Yes, I’m Paranoid — But Am I Paranoid Enough?
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.