. The clinical scenes with head case Kate Gompert, the weird vignette about a guy accidentally shooting up Drano, the kid waiting in mental anguish for his weed. But for some reason, he never really tackled these themes in a literal, personal, here’s-what-happened way. It always hovered at the edges—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is about staving off despair. But I would have liked to see just one essay that started, “There was this time I went to the hospital …”

July 8, 2009

Nails on chalkboard

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 7:25 pm

By Annie Lowrey

Some sort-of spoilers ahead, for those not caught up. (By my count, we should be at page 150 by last Sunday, page 225 by next.)

Oh god. I knew it had to happen at some point. I knew it would be there, lurking among the fascinating diversions — and how diverting they are! — on robbers and diapers and tennis and the body architecture of athletic girls and Quebecois separatists and bug-trapping. It wouldn’t be entertaining. It would be grating. Nails-on-chalkboard grating. I got there. And wow, it was horrible.

My eyes glazed over, my temples started throbbing. I desperately yearned for the cool half-inch space of the paragraph tab or the refreshment of the apostrophe. I paused for a moment to ruminate on how important the conventions of grammar and punctuation are to our understanding of the written word. I couldn’t really bring myself to read from page 128 to 134. If something important happened, someone else will have to tell me. I skipped it. Starting about a hundred words in.

Phew. I’m happy I got that out of my system. Now, to relate it to the ongoing discussion, of aesthetics and the purposeful challenge of the book…

The multi-page drivel I just described irritated on many levels. It was, to use James Wood’s term, a hysterical moment of hysterical realism. If the rest of the work uses some sort of broken narration, this was back-broken. The new narrative voice felt lost in a fog of words. It was unprecedented in its weirdness. It was hard to read, literally — and I kept losing my place. It was, one one level at least, purposefully obnoxious, a trick the book plays on the reader, almost a dare to keep going. Yrstruly, I wanted to say, go fuck yrself.

What would keep one going through it? Well, maybe other readers are hardier than I. Maybe other readers believe that some nugget important to the emotional or narrative arc of the book was in there. Me? I’m counting on a big emotional and narrative payoff for wading through these aesthetics. I’m having a hard time with them.

On Beauty

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 4:48 pm

By Kevin Carey

Blogging about a novel means wading into issues that are a long way from public policy and other things about which I normally write. E.g., I know bubkes about literary criticism and its various attendant debates. So I found this post at A League of Ordinary Gentlemen to be worthwhile. Freddie says:

Conor Clarke of the Atlantic writes, prefacing a negative review of David Foster Wallace’s work from James Wood: “Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world.”

This is something you hear so often in literary criticism that it almost goes unnoticed, and certainly I wouldn’t want to scold anyone working on A Supposedly Fun Blog about it for that reason. But despite its ubiquity, it’s actually incredibly destructive, and a symptom of a really pernicious attitude that pervades our appreciation of literature. Careful: James Wood likes James Wood’s aesthetics. “Aesthetics”, in literary criticism, has become as question-begging a term as “realism”. Both assume a narrow vision of important concepts, like what constitutes aesthetic pleasure and what exactly realistic representation entails. The traditionalist tells the punk rocker that he prefers music which “sounds good.” For those of us who are interested in novels which continue to push up against the walls of our expectations and heave away– for those of us who have read “Daisy Miller” and like it fine but don’t need to read yet another author rehash its style, voice and structure– ceding the definition of the word aesthetics is to give up the game. What constitutes beautiful and moving art is precisely what we are arguing about when we argue about literary greatness.

Again, this is so prevalent an attitude, that one and only one set of evaluative criteria carries the pride of place that comes from representing aesthetics, that you can’t blame anyone for thinking that it’s true– particularly for those who aren’t academically or professionally involved in literary criticism. But it’s a constricting and arrogant attitude, full of a noxious combination of elitism and faux-populism, and it’s one that we should push back against. The right to define aesthetic pleasure is part of a private contract between reader and writer. Don’t be fooled into thinking anyone, even someone of James Wood’s institutional authority, has the ability to usurp that interchange.

And:

all of this, the aggrieved and distrustful critical reaction to any novel that comes within a quarter mile of what we might call the postmodern, has been established for years. It was well established, I mean to say, when David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Which means that he, like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the  good faith of his audience.

I actually find much of Infinite Jest to be very pleasing on  purely aesthetic grounds–Wallace had a finely-tuned ear for cadence and rhythm as well as a knack for deploying obscure, melodic words. As Dave Eggers notes in the introduction, the sentences may be challenging but they’re never flabby. And when the language isn’t beautiful there’s almost always a pretty clear reason why. It’s interesting, the use of words and phrases that gratify the senses in describing ideas, emotions and circumstances that are often full of pain and degradation. What does it mean to write with beauty and clarity about ugliness?

July 7, 2009

Feral Hamsters Are Not Pets

Filed under: Uncategorized — chrisbeam @ 5:06 am

By Chris Beam

This is going to start happening a lot. You have a conversation about something totally innocuous and irrelevant to anything in real life, and later, when you pick up IJ, it turns out to have been eerily relevant after all.

For example, this weekend a friend and I were discussing whether hamsters live in the wild. On the one hand, yes, of course they do. But who has ever seen a wild hamster?

Later that day, I came across, if not the answer, an answer:

“It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. …

“The noise of the herd is tornadic, locamotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine. …

“Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetablish if in the path of a feral herd.”

So now we know. Next time I have an itchy question, instead of reaching for the nearest iPhone, I’ll flip through the nearest Infinite Jest.

Even Longer Than It Appears to Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevincarey1 @ 2:48 am

by Kevin Carey

Infinite Jest is, famously, very long. My copy runs 1,079 pages, and they strike me as above-average in terms of size and word density–in fact according to Amazon the book contains 483,994 words, which, when divided by the industry standard of 250 words per page, yields a normalized length of 1,936 pages. In any event, it’s long. And one of the (many) reasons is that Wallace periodically takes the reader on extended first-person journeys into the minds of people gripped by (often chemically-induced) obsession. The first comes very early, the “Erdedy waits for pot” story that begins on page 17. They’re some of the most un-put-downable parts of the novel, both in the sense that they’re compelling to read and that there’s really no way to make sense of them without imbibing from start to finish in a single, breathless, no paragraph-breaks-allowed gulp. That forces the reader to engage with the mental state of the character directly, to approximate the feeling of succumbing to a larger, implacable and seemingly arbitrary force–in this case, the author Himself. These questions of will and self appear throughout the book as the characters grapple with the paradox of how finding freedom from one sort of master might mean surrendering to another, just as the reader’s natural instinct to make narrative sense out the book is deliberately manipulated and confounded.

July 6, 2009

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 1:08 am

One interesting wrinkle to reading Infinite Jest on its tenth anniversary is that we’re now more-or-less living in the “near future” in which the novel appears to be set. And we can tell that, for example, the short-lived video-telephony revolution that Wallace forecast never came to pass. At the same time we can also tell that Wallace didn’t foresee the actual communications revolutions of the past ten years—things like the rise of IM and SMS to a position of ubiquity.

But what I found fascinating about the passage on the rise and fall of the video phone was that despite its inaccurate (and outlandish) account of technological progress, I thought the depiction of the psychology of communications technology was dead-on. And when we think about what new ways of dealing with one another have become popular in recent years, I think in part they’ve become popular precisely because of the same underlying issues that Wallace describes as causing so much anxiety around the video phone. What we’ve wanted out of communication isn’t more interaction with our interlocutors, but less. The ability to communicate while substantially obscuring what we’re really doing—to reduce our interaction to a think strand of text—has proven immensely popular.

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