Monday, August 31, 2009

Infinite Jestation: A Blogthrough (p. 620-714)

As we approach the end, I keep coming up with reasons to postpone my reading of Infinite Jest. Here's my latest: 15, 10, 5, 1, 6, 10, 14, 3, 2, 19, 40, 8, 16, 6, 24, 38, 21, 18, 25, 23, 15, 59, 62, 47, 49, 78, 189.... I'm not going to bother saying what that is (though readers will surely guess), but I'll say that this scope on patterns (or the lack thereof) has helped me come to terms with obsession, a thing that comes to mind when reading this novel, so let's consider that it's not a waste of time.

In any case, Holy Crow is there a lot of good stuff here. We start off with a bang, as Wallace describes Too Much (p. 620-626), starting with the InterLace TelEntertainment system, and then blowing our feeble "Home Entertainment" minds. The list is, as usual, a mix of technical terms ("laser chromatography"), half-jokes ("electronic couture," which Apple made a reality), quirks (by which I mean narrative opinions like "screens so hi-def you might as well be there"), and slang ("killer apps"), and then clever mashes this list (with an almost invisible semi-colon) into some side effects, like "phosphenic migraine" (which I get). You can't have the good without the bad, I get it, but the result is that people tend to just stay indoors now: they can go to school from home, work from home, get entertained at home. For real kickers, Wallace notes that "saying this is bad is like saying traffic is bad, or health-care surtaxes or the hazards of annular fusion: nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without." Don't forget that 2009 is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment; are we that far off from this big, frightening Next?

This is also the point in the novel where Wallace starts to tie things together; note that the big "spect-op" (that is, the chance for public--as opposed to the 94% private--spectation) at the draining of the man-made duck pond is an event that was attended by J.O.I. and sons, and is currently attended by Rodney Tine, Steeply, and the M.I.T. student from 60 Minutes +/-. More dates start getting dropped, particularly around the central event of this chapter, Hal vs. Stice, a match that a newly drug-free Hal almost loses on November 11, though Wallace gives us the results (p. 627-638) before jumping to the match (p. 651-662) and then back to the post-game (p. 686-689). He (DFW) also does this more directly with The Events of November 14, which starts with Matty Pemulis (Michael's brother) espying a post-stroke Poor Tony en-route to the Antitoi's shop (not knowing they're dead); then shifting to P.T. Krause, who is following two purse-snatchable girls; two girls, who turn out to be Kate Gompert and Ruth van Cleve; a moment which consolidates into the "Meanwhile" moment on page 700, which checks in on Troeltsch, Michael Pemulis, Lyle, Schitt and Mario, and Avril.

One more hint at the narrator of Infinite Jest: page 694 mentions that "we (who are mostly not small children) know it's more invigorating to want than to have, it seems." It's not a child narrating, and we really are being spoken to. "An oral narrative begins to emerge," as it were, writes Wallace on page 699, just as he goes into that "Meanwhile" moment.

All that's just plot and structure, and maybe it's just because I've been conditioned to treasure everything but that over the last 700 pages, but let's get back to the good stuff. After all, Wallace knows that it's not about the parts, as he describes Hal in action against Stice (p. 658): "But all these were only parts, and made the motion seem segmented, when the smaller crew-cutted jowly boy was the one with the stuttered motion, the man of parts." Is it any wonder that Helen Steeply, putatively of Moment magazine, doesn't get it? There's another "At just this moment" moment on pages 654-656, and it's got a zinger: "Sometimes it's hard to believe the sun's the same sun over all different parts of the planet."

To summarize, everything is a moment, but as Wallace described in his sports-writing essay, they can be individualized, specific moments--for instance, Federer Moments--that must all be added up, in one giant, infinite complex immediacy, to ever approach true understanding. And perhaps why nothing can ever be understood. I don't find that to be depressing: after all, while you may never "get It," isn't it encouraging to know that there are some specific things you can absolutely get, fully?

This is, on reflection, another one of those opposites that Wallace uses, you know, like the way in which both disinterest and over-interest (Bain's parents vs. Incandenza's parents) are shown to be forms of abuse? Only, in this case, it's the way in which a moment can both express everything and nothing, depending on what exactly you're looking for. Bain describes this, in Avril--and in the unconsciously modeling Orin--as an act of simulacrum; that is, when you try to cover a lack of actual emotion with an abundance of feigned emotion. Consider, then, how fake someone consumed with a single moment looks, or how crazy someone obsessed with everything seems.

Thankfully, I'm not suffering from anhedonia: I've got nothing but pleasure for this novel, and I'm certainly able to Identify. But how terrifying a concept: "the anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts... The world becomes a map of the world." In other words, continuing to wind this thread around myself, even a moment that you know everything about becomes meaningless--words, words, words--unless you attach and invest something in it. Hence Wallace's fear of irony and need for sincerity.

(Screw you, James Woods, for this book has allowed me to Identify with the depressed, whom I had formerly dismissed, i.e., not understood. Page 696, with the definition of "psychotic depression" and the understandable parallel to a non-burning man's inability to comprehend why a man might jump out of a burning high-rise. Take this section in parallel with Wallace's first published work, "The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing" [just republished in this quarter's Tin House, issue 40], and you'll see just how much better Wallace got at describing this indescribable thing.)

Even as I try to grapple this idea to the ground, do I risk losing myself in the text? Am I actually present--or worse--even occurring? (Hal's great fear, when talking to deLint on p. 686.) Is this the Icarusian danger of too closely nearing "success," of the sort that LaMont Chu worried about with Rusk, earlier? These are all moments, yes, but let's never forget that Wallace played tennis: "Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he's been setting up the angle since the start of the point." If tennis is "chess on the run," then what does that make Infinite Jest, and what sort of Grandmaster was Wallace?

As always, that's too heavy (and heady) to leave off on, so instead, here's what Wallace would say about universal health care in America if he were here today:

And then also the little-mentioned advantage to being destitute and in possession of a Health Card that's expired and not even in your name: hospitals show you a kind of inverted respect; a place like Cambridge City Hospital bows to your will not to stay; they all of a sudden defer to your subjective diagnostic knowledge of your own condition, which post-seizure condition you feel has turned the corner toward improvement: they bow to your quixotic will: it's unfortunately not a free hospital but it is a free country: they honor your wishes and compliment your mambo and say Go with God.

P.S. I lied: one more big thing. What if Hal's not messed up at the beginning of the book? To us, he seems fine; to them, he seems abnormal. But this is the very essence of that Twilight Zone episode, "The Private World of Darkness (1960)," in which a beautiful girl (to us) frets because she does not look like the rest of the world, which is ugly (again, to us). This is one of the things Wallace writes about in his commencement speech, our need to be able to see outside of ourselves, so in that light, consider that Hal may be the one totally free and undepressed American, liberated by DMZ (free = demilitarized?), and at last totally present: "I am in here." After all, according to Wallace, "It's of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool." And here's Hal, anything but empty internally, and, for pretty much the first time in the book, not being anhedonic.


Paris said...

Sheesh, there's a lot here, Aaron. Super impressive!

The "moment" question is very interesting, as you are merging structure and content in order to generate this interpretation, something which is hard to do with the huge expanse of IJ and the complexity of the structure. It just so happens that today I was teaching a class about some very early lyric essays of Camus, in which I could not seem to put together his ability to describe a moment with the narrativity that actually goes into our emotional life. You help to flesh out the meaning of moment, since (a) it may be understood fractally (containing everything... and more) or annihilated, as nothing, and (b) it signifies the (yes, here's that word again) ironic capacity to simulate an interior emotional life. (The Camus essays deal specifically with the future consequences of his own vacant emotional life as a child, which appears to inhibit in him a rich sense of temporality, but that's another, even if related, story...)

That is, if I've understood you correcly, DFW is playing both sides of the "moment", both its representative capacity and also its potential for ironically representing Nothing. No wonder the book is an intepretive morass!

In my questions about the Entertainment Master (and this is my about-to-be-posted-post, possibly-already-posted by the time you read this), I express some dawning concerns that the moments will not add up (alternatively, that the puzzle pieces are not an original set) to a coherent or resolved whole. Hell, I haven't even found J.O.I.'s body, and we're three-fourths of the way through!

Last point, on your last point. Wow. I've been having a weird suspicion about DMZ, Hal, aphonia, and the Entertainment, but I don't want to say what it is, cuz it feels really weird and quirky and would stretch my mind to the limit, I think. But if I'm right, then you are definitely right. If I'm wrong, then you still might be right. Hal as free, DMZed, authentic? This would be a super-major literary and existential coup.

As always, Paris = Infinite Tasks

isaac butler said...

just one quick note... matty pemulis is the peemster's brother, not father.

Aaron Riccio said...

Paris, totally right, and I'm not sure why I goofed that descriptor. Perhaps that whole fookin' thing was too deeply ingrained on my mind--it's funny how I have more of a sense for the father in Matty's description than I do for Matty. Which may of course be another part of it--that is, do we not run the risk of becoming our parents, especially when there's trauma involved? (Look at Orin.)

And yes, DFW's always playing both sides. I'm still catching up, but I just read the great "chase" scene between P.T. Krause and Ruth Van Cleef, in which she (well, Kate, bu they're together) identifies him as an apparition of the ugliest woman ever and Tony identifies Ruth as a Creature. To put this in connection with my postscript, a moment is totally true, in of itself, and yet, in the larger picture, not even remotely true or accurate, despite the fact that you cannot have the larger picture without all the lies. (I wonder what one might make of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" in that context.)

Infinite Tasks said...

Ok, you got me. I have no idea what the number sequence is!