A Supposedly Fun Blog

August 17, 2009

Expectation and Ecstasy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dayo Olopade @ 3:44 pm

by Dayo Olopade

Ezra, I have to disagree strongly with you about the book not being as fun as you supposed. Yes, this is a subjective designation, but the disappointment you express seems to come as a result of the supposing, not the text. I say that not because I’m eating it up, for the sheer procedural enjoyment (as opposed to an ends-based enjoyment). But because it’s critical to the project of the book to note that we can be—as perhaps was DFW—exquisitely hampered by expectations, or rather, the belief not strictly that a work of art is great but that a culture has collectively decided that such work is “great,” or a person “beautiful,” or an idea “novel.” (Indeed, college friends and I spent hours playing an enchanting game we called ‘overrated,’ wherein things like California rolls and NASA were put in their place.) This is the reason for which people read Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Middlemarch, or the Bible, for that matter–however excellent or awful each text may be.

What is so ironic about your difficulty in enjoying Wallace’s “paper brick” is how it intersects with the metaphysical play involved in the book’s thematic and narrative construction. We want to read Infinite Jest not just because the book was well-received—that came long after Wallace came up with its conceit—but because Infinite Jest and the world it describes is obsessed with value-claims in entertainment.

This obsession takes several forms, most notably James O. Incandenza’s own hilarious and gleeful tweaking of academic convention and the “après garde“. But if you’ve gotten to the parts of IJ that dwell, with ever greater specificity, on “the entertainment,” the last work of the Mad Stork, for which Walllace’s book is named, you’ll note that its power to destroy lives is linked equally to its aesthetic merits and its unexpectedness. Gradually, the subject matter of the movie, its basic act and actors and narrative trajectory, come into focus. But within the novel, its power comes from it being unexpected—a mythology due in no small part to the tales in which guileless test subjects and unwitting governmental monitors turn a corner, spy the samzidat, and are reduced to diapered audiovisual addiction in an instant. For these poor souls, there is no expectation, only ecstasy.

Of course, as the cartridge gains a certain notoriety (and as the plot of IJ increasingly centers on the canuck quest to find this cartridge), the reader likewise grasps for signs of what could possibly be so awesome about the object—is it mental porn? Aural opium? A transubstantiated sex act? No matter what it is, its relationship to readers is markedly different from that of the characters in the novel itself, who are quite blissfully unaware of the serious Medusan entertainment powers they are starting to fuck with.

And while “Infinite Jest” the movie necessarily must be orders of magnitude more compelling and enjoyable than Infinite Jest the book—the latter’s brilliant play on expectation rather requires the reader to dream on, imagining the idea of entertainment so beautiful and bizarre as to justify meandering through pages and pages of text and footnotes that are painfully (I think wonderfully) oblique to that entertainment. In other words, the book is all expectation, and—sorry for you—very little ecstasy.


  1. Just too long without comment.

    Well said.

    Comment by John O — August 19, 2009 @ 1:30 am | Reply

  2. I have to agree with Dayo. But there are a couple of points I would add — I found that a lot of the “fun” of Infinite Jest was how insightful and right he got the the whole psychic construct of addiction. The descriptions of Boston AA meetings, the atmosphere of the halfway/rehab facility, the desperation to get well. The mother screwing around with teenage tennis player. Addictions are garbage cans…once one is closed another opens.

    The other point I would add was that finishing the “brick” became an addiction in and of itself and added to the construct. I thoroughly enjoyed this masterpiece like few others.

    Comment by Evan Blank — August 19, 2009 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

  3. “The other point I would add was that finishing the “brick” became an addiction in and of itself and added to the construct.”

    I think this is a very important point. The book has a cyclical structure: its beginning takes place chronologically after its ending, so there is a structurally built-in temptation to go right back to the beginning and start reading again (ok, quit groaning), to find out more about ‘what happens’. Cf. the obsessive repeated viewing of the Entertainment by its victims. I suspect DFW consciously wanted IJ the book to be a kind of real-world instantiation of IJ the fictional Entertainment. Making the point that we seek that kind of addictive quality in our entertainment.

    I know I got addicted to, not reading it sequentially over and over, but picking it up and rereading chunks of it, for a long time after I finished it front-to-back.

    Comment by jmb — August 23, 2009 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

  4. […] A Supposedly Fun Blog: Expectation and Ecstasy […]

    Pingback by Infinite Summer » Blog Archive » Roundup — August 25, 2009 @ 3:45 am | Reply

  5. I feel the same way, almost creepily, jmb. And I’m beginning to think DFW outsmarted all of us again by getting out when he did.

    I have this vague and inarticulate thought racing around in my head that we have reached a kind of a mountaintop in terms of the power of the Televisual Medium (see also E Unibus Pluram) over its audience. People shouting “Hitler!” at Obama and his policies; bringing guns to political events, believing government=bad with no further contemplation, et al, ad nauseam.

    I “watch” (! But have also met the man in a very intimate setting long before he became POTUS) Obama and see a pretty nice, intelligent, natural consensus builder with a lovely wife and two so far pretty normal and lovely little kids, who (Pres. Obama) honestly and sincerely believes that the government is not the answer to every problem we face; a man whose been around the block a little in terms of not having a whole lot to live on for many of his formative years and playing around on the edges of a Road Poorly Chosen in his misspent youth. Who plays basketball with some degree of seriousness. IOW, a guy I can relate to pretty well.

    And 30% of this country sees him entirely differently, based almost exclusively on which televisual medium-channel they “see” him through, adding the caveat that there are some conservatives who more or less feel the same way. But the lunatics are running the agenda-asylum, I don’t think that is worth debating. And these people think what their own eyes are telling them just CAN’T be as valid as what Sean and Rush are telling them.

    TV won.

    Comment by John O — August 26, 2009 @ 12:24 am | Reply

    • Arghh.

      A couple of clarifications:

      We haven’t reached a “mountaintop,” we’ve reached a plateau. As Wallace said, and I’m paraphrasing, just wait until you can hook yourself up to your TV and have [insert person of choice here] blow/eat you.

      Some Republicans are smart enough to know that the nutjobs are just that. Some Republicans see it like I do. No, there are not many left of any significance.


      Comment by John O — August 26, 2009 @ 12:38 am | Reply

  6. So the bloggers have given up, eh?

    Comment by Criminally Bulgur — September 1, 2009 @ 12:24 am | Reply

  7. Seriously, is not even one of you guys going to finish this thing?

    Comment by jmb — September 2, 2009 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

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    Comment by Watch From Paris with Love Online — August 21, 2010 @ 12:31 am | Reply

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