Patriots’ Day

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Novels in Three Lines, by Felix Feneon.

Finished: The Angel Esmeralda, by Don DeLillo; The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

It was Patriots’ Day (Observed) in Boston.  It was also tax day.  And two pressure-cooked bombs went off.

The past two days have been very strange for everyone.  The strangeness in my case is due to spending the last two days in transit.  I was in an airplane when the bombs went off.  When I arrived at my destination in Alabama, I was told the news.  I packed what I needed to pack into the U-Haul and drove, out of Alabama and into Georgia, flipping the dial through static to find snippets, details, all the sifting of information that occurs in the hours after Something Happens. And then stopped at my cheap motel room, sad but somehow not surprised. And then, unable to sleep, drove through the day until mid-afternoon.

So yes, I had basically turned into a Don DeLillo character in a Don DeLillo story for a couple of days.

Mostly I was unsurprised not due to any DeLilloesque philosophical exploration of terror and the contemporary American condition, but because I’d been reading about bombs for weeks. In The Lazarus Project, anarchism in early 1900s Chicago is one of the main subjects; the Haymarket bombing lurks behind everything.  When I was driving, I thought, “When is this going to happen to Chicago?” before I remembered that it happened 127 years ago.  (Not that it can’t happen again.)

And on the plane yesterday I read Novels in Three Lines, a truly amazing compilation of very short, very stylish news briefs filed in a Paris newspaper by the critic, anarchist, and clerk Felix Feneon in 1906.  Many of his columns reported at least one bombing or (more often) failed bombing.  They were everywhere, in 1906.

As prose it’s an incredible book, each three-line snippet full of character and complexity.  It its litany of stabbings, beatings, shootings, accidents, strike-related police brutality, and (yes) terrorist bombings, it’s surely one of the most violent books, line for line, in history.  And yet there’s something comforting about it, too.  As I implied above, there’s non- or anti-news here as well as news: “bombs” that turn out to be nothing but sandbags, accidents averted, fires contained and suppressed quickly and efficiently, shots fired and missed.  These terrible things happen over and over, in 1906 as today as 2000 years ago.  It is part of human life, and human life goes on.  And the lines often make clear that it is our response to such awful occurrences (or the fear of awful occurrences) that makes us human or less-than-human.

This particular awful occurrence hurt a lot.  Though I’ve never lived there, I love Boston.  I consider it one of “my” places.  But I turn to David Foster Wallace’s piece on 9/11, “Just Asking,” after such events.  Whoever did this, for whatever reason, let’s remember and honor the fallen they struck as Patriots, as heroes of life in an open democratic society.

The playing of “Sweet Caroline” tonight, at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere, is an excellent start.  Congregate.  Dance.  Play ball.

Introducing DeLillo’s Internet Man

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.

Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.

I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.

And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies.  It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body.  DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet.  But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.

Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book.  It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.”  But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book.  Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?

This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge.  DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once.  But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.

It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:

“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.

He violates the limits of the human.”

The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny.  It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.

Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

DeLillo, DFW, and Places of Mortal Drama

November 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

I’m in Austin, Texas right now, attending a symposium at the Harry Ransom Center entitled “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions.”  It’s largely about the process by which writers’ papers (the manuscripts of their works, their correspondence, etc.) are sold or donated to places like the Ransom Center and the handful of university and research libraries in the US and UK (including my employer, Duke University, whom I’m certainly not representing in these thoughts) that can afford to handle these bodies of material.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time during the day, but I managed to get into the reading room over the lunch hour today.  I skipped a meal because the HRC holds the Don DeLillo Papers.  And this includes his correspondence with David Foster Wallace (primarily DFW to DeLillo, with a few of DeLillo’s responses), from 1992 to 2003.  (I don’t know if there are any later letters that haven’t been added yet by DeLillo; I suspect there are, but perhaps not many, and surely they will eventually come here, too.)

It’s not a huge body of material — just one folder, although it’s a fat folder — but it struck me as profoundly important: to DFW, to the understanding of their works and late-20thc. American lit, to me.  It was poignant and hilarious and amazing.  My faith in the importance of archives had not been shaken, but it was certainly confirmed by looking at them.

I won’t give any long excerpts here — both because I don’t think DFW would have wanted it and because it could be construed as, well, illegal — but I want to share some of the things I found in the correspondence that moved me, interested me, made me laugh, made me sigh:

-I wanted to see if I could find anything about DFW’s thoughts on End Zone, especially after reading the chapter near the end that is clearly the ancestor of the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest, complete with a war game built on apocalypse scenarios and menacing all-caps alliances.  Sure enough, in one of his first letters DFW says, “part of a long thing I’m in the middle of has a section that I’ve gone back and seen owes a rather uncomfortable debt to certain exchanges between Gary Harkness and Major Staley.”  Fascinating that DFW either had End Zone embedded so deeply in his mind that he was able to build and comment upon the Harkness-Staley war game unconsciously, without consulting the text, or forgot the particulars of the war game and ended up reproducing them.  (Or it’s possible he was being a bit coy with DeLillo about this, in this early letter in which he’s still more or less introducing himself and saying how important DeLillo has been to him, and was really quite conscious of the war game section of EZ while writing the Eschaton game, but framed the similarity as unconscious and inadvertent to win the approval of one of his literary heroes, although I can’t imagine DFW not being up front about something like this, especially considering how up front he is about this sort of thing in his other letters.)

-There’s a fantastic letter from October 1995, just before publication of IJ, in which DFW lays bare a number of his anxieties about his own work ethic as a writer and the tension he felt between “fun” and “discipline.”  A fascinating letter: DFW talks about wanting to be a “Respectful writer,” meaning (I think) respectful of readership and of the writer’s own talent and potential, meaning not self-consciously showing off but putting in the hours at the writing desk and the hours of thought to perfectly integrate style and subject matter and thematic concerns.  Not showing off was very important to DFW; as he says, “…I’d far prefer finding out some way to become [a Respectful writer] w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.”  Quite a phrase, that.  That’s what I’d like to say whenever anyone asks me about IJ (not that anyone ever does): “Respect a fucking killer.”  It is a killer.  And it’s all DFW wanted, I think.

-Some great movie stuff: DFW ended up hating Lynch’s Lost Highway (as he says, “I swear it looked promising in dailies”), and recommends that DeLillo try to rent the first few episodes of Twin Peaks.  He also recommends Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (a couple of times, actually) and absolutely loved The Matrix.

-A fascinating note (especially for an archivist) on digital publishing in a 2000 letter: “I don’t think it’s the memory-obliteration [of digital media] that bothers me… so much as the way it seems part of the increasing abstraction of everything.  It’s too unphysical.  There’s nothing to hold and get coffee stains on….”

-More than anything, it’s clear (even from the other side of the correspondence) what a considerate, thoughtful, and generous mentor-figure DeLillo was to DFW, who wrote DeLillo out of the blue with a kind of fan letter in 1992 and ended up writing him fairly often for 8 years or so.  It is remarkable to read DFW’s letter after reading Underworld, which he thought DeLillo’s best work by far and which he treated with remarkable subtlety and insight.  (It seems DeLillo might have done the same with IJ; at any rate, he read an advance copy and provided DFW feedback.)

-Finally, there was this great little note, which is both brilliant and rather hilarious thanks to where it appears: in one of DFW’s annual Christmas cards to DeLillo.  “Men’s rooms are place [sic] of mortal drama, in my opinion.  If I ever wrote a play, it’d be set in a men’s room.”

I wish he’d written a play.  I wish he was still writing Don DeLillo.  And just as much as a men’s room, a reading room is a place of mortal drama.  There’s this, for instance: this folder of letters, close as I’ve ever come and ever will to this brilliant mind.  It’s what survives.

Are You Ready for Some Football?

November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone.

Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem.  It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation.  Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory.  I don’t claim to know why that is.  I just know it’s so.

DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things.  He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more.  (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)

The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos.  It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:

…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war.  But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.  As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare.  Warfare is warfare.  We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”  The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible.  It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.  The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that.  No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.  Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.

This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.”  It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination.  The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.”  (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction.  Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)

DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic.  A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes.  Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols).  In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.

DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak.  He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems.  There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations.  All of this is by design, of course.  His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.

A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness.  Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us.  I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John.  And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:


There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

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.


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.

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