Friday, July 31, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): Pages 380-442

What I love most about this section, The Puppetiad, is that DFW crafts micro-fiction in the midst of his exposition, and keeps the entire presentation so comically pointed that we pay this alternative "history of the future" the complete respect and regard it requires.

First, continuing with the idea of map/territory (from Eschaton, p. 321-343), Wallace begins to define his characters by the hats they've worn to this Interdependence Day fete. There's tons to be said there (and to be pulled--i.e., inferred--from this), and it's amusing that while he writes "etc. etc." in the main text, it's only so that he can elaborate in Footnote 148 on "the whole topography of hats." Also of note is the synecdochy of their headgear for their actual hardware, i.e., their brains--Pemulis, defined by his drug-lined yachting cap (which is described here as "complex," giving this breezy, easy character quite another layer); Mary Esther Thode's piece of cardboard that says "hat" (a case for the sign/signifier, if ever); the humor of imagining the conjoined Vaught twins wearing "a freakish bowler with two domes and one brim." I mean, I could quote every single line: they're each that clear, crisp, clever, imaginative, &c.

Now, I know that Wallace has been accused (by James Woods) of hysterical realism (wouldn't "manic realism" be a better descriptor?), that is, that the real character in his novel is Information, and that DFW uses all of this "truth" as a means to hide from actual truth. This is just flat-out wrong, as I detailed in my previous post. Yes, up until this point, President Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, is defined--nay, subsumed--by this description:

lounge singer turned teenybopper throb turned B-movie mainstay, for two long-past decades known unkindly as the 'Cleanest Man in Entertainment' (the man's a world-class retentive, the late-Howard-Hughes kind, the really severe kind, the kind with the paralyzing fear of free-floating contamination, the either-wear-a-surgical-microfiltration-mask-or-make-the-people-around-you-wear-surgical-caps-and-masks-and-touch-doorknobs-only-with-a-boiled-hankie-and-take-fourteen-showers-a-day-only-they're-not-exactly-showers-they're-with-this-Dermalatix-brand-shower-sized-Hypospectral-Flash-Booth-that-actually-like-burns-your-outermost-layer-of-skin-off-in-a-dazzling-flash-and-leaves-you-baby's-butt-new-and-sterile-once-you-wipe-off-the-coating-of-fine-epidermal-ash-with-a-boiled-hankie kind) then in later public life a sterile-toupee-wearing promoter and entertainment-union bigwig, Vegas schmaltz-broker and head of the infamous Velvety Vocalists Guild...
But what more do you really need? Has his character really been "reduced" by this maximal run-on? Or has DFW, once again, used grammatical constructions to actually partake in the understanding of this character, the precise and untoward lengths to which he will go in order to remain clean? We'll hear his Elvis-like lingo later on, but to say that this sort of writing somehow hides the character (in plain sight) just isn't true.

Now, back to the idea of cleverly placed exposition via Mario's childish interpretation of his father's ONANtiad, itself an interpretation of the c. 2000 rise of the C.U.S.P. (Clean United States Party) and its eventual choice to experialistically void itself of its radioactive waste by removing states like Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York (hence New New York) from its "map." (Incidentally, this may be why Wallace applies the [sic] mark to "CLAIMS FUNDS FOR EPA CLEAN-UP 'ARE NOT WITHIN THE MAP OF WHAT'S POSSIBLE' [SIC]"--i.e., the headline-writer meant "territory," anything, of course, being possible on a map.)

To begin with, Wallace has been teasing us w/r/t the origin of O.N.A.N. and the lunar Subsidized Calendar throughout the entire novel, wrapping this somewhat implausible idea in enough plausibly grounded sections that we must accept it wholesale. Then, when it comes time to actually explain this story, he diffracts it, first through J.O.I.'s lens, then through his son Mario's, and yet this pile of fictions somehow makes it seem more realistic, not less. (Mark Z. Danielewski does something similar with his cross-referenced, indexed, and appendiced horror novel, House of Leaves.) We get newspaper headlines, audio transcripts, and more (and even these sections are filled with in-jokes, such as the one about the "Veteran but Methamphetamine-Dependent Headliner Finally Demoted after Repeated Warnings about Taking up Too Much Space").

In the midst of all this, we get a reminder from resident fitness guru and sweat-licker Lyle: "Do not underestimate objects!" To go a step further, "The world, after all, which is radically old, is made up mostly of objects." Where some people might cry foul on the constant anecdotes, digressions, and footnotes of Wallace's explanation of the world--such as his quick riff of James's films, The Medusa v. The Odalisque and The Joke--the truth is actually that DFW's world only grows richer--older--as it contains more and more objects, especially objects of such a rich and three-dimensionally comic variety. Wallace constantly invents elaborate situations, just so that he can use them to parallel other equally elaborate stories (i.e., the tale of the Clipperton Brigade, for which Mario's "parodic pseudo-ONANtiad scenario is actually a puppet-a-clef-type allusion"). Infinite Jest is like a house of cards, in which each plot point balances out another, allowing another to be built atop it (incidentally, this fits the Sierpinski Gasket pattern shown here), except that you couldn't reduce a single thing in this novel to the sliver-thin map of a mere playing card.

A couple of other things I don't want to reduce in the one digression of this section, a return to Marathe and Steeply (Part IV) (p. 418-430); I know that some have criticized these slower, more philosophical bits as being boring or redundant, but again, it's not quite so easy (or wise) to reduce these comic discussions to playing-card size. Let's look at how these things fit in:
  1. Steeply is frustrated with the AFR's terrorism-by-entertainment because it perverts the accepted boundaries--the U.S.A.'s so-called conventions: "It's like there's a context for the whole game, then, with them [terrorists that can be understood as political bodies]. We know where where we stand differs from where they stand. There's a sort of playing field of context." This right here is downright Eschatonic, or to go further back, like the Schtitt description of tennis (p. 82): "humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent." In other words, we need rules, which is to say really that we need Understanding, and attacking us without providing either, that's real fantods-causing terrorism. This also fits with the darkly humorous notion of "war" as "business" (or as a game)--when it gets personal, things fall to pieces.

  2. Continuing their conversation about the American idea of freedom, Steeply blurts out this bit of wisdom, learned "as early as grade school": "The American genius, our good fortune, is that someplace along the line back there in American history them realizing that each American seeking to pursue his maximum good results together in maximizing everyone's good." Like Mario's puppet history, this is a demonstration of Wallace at his deadpan best: the most ridiculous things are always said by the most ridiculously attired characters. Marathe continues to call him out on this USilitarianism.

  3. Finally, references to the Concavity (US) and Convexity (Canada) are a sort of radioactive game of half-full/half-empty world views, or as Steeply puts it, a literal "chasm of different values that separates our people." Wallace is surprisingly open to arguing both sides, as he did before (albeit in a footnote) with Day's anti-AA spiel about Universal Addiction.
The point being, none of these themes are isolated, they each carry their own weight and continue to carry the thrust of the entire novel's discursive plot. Terrifically so, terrifically so.


Paris said...

Great summ. & analysis! I love your way of interpreting Lyle's "don't underestimate objects" along the lines of the expansion of objects within the IJ world.

I, too, find the S/M sections intriguing and un-put-downable (whereas some other long sections may take me two or three sessions to complete). Your point that Steeply accuses the AFR of disrupting a map/territory divide is most insightful (as in, "I wish I'd thought of that!"), and I will now add the word "Eschatonic" to my personal vocabulary.

But perhaps most important, here, in your careful manner of blogthough-ing, is the idea that there is no such thing as a digression in the book. The philosophically un-enriching but character-developmentally important debate on USilitarianism (ha ha) is of this nature.

I begin to understand, not why DFW wanted so many pages, but why his editor, who on his own account had substantial back-and-forth with DFW over the pre-publication-cut-and-paste-and-undo function, also ultimately thought there was nothing else to cut.

Paris said...

Btw, Paris = Infinite Tasks.

Aaron Riccio said...

Thanks for the kind words. This blogthrough is also jokingly meant to serve another purpose: read Wallace's prose, then read my analysis. It's pretty clear which one is overwritten and desperately in need of editing. ;)

Paris said...

Surely you Jest, sir. I thought this the best yet of your posts, as you don't so much save your insights for the last few paragraphs, but hit them at every point.

Meghan Ritchie said...

Interesting... the pile of fictions. I guess it goes without saying that anyone with a TV or the internet is presented with multiple conflicting versions of the truth every day, and whether we're conscious of it or not we have to construct our own coherent narrative out of it. So if in the act of reading the book we end up with an experiential narrative - in spite of our doubts at the outset that that we aren't intelligent/perceptive/sophisticated enough readers to make sense of this totally scary looking 1000 pg book - maybe it's a testament to our ability to suss out the Truth, or maybe it goes to show that the most reliable Truth (the Truest truth?) is the one that can be gleaned from all these fictions combined.

There are so many moments in this book when the characters (and the reader, or at least this reader) come up against the impossibility of reconciling reality and representation - obv the Eschaton map/territory dispute, the Concavity/Convexity dispute - but all these totally perfect, inclusive multi-clause sentences have me convinced that we can come pretty close. There's something about grammar and tennis, about working within rules and limits and structures...

Basically, isn't it neat how a book that's so much about alienation and the incommunicable can make you feel so heard? And like what an honor it is to the book that it's put so many people in communion with each other. So to address the thing that someone brought up yesterday, yes, it's a hopeful book.