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.

Mario Incandenza’s James Incandenza’s O.N.A.N.tiad

October 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Since my first reading lo those many years ago, I had forgotten, more or less completely, about Mario Incandenza.  Which is sad, since Mario is such a lovely, strange, mysterious character.  (Also, in a completely inappropriate way, he reminds me of Buster Bluth, from Arrested Development, both in his childlike nature and in his uncertain parentage: whenever it’s mentioned that Mario might be Charles Tavis’s son, I start hearing that soap-opera music they used for Uncle Oscar’s heavy-handed hints about Buster.)

Mario had a premature and very weird birth after Avril’s “hidden pregnancy.”  It sounds like nothing so much as the baby in Eraserhead.  Now he’s bradykinetic (slow of movement and response) and has shriveled S-shaped arms and can’t stand upright.  Allusions are made to robots, spiders, the mentally retarded, and homunculi, when it comes to Mario, but none really apply for anything but physical appearance.  He also seems to be utterly without irony, ulterior motive, or disturbing doubts about his family, unlike everyone else in said family.  He loves Madame Psychosis’s radio show for reasons he can’t explain and is more or less traumatized when she goes off the air (as a result of her overdose/suicide attempt).  He was extremely close to James “The Mad Stork” Incandenza, his father(?), and helped on his films.

In fact, he created a parody/homage to one of those films: The O.N.A.N.tiad, described in the note 24 filmography as an “Oblique, obsessive, and not very funny claymation love triangle played out against live-acted backdrop of the inception of North American Interdependence and Continental Reconfiguration.”  (Here’s what appears to be a simple error: the JOI original is listed as 76 minutes in the filmography but said to be four hours long in the text.)  It’s “anti-confluential,” meaning it resists the trend to tie all the threads of its narrative together in a nice little package, a school of filmmaking JOI helped to create.  (Presumably in reaction against Magnolia, or Crash, or another look-how-we’re-all-connected-and-depend-on-each-other film of 1996’s future.)  On Interdependence Day (Nov. 8th) every year, when the continent “celebrates” the creation of the Organization of North American Nations, the E.T.A. students and staff watch Mario’s version, made in a broom closet with puppets.  We get DFW’s (or Hal’s?) ekphrastic description of it.

In this way we get a lot of the complicated geopolitical background and exposition for the novel.  And part of the point here is how mediated this exposition/background is: we’re watching a homage of a parody of world events which were really, it would seem, much less important to JOI than the affair he thought Rod “the God” Tine was having with French-Canadian operative Luria P., which served as a kind of allegory of the affairs he thought his wife was having with French-Canadian operatives more or less all the time (and perhaps accurately).  There’s an interesting comment that “somebody else in the Incandenza family had at least an amanuentic hand in the screenplay.”  Who?  Avril?  Hal?

(Sidebar: there have apparently been theories floating around about Avril’s “amanuentic hand” being more or less all over this book, and it’s true: she seems to be lurking everywhere, especially in the French-Canadian separatist shenanigans.  Lots of little intimations in the footnotes, here.  And it does make you wonder about that head in the microwave…)

And through this filmed puppet-show we meet “Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner,” leader of the Clean U.S. Party, surprise winner of the U.S. election, utter obsessive about hygiene and cleanliness, possibly a real-life puppet for Rod “the God” Tine, head of the Office of Unspecified Services.  (This possibility, emphasized in Mario’s remake, is downplayed by the narrator, which is interesting.)  The Johnny Gentle/Rod Tine relationship, and the whole “experialist” Gentle presidency, is more or less uncomfortably familiar, after eight years of Bush/Cheney.  Experialism could be construed as just being the opposite of imperialism, in that it involves forcing other countries to take your land, but there’s really a much more complicated relationship between the two concepts, experialism really meaning something more like exploiting the danger of your enormous and even obvious power to do whatever you want with parcels of land that you’ve “generously” “given” to other countries who you railroad into being or at least publicly acting like your allies.  It involves finding an “external Menace to hate and fear,” even if it’s just something you’ve made up, or that was made up or impotent but that you’ve actually made real and potent through either your bungling or your Machiavellian scheming.  (See: Quebecois terrorist groups.)  Hell, I’m sure there are whole dissertations in the works about DFW’s experialism and its Bakhtinian implications or whatnot.

The best part of the movie, by the sound of it, is the newspaper-headline interludes, flashing us through swaths of history a la old movies and (more commonly) homages to old movies.  DFW creates this great mini-narrative, in the narrator’s ekphrastic descriptions of the headlines, about a “Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner” who writes incredibly long run-on headlines that are basically articles in themselves, and we follow this meth-addict headline-writer from his gig at a major newspaper to smaller and smaller towns where he continues to be unable to kick either his meth or logorrhea habit.  (And, of course, a self-reflexive joke on his own run-ons and stylistic quirks, since the headlines are more or less quintessential DFW-style headlines.)

I actually wouldn’t be too surprised if someone did make this movie, someday.  I’d watch it, even if it was “openly jejune.”

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