Semiautobiography: Madame Psychosis and Metempsychosis
September 29, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading:Infinite Jest.
It is both true and kind of oxymoronic that this book is intensely semiautobiographical. While I mean by the “semi-” that the book is, of course, fiction, and full of made-up stuff and not a roman a clef in any way, I also mean that I get the feeling that DFW, the person (rather than the mind, the author, or the persona), is scattered throughout the book to a degree that, say, Pynchon is not in Gravity’s Rainbow or Joyce is not in Ulysses (or even Portrait, for that matter). Authors are inscribed in every word they write; people aren’t, necessarily.
(Sidebar: GR and U are the two books that consistently spring to mind for me as comparables, here. They are size- and stature- and scope- and ambition-equivalent, more or less, I think. I haven’t read Gaddis or Gass or maybe they’d be in there too. Nabokov doesn’t strike me as comparable, for some reason, while we’re playing this little parlor game. I can’t quite put my finger on why.)
I’m not getting this primarily from recent events or little cues that certain characters are obvious stand-ins for certain “real people.” And in fact, IJ has one of my favorite copyright-page notices: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.” But nevertheless, I insist: DFW, the person with the lived life, is all over this book. Which is both funny and sad, since he was always saddled with the rep of being too “cerebral” or cold or unapproachable or experimental. He poured an awful lot of himself into this book. I’d even say that’s what made the book one of the greats, ultimately: this semiautobiographical element, and not the language or structure or style alone (although, hell, they’re pretty damn good too).
I have a feeling that what I’m dancing around here is a kind of transmigration of souls. Metempsychosis. One of the most quotable and direct and self-contained sections is p. 200-205, a litany of things “you” can learn hanging around a facility like Ennet House. It’s a characterless section, leading us to believe that it’s the narrator telling us all of this. (Sidebar again: the narrator is an interesting problem in IJ, or rather an interesting lack of a problem, because I’m going to go ahead and commit a horrible lit-crit fallacy and say that DFW’s narrator is DFW, trying to tell us things DFW believes, and giving us scenes and voices that DFW thought worth paying attention to. There’s some metafictional trickery, sure, in that the narrator is wildly omniscient in some ways and extremely not in others, but it’s him. I’d swear to it. I think that DFW thought of himself as writing this book. DFW was a rhetorician of the first water, and I think that’s the conclusion he wants us to arrive at. And I happen to believe it.) But then we segue smoothly and without break into an exploration of Tiny Ewell’s obsession with other residents’ tattoos, and we’re kind of in between the narrator’s head and Tiny’s (or was it Tiny’s all along?). And then Ewell approaches Gately and we’re a bit in Gately’s head and from his perspective, too.
And but so… metempsychosis. Bookending this little passage I was just talking about are our introductions to Madame Psychosis, aka Joelle van Dyne. And the section p. 219-240, of Joelle’s preparations to commit suicide by overdose, is one of the true tour-de-force sections of the novel. The name, Madame Psychosis, is an obvious reference to metempsychosis. To DFW, that undoubtedly means Joyce, Ulysses, where the idea and the word are major motifs in the grand modernist style. (On the other hand, I suspect that “Dyne” might be an allusion to Yoyodyne, the company in Crying of Lot 49, in addition to being a unit of force.) But it’s more than homage, and part of the bloody point of this book is that there’s more to life and to fiction than creating a web of allusion and referent and ambiguity, although those are cool. He’s engaging with Joyce through this name and this idea, but there’s more. I think he’s making a kind of argument about the nature of literature: that what it is, in a way, is a transmigration of souls, from an author to a character to a reader. And I think he’s also indicating one of his primary methods — his own personal soul, flitting from voice to voice, perspective to perspective, unlike Joyce’s use of the term to allude to the constant reenactment and reembodiment of archetype in modern times — and through that method two of his primary concerns. And those are empathy, and heredity. Less-sexy varieties of transmigration of souls.
I mean, this is one of the best books about sports ever written, and it reeks of lived experience. It’s horribly authentic on depression and drug abuse and grad school. (Yes, they seem to belong together.) It’s got grammar riots and cast-off scenes of peoples’ interactions with entertainment. Hal and Joelle and Don and others: you can see glimpses of DFW’s life and his experience in them. But of course I doubt DFW ever killed a Quebecois terrorist in a botched robbery; I think he could feel what it would feel like to be that desperate, though. That’s where empathy comes in. I also doubt his father or grandfather ever took his son out and treated him to an excruciating drunken self-involved monologue, exactly. That’s where heredity comes in.
And I haven’t even mentioned death, which is kind of central to the whole thing. We’ll talk about this later, eh?