Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 151-171)

Unlike the other Infinite Aaron, I've been falling steadily behind in my reading of Infinite Jest, falling, I suspect, prey to the same malaise that struck me both of the previous times I attempted to read through David Foster Wallace's novel. That is, namely, that I don't want to finish the novel. Appropriately enough, I got lost reading Beckett this past week, specifically some of his short plays and novels (research for two excellent shows I reviewed, First Love and Krapp, 39), and they reminded me greatly of the rambling monologue James Sr. (p. 157-169) delivers to his son, James O. Incandenza, in B.S. 1960. That is, they are moments you could get lost inside, moments that are so rich, so thick, so ultimately enjoyable, that they almost compel you, feverishly, to reread them, over and over again, looking for meaning. This is, I imagine, how some people feel about texts that are more religious in nature.

But I digress: this section is, as James puts it after putting away a shot of his amber liquid, "gloriously painful," which is appropriate, as it sums up the man's entire life, fixated as he in using his son, Jim, to recreate the past. "I'm giving it the one last total shot a man's obligation to his last waning talent deserves," he says of his last-ditch efforts to return to Hollywood, even though he's unable to even make it to the tennis courts with his uninterested ten-year-old son. (No wonder, then, that James Jr. eventually makes such rebellious apres-garde films.) No, he's still hung up on his own father issues, with the way, in 1933, his father's cruelly dismissive "Yes, But He'll Never Be Great," causes his body to self-destruct on the tennis court. And in doing so, he has carried over the worst of his father's traits, specifically the centrally isolating solipsism (a theme of the novel, if you haven't yet guessed) that Wallace evokes here, a conversation between father and son in which only the father speaks and even the son's actions drown within a sea of text.

The drunker James gets, the more I think of Beckett, too, for the whole thing turns into a rant on mortality: "I'm . . . I'm just afraid of having a tombstone that says HERE LIES A PROMISING OLD MAN." And, in light of Wallace's eventual succumbing to depression, there's a lesson here, too, about the dark gift of talent, for it is a gift that is either lived up to or lost, and some people cannot cope with the feeling of losing touch with their talent. (Better to have loved and lost may apply to the heart, but not the mind, for which blissfully unburdened ignorance is sometimes preferred.) James wails about being there--inside the perfect machine of his body that he created--and I can't help but remember the introduction to Infinite Jest, in which Hal tries to communicate that he is present, locked to some degree within his "perfect" body. (Hal's talent for tennis is never questioned.)

I want to address, briefly, a criticism that I've heard from some people about this novel, particularly sections like this. They seem to think that it is filled with technical writing, and that all of the characters ultimately end up sounding alike. This is simply not true--the words may not always fit the characters, but the rhythm of the language is always unique to each section. Like Joyce, much of Wallace's work is better when read aloud (and I've heard good buzz about the film version of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men currently playing at Sundance). Just listen: "He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table, Jim. A bodiless game of spasmodic flailing and flying sod. A quote unquote sport. Anal rage and checkered berets. This is almost empty." Out of context, sure, that description of golf might seem out of character, and yes, the "quote/unquote" business is identifiably Wallace. And yet it's James's voice pressing through it, slurring perhaps, but there all the same.

In light of all that (by the way, Hal's father's initials are J.O.I., or "joy"), seeing Pemulis's Drug Smuggling (p. 169-171) is rather underwhelming, but there's a nice nugget buried in footnote 57 that compares the "incredibly potent [drug] DMZ" to a piece of modernist work. Considering how much I've been tripping out on Infinite Jest (in much the same way, I dare say, as the poor victims of J.O.I.'s film version), I'd say that's a pretty accurate description.

Words looked up: parping, rutilant, purled

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