Some notes on the first milestone

I have to admit, pulling my thoughts together in order to create a decent first blog post about Infinite Jest has been harder than I had anticipated.  I’ve been beneffitting greatly from Daryl‘s observations and some of the posts and comments over at the mothership.  But, in a way, the wealth of good and informative posts only makes things harder, as anything I might be clever enough to say has likely already been said, and more cleverly.

I’ve found myself taking more than the usual amount of notes for this thing.  And I’ve been trying to stay ahead of the the reading schedule, both because I know that I’ll sooner-or-later fall behind (likely right after the students in my summer class turns in their second round of papers) and because getting a little deeper into the book ads some perspective.

[Here be spoilers: I’ll be discussing pages 3-63, below.]

What to say about the first sixty-three pages?  First off, it’s not pulling teeth. DWF keeps things lively with shifting points of view, a huge cast of characters, and a good dose of (generally dark) humor.

The first chapter (“Year of Glad,” 3-17) is one of discrepancies, the first being the distance between Hal’s academic performance, which is outstanding, and his performance on academic tests, which is described by one of the deans in the interview that is the gist of this chapter as “subnormal” (6). The second, and probably more significant, is the discrepancy between Hal’s point of view and that of everyone else in the chapter–or as much as we can surmise of it, since we see their reactions only through his eyes. Internally, Hal seems on the verge of a panic attach of some sort, but he also seems quite well versed in how to manage his own anxiety.

It is only after the deans dismiss his two handlers, Uncle Chuck (whose full name, we later learn, is Dr. Chuck Tavis, [half?] brother-in-law of Hal’s late father, James O. Incandenza, and his successor as director of the Enfield Tennis Academy) and Avery deLint, one of the “prorectors” at the ETA, that the silent Hal finally speaks and the distance between his point of view and every other is revealed, albeit with a good dose of comedy, like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen skit gone mad, as the deans seem to try to outdo one another in their descriptions of Hal’s behavior:

‘But the sounds he made.’
‘Like an animal.’
Subanimalistic noises and sounds.’
‘Nor let’s not forget the gestures.’
[. . .]
‘Like some sort of animal with something in its mouth.’
[. . .]
‘A writing animal with a knife in its eye.’ (14)

Stylistically, one of the most interesting and enjoyable things about the first chapter is how close we are to Hal’s view of things.  His view is idiosyncratic and finely focused on visual details of the room and his experience of it (and reflections triggered by the same). But, for all that, it isn’t too hard to follow Hal’s thoughts.  What is challenging is DWF’s penchant for giving characters multiple names and nicknames, referring to them by whatever one pleases him, or the character doing the describing, as is common both in the real world and in Russian fiction.  Uncle Chuck is, at various points, “Charles,” and “C.T.” (even before we know his last name).  The same is similar for almost every other character. I find myself drawing lists of characters to keep this all sorted out.  The business with the names adds realism and a bit of mystery, and is clue enough that the author expects us to keep track of things.

(I’ve been using the term “chapter” here, to describe the divisions of the text, but just what counts as a chapter is also a judgement call. Some “chapters,” like the first one, start off with a little circular symbol and a title.  Other have just white space and a title. There are many places where the narrative shifts and the only typographical indication of it is additional white space. I’ve seen a few different numbering schemes for these. So I’ll stick with page numbers, for clarity.)

I think the main takeaway from these opening chapters is to acquaint us with some of the vast cast of characters (the vastness of which also, like the penchant for nicknames, invites a comparison with Russian novels), whose story lines will surely converge and intertwine as time goes on. It also serves to introduce us to some of the range of styles and points of view to expect from DFW.

The second chapter (17-27), where we are introduced to Erdedy, is a case in point.  Here, we move from the chaos and first person point of view of the opening chapter to a third-person point of view centered on Erdedy and following his thoughts in stream-of-consciousness fashion, following his anxieties as he prepares for yet another “one more last time” (19) marijuana binge. This chapter is a stunning and stunningly accurate portrait of anxiety, and it could easily stand on its own as a short story.

If I had any reservations about the novel, this chapter sent them packing. Erdedy’s contemplation (or, really, refusal to contemplate) the bug in his stereo system brings to mind Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Though not physically a bug, sitting almost without motion in his own protective armor, how much does Erdedy already resemble one?  Like Hal, Erdedy also finds himself trapped in lines of anticipation and expectation. And, like Hal, his consciousness is finely focussed, at times to the point of distraction, on the world around him and the thoughts it sparks. DWF clearly has a metaphorical turn of mind, which means we’re in for a lot of fun unpacking what he offers us and making connections between the various characters, events, and symbols in this novel.

9 thoughts on “Some notes on the first milestone

  1. Daryl Houston June 29, 2009 / 9:27 pm

    Ugh, I guess I know what you mean about how other posts make reading the thing harder (not just because they add up to more reading). It’s what I was sort of struggling with in my question in an earlier post about a reasonable approach.

    I’m glad you pulled out quotes from the deans. I’ve always been a little puzzled by those. They seem so over the top and just plain artificial (“the integrity of my sleep has forever been compromised” was another, I think) that I don’t know what to make of them. What exactly does sub-mammalian mean, in this context? Was he clicking or buzzing or something? And the knife in the eye? It’s just weird. Is this clumsy or is it, as you suggest, comedic, or is it even reliable reportage, coming as it does from Hal? I’m not winking and providing a knowing hint here. I’m really and truly puzzled.

    I had never thought of the nick-naming in the book as Russian, though when I think back to the Dostoyevsky I’ve read (Wallace seems to have been a fan of Dostoyevsky, by the way, and wrote a great essay on a set of volumes about him), the confusing names do come back to mind. It’s a neat association to make.

  2. James Martin June 29, 2009 / 10:28 pm

    I think the scene with the deans works several ways. I think it’s so far over the top that you have to laugh, and DFW can get away with it because he’s telling it from Hal’s perspective, and I think it’s also a jibe at the deans themselves, who seem to be in the business of trying to make something out of nothing (just a big swipe at academia in general, perhaps). And, perhaps, it’s a good reminder that the conventions of realism aren’t going to apply here. We’re in different territory.

    I’m not sure I know enough about Russian lit to make that claim, but it’s certainly true of Crime and Punishment. I had to keep lists with everyone’s aliases sorted out to make it through that one. And I’d forgotten about that Dostoyevsky piece you mention. That one was collected in Consider the Lobster. And it was a very find piece a work. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  3. steven July 16, 2009 / 12:10 am

    Yes, the names are very punny. DeLint, for example, because later on we’re told that “sporting lint” (or some such expression) is a Boston-area euphemism for poverty. And in a novel that describes a President Limbaugh and a Vice President Kemp, the name “Orin” is about as neutral as the interracial “Strom” family (shades of Bessie Mae Washington’s “Dear Senator”) with its Jewish emigree father, a physicist working on the Manhattan project, and his African American wife, an aspiring opera singer, in Richard Powers’s epic novel of the civil rights and post-civil rights era, “The Time of Our Singing.” And speaking of music, the name Incandenza conjures up incandescent cadenzas.

    The reference to “November” in the first paragraph (Hal sits in “a cold room in University Administration…double-windowed against the November heat”) is almost certainly an allusion to the first paragraph of Moby-Dick (“whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul”), as might be the riff on “tatoos” later on, specifically the counterintuitive humor about black people not getting tatoos for “obvious” reasons (Queequeg, as I remember, favors the Dennis Rodman-style full-body art along with the Mike Tyson-style facial tats). The “Pledge husks” or molted skin of the Enfield students seem to have a symbolic value.

    Still in the first paragraph when Hal says “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies,” it reminds me somewhat of the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” in which the nameless protagonist begins by affirming his own reality in the face of dehumanizing forces in society that can lead to the disintegration of the personality:

    ‘”I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

    All three openings – Infinite Jest, Moby-Dick, and Invisible Man (Ralph Walso Ellison was named after the great individualist of Concord and cited Moby-Dick as his favorite novel), are concerned, at least in part, with the nature of identity and/or the existential condition.

    To borrow from one of my favorite books, John Leland’s “Hip: The History,” mid-19th century writers like Herman Melville witnessed a shift in American life from the rural farms to the industrial factories and mills of the cities, where people assumed one identity at work and then went home at the end of the day and were able to “reconstruct” their identities in their own leisure time:

    “The writers of the American Renaissance reacted to these abstractions, treating identity itself as negotiable. In the famous opening line of Moby-Dick, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ the narrator doesn’t so much identify himself as invite readers to distrust his identity, to consider this ‘Ishmael’ a provisional conceit between themselves and the author. By the time Melville wrote The Confidence-Man six years later, he created a nameless protagonist who changed identity from page to page. The character appears as a crippled black man in one chapter and as a white man wearing a weed in his hat in the next. Melville’s con man, a trickster, evokes the most famous American of the day, Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), who opened his American Museum of oddities, freaks and scams on lower Broadway in 1842. Like other tricksters, Melville’s confidence man performs for sport as much as for profit.” [47]

    The Pequod, the whaling ship in Moby-Dick, has been described by Jamaican scholar C.L.R. James as a “floating factory ship,” because only on American whalers was the blubber processed into oil on board, allowing the ships to remain at sea for long periods of time, perhaps a year or more. However, for the crew, the work is similar to farm work in that it’s all-consuming, not like urban factory work where the workers are able to return home every night.

    The factory in Invisible Man is Liberty Paints, where the protagonist is assigned the task of adding ten drops of black to every can of white to make “the right white.” The school, like the protagonist is unnamed, it’s simply The College. E.T.A. is a school but it’s also a “tennis factory.” Interesting that Venus Williams is mentioned a few times and part of the Williams sisters’ story is that they are not products of a tennis academy.

    So Infinite Jest shares a regional Massachusetts connection with the writers of the American Renaissance, with Ralph Ellison’s namesake, and even with Jack Kerouac, a French Canadian from the Massachusetts factory town of Lowell whose first language was French.

    The scene involving the deans is an expression of social invisibility. It reminds me of something in “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck’s epic novel of California in the 19th century. Adam Trask, a New Englander who emigrates there after the Civil War, has a Chinese manservant named Lee. Although Lee has an American college education and speaks perfectly intelligent English, he’s not understood by the cowboys and other Californians unless he speaks the way they expect a Chinese man in that place and time to speak. So in order to be understood he talks in a kind of Chinese pidgen English, like all the time!

    So without rereading the scene in Infinite Jest, I thought it expressed basically the same thing. The deans were expecting him to speak like a typical tennis player, and instead, what he said went way beyond their comprehension maybe. It’s funny, but it’s a humor of overstatement that you find elsewhere in the novel, for example, the idea that tennis players have one overdeveloped arm and one skinny arm (I didn’t see any evidence of that at either the French Open or Wimbledon), or the idea of tennis players spraying themselves with Pledge furniture polish in lieu of sunblock, ostensibly because it’s cheaper. The whole idea of using sunblock is to prevent skin cancer. Furniture polishes like Pledge are formulated to prevent harmful UV damage to outdoor furniture, not to prevent skin cancer with repeated application to human arms, legs, and faces during strenuous activity outdoors.

  4. Daryl Houston July 17, 2009 / 12:56 pm

    I’m not sure what you’re saying re Orin, but I’m glad you bring up The Time of Our Singing, one of my favorite books. I’m also not sure I buy the November setting as a Moby Dick reference. What would be the point? I suppose the point is the nature of identity/existence that you mention, but I’m just not sure I buy it. The moods of the two openings are entirely different. I do like the thing you mention about Lee in East of Eden (another favorite), but it’s my sense that Hal is really just making noises and not speaking above the deans’ comprehension or anything. There’s not really any ambiguity about the fact that there’s something wrong with him.

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