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July 20, 2009

Looking for Lemniscates: Filmography Edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 4:46 pm

Reading_the_meniscusBearing in mind the danger of finding whatever you go in looking for in a book this large and dense, I notice that James O. Incandenza’s filmography (note 24) lists his production company as having gone through several name changes. The last, Poor Yorick Productions, is obviously linked to the line from Hamlet that gives us the titular Infinite Jest. The first, however is Meniscus Productions. As you may recall from high school chemistry, the “meniscus” is the curved surface of a liquid in a container—which can be either concave or convex. Note the connection here to the massive toxic zone the United States is trying to dump on Canada—an act of “experialism”—which is (oddly) referred to as the Great Concavity or the Great Convexity, depending on which side of the border one is on. Or at least, oddly at first blush: A line that appears convex described from one side will indeed be concave on the other. (A later film, Incandenza’s documentary about this region, is itself released under multiple different titles.) Perhaps more relevant in the context of filmmaking, a meniscus is a type of lens, convex on one side, concave on the other—as opposed to the more familiar ellipsoid, biconvex lens. Incandenza’s first production under this imprint utilizes “four convex mirrors,” also potentially suggesting a lemniscate shape. There’s even a connection to tennis, though more tenuous: The meniscus is also the medical name for knee cartilage often torn by athletes. The films under this imprint themselves reference optics or lenses in many cases.

I’d be less quick to ascribe significance to this if not for the whole Great Concavity/Great Convexity business, which suggests that DFW is intentionally repeating this pattern. A lemniscate, of course, is a figure that alternates between concavity and convexity. Somewhat to my surprise, the two terms—”lemniscate” and “meniscus”—despite the superficial similarity, appear to be derived from different roots: “meniscus” from the diminiutive for the Greek mene for “moon,” and “lemniscate” from Greek (with a detour through Latin) lemniskos for “ribbon.”

It occurs to me, incidentally, that DFW may have in mind here not a lemniscate but a Möbius strip—maybe one of our more mathematically schooled readers can give me the skinny here, but intuitively, since that figure has only one “side,” and therefore no real “interior” or “exterior,” it would be impossible to strictly define it as either concave or convex.  The key here being “intuitively”—it’s been a long time since I did any serious math, and quick Googling doesn’t reveal an answer. Yet another of Incandenza’s films is titled Möbius Strips, a work of “pornography parody.” The plot supposedly concerns a “theoretical physicist…who can only achieve mathematical insight during coitus,” and it’s described as a possible homage to Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film about a musical director whose self-destructive addictions are inextricably linked with his creative process, ending in an elaborately staged musical-dance number reflecting the director’s own life. The film, like the Möbius strip, blurs the distinction between “inside” and “outside”—the musical within the director’s story ends up being the frame for that story.

The second production company is Heliotrope Films. In addition to being a shade of pink, a heliotrope is a plant that exhibits heliotropism, which is to say, it moves to track the sun in its path across the sky. If its position is measured at regular intervals, the path the sun traces across the sky over the course of a year is (of course) a lemniscate. Two of the Heliotrope Films productions are infomercials or educational documentaries for Sunstrand Power & Light, involving “Annular Fusion” and “Annular Amplified Light.” As far as I can tell, DFW made up these terms, but “annular” means “ring-shaped.” So “annular fusion,” perhaps, can be read as “the fusion of ring-shapes”? One more under the Heliotrope imprint is titled The Machine in the Ghost: Annular Holography for  Fun and Prophet. A hologram is a sort of fractal itself, in that the image of the whole is contained (at lower resolution) in each part of the hologram. Also note the spelling of “prophet.” Philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” to describe Cartesian dualism—the idea of an ethereal/immaterial soul or mind embedded, somehow, in a mechanistic physical body and brain. But perhaps a mechanistic, even mathematical structure underlying a work of creative art or literature might be dubbed the “machine in the ghost”? And what sort of structure? Apparently an annular (ring-shaped) hologram (self-similar or fractal structure) which is both entertaining and “prophetic” in the sense of prefiguring what is to come, which is almost necessarily the case if the microstructure mirrors the macropattern.

black-widow Finally, there’s Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Latrodectus Mactans is the scientific name for the Black Widow spider. Conceivably this is a hint at his wife’s involvement in his supposed suicide: An early dialogue between Hal and Mario suggests that Avril does not seem outwardly all that broken up by his death—seems, indeed, somewhat relieved by it. Though given that spousal infidelity is a recurring theme in the films, it may simply be an indirect, more metaphorical sort of  accusation. Alternatively, though, there’s the spider’s characteristic dorsal marking, which looks rather lemniscate-ish, though I suppose you could argue it’s typically more of a bow-tie.

The first film under this imprint is literally concerned with poisonous spiders; several others involve some sort of femme fatale: a female “figure of death,” a pair of “lethal mythologic females” (who duel with mirrors that transfix the audience by literally turning them to stone), a “lethally beautiful woman,” a girl delinquent on a “rampage of recidivist revenge.” The stuff under the Poor Yorick imprint is much more overtly heavy on autobiographical films, though this previous theme continues with an “ecstatic encounter with Death” (again played by a woman), a “beautiful cadaver,” yet another (female) “figure of death” in a work based on a play about a female assassin… in fact, just looking quickly, the first “deadly female” we encounter under the Latrodectus Imprint is described in precisely the same language—”figure of death”—as the final instance of the archetype under the Poor Yorick imprint.  An intriguing incongruity I don’t know how to read yet: An elaborate farce called Dial C for Concupiscence is described as a parodic “tribute to Bresson’s Les Anges du Peché” [sic: should be Péché]. But in fact, the plot of the Bresson film resembles not at all the summary of Dial C, while it is actually incredibly close to the “rampage of recidivist revenge” film described earlier, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun. A weirdly precise misattribution I’m inclined to think must have some significance, but I don’t see what just yet.

I note also that the films themselves—many of them hilariously on point send-ups of art film, not a few of which sound more interesting than anything I saw on my last round through the Hirschhorn—frequently play on the idea of some kind of strange loop between art and viewer. Cage III involves two sets of viewer/performers, each transfixed by the bizarre transformations the other goes through in order that each may observe the other. One of these is described as so “grotesquely compelling” that the viewer becomes nothing but an enormous eyeball—an obvious nod to the hypnotic power of the Infinite Jest cartridge itself. There’s also the film adaptation of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade which takes the famous play-within-a-play and transforms it into a play-within-a-play-within-a-film-within-a-film. Another art piece project a distorted image of the audience on the screen, where the “antinarrative” consists of “the theater audience watching itself watch itself get the obvious ‘joke’ and become increasingly self conscious and uncomfortable and hostile.” Several other films appear to depict scenes from the book involving James and Hal. The filmography itself is littered with superscript 1s, though it’s unclear where they point. Not to any sub-footnote (those are indicated by letters)—possibly back up one level of hierarchy, to the first endnote of the series within which the filmography is contained? Somewhere else?

This seems to be emerging as a broader issue within the book: Where, in a hierarchy or tangle of nested and overlapping stories, is the reader?   Is the narrator inside or outside the story? Or, if it is structured like a Möbius strip, does the question rest on a false premise?

Postscript: In the interest, again, of setting myself up for future embarrassment: In line with the thematic and structural patterns of recursive loops and illusory boundaries between art and observer, I’m going to make a prediction. This is, of course, a real book titled Infinite Jest about a fictional, preternaturally transfixing entertainment film called Infinite Jest. If I’m anywhere near correct about what DFW is doing, it is almost structurally obligatory that the film at some point be revealed to contain a book also called Infinite Jest, though it may be obliquely referenced rather than directly named. If this pans out, I’ll take it as  a sign that I’m on to something; if it’s not, I’ll probably have to reconsider. But at this point I’d frankly be surprised if it doesn’t turn up at some point.

Post-postscript: Is it excessively macabre if, from a certain point of view, it seems like DFW’s own suicide was also structurally obligatory? You write a book called Infinite Jest about the mentally-ill creator of a work of fiction called Infinite Jest who kills himself, with the consistent theme throughout being the blurring or erasure of the boundaries between nested hierarchies of self-similar fiction. How else do you close the loop?

July 17, 2009

The Illusory Nature of Plot

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 8:54 pm

By Matthew Yglesias

Bloggers live to criticize, so I feel the tone on this blog has been pretty negative. And perhaps that reflects folks’ actual sentiments about Infinite Jest. But I, for one, would like to say that I’m really enjoying this book. And in particular I’m not at all bothered by the alleged lack (thus far) of forward momentum in the story. Presumably all decent people have already read the hilarious IO9 article that tongue-in-cheek pronounced Transformers 2: The Rise of the Fallen to be “a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot.” Well, that was just a joke. But Infinite Jest is in part the real deal.

Something that’s always bothered me as I hover around the margins of magazine journalism is the constant pressure to take facts and analysis and contort them into fairly pat narratives that fit certain conceits. Sometimes the results are brilliant, but I often feel that it’s the equivalent of movies proclaiming themselves to be “inspired by actual events.” The yarns sometimes turn out to be good ones, but they’re just that: good yarns inspired by reality rather than the best possible efforts to explain the world.

Infinite Jest is not nearly so naive as to purport to offer a ding an sich or anything (“Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar”) but it presents the unfolding of events as fragmentary, confusing, and different-looking depending on perspective. Characters, narrators, and audiences are drifting through their lives uncertain of what points are worthy of focus and of where the turning points are.

That said, I think we’re beginning to see the beginnings of the outline of a story. Inside the Enfield Tennis Academy we have Canadian expatriates (Avril Incandenzaand John Wayne), we have a working class drug dealer (Pemulis), ties to Arizona (via Orin Incandenza), and a mad filmmaker (James Incandenza). Outside we have a lot of stuff about down-and-out Boston-area addicts, Canadian separatist politics, a mysterious film cartridge, and a meeting in Arizona. What does that really add up to? Well, it’s hard to say at the moment. But the stage seems well set for these various strange to converge in Enfield.

“You Will Acquire Many Exotic New Facts”

Filed under: Uncategorized — dylanmatthews @ 3:35 am

By Dylan Matthews

That you can cop a sort of thin jittery amphetaminic buzz if you rapidly consume three Millenial Fizzies and a whole package of Oreo cookies on an empty stomach.

That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

That Nyquil is over 50 proof.

That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking.

That you don’t have to hit somebody even if you really really want to. That no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable.

To be perfectly honest, before I got to this section, which starts at page 200 and ends at 205, I was reconsidering this enterprise. I was frustrated – like I sense most of the people here were to varying degrees – by the yrstruly passage, the barely existent plot, and the more or less useless endnotes, which for efficiency’s sake I started reading in ten note chunks, thus eliminating even their purely stylistic purpose of making the reading experience more disjointed.

But those five pages were brilliant enough to keep me chugging. To some degree it’s a matter of contrast. They’re concise when Wallace is usually verbose, straightforward when he’s usually (and purposefully) elliptical, and eclectic when he’s usually maddeningly obsessive. But more meaningfully, they seem to serve as a statement of purpose. A novel composed of a thousand pages of vignettes and diversions in the service of no particular purpose may make for an interesting Dadaist exercise, but it wouldn’t exactly be worth reading. A thousand page novel with a small kernel of explicitly laid out themes whose tentacles reach widely through the rest of the anarchic, intentionally disorganized text has the potential to be quite rewarding, especially when those themes include issues (human frailty, free will and complacency, the limits and evils of intelligence) that Wallace can convey astonishingly well.

I still think that’s merely potential. But as I keep being reassured that the next few hundred pages will tie the loose ends together into a more powerful – if not more orderly – whole, the “exotic new facts” section gives me cause to believe the hype.

July 16, 2009

Comic Relief

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 3:10 pm


The Truth About Enfield

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 5:28 am

By Matthew Yglesias


Julian’s act below is tough to follow, but I’ve been meaning for a while to post on the curious case of Enfield, the setting of most of the book. As best I can tell based on four years of college in the area, Wallace is pretty scrupulously accurate with the geographical details of Greater Boston area. And sufficiently detailed that you can really pinpoint where the Enfield Tennis Academy must be—east of Boston College and abutting Commonwealth Avenue along the Green Line of the T west of Allston. Which would be, basically, where the Chestnut Hill Reservoir is in real life.

Whether or not you accept that pinpoint location of ETA, the larger point is clear enough that “Enfield” is located where in the real world the neighborhood of Brighton is. And a reference to the BPD being on the scene after Himself’s suicide further reenforces the idea that Enfield, like Brighton, is in fact a part of the City of Boston despite functioning to an extent like a separate town.

Of further interest, there used to be a real town of Enfield, MA but it’s now underwater as part of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir.

July 15, 2009

The Garden of Looping Paths

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 4:18 pm

“In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the one word you must under no circumstances use?” The question comes from Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which the narrator’s ancestor (we’re told) aspired to create an infinite labyrinth.  He ultimately constructed his labyrinth not in space but through time and narrative, writing a great sprawling novel in which many possible—and contradictory—futures coexist, converge, and splay off into variegated chaos again. The forbidden word, of course, is “chess”—making that opening question a riddle in violation of its own rule.

I bring this up because—confession time—I’m a ways behind the group here, with hopes of catching up to my page quota presently. But having been forewarned—I hope a little Googling isn’t “cheating”—that the book’s structure is significant, and constitutes some sort of fractal pattern, I’ve been trying to pay attention to that in the early part of the book. (The convenient thing about a genuine fractal pattern is that it should be apparent at the microlevel fairly quickly.) And I’ve found that I keep thinking, as I go, of that old trickster Borges—not just because I think I may glimpse the outline of a maze being built, but also because I think I keep seeing little hints at its shape in the form of conspicuous omissions. In the Borges story, the ancestor’s novel is a meditation on time that scrupulously avoids using the word “time” or its derivatives. The present-but-unnamed pattern here seems to be the ∞ symbol.

The first one to jump out at me (on page 47 of my copy) came in the first section devoted centrally to Orin, when we’re told this about his latest “Subject” or one-night-stand:

Not real bright—she thought the figure he’d trace without thinking on her bare flank after sex was the numeral 8, to give you an idea

Well, now that’s certainly an odd thing to write, isn’t it? A figure that, traced on skin, might be mistaken for a numeral 8 sounds like it’s got to be the “∞” —the infinity symbol or lemniscate. But why allude to it in this oblique way? Why the implication that of course she must be some sort of dumb bunny if she thought of an 8 instead of recognizing the “∞”? Let’s assume DFW isn’t just being peculiar for no reason, and that this oblique reference to a lemniscate in a book called Infinite Jest is supposed to make us stop and scratch our heads a bit. (Don’t be a dumb bunny, reader! Spot the lemniscate!) DFW does seem to have a thing for that symbol—in his book Everything and More about the mathematics of infinity (actually the only DFW book I owned before picking up this novel) he rather quirkily insists on using the symbol in place of the word throughout. Might there be a few other lurking lemniscates?EpitrochoidOn1

In an early footnote, we’re told that the Enfield Tennis Academy itself is in the unusual shape of a cardioid. I had to look it up too. It’s a curve resembling a heart, constructed by taking two adjacent circles in contact at a single point—rather like a lemniscate—and rotating one around the other, as shown in the graph here. We’re told that the architect of this unorthodox structure, one A.Y. Rickey, is the only guy “on the whole East Coast” who could pull it off. This same architect used to “wow Hal and Mario in Weston by taking off his vest without removing his suit jacket.” This, we’re told, is later exposed as “a cheap parlor-trick-exploitation of certain basic features of continuous functions, which revelation Hal mourned in a Santa’s-not-real type of secret way, and which Mario simply ignored, preferring to see the vest thing as plain magic.” I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see this as a winking acknowledgment that, as we begin to cotton to how the novel’s “architect” is putting it together, we can decide to regard it as a gimmick—no big deal once you see how the trick is done—or follow Mario’s example and just enjoy it. Also, note that the reason you can take a vest off without removing the coat—the “basic feature of continuous functions”—is that vest-inside and vest-outside are topologically equivalent, as all simple polygons are. Usually, the circle is considered the basic shape to which all these “genus one” shapes are equivalent. The basic shape for the next level of complexity, the “genus two” polygon, is—you guessed it—the figure-eight or lemniscate.

Flipping back still further, I found another hint of a lemniscate way back in the second section of Hal’s opening first-person narrative. Hal is recounting a second-hand anecdote, which he himself has forgotten despite playing a central role, and so relies on brother Orin’s recollection. A very young Hal has eaten some sort of weird mold—there’s a hint this may be somehow connected to his later condition—sending his mother into a panic. But Orin’s recollection “diverges at this point”:

In his first memory, the Mom’s path around the yard is a broad circle of hysteria:

God.’ she calls out.

‘Help! My son ate this!’ she yells in Orin’s second and more fleshed-out recollection, yelling it over and over, holding the speckled patch aloft in a pincer of fingers, running around and around the garden’s rectangle while O. gaped at his first real sight of adult hysteria. [...] Orin remembers noting how even in hysterical trauma her flight-lines were plumb, her footprints Native-American-straight, her turns, inside the ideogram of string, crisp and martial, crying ‘My son ate this! Help!’ and lapping me twice before the memory recedes.

Two loops joined at a point of divergence—here in time and memory rather than space—with extra care taken to draw our attention to the shape. Again, either this is a frivolous bit of embellishment dropped in for no good reason, or it’s there because it’s doing some kind of work. So let’s take as a working hypothesis that DFW wants us to have lemniscates on the brain for some reason.

Back to the structure of the narrative, then. We start with Hal’s first-person narration, which (so far—and skimming ahead a bit, it looks like this holds based on the date headings) is a classic in medias res framing device, taking place chronologically after the action that follows. At the very end of Hal’s section, we get cryptic flashes of events and characters yet to be introduced, and the inviting close “So yo then man what’s your story?” We begin at the end, which already suggests a kind of structural loop.

Of course, what immediately follows is not Hal’s story, but the introduction of a new character, Erdedy, in third-person narrative. Then we jump back in time and back to Hal and his father, with a scene that plays out exclusively through dialogue—no narrative but what the characters speak out loud to each other. Back to what appears to be the “present” of most of the book (Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment) for a very short scene framed in 3rd person, though with dialogue between Orin, Hal, and Mario. Tangent: As in the Borges story, there’s a conspicuous omission of “time” here. Orin calls and offers the first line of a Beatles song: “I want to tell you. My head is filled with things to say.” Hal’s reply is the start of line two: “I don’t mind. I could wait forever.” He leaves off the end of the line—and title of the song: “I Got Time.” (Memory FAIL. The song is called “I Want to Tell You.”) But if the reader supplies it, Orin’s reply, “That’s what you think,” suddenly feels rather more ominous. Anyway, another scene gives us another new character, again in third person, the Saudi medical attache.

Again, just as a working hypothesis, call that cycle one. The next scene change is, I think, the first time we jump year-headings without the little circular symbol that had previously accompanied those transitions. So another hint that maybe we’re supposed to regard this scene change differently than the others. We’re suddenly back in first-person again, for the first time since Hal’s opening: DFW’s frankly cringe-inducing attempt to write Black English in the voice of young Clenette. New scene, back to third-person (like the Hal-Erdedy transition) to introduce Bruce Green, Mildred Bonk, and dope dealer Tommy Doocey. (A potential symmetry: We’re meeting a dope dealer in the scene opposite desperate prospective dope-buyer Erdedy’s.) Yet again, we have a transition from third-person to a scene with two of the Incandenzas (this time Hal and Mario) told entirely through the spoken dialogue between the characters. There’s a one-sentence coda reminding us of the medical attaché, which seems to displace the usual circle-symbol between year-changes here, but then we get two more third person scenes, for Orin and then finally back to Hal. This second “cycle,” if that’s what it is, then gives way to a pair of single-paragraph codas for the attaché and Mario, followed by another time-jump, this one also missing the usual circular symbol. The end of Mario’s coda is again a bit incongruous, possibly a hint to the reader: “The reason being it’s a lot easier to fix something if you can see it.” You can imagine a narrative built not on a perfect repeating pattern, but a “broken” one, where the “solution” to the story’s puzzle requires the reader to spot the basic pattern, find the spot where the pattern “breaks” and then mentally “repair” it. Is DFW slyly telling us that’s what we’ll have to do as we read? Too soon to tell, but I’ll keep an eye out.

Now, that symmetry in narrative voice—first person, third person, dialogue, third person, third person—seems too neat to be coincidental, so I’m going to go ahead and assume he’s deliberately setting up this kind of double loop that starts and ends with Hal. The pattern of the five sections of Hal’s opening passage is actually quite similar, though it doesn’t exactly match up. The opening is straight first person. The next section is formally first person, but actually Hal is describing Orin’s recollection of an event—”Orin says he can remember…”—so there’s a sense in which it’s sort of functionally third-person: He’s narrating a scene from Orin’s memory, even though he happens to be present in it. Third section is almost entirely dialogue. And then it sort of breaks down, because the fourth (also dialogue-heavy) and fifth sections are unambiguously first-person again, though in a sort of detached way where Hal is no longer really an agent in the scene.

Anyway, it’s easy enough to build a pretty theory that works for limited data points; I throw it out now so people can see my initial thoughts before the whole thing crashes on the shoals of reality if the rest of the book doesn’t fit the model. But if I’m at least part-right about the shape DFW is constructing, it also gives us another way of reading the title: The hidden lemniscate—infinity—as the author’s little joke or trick; an “infinite jest” meaning a farce shaped like a ∞. I hope this is correct, less because I like being proven right—though there’s that—but because it’s pretty cool if that is what he’s doing and he pulls it off.

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


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.

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