All That

The New Yorker this week published online an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that has stirred quite a bit of discussion on the wallace-l mailing list, most of it centering, as the fragment does, on religious feeling. As an atheist myself, I have a tendency to think/wish/hope that smart people I admire are also atheists. It’s strange, I know, but why not hope for an extension of affinities into that area of thought and feeling? Although I don’t feel as if I really need (as in emotionally need) external validation of my position, it’s still neat to share a viewpoint with people you admire. It’s not really clear what Wallace’s beliefs with respect to religion were, though. We know from various sources that he went to church but wasn’t raised religious. He certainly seemed, in Infinite Jest, to acknowledge that there was value in recognizing a higher power. Yet he wasn’t the evangelical sort by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty easy, from where I sit, to imagine that he valued the cultural and communal bits of religion while relying more on secular thought for his personal ethics. We’ll probably never know exactly where he stood in real life. In the new fragment, entitled “All That,” he seems to be pretty open to religion and to a sort of spiritualism.

Here I’ll begin to talk about the story, so if you haven’t read it yet and are anti-spoiler, you might want to mosey on along.

The narrator gives accounts of two events in his life that were instrumental in helping him form a religious sensibility. The first, in which his parents convinced him that a toy truck was endowed with a sort of magic, speaks (I think) to the idea of faith and how the not knowing via evidence that what you have faith in is true is a part of what makes it special. How sad it would be, he suggests, to actually trap the tooth fairy. And, by extension, how disappointing it would be, I suppose, to  finally find empirical evidence of God. A belief system constructed around the idea of faith becomes meaningless when faith is no longer a necessity. Magic tricks aren’t as fun to watch once you know how they’re done. Faith, which people like me see as a flaw of religion, may in fact be one of the points and joys of religion.

The second formative event centers on the narrator’s recollection of a movie’s plot and how it differs from his father’s recollection. The difference has less to do with faith than with actions. I guess it has something of love thy neighbor in it. More on that in a moment.

At the heart of both episodes is a sort of duality. The narrator says the following about differing perceptions:

Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed.

Later, we have the father and son’s vastly different recollections of the movie. And within the movie itself, we’re told of a prevailing sentiment and a sentiment (on the part of the narrator within the movie) at odds with it. In all cases, given the same objective inputs, opposite subjective conclusions are reached. There’s a failure to align perceptions.

Interestingly, our narrator hears voices as a child whose speakers do inhabit the same space he does. Their perceptions agree with his in a way that, he figures, biological adults’ perceptions can’t, and the voices are a source of real fits of ecstasy (as in rolling on the floor, capital-E Ecstasy) on the boy’s part. Of that ecstasy, we learn the following:

[M]y father (who clearly “enjoyed” me and my eccentricities) once laughingly told my mother that he thought I might suffer from a type of benign psychosis called “antiparanoia,” in which I seemed to believe that I was the object of an intricate universal conspiracy to make me so happy I could hardly stand it.

I suppose there are certain resonances of this fragment with parts of Infinite Jest. There’s the infantilization of rolling around on the floor, being stroked lovingly by his mother, being more or less cradled in the father’s lap, and of course this idea of being the center of a happiness conspiracy. But the first of Wallace’s works that sprang to mind when I read the fragment was “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All” (the state fair essay), in which Wallace writes the following:

One of the few things I still miss from my Midwest childhood was this weird, deluded but unshakable conviction that everything around me existed all and only For Me. Am I the only one who had this queer deep sense as a kid? — that everything exterior to me existed only insofar as it affected me somehow? — that all things were somehow, via some occult adult activity, specially arranged for my benefit? Does anybody else identify with this memory? The child leaves a room, and now everything in that room, once he’s no longer there to see it, melts away into some void of potential or else (my personal childhood theory) is trundled away by occult adults and stored until the child’s reentry into the room recalls it all back into animate service. Was this nuts? It was radically self-centered, of course, this conviction, and more than a little paranoid. Plus the responsibility it conferred: if the whole of the world dissolved and resolved each time I blinked, what if my eyes didn’t open?

Maybe what I really miss now is the fact that a child’s radical delusive self-centeredness doesn’t cause him conflict or pain. His is the sort of regally innocent solipsism of like Bishop Berkeley’s God: all things are nothing until his sight calls them forth from the void: his stimulation is the world’s very being. And this is maybe why a little kid so fears the dark: it’s not the possible presence of unseen fanged things in the dark, but rather the actual absence of everything his blindness has now erased. For me, at least, pace my folks’ indulgent smiles, this was my true reason for needing a nightlight: it kept the world turning.

Back to the story at hand, we begin with the narrator making discoveries about faith and about his own agency. But there’s a sort of inversion from what Wallace writes about in the essay excerpted above: the world (or the cement mixer’s drum) revolves (he believes) only when the boy isn’t looking at it vs. the world existing only when Wallace, as a child, was looking at it.

In the essay, Wallace writes specifically of solipsism, of being trapped more or less within yourself. I am in here. In the fragment, I think he’s writing about getting outside yourself. It’s not that the world stops when you close your eyes to it but that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really see or understand certain forces external to your direct experience. So a certain amount or sort of faith becomes useful. Wallace first gives us something of a thought experiment with the toy cement mixer, but in the movie scenario, he gives us a more complex situation to ponder. The conflict in that scenario is whether it’s nobler to protect your own or to protect others from your own. It’s a very complex question within context, for you have to consider the broader war itself, the particular roles of the participants in question within that context, the particular moods of and recent influences on all participants, and so on. But if we’re a little more reductive about it, I think we can boil the scenario down a bit and understand it as a consideration of the other vs. the self (another duality), with Wallace suggesting that reaching out to protect the other — getting outside your self — may sometimes be the nobler path.

The narrator views the movie’s lieutenant’s last noble act (as the narrator remembers it, that is) with a sort of ecstasy that calls to mind the ecstasy he felt as a younger child when listening to the voices in his head. But this ecstasy is the result of external forces rather than of internal agreeable voices and so shows a sort of development outward from in here.

There’s a lot I’m still trying to unpack about this fragment, and I’m not at all satisfied with what I’ve written above as an interpretive essay. There’s some big connection I feel like I’m missing. But it’s a start.

A couple of other things have come up on the list. For example, why did the narrator’s parents screw with him with the whole magic thing, especially if they’re devout atheists who you wouldn’t think would want to promote superstition? I think the simple answer is that sometimes parents just say silly things because it’s fun to joke around. Every morning that I drive my daughter and a neighbor to kindergarten, I ask if I should speed up and jump the railroad tracks (it’s a big hump and would cause a lot of damage to my vehicle if I jumped it). When they scream gleefully that I should, I slap my thigh and lament that I thought of it too late, that there’s simply not enough runway to get adequate speed. Remind me tomorrow, I tell them. Ever since my children were old enough to understand and respond to language, I’ve presented them with goofy scenarios and waited for them to correct me. Parents just do this sort of thing. In the fragment, it does seem that the parents play an active role in perpetuating the magical thinking, but the germination of the thing doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. And sometimes you just want your kids to work things out for themselves. We do the whole Santa thing, but when my kids start thinking critically about it and questioning the stories, we’ll encourage it obliquely so that they arrive at appropriate conclusions without being force fed the truth.I can’t help thinking that Wallace is saying something else about faith here. There’s plenty of magical thinking involved in faith. You can never really know for sure that God’s there behind the scenes making stuff happen, and maybe the harder you look, the more likely you are to determine that God’s not really there — that the drum isn’t spinning after all. If we think of it this way, then the parents almost become God surrogates, providing information about the truck (or about reality) but requiring that the child work out on his own whatever his beliefs about the truck are. The narrator doesn’t understand why his parents have made a puzzle of this for him any more than people understand why God isn’t more obvious about his existence and plan, and yet the fact that it’s a puzzle has turned out to be valuable to the narrator. Faith, as I suggested above, may be one of the joys of religion.

Another issue that came up on the list was the narrator’s statements that he wasn’t very articulate and the fact that he is actually pretty articulate. Whether it points to insecurity or to false modesty or to real modesty I’m not sure. It certainly seems like one of those framing or narrative tricks that Wallace has used before to remind us that what we’re reading is mediated.

Not discussed as yet on wallace-l is the Catholicism present in the story. It’s minor, but the boy mentions going to Mass with neighbors. Given my last paragraph, I’m having trouble not saying something about the mediation inherent in that religion, though I don’t think Wallace is really doing anything with that here. But the ecstasy, in association with the presence of Catholicism, calls to mind the various references to The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Infinite Jest, and I wonder if more couldn’t be mined out of this material. In the gruesome ecstasy scene in IJ, there’s actually quite a bit more Catholic subtext than is apparent to a recent or non-Catholic (do a little research on the titles of the magazines named in the scene, if you’re curious), and that makes me all the more curious about the reference to Catholicism in this fragment.

I Know a Good Book When I Want to Write One

I wonder how many readers are also closet would-be writers? Are there people who love to read the sort of stuff I love to read who don’t also secretly wish they could write the sort of stuff I love to read? One yardstick I use for measuring the goodness of a book is whether or not it makes me want to turn right around and write one of my own (or pick back up one of the several lapsed projects I’ve started over the past decade). Infinite Jest is definitely one of those books. The Time of Our Singing was one. East of Eden was one. Things by Pynchon, for example, though I tend to think of them as good medicine — meaning I often don’t enjoy them a whole lot while I’m reading them, but afterward I’m glad I did it — don’t make me want to write.

The thing about Wallace is that he writes about stuff in ways that I can identify with in a voice that’s comfortable and familiar. He writes in ways that reach out to me, and I find myself thinking “well I could do that, because it’s familiar and I understand it.” But his writing is so obsessive and thorough and good that I know I could never do quite what he does. So I figure that any time I try to write after reading his work, I’ll wind up writing all these logjam sentences full of stuff about disconnection and sadness and beautiful precision that’ll wind up sounding just like a 17-year-old trying to imitate Wallace. I’m thinking of a lack of depth and maturity and originality.

When I finish a book like Infinite Jest, which I did last night (complete with a reread of the first 17 pages) I want to go create something of my own; I feel like I could pour out 10,000 words of something OK in an evening that the next evening upon a reread would turn out to be depressingly bad, or at least unartfully derivative. So among the many paradoxes or double-binds that Wallace presents me with is one more personal than most, in which his excellence simultaneously makes me want both right away and never ever to try to write a word of fiction again.

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.


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.


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.