Of Swine

I don’t know what I have, but I can only assume it’s swine flu. (Right? Because that’s going around?) I’m simply not up for writing right now. I owe a few kind commenters (and other bloggers) comments that I may not get around to posting. I hope I can build up enough steam to write something later in the week, as I sure don’t want to fizzle out right here at the end, having come all this way.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten about halfway through Suttree (which I had picked up a few weeks before Infinite Summer started) and so got a neat little thrill to read Eden’s post today linking Infinite Jest and McCarthy.

In other Infinite Summer news, my copy of Dracula arrived today. I don’t have it in me to read or write about that one as obsessively as I did about Infinite Jest, but I look forward to reading this classic I’ve always managed to overlook. And I may write a word or two about it from time to time as well, whether here or elsewhere TBD. Anybody else coming along for that ride?

Anniversary (Nothing Morbid, Merely a Weird Coincidence)

The September issue of Poetry magazine includes a poem by one Dan Beachy-Quick entitled “Anniversary.” It’s a thick issue, and, beyond flipping to the poems by Atsuro Riley, whose work I always crave, I had given it only a cursory glance. Today I skimmed Beachy-Quick’s poem and sort of wrote it off as something sentimental I wasn’t much interested in investing much of myself in. But I gave it another chance, and though I’m not sure I’ve given it enough of a chance yet, a few weird things started to jump out at me. I’ll quote the poem in full, hoping that qualifies as fair use:


You are for me as you cannot be
For yourself, chaos without demand
To speak, the amethyst nothing
Hidden inside the trinket shop’s stone,
Dark eyes dark asterisks where light
Footnotes a margin left blank. You
Don’t look up to look up at the sky.
Your ears parenthesize nothing
That occurs, that I keep from occurring,
In the poem, on the page, as you are
For me, not a shadow, but a shade
Whose darkness drops from no object
But is itself yourself, a form of time
Spanning nothing, never is your name.

Let me first qualify what follows by saying that I don’t present it as any sort of theory or close reading. It’s just a set of associations that I couldn’t help noticing. Of course, what you take from a thing you read is largely a product of what you bring to it, and I’ve got Wallace and Infinite Jest very much on the brain these days.

So the title. Anniversary. September 12 marks the anniversary of Wallace’s death, and this is the September issue of Poetry. Of course, it often takes months for submissions to be accepted or rejected, much less published, so synchronicity here is either lucky or orchestrated (probably lucky).

Chaos without demand to speak calls to mind Hal’s aphonia.

Wallace was born in February, and the amethyst is the birth stone for February.

The trinket shop makes me think of the Antitoi brothers’ shop.

Asterisks and footnotes: ’nuff said.

There’s lots of sky imagery in Infinite Jest (though to be fair, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a book that didn’t have lots of sky imagery).

The notion of occurring makes me think of a certain rant of Schtitt’s.

The mention of darkness makes me think of The Darkness. The association of that darkness with objects makes me think of The Darkness’s relationship with objects.

I could probably tease out more, but this is a quick brain dump. For the moment, I’m resisting the temptation to look for some kind of annagrammatic acrostic in the poem’s first lines’ first letters (the initials DFW do appear, but not in uninterrupted sequence). I don’t fully grok even the basic thing the poem is saying and need to do a different sort of reading of it than I’ve done so far. Just thought I’d put this free-association out there in the mean time.

Update: I wrote the poem’s author, and he kindly wrote me back and said that he hadn’t read Wallace, so the things that jumped out at me are in fact weird coincidences and/or the product of my overactive imagination.

What about Ophelia?

About a month ago, when we were in the mid-400 page range, I wrote about how there was a lot of water imagery associated with Don Gately. I’ve kept kind of half an eye out for this ever since. We see a lot more of it in this week’s milestone (and, though not covered here, beyond):

  • “Gately’s outsized crib had been in the beach house’s little living room” (809)
  • “It seemed to him more like he kept coming up for air and then being pushed below the surface of something.” (809)
  • “Some things seem better left submerged. No?” (815, spoken by Tiny Ewell, however)
  • “He ran through the crazed breakers to deep warm water and submerged himself and stayed under until he ran out of breath… He kept coming up briefly for a great sucking breath and then going back under where it was warm and still.” (816)

On page 814, there’s sort of a hidden reference to water, as the confessional Tiny Ewell mentions Gately’s “reluctant se offendendo,” which phrase has a note that reads as follows:

Latin blunder for self-defense’s se defendendo is sic, either a befogged muddling of a professional legal term, or a post-Freudian slip, or (least likely) a very oblique and subtle jab at Gately from a Ewell intimate with the graveyard scene from Hamlet — namely V.i. 9.

Whether Ewell is making a jab here or not, Wallace is inviting us to take a look at the famous graveyard scene from which he borrows a phrase for the book’s title. I don’t know about you, but I always tend to focus on Hamlet himself during the graveyard scene. What occurred to me this time around, as I had water on the brain, is that the funeral procession that follows Hamlet’s graveyard pontification is for Ophelia (also the referent of the aforementioned se offendendo), a character who went mad and drowned — the hidden water reference I mentioned. The “se offendendo” here would be Ophelia’s self-offense (or suicide) or possibly Gately’s having gotten himself (through no fault of his own and for entirely noble reasons) into a rather self-offending position.

Beyond that link, I don’t know that there’s much kinship between Gately and Ophelia. Ophelia goes mad and incoherent after her father’s death and so does have a sort of kinship with Hal, though it’s never the kinship that springs to mind when reading the book (are we that afraid of crossing gender lines? Wallace sure isn’t). But kinship with Gately? With the water imagery and the pointer back to Ophelia in this Gately/Ewell interface, I can’t help thinking something’s going on here. I just haven’t figured out yet what it is. Thoughts?


As a number of people have already said, the last couple of hundred pages of Infinite Jest tend to be kind of a downhill sprint. I was by no means among the first participating in Infinite Summer to find myself in the 800s and unable to stop myself at the spoiler lines. As hard as it’s sometimes been to avoid spoilers (accidental ones, at least), having read the book a number of times before, it’s especially hard during this last leg of the book. So I keep finding myself false-starting on posts this week and will probably do the same next week. Things I want to say reach too far into the future for me to be able to chisel much out of them just yet.

So for tonight, a diversion. I’ve flirted with poetry for years. For decades, I guess, if you count a thing I wrote in elementary school that rhymed “butterfly” and “flutterfly.” I wrote the usual dark angsty suicidal type stuff in high school and early college, and then I began to think more seriously about poetry midway through college. It became for me less about expression and feelings than about structure and playing with formalism and convention, about hewing something out of the raw material of language. That’s not to say I was any great talent at it, but I did pursue the interest and even got a minor in poetry writing. In the decade-plus since I graduated college, I’ve written only a little bit, and rather poorly. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a sheaf of works in progress, but it’s not a serious pursuit by any stretch of the imagination. Even more rarely, I’ll slingshot something (usually something old and fairly polished) out to a journal, so far with no luck (but with so little invested, it’s hard to feel too bad about it).

Of course I read a lot of poetry throughout school as well, though I’ve forgotten most of it by now. A few years ago, I sold most of my poetry books to clear space on my shelves prior to a move. Gone are my Auden, my Yeats, my Larkin, my Stevens, my Creeley. Gone is even good old accessible Billy Collins. And William Carlos Williams. Lord, I almost forgot him, though he was one of my early and enduring favorites, whose quest for an appropriate but elusive American poetic foot informed my own such ill-fated quest. Ah, and Wordsworth, of whom my early imitations constituted something rather more like battery than flattery. They’re all gone. Remaining are a collection of Wilbur (whom I dislike), another of Pinsky, and a few anthologies, mostly Norton. There’s an Andrew Hudgins book and a couple of Robert Wrigley books. These two gentlemen I won’t do without. I have a slim volume of Donald Hall’s that I used to own in hardback but sold and then bought again in paperback a few years later when I had a change of heart. The collected work of my mentor throughout college, and then a book of a colleague of his. A few other scattered things, like a long one by Derek Walcott that I’ve never yet managed to read, though it sits waiting in my bedside table. Then there are the back issues of Poetry magazine, I don’t know how many years’ worth.

So there I go namedropping, right? Well I don’t really mean to, because the sort of sad thing I’m coming around to is that I don’t often really enjoy reading poetry. It’s the prose and the letters in Poetry that I most enjoy these days, finding typically one or two poems over the course of two or three months that really stand out to me. And part of why I sold my various collected and selected volumes was because I rarely went to them and, when I did, I found so very little that I really enjoyed. The Wilbur and Pinsky I kept because they’re signed and not because the work is especially meaningful to me. Yet something in me still craves poetry. Again and again I go back to it, hoping to find something electrifying. But so much of it just falls flat for me.

I spent some melancholy time this week leafing through my few volumes with the idea of posting an excerpt in memoriam (even my Tennyson I sold back) of a certain author the anniversary of whose death is looming. But I couldn’t find anything I liked, or I couldn’t bear to wade through all the insufferable stuff in order to get to some decent nugget. Occasionally when I’m experiencing this sort of dread of poetry, I try to make a point of reading more carefully, of putting more into the reading in hopes of getting more out. There’s not usually a payoff. And I’m not blaming the poets, mind you — clearly the work is deemed by some body of people to be worth ink and paper. I think I’m just not a good reader. Which invites the pretty bitter supposition that if one isn’t a good reader of poetry, he surely can’t be that good a writer of it, which goes hand in hand with those flurries of rejection slips from various publications when I experience a little spurt of poetic allegiance.

What I’m ultimately sort of coming around to is that I think I’ve been a fairly conscientious reader during Infinite Summer. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I’ve been a great critic or have cut new ground or anything, but I’ve put a lot in, and I’ve gotten a whole lot out. So why the blind spot with poetry, I wonder, when something in me really does want to get a lot out of it?

In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.” At the end of the story, the second speaker is talking again about the obvious and borrows from an Ashberry poem (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — another poem I can’t bring myself to read in its entirety) to cut kind of a beautiful figure:

“You asked me once how poems informed me… Remember? Remember the ocean? Our dawn ocean, that we loved? We loved it because it was like us, Faye. That ocean was obvious. We were looking at something obvious, the whole time… Oceans are only oceans when they move… Waves are what keep oceans from just being very big puddles. Oceans are just their waves. And every wave in the ocean is finally going to meet what it moves toward, and break. The whole thing we looked at, the whole time you asked, was obvious. It was obvious and a poem because it was us. See things like that, Faye. Your own face, moving into expression. A wave, breaking on a rock, giving up its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. See?”

It’s the last lovely bit about the wave that Wallace borrows pretty much verbatim (with acknowledgment) from Ashberry. And the thing for me is that it’s entirely palatable and meaningful to me when Wallace gives it to me like this, but when it’s buried in the middle of a bunch of stuff that looks like a poem but reads like a stylized inner-monologue, I just can’t grab onto it. I can’t hang on for the ride.

How about you? Do you read poetry? What do you like? Have you found any little poetry references in Infinite Jest? There’s at least a Larkin reference; Auden is fairly promiment in The Broom of the System; and Wallace wrote a prose poem or two. Should Matthew over at Infinite Summer consider adding some poetry to the mix for the ongoing reading program he’s proposed? If so, do you have any recommendations? Can you name a poet (or particular poem) that really takes your face off (and explain why)?

26 Total

Starting on page 733, a batshit crazy guy camped out in the Ennet House living room approaches Marathe and begins to talk about how most people are metal people, robots or automatons with gears and processors in their heads that emit a faint whirring sound. Incidentally, in note 332 sadly just a wee bit past this week’s spoiler line, a certain E.T.A. student’s cortex is described as whirring sufficiently loudly that its sound is covered (which I suppose it would be, loud or not) by the whirring of a ventilator. So but back to the crazy addict. He goes on like so:

‘The real world’s one room. These so-called people, so-called’ — wtih again the flourish — ‘they’re everybody you know. You’ve met ’em before, hunnerts times, with different faces. There’s only 26 total. They play different characters, that you think you know. They wear different faces with different pictures they pro–ject on the wall. You get me?’

Well it just so happens that there are 52 cards in a deck of cards (minus jokers, but they call it 52-card-pickup and not 54-card pickup, so I’m going with 52), which are pictures with different faces. I suppose that really there are 13 different pictures in four different suits, so thinking of cards in terms of the number 26 (so 26 people or cards manifesting two different faces apiece) may not be right on target. (Incidentally, also in note 332 is a little reference to a deck of cards, though it’s not one I’d really play up as important to this particular scene.)

Still, what jumps out at me is that we have a possible reference to a deck of cards given in a scene rather thoroughly steeped in paranoia. It makes me think of some of the Tarot stuff in Gravity’s Rainbow, which book I don’t know well enough to say anything more about, other than that it too trades rather heavily in paranoia and is somehow structured around or at least makes many references to the Tarot deck, which deck, I’ve just learned, has 78 cards. A normal deck of regular old playing cards, with 52 cards, plus the 26 different faces with different pictures the paranoid addict talks about make 78 total. That certain character with the whirring cortex also happens to be marked as something of a paranoiac.

I don’t have any real conclusion to draw here. I’m just connecting a few dots that don’t quite make a picture yet for me. Maybe somebody can shed more light on the connections (or call bullshit) in the comments.

The Appearance of Control

Joelle says on page 534:

Well Mr. Gately what people don’t get about being hideously or improbably deformed is that the urge to hide is offset by a gigantic sense of shame about your urge to hide… [Y]ou know that hiding yourself away out of fear of gazes is really giving in to a shame that is not required and that will keep you from the kind of life you deserve as much as the next girl… You’re supposed to be strong enough to exert some control over how much you want to hide, and you’re so desperate to feel some kind of control that you settle for the appearance of control.

The passage in which these severely elided quotes appear makes me think of a story within the story of The Broom of the System. Throughout the book, editor Rick Vigorous tells protagonist and girlfriend Lenore Beadsman stories that have come across his desk for potential publication. The first of these that we’re privy to is one Vigorous (of the firm Frequent and Vigorous) gives some context by talking about second-order vanity. This is the sort of vanity a lot of us know kind of a lot about, in which you do care at least to some degree what you look like, but it’s important to you not to seem as if you care. So maybe while you’re at the gym, you take great pains to avoid looking at the wall of mirrors at your kind of hot masculine and freshly pumped muscles lest somebody catch you at it and think you care, but when you’re at home, working, say, on a blog post about some book or another that you’re reading, and you happen after a quick trip to the bathroom to catch a flash of yourself in the mirror stuck to the wall behind your home office door, maybe you stop for a second and lift up the old shirt-tail and lean back a little or maybe give just a little twist so that the newly minted concavity of the slightest little bit of abdominal definition shows up and you feel like maybe it’s just a little worth the daily 45-minute elliptical horror show and the repetitive strained exercises and the rather more strict than usual diet after all. For example.

So but the story Vigorous has had to read and shares, early in TBOTS, with Lenore is about one of these second-order vain folk, a guy with a particularly bad case of second-order vanity who one day discovers a gray patch of skin on his leg. It begins to spread, and he goes to his doctor after a while, and the doctor tells him that the stuff will keep spreading and make him carbuncular and gray and twisted and gross all over unless he pays for a procedure abroad that would wipe out the life savings he shares jointly with his girlfriend, whom he hasn’t told about the gray patch because he’s so vain and yet also doesn’t want to let her know that he’s vain enough about it that he has gone secretly to have it looked at. He’s sufficiently paralyzed by his second-order vanity that he winds up alienating his girlfriend, making up weird excuses to cover, for example, his whole scaly leg, etc. He withdraws completely and, when he finally decides to come clean and put his vanity about his vanity aside for the sake of not losing his one true love, she doesn’t answer his call and we’re left with nothing but ominous suspicions about the outcome. Joelle and others in the U.H.I.D, confronted with deformity, are simply embracing the fact that they care, giving in to the fact that they do want to hide, being in a way more honest about their deformities, though it comes off as if they’re being less honest in their hiding.

The passage I quote also makes me think of Hal, with his compulsion to hide his pot smoking. I think Joelle has it right. In an environment in which nearly every waking moment is scheduled, Hal runs down to the pump room or hides himself in the bathroom blowing thin smoke up at the vent not because he’s especially worried about being caught (being caught by a fellow indulger would hardly, on its own, be much of a worry). It’s to provide for himself a feeling of control, or at least the appearance of it. Of course, what he perhaps doesn’t realize is that this control is ultimately inverted, as the desire to exert control over something turns into his being controlled (to some degree) by it, to the extent that he’ll skip a meal with a pal to run down into the pump room to get high. The appearance of control becomes the appearance of control.

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.

A Girl and a Half in All Directions

I’m a little discombobulated after a week with company in town, so nothing groundbreaking today, but I wanted to post something lest I get out of the habit and abandon the writing part of this little project.

My title comes from Orin’s description of Helen Steeply (whom we know to be Hugh Steeply). She’s a large, mannish woman (actually a man, of course, but she’s a woman from Orin’s perspective, at least), and it turns out that she’s one of a number of such women in Wallace’s work. For example, earlier in Infinite Jest, we’ve met the S.S. Millicent Kent. The short story collection Oblivion starts and ends with stories featuring large women (though only one of them is described in mannish terms, if I recall correctly). And once again in Infinite Jest, we have Poor Tony, who isn’t large, but who surely blurs the gender line. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, we get a distinctly masculine set of perspectives. Avril is of course parodic. Are we to draw the conclusion that Wallace simply wasn’t willing or able to confront authentic female characters?

His Broom of the System stars a female character in search of another female character, so I don’t think we can conclude that he wouldn’t write from a female perspective (or for a reasonably normal female character, at least). And of course we’re starting to get a view from behind the veil of Joelle van Dyne, and it’s feeling like her role in this book will be non-parodic and somehow authentic. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how strong or round a character he makes of her (I’ve read it all, but it’s been long enough since I’ve read past the current milestone that I’ve forgotten a lot of Joelle’s portrayal), with these other weird female(ish) characters as a backdrop.

I’ll leave you with an interesting quote from a part of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity outlining some of the earlier parts of the book (p. 45):

Consider the roles of women in this chapter: the attache’s wife is generally servile; the women in Clenette’s world are objects of love or lust and are beaten and afraid (fatally pretty); and Bonk — although put on a pedestal — is won by Green when he develops “a will.” Later in the novel, a female character will appear who is veiled like the attache’s wife, who has scarred flesh like Wardine, and who is fatally pretty and a drug-user like Mildred Bonk.

A Solution without a Problem?

In the July/August edition of Poetry, Daisy Fried writes a nice little piece on reading Paradise Lost in its original form and in a recent parallel prose edition, which is offered, apparently, as “a way to deal with the epic’s difficulty” (Fried’s words). She pulls out a few clanger passages in translation to illustrate how impoverished they are (however well-meaning) next to the original poetry, which, at least in the examples she gives, isn’t really all that hard at all to read. Some passages from Fried’s short and sort of delightful article that seem relevant to much of the hoopla about how hard it is to read Infinite Jest:

Taking the Milton out of Milton emphasizes how much we need Milton’s language to create his effects.

No one ever told me Paradise Lost was difficult.

[Reading Paradise Lost] was like walking into a museum or gallery and seeing something you’ve never seen before which astonishes you. You don’t know why it does. You can’t understand why everyone doesn’t have the same reaction. Is it possible that teachers are preventing their students from seeing Milton as Milton, scaring them off, by talking too much about how much good-hearted help they’ll need to understand him?

Danielson’s Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition is clearly a labor of love by someone who knows Milton.The trouble is, Danielson wants to orient rather than disorient — and that’s not Paradise Lost. It’s not what poems do… [Milton] was enacting my own disorientation. He was mattering to my life.