October 26, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Today’s subject: confluence, anti-confluence, paranoia, structure, and accident.
I’ve talked about the structure of the novel before, but of course I left out a couple of things. For instance, I haven’t even addressed the weird fractal theory, in which every chapter is supposed to replicate the structure of the entire book (and I see this in some chapters, and miss it in others; there does seem to be a pattern in which a chapter, just like the book as a whole, opens at a disorienting end and then works backward to fill in the details, although this isn’t all that unusual, really). But what I’ve been thinking most about, nearing the end of the book, is J.O. Incandenza’s concept of “anti-confluential” cinema, and how this reflects on IJ. Is this an anti-confluential book? A confluential one? Both or neither?
This ties in with the theme of paranoia, and two of DFW’s great literary father-ghosts: Pynchon and DeLillo. Pynchon, especially, was a master at ambiguous paranoia: are the characters right to be paranoid? Are you, as a reader, right to be paranoid, making connections from your privileged perspective? Or does Pynchon write “about” paranoia, as a phenomenon, gazing coolly at it as from a distance? However this finally came out in your mind, you couldn’t deny that Pynchon and DeLillo are both masters at tweaking their works to show the connections between things, the systems governing our lives, the ways that it was impossible not to see forces at work, pulling strings. White Noise is especially concerned with the confluence, with how things are connected.
The Higher Power in IJ is an AA term, typically meaning God or another supernatural force. DFW is very serious about this in subtle and powerful ways. Thinking about literary lineages, it’s not hard to see that the “higher power” in Pynchon is typically government, bureaucracy, sinister forces of destruction. The higher supernatural powers are usually wildly marginalized and powerless, forgotten or neglected. (See the Yuroks’ woge, in Vineland.) This is somehow emblematic of the differences between them, I think.
I digress. Conspiracy and skullduggery play a big part in IJ too, of course. But the book also jokes with its conspiratorial figures, inserting inconvenient accidents of circumstance and timing that fit the book’s narrative, but not the conspirators’. Somehow, I think DFW was trying to write a book in which it was apparent that human efforts to control could only go so far, and human efforts to interpret would always remain incomplete. Somehow both confluence and anti-confluence contribute to his thesis.
Example: the most obvious, Gately’s botched burglary, killing “the anti-O.N.A.N. organizer” DuPlessis. This event becomes the focus of immense conspiratorial and governmental scrutiny. It is, to those who knew who DuPlessis was, obviously an intentional message of some sort, or at least done for a reason connected to them: to find the tape of “the Entertainment,” to snuff the French-Canadian terrorist offensive. But this event, so badly misinterpreted, was an accident. There was no guiding hand here at all. Gately and his partner fucked up. DuPlessis was home when they didn’t think he was. These events — Gately’s robbery, the search for Infinite Jest — were not connected. Anti-confluential. (But then… wait… Joelle Van Dyne, star of the lethal entertainment, comes to Ennet House. And so does Remy Marathe, looking for Joelle…)
And then there’s Mike Pemulis. We learn Pemulis’s fate in two somehow heartbreaking footnotes (and I’m still trying to figure out why these sections are footnotes, exactly, and not just regular sections of text, because they footnote nothing but gaps in the text). Pemulis is the one with the poster of the troubled king with the tagline that is the title of this post. He’s a street kid, gets in trouble, and the major drug source at E.T.A. And he always covers his ass, and he is extremely paranoid, and lives in fear of getting kicked out in his last year when he’s so close to getting away from his horrible family and neighborhood and life for good. But then he is kicked out, and it is because his roommate, Jim Troeltsch, kept some (stolen) amphetamines in a bottle labeled as anti-histamine tablets, one of which John Wayne takes, leading to horrible embarrassment for just about every official at E.T.A. in one of the book’s funniest scenes. And, Pemulis thinks, Troeltsch ratted on him to save his own hide. There was some kind of conspiracy to get the kid out of E.T.A. — Avril, Hal’s mom, hates Pemulis, and so do the other administrators, it would seem — but they got him for something he didn’t even do.
But DFW also pulls strings throughout the book, bringing people and events together: Hal seeing Kevin Bain at the horrible “Inner Infant” meeting; Avril and her Quebecois cronies; the purse-snatchings of Lenz and Krause, the meeting of Kate Gompert and Remy Marathe. Read that poster-tagline again, in its original all-caps: “YES, I’M PARANOID — BUT AM I PARANOID ENOUGH?” I think DFW saw this as the crucial problem with postmodern literature, and with postmodern readers, and with postmodern thinkers (which is pretty much our culture, and not some kind of hyper-elite subgroup, at least in my opinion): always believing there to be another motive behind the surface, always another layer of secrecy. And, importantly, always a conspiracy pointed right at you, the king of your universe. And a seemingly transparent pose about it all: who could really be so cripplingly paranoid who had a poster advertising his paranoia on his wall?
Strange to say about such a complex book, but I think DFW was trying to help us all find our way back into some kind of honest relationship with literature and ourselves. The footnotes, the complicated narration, the complete or over-complete disclosure and the lack of knowledge in other areas: it is about showing that there are no tricks here, nothing up his sleeves. He was trying to write a book for adults, about being an adult, part of which is letting your guard down once in a while and engaging. DFW tried to let us know exactly as much about what happens to these characters as he knew, I think.
October 20, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Remember The Raw Shark Texts, that book I told you to read a couple of months ago? Well, here’s a strand of its source code.
Other than that, I don’t really feel like saying much about this; I’d forgotten about its existence; it is very sad and terrible and scary in a number of ways, but reading it also felt strangely therapeutic. Some small measure of explanation, perhaps, or at least my assumption thereof. (And it is my assumption; this section is from Kate Gompert’s point-of-view, mostly.) But it felt like DFW telling me how it was, I guess, and horrible as it is I was glad to hear it from him. I hope it did him good, and I think it helps us understand how maybe he hung on for longer than he thought he could.
Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instread of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed…. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one….
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 695-6
October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)? It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them. Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer. (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads. Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )
So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia). But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:
164. Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.
Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.” He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.
“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.” Well, yes. That’s a very large part of this book. The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that. This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works. And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better. And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)
So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen. But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself. Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image. We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained. We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want. We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously. We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.
And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people. (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.) Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court. Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.
October 4, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Here’s a deep thought: IJ is not a perfect book. While I doubt DFW would have described it as a piece of speculative fiction without prompting, it nevertheless is that, among many other things: it posits a future, it speculates on what might be in store. Its main action is probably set right about now, or maybe a few more years down the road, if you want to get specific about it (which really is beside the point). And as a speculation on technology, it’s not actually very good.
12 (12!) years down the road, it’s easy to see how many anachronisms the book contains. All of these “cartridges,” CD-ROMs, even the now utterly obsolete 3″ floppies which were becoming obsolete even as the book was published: these are superficial anachronisms, but nevertheless jarring in realizing how we live in the future now: we’ve outstripped expectations for our technological dependence, and also changed the nature of our addiction to “entertainment” in interesting and unforeseeable ways. I’m thinking here YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, the already-kind-of-obsolete personal blog, the whole constellation of 2.0 “infotainment” and exhibitionism that an awful lot of people use the Internet for, and which is more or less absent from IJ’s Subsidized Time of the future: people are still watching movies, TV, playing CD-ROM games. (Of course we in the now still do those things, and still will; point is we do an awful lot more, as well, without really decreasing our consumption of any of the other entertainments we were already abusing.) I’m guessing DFW wrote much of IJ in the early ’90s, perhaps even late ’80s. It was probably impossible to anticipate how much the Internet would change things.
The best section on technology in the book is the classic videophone discussion. It’s brilliant on “a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.” To recap, it explains that videophones went through a vogue when first introduced, but people realized they couldn’t do all the distracted, self-involved things they do when talking on the phone if they’re on a videophone. So products were developed to help them use these expensive devices without actually using them: filters, fake backdrops and masks and “Transmittable Tableaus” that let the videophoners show whatever “heavily doctored” image of themselves they want to present, until this fad too faded and people just pretty much went back to using audio-only phones and all their paraphernalia for transmitting doctored images of themselves were thrown away or gathered dust, except among the gauche or lower-class who still use them. (It’s much better to read it yourself: p. 144-51.) What’s ingenious about this, I think, is the way it highlights (wittily and succinctly, I might add) the issues of power and control at the heart of most communications-based technology. What interactive “Web 2.0” sites focused on personal interaction and communication (including, of course, this here personal blog) allow you to do is construct a “heavily doctored” image of yourself, a view of yourself to present to the world without really presenting yourself to the world, in, you know, synchronous, face-to-face, interpersonal interaction. A dance of veils, more or less. The technology itself is not inherently narcissistic, which seems to be a fallacy many of us fall into. That just happens to be how it’s been applied. (This isn’t just 2.0 stuff, of course: you can make the same argument about e-mail.)
The worst section on technology in the book is the game of Eschaton. I may have dreamed this, and I’m too lazy to look it up now, but I seem to remember DFW saying in some interview that Eschaton was a relic, kind of a self-contained short story, one of the earliest things he wrote that ended up in the book. That’s how it feels, now: honest to God, he has Otis P. Lord running around on the tennis courts with a “color monitor” laptop hooked up to a more powerful computer by a giant extension cord and 200-something 3″ floppies to process the complicated computations required by Eschaton. It’s like WarGames, for Chrissake. Someone get the Lord a wireless connection, a battery, and a laptop built after 1995.
Despite all that: how I do love the Eschaton. It’s hilarious slapstick, it’s philosophically and metaphysically complex, it’s a crash course in game theory or maybe why game theory isn’t the answer to everything. (As a super-nerd side note: it’s also one of the most deliberately metafictional portions of the book, with this strange interplay between the text and the footnotes raising the question of whether Pemulis or Hal is narrating, or whether the nameless narrator is simply ventriloquizing Pemulis/Hal.) It’s an interesting question what DFW was, exactly, trying to do with the Eschaton. Partly I think it was simply a lot of fun: DFW clearly loved the math involved, the geometry, the vectors, and once Ingersoll hits Kittenplan with that ball to the back of the head there’s sustained comic chaos worthy of the Marx Bros, at least until things turn seriously Lord-of-the-Flies and Lord ends up with his face through a monitor. (Too much fun, as always.) Partly there’s the satiric intent of showing how much “fun” apocalyptic scenarios can be, how seriously these 12-to-15-year-olds take the entertainment of their abstracted ends, how easy it is for them to accept scenarios leading to nuclear holocaust. (I love the treatment of historic consciousness here, how Canadian extremists so often factor into their explicitly nostalgic Cold War scenarios. We have this way of filtering our present through our past, like now, as we’re reenvisioning former backwaters and bit players like Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism as central to our current situation and driving forces in recent history.) And partly there’s some big-time Pynchon/DeLillo influence here, in the metaphysical concerns underpinning these endgame scenarios, in the aptly named Otis P. Lord and his total lack of control when irrational human beings start acting irrationally and his spinning beanie of doom. Most of all, in the giggling horror of “going SACPOP”: Strikes Against Civilian Populations as a strategy in a game, a way of winning or of preventing someone else from winning. This may have seemed a historical concern in 1996, and DFW framing this Cold War section as a kid’s game does seem like a kind of time capsule of 1996, with its sense of post-historicity and global exhale and smaller-scale conflict. Nevertheless, he kept this section for a reason: the warheads hang around, and even if they didn’t, the knowledge does, and the desire. (This, of course, is why DeLillo remains vital and not a kind of Cold War cultural artifact.) DFW’s inclusion of terrorist scenarios proved, obviously, adept, and the cataloging of scenarios used in past and potential Eschatons points out all the dangers that still existed, that were still horribly frightening and imaginable and variable, in that far-away-future year of 1996.