Friday, July 10, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (Pages 172-193)

You may note that it's been five months since I last posted. Thankfully, Infinite Summer, another blog-through, is forcing me to return to and revisit these themes. As means of a segue, I'll give one more giant digestive chunk before I switch to a more manageable means of posting. Ironically enough, I start with a meditation on time, for the title that describes the 11.5-minute digital recording of Hal's, Tennis and the Feral Prodigy (p. 172-176) fills in more of the blanks:

(B.S. -3) - E.T.A. is founded, Hal is 6/7
Year of the Whopper - Hal is 9/10
Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad - Hal is 10/11
Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar - Hal is 11/12; J.O.I. commits suicide
Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken - Hal is 12/13
Year of ? - Hal is 13/14
Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge... - Hal is 14/15
Year of Dairy Products From the American Heartland - Gately kills DuPleiss, Hal is 15/16
Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment - Hal is 16/17
Year of Glad - Hal is 17/18

And but so what? Time is artificial, and jumping back into the book five months later hasn't changed the words, just as reading sections out of order (or in order, as Wallace has already disorganized them) hasn't changed the actual events. Reality, in other words, survives.

So now Hal describes (in a narrative that is questionably attributed to his older brother Mario) many of the E.T.A. techniques (like Lemon Pledging) that were touched on in earlier segments, all the while allowing memories of his dead father to seep in: "Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn't seem just a whole hell of a lot happier or tighter wrapped than his own failed father." Hal's nightmares are touched on ("Keep a flashlight by your bed. It helps with the dreams."), as is the idea of talent (from the previous James Sr. flashback). And, as always, there's one hell of a kicker at the end: make sure your parents have lives so that when they "make sure you didn't miss anything they got" you don't end up drilling all day and learning prescriptive grammar all night.

We next jump to some Selected Transcripts from Ennet House (p. 176-181), which are--as Wallace will show in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men--great examples of just how deft this author is w/r/t defining character through action. Nell is manic and desperate: just read how she insists that Patricia Montesian understand what she's saying (and not punish her for stabbing her co-resident with a fork). The unnamed lawyer might as well be Bill Clinton, for all his equivocating: "I'm not denying anything. I'm simply asking you to define 'alcoholic.'" Alfonso's broken Cuban-English is endearing. We remeet Bruce Green (from p. 38-39), for whom life is no longer "one great big party," and also probably Reginald (from p. 37-38), or someone else who knew Clenette. And there's a turd joke: "All I can say is if it was produced by anything human then I have to say I'm really worried." Above all, this is some choice material about addiction, though given what I've learned about the Bricklayer story (p. 138-140), I wonder how much of this seems so real because it actually is, from the time Wallace spent researching this (Pahlaniuk is still in the kiddie pool).

There's something larger, too, in the lawyer's words: "You're reluctant to proceed without clarification," he argues, for we "cannot deny what [we] don't understand." I wonder if part of what Wallace is after--considering his sometimes prescriptive use of vocabulary--is to make it impossible for us to deny Infinite Jest, simply by overpowering us. (I wonder, too, what this means for religion: in philosophy class, I once argued that God could not exist, because by definition, God is unlimited, and the attribution of things to God is a limiting act, one that's meant to understand. Unless they've already denied their faith, then, it makes little sense for certain ideagogues to claim to understand God. But I digress, rather weakly.)

And speaking of overpowering us--I know I said to trust David Foster Wallace, implicitly, but Madame Psychosis's Midnight Show (p. 181-193) is the first section I've wanted to skip. Aside from the reminder that what she's doing (by reading random things aloud) is sort of like what James O. Incandenza was doing in his anti-confluential films, and likewise, what Wallace is doing in his unresolving narrative, it's a difficult section. I think I remember, from The Broom of a System, another situation in which Wallace described the layout of a town via the metaphor of a human body, but here--turning MIT's union into a giant brain, and using medical vocabulary to do so . . . it seems unnecessarily dramatic.

"...though the vitreally inflated balloon-eyes, deorbited and hung by twined blue cords from the second floor's optic chiasmae to flank the wheelchair-accessible front ramp, take a bit of getting used to, and some like the engineer never do get comfortable with them and use the less garish auditory side-doors; and the abundant sulcus-fissures and gyrus-bulges of the slick latex roof...which curves around the midbrain from the inferior frontal sulcus to the parietooccipital sulcus...from which a venous-blue emergency ladder can be detached and lowered to extend down past the superior temporal gyrus and Pons and abducent to hook up with the polyurethane basilar-stem artery and allow a safe shimmy down to the good old oblongata just outside the rubberized meatus at ground zero."
Yes, that's also all one considerably longer sentence. If you were trying to convince someone NOT to read this book, you'd want to show them this section. Then again, if we trust Wallace, I call attention to Footnote 63, the metafictional disclaimer that a certain line is "the student engineer's analogy." In truth, it's really David Foster Wallace's . . . but he goes out of his way to distance himself from the character, and perhaps, by using vocabulary that the kids at MIT might use (architectural slang, computer lingo, and the ten-dollar medical words), he is stressing that he's just a man assembling the detritus of what actually exists. Considering how much of the novel seems oddly prescient (the videophone controversy from p. 144-151 has already started, thanks to Skype), is he just acting as a Historian of the Future ala Ben Marcus et. al. in the recent Harper's issue of June 2009?

Finally, for all my complaining, the actual language Wallace uses for M.P.'s list of horrible disfigurements is very rhythmic, relaxing, and occasionally, deeply, darkly, horribly funny. Which is sort of the whole point. Also, with a list that long and comprehensive, haven't we all found ourselves onto that list? Aren't we all ugly, all beautiful?

A couple of stray observations:
- "the Kemp and Limbaugh administrations" (p. 177) place this in a Republican future, no?
- Who is Dr. A. M. Incandenza? (Footnote 64) Is this Mario?
- the term "two bagger," as in a person so ugly that you need "one bag for your head, one bag for the observer's head in case your bag falls off"


E. Hunter Spreen said...

I like how you describe Wallace's narrator (whoever that is) as someone who is assembling detritus. For me, those insertions about whose thoughts, words, etc are being expressed and in what mode aren't about creating distance between character and narrator. They're about reminding us that there's a narrator and an author. Reminding us that we're reading a book and lifting us up out of it so that we aren't subsumed by the narrative - we don't fall victim to "the entertainment."

I also think you're on to something with the idea of limiting vocabulary. There's a tricky thing DFW has to accomplish here - write about book about Infinity. There have to be ways to convey the idea of the infinite without coming to an end. You can write a really big book, you can complicate it with end notes, but that's only a beginning. You have to come up with ways of clarifying without suggesting a possible ending to any one person's story. I don't have a big handle on this yet, but it starts to get at my feeling that there's some mathematical pattern going on in the text beyond divisions of time, section circles, and descriptive maps of things.

Aaron Riccio said...

From what I've heard, the mathematical construct of the novel is meant to resemble that of a Sierpinski gasket, which I believe Wallace mentioned (though not in reference to his book) somewhere in this section.

I've got another big post brewing, methinks (there's no other way for me to get him out from under my skin, but to exfolidavidate). Nice observations re: Joyce, but re: M.P., I've started to see much more of Faulkner's Sound and the Fury seeping through.