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.

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.”

My Favorite Footnote

September 23, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading:Infinite Jest.

DFW could write a hell of a straightforwardly poignant and true observational sentence when he wanted to.  Case in point, two of my favorites from a great section, on November 3 Y.D.A.U., of the tennis kids hanging out and being tired and bitchy:

And time in the P.M. locker room seems of limitless depth; they’ve all been just here before, just like this, and will be again tomorrow.  The light saddening outside, a grief felt in the bones, a sharpness to the edge of the lengthening shadows.

“The light saddening outside.”  It’s like the Proustian madeleine, that sentence.  It takes me back to grade school, and high school, at just that time of year, after basketball practice.  I went to a boarding high school; that is what the light does at that time of day in November.  It saddens, and aggrieves, in inexplicable ways, after heavy exertion, on your way to a cafeteria meal.  And I’ll further agree that time does somehow stretch and deepen after conditioning and practice and weights, as you sit around being tired together and complaining about the coaches.  You could sit there forever, and somehow feel that you have.

But anyway.  DFW could also write crazily pyrotechnic postmodern interludes, such as the notorious footnote 24, “James O. Incandenza: A Filmography.”  The footnote’s very important, actually, smuggling a good deal of info on Incandenza and his family and DFW’s speculative development of the film/video industry into a highly entertaining list format.  And it functions in any number of other ways: as a parody of academic writing, as a parody/homage to experimental film, as an opportunity to name-check influences, as a partial explanation for the crazy science involved in The Entertainment.  For super-dorks, it’s also a lot of fun, hopefully not mindless.  Herewith, the JOI joints I’d most like to see:

Dark Logics…. 35mm.; 21 minutes; color; silent w/ deafening Wagner/Sousa soundtrack.  Griffith tribute, Iimura parody.  Child-sized but severely palsied hand turns pages of incunabular manuscripts [kind of a contradiction in terms, but whatever] in mathematics, alchemy, religion, and bogus political autobiography, each page comprising some articulation or defense of intolerance or hatred.

Note here: Taka Iimura made a movie called Onan about “desire… which has no object but itself.”

Immanent Domain…. 35mm.; 88 minutes; black and white w/ microphotography; sound.  Three memory-neurons… in the Inferior frontal gyrus of a man’s… brain fight heroically to prevent their displacement by new memory-neurons as the man undergoes intensive psychoanalysis.

Now that’s experimental filmmaking!  Think of the costumes!

‘The Medusa v. the Odalisque.’ … 78 mm.; 29 minutes; black and white; silent w/ audience-noises appropriated from broadcast television.  Mobile holograms of two visually lethal mythologic females duel with reflective surfaces onstage while a live crowd of spectators turns to stone.

Blood Sister: One Tough Nun.…  35 mm.; 90 minutes; color; sound.  Parody of revenge/recidivism action genre, a formerly delinquent nun’s… failure to reform a juvenile delinquent… leads to a rampage of recidivist revenge.

Wait, wasn’t this one of the Grindhouse trailers?

Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency. Unfinished due to hospitalization.

Safe Boating Is No Accident.…  Kierkegaard/Lynch (?) parody, a claustrophobic water-ski instructor…, struggling with his romantic conscience after his fiancee’s… face is grotesquely mangled by an outboard propeller, becomes trapped in an overcrowded hospital elevator with a defrocked Trappist monk, two overcombed missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an enigmatic fitness guru, the Massachusetts State Commissioner for Beach and Water Safety, and seven severely intoxicated opticians with silly hats and exploding cigars.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with James Incandenza at The Ambiguities.