Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Infinite Jestation (A Blogthrough): A Digression

Let's talk about work. One of the neat things about Infinite Summer is how many additional levels it brings out of Wallace's work--and whether they were intended by him or not, he leaves the door open to this whole idea of the readers becoming the writers, thanks to the interpretive ideals of the sign/signifier: i.e., no matter how clear we are, every reader sees and filters things differently. (Look at Lucien Antitoi's unfortunate use of "Va chier, putain" on p. 481.) In fact, Wallace says this better than I've ever been able to:

This is the way Barthian and Derridean post-structuralism's helped me the most as a fiction writer: once I'm done with the thing, I'm basically dead, and probably the text's dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but "through" the reader. The reader becomes God, for all textual purposes.
To take the "water" joke another way, it's not so much about ignorance or about taking their environment for granted, so much as it is that they never needed to qualify their world with a word: water means nothing to them, although another word, like "ocean" might take on the utmost holy significance to them. It's all about what we have embedded and invested in the novel, which is why (1) it's nice to read other reader's thoughts and (2) you need to work at this, by which I mean, invest in Wallace's writing.

There's another bit on this in this wonderful Wallace interview, in which he warns against "passive spectation." (This is exactly what he's talking about in Infinite Jest, too: the activation of our p-centers via the Entertainment itself, turning us into zombies, into passive goats, whatever. "Passive" and "pleasure" are not that far apart.) Wallace clarifies that he's trying to be "uneasy" in some sense, "so that the narrative arrangement has got to be done by the reader, or interrupting flow with digressions and interpolations that the reader has to do the work of connecting to each other and to the narrative (cf. the footnotes). We talk a lot about the narrative voice of Infinite Jest, but perhaps Wallace keeps that person hidden like the Wizard behind the curtain to make us "fight 'through' the meditated voice presenting the material to you." To requote further, "I had a teacher I liked who used to say that good fiction's job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable."

I knew there was a reason I liked David Foster Wallace so much, and if you've read any of my theater criticism, you'll see that much of what I condemn is often condemned for becoming barely distinguishable from television or film. (Grotowski commanded that theater do what those mediums COULDN'T do--and really, the only thing it can do differently is to BE MORE PRESENT.) To continue, near-Bible-like: "...[reading] is a relationship between the readers consciousness and her own, and in order for it to be anything like a full human relationship, she's going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work." Emphasis on work.

Some people seem scared of this, by the prospect of reading a 1,000+ page book, of the idea of actually digesting it (especially in a culture obsessed with being thing), of walking "away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller." When I last wrote about Infinite Jest, I was irritated at James Woods for labeling DFW as a "hysterical realist," and in fact with this whole obsession with "realism" itself, as if that's a goal we should strive for. (I mean, why read at all, then, instead of engaging with the literal windows of the world?) That's why I get upset for people when they tell me they don't get anything out of this novel, and upset at people when they tell me Wallace is an awful writer. Because this amazing, difficult novel is the Really Good Work that "comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you really feel something. To be sort of willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow."

I can't end with that line, because I know--sadly--that Wallace's suicide is what caused more than a few people to at last pick up this book. Instead, let me just close with the genuine appreciation and the capitalized Identifying that I'm doing with this book. I have read many books in my time, but I can recall very few of them, which makes me suspect that I was never really *reading* them, so much as I was escaping personal issues by getting "lost" in a book. And this is true, I know this...just as I know that I am getting "found" in Infinite Jest.

1 comment:

Paris said...

I'm glad you're getting "found" (but don't worry, if you keep moving, you'll get mis-placed again, right?). And I Identify with what you say about "really Reading," as I feel as fully integrated with this book as I can be. I'm working on a post that tries to "track" the fate of the Entertainment to date (Nov. 9, Y.D.A.U.), and I've found so many amazing connected bits (stemming from the Lucien section) that my mind is bursting - but not Lost.

[P.S. Paris = Infinite Tasks]