No comment

This week’s early milestone stops right in the middle of what is both metaphorically and literally a pivotal scene. I can’t even pretend to say anything useful about it until the scene is resolved. Maybe later in the week, I’ll come up with something about stuff that happens through page 611, but for now, I’ve got nothing. There’s stuff to say. The stuff about Mario, for example. Weird little motifs (e.g. fingers). That sort of thing. Sinister (by which I mean not just sort of malignant but also left-handed, which I think is a good thing to notice) Swiss Subjects. There’s plenty to write about — just not much I’ve got the urge to sit down and do anything with just now.

Two things that sort of broke my heart, reading this far in the book for the first time since Wallace’s death:

It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not sure you even know.

and:

Madame still had a slight accent and often spoke on the show as if she were talking exclusively to one person or character who was very important to her… Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way.

< Two Months

It’s less than two months until the one-year anniversary of Wallace’s death. I learned of his death first I think from a twitter status update, and I couldn’t believe it, figured it was a hoax or misinformation. I kept very close tabs on wallace-l thereafter and got confirmation late on the 12th (probably very early on the 13th) of September last year. So many of the voices on wallace-l have impressed me, not only for their erudition and acuity w/r/t Wallace’s work (and reading in general — I spend a lot of my time reading the list feeling like an all-caps RETARD), but also for their basic humanity. I have two old friends I haven’t successfully communicated with for years (though I’ve tried a time or two) who were born on September 12. They also happen to be married (I also have another pair of married friends born on a different same date, and I once randomly met a guy with my same multi-spellable name spelled just the same as mine and born on the same date as me — is this my super power?). That’s not really important. I mention it just because the date has a whole new meaning to me now, a more personal one in a way, however strange that is since I knew these friends for years (one was my best friend as a child) and never knew Wallace personally (I also, by the way, happened to grow up in a town named Wallace). As I read the sad sad comments re Wallace’s possible and then probable and then more or less confirmed death roll in to wallace-l, I remember thinking that I wished I could get on the phone with these people and just listen to the sniffling and the breathing, share their misery, sniffle and breathe back at them, connect in some way closer (though not much closer) to real life. I wanted an emotional connection with people with whom I already shared something of an intellectual connection. Infinite Summer ends a week or two after the anniversary of Wallace’s death, I think, and as I contemplate the ends both of Infinite Summer and of Wallace, I find myself wishing again for that connection, that shared misery and acknowledgment, wishing to hear the sniffles of people as profoundly affected by Wallace’s work and the personality that work projected as I’ve been.

Here’s a Question

What do you know about Wallace and his life (and his death) that influences your participation in Infinite Summer? Annie Lowrey over at A Supposedly Fun Blog made me think to ask:

This [reading has been far more poignant than others] in part because I know, I think, a bit too much about DFW for comfort now. I read the D.T. Max and the Rolling Stone pieces on him, and many other outpourings. I wish I hadn’t, at least in the context of reading IJ.

It’s a great post, and the bloggers over there seem to be off to a solid start all around. I don’t especially need more to read about Infinite Summer and its subject, but into my feed reader they go. (Disclaimer: If their blog turns out better than ours, we’re totally going to stagger, my zombie compatriots and I*, arms outstretched, and eat their brains.)

I’ve blogged already about what baggage I bring to the project. What about you? Is Wallace’s death a big factor in your signing on? Are there things you’ve learned about his life (e.g. that he was depressed for a long time, that he was a near-great young tennis player, etc.) that were factors? Given any such factors, can you bring yourself to avoid succumbing to the intentional fallacy? (And should you?)

Just curious.

* I actually have not gotten pledges from any other Infinite Zombies bloggers to do this. Also, this is not a cutesy attempt to use notes the way Wallace does. I find that kind of irritating. But I was inside a parenthesis and a bracket just didn’t feel right.

Trapped

Let’s begin.

When I first read Infinite Jest, I didn’t care too much about the Erdedy section. I suppose I found it tiresome and repetitive and too re-hashy of the whole addiction denial/relapse cycle. But every time I reread it, I see a little more truth in it. Even for as light-weight a something-shy-of-an-addict to various mostly-harmless things (as innocuous as, say, rigid routine and no more harmful than alcohol) as I am, there’s a certain truth even for me to the compulsive repetitiveness and desperation of it. Erdedy’s life is an intensification of the whole hugging-the-porcelain-god-and-promising-never-to-drink-again (and doing it every weekend) thing that so many go through during especially their younger days. It rings really true for me during recent reads, and it has morphed from a minor, kind of irritating episode to a key and true description of an authentic sort of human behavior that’s probably more pervasive than any one person, on his own island of addiction to and shame of substance/behavior/thing X, is inclined generally to suspect.

For the wallace-l mailing list, I provided an introduction of pages 17 – 39 of the book at the beginning of a group read that wrapped up in the last few weeks (which I didn’t finish, getting only to page 80-something). Because there tend not to be any spoiler rules for that list (most of the vocal members having read the book and most of Wallace’s work many times), my intro contained plenty of information that could be construed as spoilage and thus can’t really be used here. One pretty safe passage from my intro follows.

There’s a lot of bug talk in the Erdedy section, as in fact there is throughout the book (Orin’s phobia in the next section [and other things redacted]). I’ve always thought there was something sort of Kafka-Metamorphic in the first section, what with Hal thrown to the floor unable to communicate with the heads around him, his arms waggling as he makes sub-mammalian sounds. CT stabs his phone antenna like an insect, I think, in the first section. And here Erdedy contemplates a bug in his home and sees in the bug something of himself. He’s trapped in the geometry of his home (lots of angles cast by shadows, at least one triangle and one parallelogram mentioned specifically) and in the defensive shell of his rationalizations and promises as the bug (and it’s hard really to think of a chitinous bug as anything but its shell) is trapped in its shell in the girder. Erdedy makes basically a bunker of his home to “vacate” to/in, and this is just the beginning of a whole bunch of being trapped in the book [with certain details redacted here]. And then of course there is Hal’s entrapment within himself.

In one of a series of Bookworm interviews hosted by Michael Silverblatt, that interviewer brings up the notion of the double-bind in Infinite Jest. Wallace I think first explores these in the antinomies that appear in Broom of the System. Erdedy provides a prime example (a wallace-l member pointed this out during my portion of the group read). For instance, Erdedy desperately wants to use the phone to call his source but is afraid to because if the line is busy when his source for the pot calls, he’ll miss the call he’s waiting for. And he has an impulse to watch TV but winds up flipping around a lot because he worries that if he settles on one thing, he’ll miss something that’s even better on another channel. And at the end, he’s essentially crucified in mid-air, reaching for the door on one side and the phone on the other and utterly unable to move or even think. The recurrent double-bind theme seems to me to be very much tied into the addiction theme, the notion that you can cling with such need to something that you know will do you harm and that you’ll regret.

Isn’t the professional conversationalist section just a riot? This episode will pop up again in a slightly different form in an unrelated (beyond the fact of its occurrence in both places) long end note before too long. This kind of humor abounds in Infinite Jest, and if you like it, you might want to go and read The Broom of the System too. In this section, Hal’s dad contends that he (Hal) doesn’t speak, and it corresponds to the first section in which he actually can’t communicate to the deans. Yet it’s clear that Hal can talk in this section and that time has passed between the two sections (with the first occurring a number of years later).

I love this:

In the eighth American-educational grade, Bruce Green fell dreadfully in love with a classmate who had the unlikely name of Mildred Bonk. The name was unlikely because if ever an eighth-grader looked like a Daphne Christianson or a Kimberly St.-Simone or something like that, it was Mildred Bonk. She was the kind of fatally pretty and nubile wraithlike figure who glides through the sweaty junior-high corridors of every nocturnal emitter’s dreamscape. Hair that Green had heard described by an over-wrought teacher as ‘flaxen’; a body which the fickle angel of puberty — the same angel who didn’t even seem to know Bruce Green’s zip code — had visited, kissed, and already left, back in sixth; legs which not even orange Keds with purple-glitter-encrusted laces could make unserious. Shy, iridescent, coltish, pelvically anfractuous, amply busted, given to diffident movements of hand brushing flaxen hair from front of dear creamy forehead, movements which drove Bruce Green up a private tree. A vision in a sundress and silly shoes. Mildred L. Bonk.

Hal and Erdedy like to get high in private. For Hal, the secrecy is part of the addiction. I don’t think there’s really any shame for him. This little bit of privacy is the one thing he can control within his regimented life at the tennis academy. For Erdedy, it has always seemed to me to be about shame. We’ll see lots of flavors and degrees of addiction from here on out.

So far, we have a weather-protection bubble called the Lung and a campus in the shape of a heart (cardoid). Later we’ll see a Brain building. I don’t remember whether there are more things like this later in the book, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled.

Have you been keeping tabs on point of view? On page 61, we revisit the first person singular for the first time (I think, after a quick re-scan) since page 17. And what a doozie of a section. It tumbles and spirals, and I think one does well to read it aloud. How important it is to the middle and later parts of the book I can’t recall. It’s a section I always forget about but love when I rediscover it.

Wow, I didn’t even touch on Orin or Gately or Mario, but I’m tapped out from writing and maybe you’re tapped out from reading what I’ve put down so far. I reckon I need a nice pat summary, though. So I’ll circle back to my title. Trapped. Hal is “in here.” In where? In the chitonous shell that his insectile movements suggests he seems to inhabit Gregor-Samsa-like (uh, no, not literally)? In his head? Has he retreated into that ultimate privacy of solipsism? Well, he’s clearly trapped somewhere. And what about Erdedy, with all the angles and boxes of his house, the bug sequestered in its girder much as Erdedy sequesters himself inert in his home? Or the attache, slave to his client and to his nightly routine, or his wife, thrall to the attache’s demands? What about Wardine, stuck in what is clearly a horrific situation? Or The Moms, agoraphobic since the death of Hal’s father? Or Orin, “entombed in that kind of psychic darkness where you’re dreading whatever you think of” (p. 42) or the roaches he traps and his nightmare about being trapped underwater with his own mom’s disembodied head attached to his own? And DuPlessis, whom Gately literally binds and gags, eventually accidentally killing him, and Gately’s own slavery to his addiction? And addiction — well, it is its own sort of trap or cage, after all, isn’t it?

Front Matter

Do you read front matter in books? I do so compulsively. The standard disclaimer that appears with all the Library of Congress mumbo jumbo tends to read (as it does in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) something like this:

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Which of course is complete bullshit.

The front matter of his 1989 short-story collection Girl with Curious Hair spices the disclaimer up a bit:

These stories are 100 percent fiction. Some of them project the names of “real” public figures onto made-up characters in made-up circumstances. Where the names of corporate, media, or political figures are used here, those names are meant only to denote figures, images, the stuff of collective dreams; they do not denote, or pretend to private information about, actual 3-D persons, living, dead, or otherwise.

Essay collections are a little different in that they typically don’t require disclaimers about fictionalizing real people, but that’s not to say that they can’t have entertaining front matter. In his essay collection entitled Consider the Lobster, Wallace gives us this:

The following pieces were originally published in edited, heavily edited, or (in at least one instance) bowdlerized form in the following books and periodicals. N.B.: In those cases where the fact that the author was writing for a particular organ is important to the essay itself — i.e., where the commissioning magazine’s name keeps popping up in ways that can’t now be changed without screwing up the whole piece — the entry is marked with an asterisk. A single case in which the essay was written to be delivered as a speech, plus another one where the original article appeared bipseudonymously and now for odd and hard-to-explain reasons doesn’t quite work if the “we” and “your correspondents” thing gets singularized, are further tagged with what I think are called daggers.

A list of publications follows, complete with the aforementioned asterisks and daggers. Infinite Jest goes as follows:

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any apparent similarity to real persons is not intended by the author and is either a coincidence or the product of your own troubled imagination.

Where the names of real places, corporations, institutions, and public figures are projected onto made-up stuff, they are intended to denote only made-up stuff, not anything presently real.

Besides Closed Meetings for alcoholics only, Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston, Massachusetts also has Open Meetings, where pretty much anybody who’s interested can come and listen, take notes, pester people with questions, etc. A lot of people at these Open Meetings spoke with me and were extremely patient and garrulous and generous and helpful. The best way I can think of to show my appreciation to these men and women is to decline to thank them by name.

After riffing just a little bit on the standard disclaimer, he goes into that unguarded, earnest expression of gratitude complete with what is sort of a trademark serial-“and” clause that has a way, probably because it is sort of child-like, of conveying innocence and I think sincerity and honesty, which (honesty) is one of the things I most like about Wallace’s work.

So, front matter. It’s usually not worth a read but is occasionally funny, informative (in a “here, let me open up the back of the shop for you a little bit” sort of way), or even endearing.

Perspective

It must have been Christmas of 1998 that I got my hands on Infinite Jest. It was late in my college career, and I had been steeped for a few years in reading dead old white guys. By this time, I suppose I had more or less committed to studying Milton and the dramatists of the 17th century. When I opened my Christmas gift from my sister, I saw a big big book with blue sky and clouds on the cover and a picture of a scruffy, sort of pursed-lipped, bandanaed guy on the back. My sister told me that she figured I had read plenty of dead guys and it was time I read some guys who were still living (now, just a few months shy of the anniversary of Wallace’s death, boy does that sting). She later confessed to me that she had bought it for herself but couldn’t get into it and figured it might be up my alley. After all, it seemed to be about tennis, and I had been an avid if mostly ungifted tennis player in high school.

I read the book in ten days over Christmas break, growing bedsore as I turned page after page after page. It was just that compelling, a fact that becomes significant as you wind your way deeper and deeper into the book and its central theme of addiction (the back cover of the book mentions addiction, so let’s don’t count that as a spoiler). For the decade-plus that I’ve lived with this book, I’ve continued to be hit by how the cycles and rationalizations of addiction and need described in Infinite Jest bear on my own life. Certain early sections capital-R Resonate with me — even though I don’t feel sufficiently entitled or tried-by-fire enough to feel such resonance — as has much of Wallace’s work since Infinite Jest. It’s been long enough since I’ve read all the way through to the end that I wonder if there might not be later sections that strike more of a chord with me now than when I was younger.

When I read Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, I thought there was just a real earnestness about the work. Much of it I’m sure I didn’t get. Good lord, I can’t say that I identified with all of the hideous men. Yet in many of them, there’s a kernel of unvarnished, private truth, things one thinks and hates himself for thinking and doesn’t necessarily say aloud (even within what counts as “aloud” in his own head). I could recognize little bits of myself in little bits of plenty of Wallace’s writing, and I figured he was really honest at his best. And that was something I appreciated.

I got drunk once after reading BIWHM and wrote Wallace a very short note thanking him for being honest. I didn’t expect a reply, but I sort of wanted one. I hoped that by being direct and brief and by not fawning, I would entice him to open up a to-be-canonized correspondence with me wherein he gave me insight into what scraps of fiction I would one day send his way for critique, and of course it would all be memorialized not only because of his benevolence in mentoring me but because of my own meteoric rise to acclaim in literary fiction and my own earnestness and erudition and sort of rebellious approach to letters. Of course I didn’t really really expect a reply. And I didn’t get one at first. But six months later, he wrote me a post-card. He didn’t invite me to lay my head in the lap of his excellence, but by golly it was a connection, and one he really didn’t have to bother to make. His bothering to write me back made me a fan not just of the work or the author as author but of the man as a person, however little evidence of his goodness as a person I had. To learn after his death that he responded in similar fashion to many many people only made me admire him more.

So, this is the perspective from which I write. I’m a big fan of Wallace’s work. I’m not a scholar by any means, and much (most) of what may pass for scholarship (if anything does) in the posts I’ll write owes a big debt to my experiences on the wallace-l email discussion list, of which I’ve been a mostly quiet member for six or seven years now. I still mourn Wallace’s recent death with real sadness approaching the sort that one typically reserves for close friends or family. I find it easy to forgive whatever’s bad or inexplicably difficult within his work because of how good the really good is. This is not to say that I’m a lock-stepping flag-waver for Wallace’s work. A lot of it seems almost impenetrable or just weird or even boring. But when he’s good, I think he’s just about beyond compare.

I started rereading Infinite Jest a month or two after Wallace’s death but stopped less than 100 pages in, maybe because something else came up, maybe because it was just a little too soon yet (I’m not sure which; I’m not trying to be dramatic). Now I’m feeling really up for it again. I lose track of how many times I’ve started reading the book. It’s a half dozen easily. I’ve finished it either two or three times, making this either my third or fourth full reading. I can hardly wait to dive in. Aw, heck: I’m 70 pages in already; I can hardly wait to keep going.