Don’t dismiss the short sections: remember that at this time (1997), David Foster Wallace has written Broom of the System, a novel, and Girl With Curious Hair, a short story collection. He’s also written essays (including the excellent long-form Signifying Rappers), all of which tells us that if the novel is (fun-house) mirroring the real world (and certainly Wallace speaks not just from education but experience), then we should expect to find all of these styles within Infinite Jest, too.
Clenette (p. 37-38) is one of those experiments, and the result comes across as Robert Coover meets John Edgar Wideman. Grammar goes out the window from the first line “Wardine say her momma aint treat her right” all the way to the tragic end, but consistently so. And despite the broken language, it’s surprisingly easy to follow—the result, however, is that we draw so close to the actual words, trying to puzzle out the meaning, that we get emotionally attached. It’s no surprise that this is the first entirely serious part of the book. Most affecting of all is when Clenette, the silent observer, finally speaks her mind: “But I think Roy Tony gone kill Reginald if Reginald go. I think Roy Tony gone kill Reginald, and then Wardine momma beat Wardine to death with a hanger. And then nobody know but me. And I am gone have a child.”
Next, we meet Bruce Green (p. 38-39), and we’re suddenly in a parody of a love story. Wallace knows the genre well enough to laugh at it, describing her as having “legs which not even orange Keds with purple-glitter-encrusted laces could make unserious” and then as “shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous” which is an odd combination. But this is the sort of writing I like best, for it refuses to conform. That means that even this section, which could be considered an unresolved throwaway (at least for now), manages to make the reader think in a new way.
Booboo (p. 39-42) gives us a closer look at Hal and Mario, and it’s a shame that DFW never wrote any plays, because he’s really a master of dialogue: he even includes beats (“…”) and italicized inflections to make it clear what’s going on. Of note is that in Y.D.A.U., their father is dead, and neither Hal nor Orin can speak about it (see p. 32). In Hal’s case, he has also lost whatever faith he had, and pushed himself even more into the ritual grinding of the professional Junior tennis circuit, though perhaps he’s also torn up by his mother’s apparent indifference to the death, or the way she “laughs at C.T. [their uncle] way more than she laughed at Himself.”
Oh, and the medical attaché is still watching the unlabelled cartridge he got, 43 minutes later. Interesting how this mysterious moment is presented almost in real time, even though the sections that surround it take place at entirely different times. (For what it’s worth, the attaché’s scene occurs on April Fools’ Day.)
And how is Orin (p. 42-49), #79, hypertrophied punter, as he sweats things out in Phoenix? Lonely, for one--and the worst sort of loneliness, for he's surrounded by people (he calls the women he sleeps with "Subjects") yet entirely alone. To illustrate this, David Foster Wallace focuses on turning physical descriptions into mental indicators, hence the opening: "Morning is the soul's night. The day's worst time, psychically." This is nothing new: I remember the sun being described as a hammer in a previous section. But for Orin, things are at an extreme: "The sun like a sneaky keyhole view of hell" and even the falling fronds are "malevolent, heavy and sharp." In case the omens aren't clear enough, a dead bird plummeted into his Jacuzzi last week. There's a pretty vivid nightmare, too, stemming from what he calls his "unhappy childhood" with tennis, but which involves his mom--or rather the Moms's head--being tied to his head.
Here's a brief interruption, too, on the function of end notes, for DFW takes the time to mention here that "Orin's never once darkened the door of any sort of therapy-professional, by the way, so his takes on his dreams are always generally pretty surface-level." The dream is haunting enough, and the intelligent reader will already be parsing the section for subtextual meaning. But rather than engage with understanding or grappling with these fears, Wallace reminds us that--as do a great many people who are skeptical of the connection between the body and the mind--Orin's unanalyzed circumstances are of as much importance as the analyzed ones. That is, not knowing is sometimes just as (if not more) telling than actually knowing.
The next bit support this: Orin remembers watching an early-morning video on "Schizophrenia: Mind or Body" (emphasis on "Body"), a video in which a "dyed-in-the-wool paranoid schizophrenic who believed that radioactive fluids were invading his skull and that hugely complex high-tech-type machines had been specially designed and programmed to pursue him without cease until they caught him and made brutal sport of him and buried him alive" has exactly that done to him by scientists with the well-intentioned need to understand. We, as readers, turn the pages for the same reason--perhaps this is why Wallace keeps putting it off, throwing Easter eggs at us (e.g., Toblerone), just like third-season Lost.
And but so then, Wallace does give us enough to continue (I wish Nabokov could've reviewed this novel). Hal is seventeen, for instance, which tells us that everything in Y.D.A.U. takes place one year before the book-opening Year of Glad. At the same time, he encourages secrecy and mocks what we presume to know, using Hal's covert pot smoking as an excuse to widen the scope and discuss What People Know (p. 49-54). I admit: I don't enjoy this section very much--it's deadpan and detailed descriptions of the layout of E.T.A. bore me. Of course, this glut of information is Wallace continuing to mock us (from the previous Orin section) with what is essentially straight surface-level facts, which as it turns out, we don't need. Everything that I've enjoyed to this point are the more abstracted glimpses of the self--what Infinite Jest does best is not in the devilish details, but in the freeing expanse of the unknowable.
And here's where Wallace gets in the section-justifying kicker: "Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency." Our apathetic disconnect is no joke, and I've spoken before about how I use blogging to fight the natural tendency to simply float through life's entertainments without understanding or embracing their effects. Given where Hal ends up, detached from himself, I think it's pretty clear that pure knowledge is exceptionally bad and potentially madness-inducing and life-ending, a sanctioned drug far more dangerous than this section's so-called "Black Star."
That's a heavy note to end on, so two quick paragraph-long sections check back in on the attache (and his wife) and Mario. These brief visits remind us in shorthand form of just how very much is happening in the world; if you're wondering why Wallace bothers, here's his answer: "It's a lot easier to fix something if you can see it."
Words looked up: fantods, phylactery, pargeted
Tuesday, January 06, 2009