The Wraith

November 2, 2008 § 6 Comments

Just finished: Infinite Jest.

Reading next: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

It’s one of the most audacious gambits in American fiction, period.  It makes perfect sense for its narrative and yet it seems a colossal singularity.  In complicated ways it recalls both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and the “Circe” episode of Ulysses.  Somehow (how?!) I’d forgotten it was coming and then, as I read it, the feeling of reading it the first time rushed back to me: that feeling of being torn between belief and skepticism, at the appearance of James Incandenza’s “wraith” to agonized, incapacitated, feverish Don Gately.

There’s no doubt, really, that this actually happens: James Incandenza appears to Don Gately, even bringing Lyle or his disembodied spirit with him at one point.  If it’s a product of Don’s fever, it’s a vision, not a dream or figment.  The wraith corresponds exactly to James O.’s characteristics, which Don would have no way of knowing, even though Don’s seen some of his films (unwittingly) and has other weird tangential relationships with the Incandenzas (getting us back to that confluential/anti-confluential discussion).

The word itself, “wraith,” is important here, since DFW uses it pretty much exclusively.  Hal’s beloved OED is less than helpful, but interesting.  The first definition is the simple “apparition or spectre of a dead person…”  The second is somewhat confusing: “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being, freq. regarded as portending that person’s death; a fetch.”  But what Hal would likely be most interested in is the utter lack of etymological information: “Of obscure origin.”  The earliest uses are from 1513, in a translation of the Aeneid into “Middle Scots” by one Gavin Douglas.  And a 1691 reference also refers to the use of the word among “low-countrey Scotts.”  Just as the appearance of the wraith is inescapably creepy and weird and outside of the already very weird (but differently weird) world of this book, so the lack of etymological information on the origins of the word itself would strike Hal, I suspect, as equally creepy and unsettling.

Hal is the key here, because the only reason I can see for JOI’s wraith to appear to Don is to plant a dream in Don’s feverish mind of helping Hal unearth his (JOI’s) corpse.  The wraith explains to Don that it takes enormous effort for him to appear to Don: “Wraiths by and large exist (putting his arms out slowly and making little quotation-mark finger-wiggles as he said exist) in a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage.”  Therefore, the wraith has to stand still for extremely long periods of time to appear at all to Don (who seems to be able to see the wraith at all just because of his feverish dream-fugue state; and all of this seems creepily reminiscent of the way that Hal moves in jerky and frightening ways at the beginning of the book, so deep inside his own head that he’s something of a wraith).

Basically, as Don summarizes: “death was just everything outside you getting really slow.”  JOI’s wraith then does this scary kind of whirl into Don’s brain, where he can plant thoughts and vocabulary Don would never use and basically make things even more confusing for poor fever-addled Demerol-tempted Don.  So he plants a dream, very similar to the brief mention of Gately all the way back in the very first section of the book, with Hal thinking (remembering?) as he’s strapped down during his apparent seizure in November of the Year of Glad (a year after the action of the rest of the book), “I think of John N. R. Wayne, who would have won this year’s WhataBurger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father’s head.”

It strikes me that JOI’s wraith could function as a metaphor for the authorial perspective of the book, a figure outside of the world diving in and out of heads and planting thoughts in the voices of the characters themselves, if we want to get metafictional about it.  Less metaphorically, could be JOI is our narrator.  Even less metaphorically, but on rather more destabilizingly metaphysical ground, could be that JOI’s wraith is somehow behind the movement of Stice’s bed (last seen somehow hanging from his room’s ceiling), the strange movement of other objects around E.T.A., and even the disappearance of Pemulis’s DMZ from its hiding place, acting as a kind of deus ex machina, although much more confusing and ambiguous in intent and execution.  Could be that he also plants that thought of Wayne and Gately and digging up his body in Hal’s mind: that it hasn’t, in fact, happened yet, that Hal and Don haven’t met yet, and that JOI is still trying to get them together.

It’s hard to close the circle of this book.  Things seem to be coming to so much of a head, as the Y.D.A.U. action of the book winds up, that it’s hard to imagine them getting to the point they’re at a whole year later, with Hal still playing tennis (apparently very well, still, since he’s in the semis of the WhataBurger) but apparently non-communicative for the entire year.  The thought of Gately gives us hope that he survived, although he seems so very close to death at the end (although the cooling sensation of being on the beach in the “freezing sand” in the very last line could be a clue to his being given an ice bath, maybe, to relieve his horrible fever in the hospital, or perhaps just the fever’s breaking).  One way to look at it might be that the wraith of JOI thinks that Don may be able to help Hal, to get through to him and help him both with his marijuana problem and with the apparent danger he’s in from the Quebecois separatists.

Beyond all that, though, is DFW’s amazing insistence on the wraith’s appearance.  We go on.  The wraith is undeniably James O. Incandenza, not just some facsimile or hologram or apparition thereof.  He’s got the man’s characteristics, memories, annoying and inspiring quirks.  I suppose what it is, is an insistence on the human soul, warts and all, and on the possibility of infinity.

The Bifurcation of the Parabola

October 12, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

A couple of links, first, to pieces you’ve probably already read but that I’ve just been enjoying, both courtesy the Howling Fantods “IJ Theses” page.  One is this excellent examination of DFW’s first draft by Steven Moore, a friend of his during his Illinois years.  What it really does is makes me want to see the first draft for myself, but Moore’s notes are nevertheless immensely interesting.

The other is Chris Hager’s undergraduate thesis on IJ, which is embarrassing, given the general quality of my undergrad papers.  I found especially interesting the section on the structure of IJ (it’s the section that starts with the quote about the difference between art and drugs).  Hager posits that the book forms a parabola, a la Gravity’s Rainbow, with the book swooping down into narrative and then slowly coming back up to take us out of the book.  Furthermore, the brutal broomstick-impaling of Lucien Antitoi at the book’s (more or less exact) halfway point bisects the parabola.

The Antitoi murder is a remarkable piece of writing in a number of ways.  It certainly does appear to be a kind of exceptional passage in the book, both in its position and in its execution.  We get to the Antitoi Entertainment shop by following Gately on one of his joyrides in Pat Montesian’s Aventura (which is very black, very fast, and very sleek, and seems a direct allusion to the Imipolex G Schwarzgerät — “black device” — in GR).  What’s remarkable here is how we leave Gately, midsentence, post-semicolon: “and one piece of the debris Gately’s raised and set spinning behind him, a thick flattened M.F. cup, caught by a sudden gust as it falls, twirling, is caught at some aerodyne’s angle and blown spinning all the way to the storefront of one ‘Antitoi Entertainment’…”  And suddenly we’re learning about the Antitoi brothers.  That’s a cinematic segue rather unlike anything else in the book, and a very unusual move by this narrator, if the book can be said to have one consistent narrator.

So the wheelchair assassins come for the tape of Infinite Jest which the Antitois have unwittingly stumbled upon, and Lucien is impaled.  (We learn via footnote that “To hear the squeak” is “the very darkest of contemporary Canada’s euphemisms for sudden and violent de-mapping,” thanks to the squeaks of the assassins’ wheelchairs.  Incidentally, just a couple of pages later, we get the awful story of James I. and his father trying to fix a squeak in a bed, the father keeling over in his own vomit, perhaps dead — the parabola has started its ascent.)  And but so after the horrible murder takes place — and it is horrible — we are told that Lucien “sees snow on the round hills of his native Gaspé, pretty curls of smoke from chimneys, his mother’s linen apron…”  And that when he finally dies, impaled, he “sheds his body’s suit” and escapes, whole, and soars north, toward home.

Remarkable.  The pole at the center of this book is death and a rather startling, unexpected declaration of rebirth.  It is awful and disgusting and horribly symbolic (impaled on a broomstick, like the O.N.A.N. of the book, created by an obsession with cleanliness), and then, suddenly, beautiful, lovely, sincere.  Lucien is an innocent, very like Mario, and DFW seems to have nothing but affection for both of these characters.  (There’s a telling passage on p. 517 in which Mario’s sympathetic view of Charles Tavis is contrasted with Hal’s view, which tends to focus on Tavis’s effect on him, Hal.)  In the escape of Lucien from his agonizing death, there’s this sense of the undoing of the horror of Gravity’s Rainbow: no longer strapped into a horrible body-suit plunging toward death, but “shed” of it, hurtling home, out of death.  It’s an escape, or an attempted escape, from the irony and stricture and coldness of metafiction, through metafiction.  There’s something remarkable, too, in the way Lucien’s spirit is “catapulted,” like the trash of the U.S., and in the way it “sound[s] a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.”  I am not sure I know what this means, I am not sure why the call is “nearly maternal.”  Gorgeous phrase, though.

In a lot of ways, this is as much of an ending and beginning as the book has.  For, although it’s a bifurcated parabola, the book must also be annular, a ring, a circle.  The book dances around its center — what happens to Hal, what happens to Gately.  Those two are the head and heart, respectively, of the work.  (I’m noticing on this reading just how many of the footnotes occur in Hal’s sections.  It’s disproportionate, let’s put it that way.  Can’t stop thinking, that Hal.)

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments

Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.

While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.

The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.

He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.

Tear Off Your Own Head

August 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me.

Tear off your own head

Tear off your own head

It’s a doll revolution

-Elvis Costello

This is not an advice column, but I’m going to go ahead and give some anyway: you probably don’t need to read this book. But if you’re interested in Pynchon, you might want to take a look at his introduction sometime. (Mine is a 1983 Penguin paperback, which I believe is the first with the intro.) It’s surprisingly heavy on the personal detail, rather tellingly uninterested in much of the book itself, and seems to have been written while Pynchon was writing or at least planning Vineland, since the phrase “karmic adjustment” pops up.

But there are some interesting things in the book — it’s overstuffed, is all, and rather pompous — including its use of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the description of an artwork in a medium different than that artwork (although it’s often used for descriptions of books within books, too): in this case, there’s the use of jazz rhythms and descriptions of other music, but there are also paintings. I tend to be a sucker for this in literature: it’s one of the things I love Paul Auster for (the movies were the best part of The Book of Illusions, for instance). The most important painting here is kept rather cryptic, but in a useful way. And it strikes a strange chord (to engage in ekphrastic metaphor) with the Elvis Costello song quoted above.

It’s a mural-sized canvas by Calvin Blacknesse, Gnossos’s friend, advisor, and guru. Blacknesse is, apparently, a figurative painter, rather out of step with the art-world trends of his time, even anachronistic, I should think (although there may be a hint of early psychedelia, here). His canvases appear to be heavy on symbolism and mythological imagery. When we first meet him, he’s painting “the dark goddess.” Here’s our first brief description of the painting most important to Gnossos: “That one with the tapestry look, a beheading. Must have it sometime.” Gnossos then goes on a very bad mescaline trip in the Blacknesses’ house, and is terrified of the painting. “No, I saw him,” he says of the figure in the painting. “He cut his head off. All by himself.” (This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, the tripping Gnossos fleeing to the bathroom to hide all the razor blades to protect the family from themselves.)

Nevertheless, he takes the canvas and installs it over the mantel in his room. Like a lot of ekphrastic devices, it serves, I think, as a kind of compact allegory of the character with which it’s identified. Gnossos is, indeed, on a mission to tear off his own head, it would seem: his quest to receive a vision, to get out of his own skin, to remain “Exempt”: from death, societal convention, and ordinary consciousness. In another funny touch, the canvas nearly falls on him when the spurned Pamela attacks him with a knife: “the nearly decapitated profile rushed at his own.” Funny picture, a man in profile presumably with a knife cut through most of his throat, with the medieval look of a tapestry.

Some more lines from “Tear Off Your Own Head”:

What’s that sound?

It will turn you around

It’s a doll revolution

They’re taking it over

And they’re tearing it down

It’s a doll revolution…

(Costello wrote this to be recorded by the Bangles, I’m told, and they did so, after his version was released. It’s a very sixties song, for a very sixties-sounding group.)  At the end of this book that’s exactly what’s happening: Alonso Oeuf, Gnossos’s nemesis, has successfully led a coup of the university administration with a demonstration of thousands of students who will do pretty much whatever they’re told. A doll revolution.  I suspect it’s supposed to be read as a microcosm of the university unrest of so much of the sixties, with both its good elements (increased academic freedom, decreased repressive sexual regulations) and its ugly (wankers who play at being revolutionaries following the mob’s every whim).

Gnossos has an ambivalent relationship with the real: he wants the mystical “real,” as his name implies, the layers of reality behind the mundane. But he’s terrified when a vision does strike — it happens to be a death-vision, unpredictable as visions tend to be — and when real death occurs, he’s rather unprepared for it. He’s a kid, and an unlikeable one at that. Anyone who says “Oh, Thanatos baby, kiss my wicked tongue” as he threatens to jump off the side of a boat for a lost love is not terribly likeable, or prepared for the reality of death.

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