Lists and Ekphrasis and Lists of Ekphrases

I think it’s awfully tempting to read an author like Levin with his influences front of mind. I’ve intended generally to try to read Levin-as-Levin rather than reading him as Levin-as-Literary-Descendant-of-X, except where he seems openly to invite such comparisons (a nod to Coover from someone working in metafiction invites a reading with Coover in mind). In short, although I initially heard of Levin many years ago through some association with or comparison to David Foster Wallace, and I was turned on to Bubblegum when it came up on the wallace-l email list and when Levin was interviewed on the podcast The Great Concavity, I have generally tried not to read him as a DFW acolyte. I have tried to give him his space from Wallace. But in this week’s reading, he invited the comparison very nearly explicitly and I think a bit puckishly.

A Fistful of Fists is a transcript of a documentary that is itself made up of a bunch of short video selections. I initially resisted the urge to read it as a nod to Wallace’s filmography in Infinite Jest. But then I got to page 395, where Levin is very clearly portraying a Wallace-ish character (or maybe a Wallace characterish character), complete with pursed lips, linguistic prissiness, careful use of “nauseate” (a thing for Wallace, though I forget where it came up), self-(that is, Dave-self)-reference, and the kicker: “And but so.” Further, it’s only tangentially related to the rest of the smaller films the documentary comprises, a bit of a curiosity within the parade of horrors.

I take this to be Levin saying something like “I know, I know. Wallace did something similar in IJ with his filmography, and if I don’t make it very clear that I know this, and that I know that people who know Wallace’s work might think this section seems a little derivative of his filmography, then that’s what people will focus on rather than my fucking book and it’ll be annoying. So I’ll just tip the old hat and move on with writing the book I want to write, which happens to include a list of film clips.” I mean, maybe it was just fun to put this in, though.

Thinking about this sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole whose terminal point was the question: But why make this sort of list anyway? What purpose does it serve to go on at such length (this transcript makes up about 12% of Bubblegum‘s page count), for Levin or for others?

At the top of the rabbit hole, I started thinking about other works that make big productions of listing things. There’s Infinite Jest, of course. Bolaño 2666 came to mind too, as it offers its own parade of horrors that is in its way more analogous to the content of Levin’s transcript than Wallace’s filmography is. Melville has his list of extracts. So at least four of the books we’ve covered here do some form of this long listing thing. Then I thought of the rambling description of Achilles’s shield in The Illiad. For a little while I conflated two ideas:

  1. Long lists of things.
  2. Descriptions of other works of art, chiefly visual, which (this sort of description) is also known as ekphrasis.
The Shield of Achilles

In the Bolaño, we have simply a long catalogue of crimes, and to me, its purpose seems to be to make it extremely hard to ignore a very real set of horrific crimes. I can understand why Bolaño wrote about the crimes at length and in such detail. The purpose of this list strikes me in intent as more journalistic than aesthetic.

In Moby-Dick, I can discern some meaning behind the extracts. They set the tone and establish a long literary tradition, among other things. They make sense to me as a grand gesture (much grander than how most extracts or epigraphs land for me). These in general are not examples of ekphrasis (though the book, in its description of a couple of paintings, does offer examples of ekphrasis).

The purpose of the filmography in Infinite Jest is more slippery for me. I love that end note, to be clear. It adds depth and texture and humor and of course also its share of horror (I’m looking at you, Accomplice!). I think it was probably fun to dream up and to write, and maybe that’s reason enough to include it. The filmography is a list of ekphrases, some of them about (or not) a film that cannot be described because to see it in order to describe it (were it even widely available) is to succumb to it. So maybe that’s the point of the whole thing — to provide a pretext for including that little irony.

This is ostensibly a post about Bubblegum, though, so I should maybe write about the novel in question a bit. My problem is that while I can reasonably defend these other lists and ekphrases, I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around why Levin goes on for 12% of the book with these transcripts. They serve a similar purpose to Bolaño’s, maybe, but by comparison, they are trivial. If we consider the cures to be stand-ins for animals and Levin to be on a soapbox, I suppose we can stretch this section a bit to say that he’s really trying to hammer home the atrocities of mistreating animals. But I really don’t think that’s what he’s doing. In spite of how gross a lot of this section is, some of it’s funny too. The “Compliments of the Yachts” vignettes are oddly sort of charming and funny. The science fair presentation made me make laughing sounds a lot. There is gross stuff here, yes, but it does not strike me as preachy stuff, or stuff that works in the way that “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 works.

Yet it goes on for a long time. In spite of the humor, and in spite of the variety of episodes described, this is almost 100 pages of cruelty described often in great detail. Maybe it was fun to dream up and to write and that’s reason enough for including it. But I do feel like there might wind up being more to it than that, with the self-conscious nod to Wallace’s work, the general nesting of genre (recall that this transcript of a film composed of smaller bits of footage is itself a document that Belt has included in his memoir, which this novel purports to be), the things that Belt has said so far about interpretation, the fact that Belt has been asked to read and critique this document.

So, as is my way, I have nothing terribly tidy to conclude here, but I have questions (weigh in if you’ve got thoughts!) and a very satisfying sense of curiosity about what’ll follow.

The End of the Tour

There’s much hay being made among fans of David Foster Wallace recently about the announcement that a film about Wallace is on the horizon. Titled The End of the Tour, the movie will be based on David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed favorably here. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg will star as Wallace and Lipsky.

I have pretty negative feelings about the idea of this film but haven’t been able to sort out exactly why. I can’t really object on the basis of the actors. I think I’ve seen Segel in one or two things and found him at worst unobjectionable; I’ve read that he’s actually done some good, sincere work, and he’s a better pick to play Wallace than droves and droves of people might have been. It’s not as if the producers cast Jack Black or the guy who famously screwed a pie in a couple of movies. Eisenberg I guess I know from The Social Network, but let’s face it — my undies are not in any sort of wad over the portrayal of Lipsky here.

I thought briefly along with Edwin Turner at Biblioklept that the movie would be a “crass cash grab,” but I’m no longer convinced, having read an argument on the wallace-l listserve to the effect that not much money would really have been in play here for Lipsky or the estate. And anyway, Lipsky I took from the beginning to have good intentions. He generously swapped a few emails with me at the time of his book’s publication, and I felt very much as if his heart was in the right place. He was at least as much a fan of Wallace’s as I was, and he was gracious and even sweet. I’m willing enough to grant that even if he made some cash by selling the rights to the book, his main motivation was to tell the story to a broader audience.

Questions of audience are probably what my negative feelings mostly come down to. My introduction to Wallace’s work came during Christmas of 1997, when I was given Infinite Jest as a gift while in college. I holed up and read the book over the course of the break, doing little else. It was an audacious, difficult book, one of the first things I remember recognizing on my own as a good book. Sure, I had read lots of classics and had jumped on the various bandwagons that young people jump on (Salinger so gets me!), but most of what I had read had been filtered to me as something I ought to read. I knew in advance that they were great books. I was given Infinite Jest explicitly because it wasn’t by a dead guy or considered (yet) a work of classic literature, and I blundered into recognizing greatness in it. So in a way, it was a validation of my ability to see a thing as a thing of quality. When I learned later that there was a community of readers devoted to Wallace’s work — that he was considered among these apparently smart people at least to be a writer with important things to say in artful ways — I felt further validated.

To write about discovering things relatively early (albeit after all the hype that I had somehow missed) is kind of dangerous ground for me. I’m vehemently anti being-a-hipster. I dislike the posture of it, the attitude that liking things before anybody else did is a thing that confers any sort of merit. Yet here I am patting myself on the back for feeling glad that I was able to recognize value in Wallace’s work before he was very far into the recent mainstream. Maybe I’m a loser hipster after all, at least in this one little part of my life. In any case, what I’m getting around to is that an affinity for Wallace’s work is something that I’ve always felt as if I had somehow earned. I did the work and recognized the quality of his writing and joined the little club of people who had done the same, and I suppose I came over time to feel as if I had some kind of stake in Wallace’s legacy.

So I guess a lot of my angst about the movie stems from my love of Infinite Jest and a selfish feeling that this sort of creation story around the phenomenon of the book can’t really belong to people who haven’t cultivated a basically emotional appreciation over time for Wallace’s work. I read Infinite Jest so many times, studied it, wrote about it. I felt a kinship with Wallace (even though doing that is stupid). It’s a very personal book to me. I also managed to take his death super personally (stupid or not). Of course then I read Lipsky’s story about the tour and later read D.T. Max’s biography and thought of them both as gifts. Wallace’s legacy was growing more and more mainstream, and it seemed a little weird. More and more people were reading the books rather than just carrying them around or using them as doorstops. I actually sort of loved the early post-mortem mainstreaming of Wallace. The Infinite Summer project was a wonderful thing, for example, and I was pulling for John Krasinski’s adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. So I don’t think it’s that I really object to broader exposure of Wallace’s work (maybe I’m not a hipster after all!). But still there’s something about this film that doesn’t feel quite right to me.

Part of it I suppose is that I’m struggling to understand how the story could possibly be of any interest to anybody who doesn’t know Wallace’s work well, who hasn’t read Lipsky’s book out of a real sense of yearning to know the story behind the creation of Infinite Jest. In other words, it’s not just my selfish feeling that prospective moviegoers are not entitled to the story but genuine incredulity that most moviegoers would be inclined to receive it. Why make the movie, then? Or, if you’re going to make it, how are you going to manufacture an audience for it? Well I suppose you’re going to go dirty with it, or sensationalize things in it. Or maybe you make it a movie loosely based on Lipsky’s book and Wallace’s life, but in that making you lose a lot of the nuance. You write a bullshitty movie about mental illness or you write some kind of bro flick that squeezes the humanity and intelligence out of the conversations Lipsky gave us in his book. Or you write a story that’s not about Wallace at all, that’s about his name and his tour but that mythologizes him for better or for worse but that doesn’t actually portray him (in which case why pick over the corpse?). I suppose I’d be happy enough to see the movie as a documentary, but there just seems so much opportunity to get a biopic wrong, and I can’t figure that Wallace is well enough known that he merits a mainstream biopic, which fact all but necessitates fictionalizing the story and telling the wrong mythology (I know, I know, there’s no right mythology). So then it begins to feel like a movie that rides whatever wave Wallace’s recent broader fame has created without actually having much of a chance at doing Wallace any justice.

Putting aside my personal hangups, there’s the fact that part of the point of Infinite Jest is that too-easy consumption can have bad consequences. So here we have a movie starring mainstream actors that many people who’ve never read a word of Wallace’s will spend a couple of hours staring passively at, and in the story, the main characters will talk about heady issues surrounding a book in which people who did pretty much exactly this type of passive consumption had their brains fried. It could practically be a blurb from James O. Incandenza’s filmography (just add maxillofacial pain). Maybe it’s a brilliant concept after all.

I also have anxiety about actually watching the movie, which I will almost certainly do in spite of my reservations. Once years ago, I went and saw a friend perform in a play. I had known him first as a friend and only later as an actor, so that when I saw him on the stage, he wasn’t the character but was my friend pretending to be a character. It was very strange, and I couldn’t distance myself enough from my knowing him as a person to decide whether his performance was good or not. Was he playing the part well or badly? If I thought he was doing well, was I biased? If I thought he was doing badly, was it simply because he seemed so different from the person I knew and because I somehow felt almost as if he was lying to me? Watching The End of the Tour will likely have a similar effect on me. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll love it even if it’s very good, and if it’s very bad, I won’t know whether to trust my judgment of it or not, since maybe I’ll think it’s bad thanks purely to all the angst I’m feeling about its existence in the first place. For me, then, the movie is almost a guaranteed failure.

Since the movie seems destined to be made whether I wring my hands or not, I’m going to try hard to root for it. I hope it shows some of the good and some of the bad in Wallace. I hope it shows his intelligence and humanity. If it shows him being a pig sometimes (as it probably rightfully should), I hope it shows some moral conflict over it, as a big part of what’s so valuable to me in Wallace’s work is how it grapples with wanting to do the right thing but doing the wrong thing anyway (because sometimes you just can’t help it) and hating yourself for it.

Just about in the middle of Lipsky’s book (page 163 if you have it handy), he quotes Wallace on Pauline Kael on the movie Scrooged:

And Pauline Kael has this great thesis about, what’s terribly pernicious about a lot of movies, is that they make the bad guys wholly unlike you. They turn them into cartoons. That you can feel superior to. Instead of making you realize that there’s part of the villain in all of us. You know?

I think one of my biggest fears is that the movie will strip out what’s so enriching about the dialogue Lipsky shared with us and give us instead a road trip movie or a feel-good movie, that it will make Wallace too much the villain or too much the saint, just a character with Wallace’s name and history, that it will wind up a real travesty of a cartoon. I really hope it manages not to do that, though I have a lot of trouble imagining it can avoid it.

Infinite Zombies, Summer 2013

I’ve been thinking for a while about possibly starting up a read for the summer. I have George Saunders on the brain. Before I put in the work, I wanted to collect some feedback to gauge interest. Please lodge your interest or lack thereof below. Note that if you express interest, you can also volunteer to participate more actively by writing for the blog, and you can express preferences about the scope of the project. I imagine we’d start in July sometime if the read materializes.

As you’re planning your summer reading, you should be aware that a new Infinite Jest reading group has sprung up. Summer of Jest starts in just a few days and may be of interest to those who’ve landed on this post either because they’re long-time readers of the site or because they did a search for Infinite Jest and landed here by accident.

Take The Survey!

Infinite Jest Reread, pages 49 – 87

As noted the other day, there’s currently a group reread of Infinite Jest in progress on the wallace-l mailing list. We’re only on the second week of it, so there’s time to catch up if you’re interested. I introduced pages 49 – 87 last night and have pasted in my introduction below. If you find it at all enticing, be sure to tune in via the list, as the discussion that follows these intro posts tends to be really good. If you fall asleep or die before you manage to get to the end of this thing, I’ll hardly blame you. Since this is a reread, the spoiler rule’s out the window.

Main things that happen and concepts that appear in this section:

  • Hal gets covertly high.
  • Oh look, an underworld in the form of tunnels (even including a sort of limbo for the poor protectors).
  • Gately dons a toothbrush.
  • A weird detached list on page 60 that I didn’t give any attention to below but that maybe merits some attention for its weird detachedness.
  • Note 21, the first of a series of inter-referential notes.
  • A face in the floor (and other nightmares).
  • Note 24, the filmography (brace yourself).
  • Orin in cardinal gear, reluctantly.
  • Pemulis teaches his little buddies about shrooms.
  • Kate Gompert, reluctant to admit to a pot addiction, wants ECT.
  • The medical attaché’s wife comes home to find him enthralled. Others follow.
  • Schtitt and Mario go for ice cream.
  • Tiny Ewell goes to detox.

I actually write about very little of that stuff below.

A theme that runs through this section and in fact through the whole book so far is failure to communicate. It begins of course with Hal at the university and moves back through time to Hal being interviewed by a father who doesn’t believe he speaks. But we also see it in things like Erdeddy’s inability to choose between answering the phone and the door, his habit of cutting off communication with anyone he’s dealt with before to get pot. We see it also in Gompert, who for example displays sometimes a flat affect and sometimes forced facial expressions (recall Hal at the beginning) while speaking with a singsongy voice that leaves the doctor (also trying hard to communicate using both voice and mannerism) confused.

I think there’s also some interesting stuff pertaining to communication going on in the end notes. For one thing, they are themselves a sort of barrier to direct communication, and even today I think sometimes about skimming the ones that just give drug info or don’t seem to relate in terribly important ways to the main story. In the big note 24, the matter of communication gets really out of hand, though. The editors of the book that the note quotes haven’t seen some of the films they describe, for example (some of which weren’t ever filmed), and yet they write about them, communicating in some cases non-information, which if you think about it is very strange indeed.

Consider the film Annular Amplified Light: Some Reflections. Well, its title is a silly pun, first off, but that’s superficial. It’s got sound and is sign-interpreted for the deaf, but although it purports to be a “nontechnical explanation of the applications of cooled-photon lasers in DT-cycle lithiumized annular fusion,” it’s hard to imagine that one could do such a topic any justice in a nontechnical film, much less in one whose almost certainly specialized language it’s hard to imagine could be signed efficiently.

And: Union of Nurses in Berkeley, silent and closed-captioned interviews with hearing-impaired RNs and LPNs. I suppose it’s silent either to elicit a sort of empathy with the interviewees or maybe to avoid what could be a comical treatment of audible interviews of people whose pronunciation and enunciation may have suffered thanks to their hearing impairment. It’s a strange audiovisual blend, at any rate, that seems to be fooling around with ways in which people communicate.

And: Cage II in which a blind convict and a deaf-mute convict placed in solitary confinement attempt to figure out ways of communicating with one another. This is a bad joke, of course (and calls to mind the old Wilder/Prior movie), but it also demonstrates a concern with how people manage to connect. It’s a wonder this one wasn’t at least captioned if not signed.

And: Death in Scarsdale, in color, silent, with closed-caption subtitles, which almost becomes hard to visualize once you’ve got all this business on the brain. In this one, an endocrinologist begins to sweat excessively while treating a boy who sweats excessively, which again, with this stuff on the brain and maybe under no other circumstance, makes me think of things like how you never stutter until you find yourself speaking with somebody who stutters, when you suddenly start channeling Porky Pig out of maybe sympathy or self-consciousness.

A couple of the other films are sign-interpreted as well, and in general, JOI’s films demonstrate an awareness of the interplay between sight and sound, different ways of perceiving things, of being perceived, and of being perceived while perceiving things such that you morph from subject into object and back into subject again.

All of this of course is mediated through films and (usually) soundtracks themselves devised by makers whose communication with you is from the past and not at all personal, which can be a little creepy if you think about it too much. And all of that is further mediated through a book of fiction and yet further through end notes that put it at an even greater distance.

Early in the book we’re exposed to Hal’s precocity with respect to grammar and usage, given to him by good old Avril. She and Steven Pinker make appearances in the filmography in a silent, closed-captioned film documenting a grammar convention. This strikes me as kind of funny and really quite interesting, since closed-captioning would have the effect of memorializing in print the words spoken by the grammarians. Grammar being generally a little looser for even the strident among us when speaking aloud than when writing formally, the idea of capturing in print any non grammatical speech by these super-grammarians would be kind of tantalizing, and of course I can imagine that making the viewers of the film read the language while connecting it to the images moving onscreen could have a weird effect (in the way that watching subtitled films if you’re not accustomed to doing so can make a movie a lot of work and hard to trust that you’ve really grokked). I guess it’s worth noting that though Hal speaks, his father hears no words coming from him, and this film seems to capture the effect.

Grammar of course is just a map of our language. Descriptivists will say that if it’s spoken naturally by a native speaker, it’s grammatical and ought to be recorded, while prescriptivists tend more to demand adherence to an existing set of written rules. (This is a gross oversimplification, I know.) In either case, we can see grammar as a sort of map of language, and the main thing at issue is whether the map ought to change along with the terrain or not. “Map” and “terrain” turn out to be loaded terms when talking about IJ, of course, and they make appearances in the filmography, if obliquely. In the most oblique treatment, we see Every Inch of Disney Leith, in which the eponymous man has his innards mapped. Comically, the title uses the Imperial measure, while in the film he listens to a forum on metricization in North America, which is another way of communicating the same things using different terms. Later, in No Troy, we learn about the erasure of Troy, NY from both terrain and map (by, explicitly, cartographers). Sort of humorously, archivists don’t list the title by the name given here but variously use the names The Violet City and The Violet Ex-City.

So then to me the threads of language as communication, language as a construct (i.e., grammar), and map/terrain — which roughly corresponds to the relationship between language as construct and language as communication — begin to become intertwined very early in the novel in the notes about the filmography, which is itself, of course, nothing if not a map whose aim is to relate the technical features of JOI’s films with what they communicated across his career.

Every time I read the filmography, I spot some new fun detail I had either overlooked or forgotten or just not given enough thought to on previous reads.This time it was the appearance of C.N. (presumably Charles Nelson) Reilly as a narrator in a couple of the early, sign-interpreted documentaries. The idea of CNR as a narrator on a documentary (even a whimsically titled, nontechnical one) is kind of a laugh, and then the idea of someone trying to interpret his self-interrupting, story-nesting style for the deaf is even more comical. Maybe he’d stick a bit closer to the cards in a documentary, though. But it’s also worth noting that CNR was basically ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, crossing stage, film, and TV shows in the form of game shows, talk show appearances, and television series, so that it’s hardly inconceivable that an aging CNR would dip his wick into the documentary wax late in life (and yet no less the funnier). This inter-“text”-uality all seems kind of relevant to the sort of things Wallace was considering in “E Unibus Pluram,” which of course informs a lot of IJ.

I also love how you can see little sub-plots within the filmography if you pay attention to the names. For example, P.A. Heaven becomes Paul Anthony and then goes back to using initials, and one wonders why. And Soma Richardson-Levy apparently marries an O-Byrne and later a Chawaf (also credited within the filmography) and just keeps collecting hyphenated suffixes to her name. Then of course there’s the interplay of the films with things happening in JOI’s life and at ETA.

Now moving away from the end notes for a bit, I’ll note that I like how Wallace is already setting us up for things to come with little one-off references to things like the O.S.U.O.S, cartridges (note 18, page 58), DMZ/M.P. (note 8), DuPlessis, experialism, and annular hyperfloration cycles. These things are easy to read past but all become pretty important later, so it’s neat on a reread to see where he’s left these little breadcrumbs.

It’d be just short of criminal not to at least mention the face in the floor dream even if I don’t say much about it. I love that whole passage, and the way he just slips the face in there is horrifying and I suppose embodies the thing we’ve read before about how the thing that’s great about Lynch’s surrealistic horror is that almost everything has to seem normal for the really bad thing to be really bad.

I haven’t even touched on Schtitt and Mario or on similarities between some of the things we learn about Erdeddy and Gompert, but I’m really just out of wind, and so, I imagine, are you. I feel like the filmography tends to get short shrift, so maybe I’ve corrected that some (however clumsily and single-purposedly) and others can fill in the other huge gaps I’ve left.

Infinite Jest and The Tunnel

A couple of years ago, I got a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel and burned through the first 100 or 200 pages of it before some shiny object distracted me and I put the book down. I had considered starting up a group read here sometime to force myself to pick the book back up and finish it. In fact, it was included among options for future reads on a poll I posted after the Gravity’s Rainbow read. Well, Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading has scheduled a group read on the coattails of Gaddis’s J R. If you’re game, you can see the (I think) ambitious schedule here. Although I doubt I’ll have it in me to write much about the book, I hope at least to read along.

In progress on the wallace-l mailing list is a reread of Infinite Jest. This reread is part of why I won’t be putting as much time as I’d like into The Tunnel. I haven’t reread IJ since Infinite Summer a few years ago, and I had been wanting to. When D.T. Max’s biography came out, it made me really want to dig back into Wallace’s book again. And then the wallace-l reread was proposed and I was hooked. You can get a peek at the schedule here. I’ll be introducing the second chunk on the mailing list in a couple of days. It won’t be a group read proper here at IZ, so if you want to play, I encourage you to subscribe to the mailing list, where you’ll get a broader and smarter range of opinions and interpretations than mine anyway.

I hate that these reads are happening at the same time, as the result’ll be that I’ll do kind of half-assed reads of both. I’ve been through IJ enough times that I can afford to half-ass it, but The Tunnel‘s a different story. Still, I can’t resist trying to keep up with IJ too.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

Over the weekend, I read D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. If you’re reading this, it seems vanishingly unlikely that you haven’t first heard about the biography elsewhere. So in a way, I feel silly even mentioning it because my doing so seems a little bit like cheering for a game that’s already over.  All the people whose opinions people want to hear have already spoken up. But it’s a book about stuff that’s important to me, so I also feel weird just not saying anything at all.

I had written a long rambly thing connecting my affinity with Wallace’s work when I first encountered it in the form of Infinite Jest 15 years ago to an affinity that Holden Caulfield expresses for Thomas Hardy and Ring Lardner. It was self-indulgent and stupid and all a round-about way of saying that Wallace’s work has been a major influence on the way I read, write, think (and think about thinking), and live.

Unsatisfied with the long preface I had written for what would be a very brief review of Max’s book, I put it aside and thought about abandoning it. But then a few comments about the book landed on the wallace-l email list, one of which curtly described the book as “thin.” A follow-up comment expanded by saying that the biography gave us little that we didn’t already pretty much know from Wallace’s own words in his books and interviews.

Well, this is partially true. But I think it also misses the point. You can’t exactly pry secrets from a ghost, and there’s something grave-robberish about digging for too much grit from family and friends for whom Wallace’s death is still no doubt a bit of a wound. Although Max does give a fair amount of background about Wallace’s early struggles both personal and authorial, it tapers off substantially as we move to Wallace’s years post-Infinite Jest. If you’re hoping to read Wallace’s suicide note or to learn lots of new information about the circumstances of his last decline and death, you’ll be disappointed; there’s very little substantially new information here about his last days beyond what came out in a couple of long articles shortly after Wallace’s death.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a book more about drawing broad lines between things that happened in Wallace’s life and things that appeared in his writing than about divulging every nasty or saintly thing he ever did. Although the author of the “thin” comment seems to have wanted the latter, I’m grateful that Max gave us the former. I feel like it helped me to better understand Wallace’s Gately-ish transformation as both he and his work matured, which made me feel good about where Wallace had been headed, if also really sad about where he wound up.

I think a book divulging many more details of Wallace’s life would have been simply sordid. And a book doing much more in the way of line-drawing and analysis would have been tiresome and speculative. What Max gives us instead is a book that provides a comfortable balance of detail and analysis. It’s a sympathetic and gentle book in the way that David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself was, and like Lipsky’s book, I think Max’s is a sort of gift.

Infinite Boston

A quick program interruption here to announce Infinite Boston, in which a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work shares photos of some of the real life places in Boston that we find referenced (some modified, some not) in Infinite Jest. So far, he’s covered the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House, Comm. Ave., the Green Line’s T-Stop, Enfield Tennis Academy, and several other spots. If you played along with Infinite Summer a few years ago or are just a fan of Wallace’s work, it’s definitely worth a look.


I keep my eye on tweets mentioning Gravity’s Rainbow and today saw one asking if GR was readable and worth it. The person also asked if his followers had read Infinite Jest, and which of the two books was better. Well, that judgment is awfully hard to make, but it sent me off to think about which was more difficult, since I tend to think Pynchon’s book is a lot harder to read than Wallace’s and so in some ways is less pleasurable and by extension not as good.

As evidence of GR‘s difficulty, I cite the fact that I read IJ for the first time in a 10-day marathon of 15-hour days over a Christmas holiday while in college. I pretty much couldn’t put the book down. As further evidence, I cite the probably half dozen times I read the first half dozen pages of GR before putting it aside. I believe I once read significantly more of the book but put it down again.

So, why was GR so much harder a book for me than IJ was? Part of it has to do, I suppose, with the fact that Pynchon writes about a lot of more or less factual things, and when confronted with so much real-world information that I didn’t know, or knew only very shallowly, I felt stupid and inadequate and didn’t want to feel that way anymore, so I quit. Wallace, on the other hand, writes less with history in mind and about experiences that aren’t so terribly different from my own. I never attended a tennis academy, but I have been a young man in locker rooms, and I’ve been to summer camps and eaten in cafeterias. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a halfway house, but the experiences as Wallace presents them are very human experiences, whereas Pynchon so often writes at a greater distance from the people whose trials he’s documenting, and with a much greater emphasis (generally) on the technology and the argot of the fields and histories he writes about.

But there’s something else, too. (Well, there’s lots else, but one something else I’ll write about for now.) For all the guff Wallace took about writing a too-long book, being self-indulgent with the end notes,  needing an editor, etc., it occurred to me tonight that IJ is actually very user friendly in a way that certain important books we’ve read here (or may yet read here) are not.

It all starts with Ulysses, of course. Joyce gave us pretty much unfettered access to the inside of Leopold Bloom’s head and wrote often without much in the way of transition or explicit stage direction. It’s really hard to get oriented within the book, and by the time you settle in to the style of one episode, Joyce goes off and changes the game on you by writing in another mode altogether. In 1973 and 1975 we got Gravity’s Rainbow and Gaddis’s JR. Gaddis too puts you inside the heads of his characters with precious little in the way of landmarks to help you navigate the prose. Written almost wholly in unattributed dialogue, JR requires that you learn how to read it before you can really begin to understand what it’s even saying. It’s fun, but capital-D Difficult. Pynchon’s not as freewheeling as Gaddis, since Pynchon at least breaks his book down into sections and provides exposition. But he also makes those crazy leaps. Miss a “. . . .” in the text as he jumps from one time or place to another and you’ll find yourself suddenly lost. Wait, when the fuck did I start reading about dodo birds? I thought this was a story about Hansel and Gretel.

Infinite Jest covers a lot of people over a period of time that’s kind of hard to pin down as you’re reading. Like Pynchon, Wallace provides landmarks in the form of clear section breaks. But unlike Pynchon, he tends to stay within the boundaries of a defined section. If he’s writing about Mario, you don’t suddenly find an unmarked leap over to Marathe and Steeply at another time and place within the same section. Further, Wallace conveniently puts a lot of the extra, technical, information in end notes. He’s been accused, on the basis of the 100 pages of notes, of being antagonistic to the reader, but it occurs to me that maybe putting the tangential information in end notes is his attempt at something like mercy. Where his forebears just dump the info on you inline, Wallace gives you a little break, slows down the information intake just a touch.

It’s as if Joyce came to the conclusion that he could lay on his readers everything in a character’s head and the postmodernists extended that idea, trying to give their readers not just the contents of their characters’ heads but everything under the sun and doing so in a way that sort of mimicked the awful burden of information-influx after the rise of radio and television and billboards. Wallace, then, says “too much,” or, if not “too much,” something like “slow down; let’s take this in pieces.”

And for me, I think that’s part of what makes Infinite Jest a much easier book than Gravity’s Rainbow. For all the information Wallace’s book contains, its information flow is more modulated than these earlier books, and it’s a relief. One reads that Wallace was also a proponent of a new sincerity, that he rejected the postmodern tendency toward irony as ultimately a non-productive (if not outright toxic) mode to write in. It’s interesting to me to suggest, then, that he sought to throttle information overload as he hoped to throttle irony, that he was pulling back from his smirking, hyper-intelligent forebears in a couple of ways, an après-garde all his own.

Slothrop and Orin

This isn’t likely to make too much sense if you haven’t read Infinite Jest, and it may also contain mild IJ spoilers. I offer it more as a set of idle observations than as any sort of thesis.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, we meet womanizer Orin Incandenza, about whom I wrote the following a few years ago:

A bit more on Orin. His name can be switched around to “iron,” “noir,” and “orni,” which, this last, makes me think of ornithology. He plays football for the Cardinals and is actually made to don fake wings (I think) and like a jetpack and fly down onto the field earlier in the book. Then a bird falls out of the sky into his apartment’s pool (oddly reminiscent of the end of Barton Fink, starring John Turturro, whom I peg as a shoo-in for playing JOI and/or JOI’s father in a movie adaptation of Infinite Jest). Then, on page 294, we have Orin engaging Joelle “entirely through stylized repetitive motions,” making me think of the mating dances of birds.

Orin has a habit of tracing the infinity sign with his finger on the flanks of the girls he has bedded. Like Orin, Slothrop traces a mathematical sign as he sows his oats, though in his case, it’s a Poisson distribution scrawled over a map of London.

And like Orin, Slothrop is frequently associated with birds, especially in the pastoral section 1.4, in which he appears in the company of an owl, girls called Wrens, peacocks, and hummingbirds and in which he sports an erection (his “cock,” if we want to stretch the bird motif a bit) as a rocket explodes. This section also happens to deal pretty heavily in the contrast between the earth and the sky, a dichotomy the sky-bound but (if I recall correctly) acrophobic Orin also contemplates.

Both men sport a very special appendage, and both are subject to paranoia. As Orin begins to fear that he’s being followed and ultimately has his fears confirmed and culminating in his being taken prisoner, so Slothrop begins to feel as if he’s being watched, and as if his cubicle is a trap (early in 1.15). Also probably not significant but certainly attention-getting for me was the reference early in 1.15 to “Enfields” — a name whose singular form will resonate with readers of Wallace’s novel.

Unlike Orin, Slothrop at least writes nice letters home to his mother.

Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions. #4’s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4’s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods. One ancient retired Air Force nurse does nothing but scream ‘Help!’ for hours at a time from a second-story window. Since the Ennet House residents are drilled in a Boston-AA recovery program that places great emphasis on ‘Asking for Help,’ the retired shrieking Air Force nurse is the object of a certain grim amusement, sometimes. Not six weeks ago, a huge stolen HELP WANTED sign was found attached to #4’s siding right below the retired shrieking nurse’s window, and #4’s director was less than amused, and demanded that Pat Montesian determine and punish the Ennet House residents responsible, and Pat had delegated the investigation to Don Gately, and though Gately had a pretty good idea who the perps were he didn’t have the heart to really press and kick ass over something so much like what he’d done himself, when new and cynical, and so the whole thing pretty much blew over.

‘d been a confarmed bowl-splatterer for yars b’yond contin’. ‘d been barred from t’facilities at o’t’ troock stops twixt hair’n Nork for yars. T’wallpaper in de loo a t’ome hoong in t’ese carled sheets froom t’wall, ay till yo. But now woon dey . . . ay’ll remaember’t’always. T’were a wake to t’day ofter ay stewed oop for me ninety-day chip. Ay were tray moents sobber. Ay were thar on t’throne a’t’ome, you new. No’t’put too fain a point’on it, ay prodooced as er uzhal and … and ay war soo amazed as to no’t’belaven’ me yairs. ‘Twas a sone so wonefamiliar at t’first ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo, do you new. Ay tought ay’d droped me wallet in t’loo as Good is me wetness. So doan ay bend twixt m’knays and’ad a luke in t’dim o’t’loo, and codn’t belave me’yize. So gud paple ay do then ay drope to m’knays by t’loo an’t’ad a rail luke. A loaver’s luke, d’yo new. And friends t’were loavely past me pur poewers t’say. T’were a tard in t’loo. A rail tard. T’were farm an’ teppered an’ aiver so jaintly aitched. T’luked … constroocted instaid’ve sprayed. T’luked as ay fel’t’in me ‘eart Good ‘imsailf maint a tard t’luke. Me friends, this tard’o’mine practically had a poolse. Ay sted doan on m’knays and tanked me Har Par, which ay choose t’call me Har Par Good, an’ ay been tankin me Har Par own m’knays aiver sin, marnin and natetime an in t’loo’s’well, aiver sin.

It kind of enrages Lenz to like somebody. There would be no way to say any of this out loud to Green. As it gets past 2200h. and the meatloaf in his pocket’s baggie’s gotten dark and hard from disuse the pressure to exploit the c. 2216 interval for resolution builds to a terrible pitch, but Lenz still can’t yet quite get it up to ask Green to walk back some other way at least once in a while. How does he do it and still have Green know that he thinks he’s OK? But you don’t come right out there and let somebody hear you say you think they’re OK. When it’s a girl you’re just trying to X it’s a different thing, straightforwarder; but like for instance where do you look with your eyes when you tell somebody you like them and mean what you say? You can’t look right at them, because then what if their eyes look at you as your eyes look at them and you lock eyes as you’re saying it, and then there’d be some awful like voltage or energy there, hanging between you. But you can’t look away like you’re nervous, like some nervous kid asking for a date or something. You can’t go around giving that kind of thing of yourself away.

And a lot of the people in the different brick houses are damaged or askew and lean hard to one side or are twisted into themselves, through the windows, and he can feel his heart going out into the world through them, which is good for insomnia. A woman’s voice, calling for help without any real urgency — not like the screams that signify the Moms laughing or screaming at night — sounds from a darkened upper window. And across the little street that’s crammed with cars everybody has to move at 0000h. is Ennet’s House, where the Headmistress has a disability and had had a wheelchair ramp installed and has twice invited Mario in during the day for a Caffeine-Free Millennial Fizzy, and Mario likes the place: it’s crowded and noisy and none of the furniture has protective plastic wrap, but nobody notices anybody else or comments on a disability and the Headmistress is kind to the people and the people cry in fron tof each other. The inside of it smells like an ashtray, but Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.

I wish for my death but have not the courage to make actions to cause death. I twice try to roll over the side of a tall Swiss hill but cannot bring myself. I curse myself for cowardice and inutile. I roll about, hoping to be hit by a vehicle of someone else, but at the last minute rolling out of the path of vehicles on Autoroutes, for I am unable to will my death. The more pain in my self, the more I am inside the self and cannot will my death, I think. I feel I am chained in a cage of the self, from the pain. Unable to care or choose anything outside it. Unable to see anything or feel anything outside my pain.

Sometimes Gately would come out of a Demerol-nod and look at pale passive Pamela lying there sleeping beautifully and undergo a time-lapse clairvoyant thing where he could almost visibly watch her losing her looks through her twenties and her face starting to slide over off her skull onto the pillow she held like a stuffed toy, becoming a lounge-hag right before his eyes. The vision aroused more compassion than horror, which Gately never even considered might qualify him as a decent person.

And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.