Chew on This

I had an idea that I might try just straight-up asking questions about some things that I have questions about. Think of it as a front-pager’s-privileged version of a WTF. (Or, for the more traditionally inclined among us, a discussion question.) I even made up a fancy new tag for them, in the hope that they will in fact provoke conversation. So here’s one:

It seems to me that literature about World War II is qualitatively different from literature about World War I. I don’t say that as a judgment of merit, but as a position on the distinctive elements of each. Consider, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Im Westen nichts Neues versus Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22. It seems like there’s a transformation, from the one literature to the next, of straight-up horror to horror inflected with ironic, absurdist, or even nihilist laughter. But I don’t know that I feel well-enough informed to be able to call this a fact. On the understanding that this entire effect may just be an artifact of my specific reading experiences and lacks—in which case, please tell me so I can fill them in—why do you think this is? Was there a particular change in the ways of war that caused it (nuclear weaponry, maybe)? Is it a function of the time lag between the wars and their respective literatures? (If so, what kind of function?) Is it just a matter of changing literary fashions that happened to coincide with the passage of time between the wars? I’m all ears.


Do you remember that opening piece in The Scarlet Letter during junior year of high school about the custom house and how you weren’t (or I wasn’t, at least) sure whether it was part of the book or whether it was an introduction that could be skipped? And then how what little bit of it you may have read was stilted and old and dessicated and more or less did not have a place in your sixteen-year-old head? Although I’ve long since learned to understand and even enjoy that sort of prose, it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel written more than 50 years ago, and reading the brief introductory note about the supposed provenance of the documents that make up Dracula reminded me of that earlier disorientation. While the prose of the opening chapter is hardly opaque, it does (understandably) read like something old, and this observation made one thing very clear: Reading Dracula is going to be a very different experience from reading Infinite Jest.

That difference is going to be driven by two sorts of cultural disorientation, the first grounded in real or immediate familiarity with things and the second grounded in simulated familiarity with things. For example, although the world Wallace wrote about was set in the future at the time of its writing, it depicted a landscape we could mostly identify with. People spoke more or less as we do and engaged with technology and in culture behaviors akin to those we engage with and in. While we may not have known intimately what life at a tennis academy was like, we’ve been to basketball or summer camp or watched others at such camps in plausibly realistic depictions on TV. While we may not have been to any AA meetings, they are enough a part of our recent culture that we have no trouble absorbing Wallace’s presentation of them almost as if we are ourselves sitting in a folding chair shrouded in cigarette smoke and trying really hard to Identify with whoever’s speaking.

But the opening of Dracula is very much unfamiliar territory. The speaker is in a place strange to him and stranger to us, having arrived there by train (and while there are trains today, how many of us take transcontinental rides on them, really? And how different must his late-19th-century train be from the ones we’ve ridden?). There’s strange food, strange people, strange geography, a horse-drawn coach mounted not as a matter of novelty but because it’s a real mode of practical transportation. I suppose we’ve seen enough of these sorts of things on the screen to feel as if they’re familiar, but that familiarity is manufactured and quite possibly mostly wrong.

In the first post about Dracula at the Infinite Summer blog, scholar Elizabeth Miller warns against allowing preconceptions about the novel informed by pop culture to color our reading. This of course is another challenge of reading the book. When I first encountered words spoken (actually written) by Dracula, I couldn’t help but hear them spoken more or less as Sesame Street’s Count speaks. And though I never saw the fairly recent (ie, some time in the last 10 or 15 years) screen adaptation of Stoker’s book, I do have a mental image from the previews of a tall pale guy with a weird butt hairdo, and that image flashes across my mind’s movie screen while I’m reading, whether or not I will it not to. Working around this manufactured familiarity with the book’s namesake to get at what’s actually on the page is going to be one of the big challenges for me for this read, I think.

Wallace wrote, in e pluribus unam, about how inescapably young fiction writers were influenced by television and particulary the irony of its self-reference. This installment of Infinite Summer may prove an exercise in trying to escape the influence of electronic media from the reader’s perspective.


One of the most vivid scenes in Infinite Jest for me has always been the description of JOI’s film, Accomplice!, that depicts a sagging old man sodomizing a male prostitute. The prostitute insists that the man wear a condom, and the man takes this as a personal affront. The prostitute happens to be inarticulate. The john vindictively slices both the condom and his penis mid-intercourse, but when he finishes and the boy realizes with horror what he’s done, we learn that the boy was trying to protect the john from contracting HIV, not the other way around.

This has always had the feel to me of something like a double-bind, though that’s not quite what it is. It’s not quite cutting off your nose to spite your face, either. I’m struggling to articulate it, but I think maybe it has something to do with irony. The man undercuts his appearance of complying with the prostitute’s wish — irony being the presentation of something contrary to fact or actual meaning — and it winds up being his undoing. The pathos in this scene always gets me, something about the combination of grit and, in a way, tenderness (on the boy’s part). And it supports what we’ve been told in many of the bits about AA and in one kind of touching description of Mario: that irony is toxic.

Beyond its statement about irony, the film has something to say about art as well. Here’s Hal’s assessment of the film:

As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!‘s essential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself…. Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1/3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff? (946)

How many people have said similar things about Wallace’s fiction? Those goddamn end notes! Those long sentences! All those words most dictionaries haven’t even heard of! All those words, period! How many critics have said that Wallace needed a more bloodthirsty editor? Are Wallace and JOI guilty of bad editing and self-indulgence, or is there in fact an emotional payload behind the self-consciousness of their work? (Accomplice!, by the way, has a footnote onscreen at some point about the fact that it’s following a particular gay-porn convention.) I don’t really have a pat answer. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene in Blue Velvet in which the female character sings a rendition of Crying that, if memory serves me correctly, is simultaneously very emotional but also self-consciously stilted. [Note: ray gunn kindly reminds me in the comments that this scene in fact appears in Mulholland Drive and not Blue Velvet and that it’s not a main character doing the singing.]

What I can say is that for all that I found myself thinking about the book as much as its characters, by the last 150 pages, I was on a downhill slide. I took fewer notes and had trouble stopping my reading. Even though I had read it a few times before (having forgotten most of the end, conveniently), I was just gripped and wanted to see what exactly was going to become of Gately, Joelle, Hal. It became about the story more than about deciphering the structure and way of meaning of the book, and it happened for me unintentionally. I was just pulled in. Maybe it was just a sort of gravity. Or did something change in the pacing or self-consciousness of the end of the book?

Whatever the case, the facts seem to be that for those readers with whom Wallace’s work resonates, it does so powerfully and emotionally. This is in spite of any distancing effect of all the narrative and lexical gymnastics. And it may even be partially because of that effect. In certain of his short stories, Wallace kind of pulls back the curtain to show the back of the shop, what’s going on in the mind of the author, what insecurities there are, what framework he’s draping his story across. And the effect for me is one of honesty and sincerity: “Yes, I’m manipulating you with an eye toward provoking a particular response, but so that you’re ok with it, I’ll tell you exactly how I’m going to do it, so that it can be an honest transaction.” And because it becomes a self-aware, two-way transaction, you become an accomplice to the outcome. Of course, that sort of exposure or sincerity can have a distancing effect by yanking you out of the very story that is supposed to make you emote. But for some of us, it’s the transaction as much as the payload that has meaning. Is that maybe the answer to Hal’s question? Am I making any sense?

Deliver Us From Irony

Well there’s lots about irony (directly and indirectly) in the latest milestone:

He doesn’t know there’s an abstract distance in the look that makes it seem like he’s studying a real bitch of a 7-iron on the tenth rough or something; the look doesn’t communicate what he thinks his audience wants it to. (365)

Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants. (368)

The prior two quotes I guess I’d call indirectly pertinent to irony, insofar as they deal with friction between what seems and what is and the willful deployment of a seem for an is. These quotes aren’t really classic irony, but the mechanics seem sort of the same to me, and the quotes are certainly related to one another.

Dealing a bit more directly with irony:

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. (369)

And a little later, Wallace describes the Canadian students at ETA huddled together at the Interdependence Day dinner:

This American penchant for absolution via irony is foreign to them. (385)

Compare to Gately’s chatter about listening vs. hearing, really engaging and hearing not only what the person you’re listening to is saying but listening to (or hearing) what they mean, how their experience bears on and enriches your own. This is real engagement vs. showiness or something rather like self-puppetry.

It’s no coincidence that when we get to Lyle, we learn this:

But it’s the way he listens, somehow, that keeps the saunas full. (387)

I’m not going to write a lot of stuff synthesizing it all, but I will leave you with a few (lengthy; sorry, it’s just too good not to quote at length) goodies from Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (which by the way, you’ve heard that phrase before in IJ, haven’t you?).

I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time, they are agents of a great despair and stasis in our U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems (49 — from the collection  A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. (67)

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionallized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to inderdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself. (67)

Of possible interest, particularly with this last bit in mind, is a quote from page 38 of the same book in which Wallace gives what he calls a “commonsensical” definition of malignant addiction:

[TV] may become malignantly addictive only once a certain threshold of quantity is habitually passed, but then the same is true of Wild Turkey. And by “malignant” and “addictive” I again to not mean evil or hypnotizing. An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.