Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 343-380

We're starting to get to larger, more cohesive chunks, now. This one's about Like Nowhere Else: Boston AA. It's also a sort of hint at the multiple narratives and stretches of Infinite Jest itself. Back in the Year of Glad (p. 17) we were asked, "So yo then man what's your story?" Well, we now find out that AA's the non-judgmental, full of Identification (empathy) place that all these people go and tell their stories. Note that all of the main-text first-person speakers so far, with the exception of Hal (who may in fact be there, toenail clippings and all), are here: Clenette (p. 37), Emil (yrstruly, p. 128), and now some newly rhythmic tales from John L. (p. 345) and an Irish guy named Something E. (p. 351). For all we know, the bricklayer Dwayne Glynn (p. 139) may be here, too. Here's the idea then, that we are being asked to really Listen, just as the characters being asked to really Speak, this being the operative difference between the first-person and "transcribed" third-person stretches.

This is also what offends me so much at Infinite Jest being described as "hysterical realism" by James Woods, who offers the notion that Wallace is protecting himself from reality with a wall of facts from reality. Considering the research that DFW did for this book, not to mention his own first-hand experience with most of these topics (a militant grammarian mother, his junior-tennis circuit experience, his filmographic knowledge of avant-garde people like David Lynch, his ultimately de-mapping depression), I'm startled that anyone would suggest that this book is anything short of heart-rendingly real. When Wallace mentions that "it's funny what they'll find funny," what he's really noting is the old saw that "it's funny because it's true," and indeed, much of the humor here comes from what we can in fact empathize with and understand, exaggerated as much of it may be.

For example, one of my favorite sections so far--as graphic as Poor Tony's stroke--involves the eightball-using speaker (p. 376 - 379), who describes the depths of her addiction ("and but so eventualy the Eightball was consumed and then the screen and steel-wool ball in the pipe itself smoked and the cloth prep-filter smoked to ash and then of course likely-looking pieces of lint had been gleaned off the rug and also smoked") with the additional caveat that, oh, she's delivered a stillborn baby to which she is "still umbilically linked," and then when she wakes up, full of Denial, she walks around with the baby swaddled in a little pink Woolworth's blanket . . . even as she continues to turn tricks, "because single motherhood or not she still needed to get high and still had to do what she had to do to get high."

I laughed with shudders throughout parts of this section, because she was really speaking. The scene preceding it, with the Raquel Welch mask and It being raped, isn't nearly as effective--but INTENTIONALLY so; DFW is pointed out the difference between simply expressing the TRUTH and between trying to causally pin the blame for your actions on something. They're both exquisitely written (and Wallace returns to this place with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the powerful, confessional voice), but the point he's making is what it means to actually open up.

This is, according to Gately (p. 365), the difference between listening and hearing. This is, if you want to take it a meta-step further, the reason why some people have trouble reading Infinite Jest: they are so used to listening that they cannot actually hear. If we simply skim, we'll miss out on the empathy the novel is asking of us--not the hasty comparisons that we can laugh at (re: the bricklayer), but the actual sympathy, regardless of circumstance, the "we're all in it together" humanity that AA is all about, the idea that you can't be kicked out. To a degree, this is also about the difference between talking and speaking, and looking and seeing, so is it any surprise that Avril is so obssesed with the precision of language, and that James is so obsessed with the visible world? Both are missing the forest for the tree, and you wonder why Orin and Hal are so lost?

There are echoes here, too, of Marathe's previous section (p. 317 - 321), in which he expressed the question of true freedom. It's AA's motto, here: you have to Give It Up to Get It. If you resign yourself to a distrust in yourself--i.e., you cede your decision making up to the suggestions of the Group--then you lose your freedom, and yet somehow simultaneously get it. Steeply's point is valid, though: if we're just exchanging the unhealthy cage of addiction for the fleshy cage of a support group, to which we are tethered until we die, what sort of life is it? In some regards, this is answered by the idea of Group's "total autonomy," in that you don't actually have to take their suggestions. At the same time, it is reduced to a death's-head Moebus strip: they've all hit Bottom and either they continue on the Group path, or they die--perhaps slowly--Out There.

What it's about, then, is Opening Up. And that's what the book is doing, especially with the way it slowly introduces us to characters and then brings them back into the fray hundreds of pages later. That's what it's doing with it's dribs of character, often through raw information, or strands of dialogue. That's what's with the Big Brother meets at ETA (p. 109 - 121), which are run, for better or worse, a lot like Group. It's not God, it's Trust; it's not Repetition, it's Understanding.

I'm not a religious person, but I can't restrain myself from capitalizing those things, because the truth is that I Identify, I do. This is the point Wallace was making with his commencement address: it's not about pointing out the things that are different; that's easy to do. It's about noticing the things that are the same, it's about understanding why someone does the things they do. (For a modern example, look at the whole Gatesgate affair; had the cop considered why Gates was angry, he'd have just sucked up his pride and walked away, had Gates considered why the cop was there in the first place, he may have been more cooperative. Assuming, of course, that either one of them is telling the truth.)

James O. Incandenza makes a film, called The Joke, in which an audience watches itself being filmed--this, of course, is the joke. Except, just like the title Infinite Jest, it's not really a joke. Not a joke any more than Incandeza's unfilmable Found Dramas, the description of which explains that it's an unwatched slice of life going on somewhere in the world, this very minute. It is funny what we'll find funny, but if it's not first true, it's meaningless.

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