Infinite Downshift – Infinite Jest to Dracula is like shifting from 5th to 1st at 75 mph without double-clutching

Fellow Infinite-Zombie Daryl L.L. Houston sez “One of the things I’ll be looking for in the book is style vs. story.”

Infinite Jest to Dracula.  Style vs. story.  That’s some heavy lifting.

While I wouldn’t be too quick to relegate Dracula to the polite charms of the quasi-epistolary novel – and I don’t think Daryl is either – Stoker’s book is hardly the juggling act that Jest was.  Three – five major plot lines vs. one, maybe two.  A cast of some two dozen characters versus Dracula’s seven or eight.  And a post-modern/pre-apocalypse/fin-de-siecle author who set out to tell a story AND confound the mechanics of the modern novel in Wallace versus a guy who wanted to tell a good story in Stoker.  In short, it’s hard not to get caught up in a struggle of style v. story.

fussy chairsHowever, if I put myself in the fussy, uncomfortable, distinctly not-sensual seat of the Victorian reader, however, the style begins to make much more sense.  The epistolary novel – or a letter within standard novels –  has always been an ideal vehicle to expose a story through deliberate brush strokes, keeping both writer and recipient in the dark about the true nature of things.

And if, as Beresford asserts in his Demons to Dracula, Stoker’s story represented to first widely circulated telling of a story that combined folk tales from Eastern Europe, his audience wouldn’t have been as inculcated with the whole Vampire Thing as we are.  So the novel might end up reading like some sort of gothic horror strip tease, where one gruesome, erotic layer is removed at a time. Only instead of knowing what we, the collective Modern Reader, are going to see next, every letter exposes something new, thrilling and a tiny bit naughty.

“We are not amused,” Queen Victoria might have said of Stoker’s book.  “But We are intrigued and not a little titillated.”

About the Post Title: So I got caught up with 3 back episodes of “Top Gear” the weekend to clear off the DVR.  Sue me.

A Very Peculiar Man

Toward the end of chapter two, noting that he hasn’t yet seen the Count eat or drink, Harker remarks that Dracula is a very peculiar man. You said it, Bub. Parts of the first two chapters read to me the way the beginning of the movie Scream unfolds. Like the teenagers in the movie, Harker ignores many signs that things may be amiss. And, one assumes, things will wind up going as badly for Harker as for the teenagers. But there is a difference in what’s behind their attitudes, I think. The teenagers are carefree, daring, rash, and enjoying the gift of perceived immortality afforded to the youthful. Whether Harker is merely naive or is guilty of a rather less endearing tendency to write off the natives of the country he’s in as simple and superstitious I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps he’s both, for a tendency to underestimate people can itself be in a way naive.

In any case, it’s a little funny to read. Here’s my condensed treatment of Harker’s observations:

How strange: The landlord suddenly won’t speak to me about the Count even though it’s just achingly obvious that he can communicate adequately with me. Meh, it’s probably nothing.

What’s with the hysterical old lady with the crucifix?

Wonder why the coach driver and the landlady are whispering together about devils and hell and witches and looking at me frantically. Weirdos.

Wow, this coach driver sure is in a hurry. Sure wish he’d let me down to pee. And what’s with the blessings and gifts the other passengers are giving me?

My new driver sure has some crazy teeth.

Goddamn wolves!

Why are we driving around in circles? And what about these blue flames?

Those wolves sure seem to like my driver with the crazy teeth.

I think I blacked out for a while there. Anyway, we seem to be at the castle, but my driver just took off and left me here in the dark. Guess I’ll just wait here calmly.

This Dracula guy seems kind of dead.

Oh, and he sure has some crazy teeth and seems to love those wolves.

Dracula disappeared mysteriously for an hour, and when he came back, my dinner was ready. Oddly, there seem to be no servants at all.

I’m starting to feel a little lonely and creeped out.

Hey, Dracula seems not to have a reflection, and he grabbed my throat when he saw blood from where I cut myself shaving. Asshole. It’s ok, though — when he touched the crucifix that crazy old lady gave me, he backed off.

I still haven’t seen the Count eat or drink. He must be a very peculiar man!

Think I’ll have a look around. Wait a minute… this place feels a little like a prison. Wonder if something fishy’s going on here.

Did Stoker make Harker deliberately dim, I wonder, or is this a clumsy attempt to layer suspense in one detail at a time?

Ezra Klein and Too Little Fun

Ezra Klein over at A Supposedly Fun Blog had this to say of this week’s milestone:

But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David.

I guess what I would ask is what happens when you run across a word whose precise definition you don’t know (in any book). Do you just skip over it or figure that the context will iron it out? I know I often skip and figure. Good readers (and I’m not claiming to be one — see the comment just prior) will stop and look up the word. When you see an unfamiliar word (e.g. “Coatlicue”) that has an end note saying “No clue” (e.g. note 216), you are being told pretty clearly to go look the word up. I guess the note could say “Hey, you might want to look this up” rather than the more whimsical “No clue,” but then a reader like Ezra would be pissed that Wallace didn’t just include the word’s definition in the note (but he’d be pissed if Wallace did include it because it’d be too much extra information that he (= Klein) doesn’t care about because he’s got TPS reports to file or whatever). The note isn’t a fuck you. It’s an invitation to go outside the boundaries of the text to bring some deeper understanding back into the text. It’s a chance to learn something.

I’m not going to get in as big a funk over this as I did over Avery’s post of a couple of weeks ago. Klein doesn’t have time to commit himself to reading the book, and that’s understandable. I don’t really have the time, frankly (I’m missing lots of Cubs baseball games to read and write about the book). I do wish that naysayers like Klein (who has been disposed to dislike the book from the beginning) and Avery would own some agency (ie, that they have other priorities they rate higher than reading IJ) rather than couching their difficulty with the book in terms of some sort of agency on Wallace’s part (ie, he’s wasting their time and antagonizing them). It’s a little silly. It’s like going to the gym and being frustrated that you have to lift the weights to see any benefit. Sometimes you have to do more than just show up to reap any reward.

Avery Edison Hurt my Feelings

I think I’m generally considered by those who know me personally to be like Vulcan-level rational, often to a fault. Rational thought tends to supercede feeling, to the point that I wind up hurting people’s feelings by demanding (or at least expecting, and balking at the lack of) distanced, objective consideration of things that are really more or better felt than considered.

So imagine my surprise when I read Avery Edison’s Infinite Summer post yesterday and found myself becoming defensive and doing this weird rare thing that I think may have been emoting. She doesn’t like the book. She’s reading it with distaste and figures it’s a waste of time. She disdains the style and yearns for more explicit and I suppose active plot rather than what she describes as portraits. When I read (and reread) her post, I find myself getting flushed, feeling angry. She doesn’t deserve this book. She’s somehow profaning the book by owning a copy of it and having these opinions. I wish she’d stop reading it, stop taking pot-shots at it. Why doesn’t she just go get the latest Grisham (not much but plot in those, is there?) or maybe a Harlequin romance? Is she fucking retarded?

Silly, huh? I know rationally that her position is valid and shared by many (for many express similar sentiments in the comments to her post). I know that there are simple matters of taste in literature. And I don’t mean taste as in snobby wine drinkers who’ll buy only from boutique wine shops vs. those of us who are happy enough to drink a Yellow Tail. I mean taste simply as in some people like broccoli and some people don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either position. I know this. When I read Portrait of a Lady many years ago, I had much the same reaction to it that Avery had to Infinite Jest. Rationally, I understand that this book, and probably most of Wallace’s work, just isn’t for Avery, and I know objectively that that’s ok and doesn’t in any way detract from the book’s value for me.

But still, I feel like she’s denigrating one of my children, or unjustly defaming one of my heroes. It’s hard to get past. And here’s the thing: I don’t feel this way about any other author. I’m a great admirer of the work of William Gaddis, but if somebody told me they couldn’t get past page 4 of JR, I’d be neither surprised nor bothered. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Pynchon’s work; it took me three or four tries to get through Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve false started a couple of his others a couple of times too. I haven’t made it more than halfway through Ulysses yet (despite several tries). Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. He’s more traditional and human, in a way, than these postmodern giants. Where I have no real sense of personal admiration for Gaddis or Pynchon (it’s their work I’m on board with), I feel like Steinbeck was a nice, sort of approachable guy, and I sort of like him. Yet if somebody says they don’t like his work, it doesn’t bother me. No hard feelings.

What is it, then, about this disdain for Infinite Jest that sticks in my craw? I do admire who Wallace seemed to be. I think he was probably a good, nourishing person to know personally. But I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t chalk my hurt feelings up to that. Maybe it’s because he died, but then Steinbeck is dead too. Maybe it’s because he’s the first real author whose prime occurred during my active reading/intellectual prime, and whose life ended during mine. That does make it all more personal to me. I had looked forward to many more books from Wallace, to many more years of not only enjoying his work, but of watching it develop in something more like real-time than for these old or dead authors whose work I admire mostly looking back in time. Reading Wallace’s work has been, in a way, almost like watching a child grow up (though I’m not comfortable with the sort of superior or parental role that simile places me in, so let’s discard that part of it). And now that work is done.

There’s a reference somewhere in Infinite Jest to a character (I think a past boyfriend of Molly Notkin’s) who believes that there’s a finite number of orgasms available in the world, and so he’s crippled by the fear of consuming one of them and thus depriving another person of one of them (side note: it just occurs to me that this orgasm limit and selflessness ties in with the whole can-of-soup discussion Marathe and Steeply have at the end of this week’s milestone). Although I know it’s irrational, I feel almost that way about reading Infinite Jest. If somebody’s going to read it at arm’s length or with a sneer or a frown of distaste, I don’t want her to read it. It’s almost like she’s wasting its time (rather than its wasting hers) or preventing some other person from enjoying this major piece of what sadly turns out to be a finite (and far less prolific than I’d desire) body of work. It’s irrational and stupid, I know, but it’s how I feel. Hashing it out here has helped me step back a little bit, so that I can get past the weird flash of anger or resentment I feel when I think about Avery’s post (and similar reactions), but it still all hurts my feelings a little, makes me feel sad and further bereft.

Phoning it In

I’ve got company in town this week and really divided attention, so I’ll almost certainly be less prolific and more half-assed about posting over the next few days. For now, some quotes about pattern:

  • “[Madame Psychosis’s] monologues seem both free-associative and intricately structured, not unlike nightmares.” (185)
  • “Madame’s themes are at once unpredictable and somehow rhythmic, more like probability-waves for subhadronics than anything else.” (187)
  • “You can never predict what it will be, but over time some kind of pattern emerges, a trend or rhythm. Tonight’s background fits, somehow, as she reads… The word periodic pops into his head.” (190)
  • “The background music is both predictable and, within that predictability, surprising: it’s periodic. It suggests expansion without really expanding. It leads up to the exact kind of inevitability it denies.” (191)

The recurrence of a number of phrases and ideas (e.g. the distant familiarity of MP’s voice and its associations for Mario) along with this insistence on paradoxically unpredictably periodic patterns makes me suspect that this section of the book could be charted or analyzed to uncover an underlying pretty tightly-controlled pattern. If so, then Wallace has done just what he’s talking about in these passages by providing a sense of unpredictable rhythm that turns out actually to be periodic. It would make a lot of sense for him to do something like this given various themes of circularity/period in the book. Whether or not there’s anything to my suspicion will have to be confirmed by somebody else or at another time, though.

I can’t help thinking that sections like this might be part of what led Bookworm’s Silverblatt to intuit that there was something fractal about the book’s structure, an intuition Wallace confirmed. The very pattern Wallace claimed informed the structure of the book makes an appearance on page 213 in the form of the Sierpinski gasket. I’ve been familiar with this particular fractal since I discovered during high school calculus a function on my graphing calculator that would draw it. With minimal digging, I found the following further information about the figure (source):

It apparently was Mandelbrot who first gave it the name “Sierpinski’s gasket.” Sierpinski described the construction to give an example of “a curve simultaneously Cantorian and Jordanian, of which every point is a point of ramification.” Basically, this means that it is a curve that crosses itself at every point.

The quote stood out to me because of the mention of Cantor, who was mentioned in passing on page 81 in a passage I previously flagged as probably important and about whom Wallace wrote a book a few years ago. Cantor studied infinity and was clearly of interest to Wallace, so his naming here in connection with the Sierpinski fractal along with the confession that the fractal informs the book’s structure seems kind of neat.

I was going to stop there but then flipped forward to see if there was anything else important in this milestone. The Joelle things are pretty darned important. I think I probably found these early Joelle passages tiresome or something on my first read, but I was wowed by some of the writing this time around. And not just the description, but the sound of it. Some of this is good to read aloud. Take this fragment from page 221 (emphasis mine):

and now murky-colored people with sacks and grocery carts appraising that litter, squatting to lift and sift through litter; and the rustle and jut of limbs from dumpsters being sifted by people who all day do nothing but sift through I.W.D. dumpsters; and other people’s blue shoeless limbs extending in coronal rays from refrigerator boxes in each block’s three alleys… red annex’s… boxes’ tops… Endless Stem

And this from 222:

clogged solid with leaves and sodden litter. She walks on toward the Common with the empty bottle

in which a number of vowel sounds match perfectly, but “walks” can also be reasonably read to match, and the second syllables of “common” and “bottle” are so swallowed by the emphatic first syllables that they almost come off as something close to feminine rhymes. At any rate, it’s a very trochaic couple of fragments.

And one more (226):

mistaking little mutters of thunder for the approach of the train, wanting more of it so badly she could feel her brain heaving around in its skull, then a pleasant and gentle-faced older black man in a raincoat and hat with a little flat black feather

In this one, “mutters” does double-duty, sharing its staccato t sound with “little” and its vowel with “thunder.” I don’t think there’s a way to draw any sort of extra meaning out of the poetry of these passages (based on the poetry alone), but it sure stood out to me during this read.

One more shifting of the old gears. I wrote briefly at one point about the cardioid shape of the tennis academy campus and the Lung that exists thereon. During this milestone, we see a cranial building complete with more or less anatomically correct structures. And then we see Enfield described as an arm and the academy described as a cyst on the elbow. In The Broom of the System, Wallace creates a place in the shape of Jayne Mansfield (whether just her face/head or her whole person I forget). There’s talk throughout Infinite Jest of eliminating somebody’s map as either killing them or messing their face up very badly in the process of killing them. I don’t really have a point or a theory to advance. I just think it’s interesting to follow this tic or whatever it is.

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.

Nails on Chalkboard Spamomatic Reply

Once again, a post over at A Supposedly Fun Blog made me want to comment, but my post, submitted in two or three different non-spammy ways, was marked as spam. So here’s my reply, whose trackback to that post will hopefully cause it to be seen and possibly responded to over there (though I’ll have no way to reply back short of posting another thing here, which I really don’t want to do over and over).

The post’s author talks about skipping over what is admittedly a rough patch to get through as we wander about the streets with C and Poor Tony, et al, as they try to get a fix. My reply:

The sections in this voice (as with the Wardine section earlier in the book) have always puzzled me a little bit. There are certain characters from these sections (especially Poor Tony and Roy Tony) whom you’ll see again in sometimes sad and sometimes funny (and sometimes both simultaneously) ways. How important this sketch is in its particulars I don’t recall, other than that it gives some background on Poor Tony. (That said, I don’t think either of the Tonies is a particularly major character, but my memory of the last half of the book is pretty vague.) I think what Wallace may be doing with this section is in a way trying to be democratic or exhaustive about the addiction thing. He’s trying to present addiction and its effects in many settings. I think he’s also pretty careful about not sitting in an ivory tower about it all. Not only criminals and street folk are drug addicts, he pretty clearly points out. I think that’s a big part of why he wrote the big Erdedy section and put it near the front of the book. Yet a depiction of addiction and the horrors it can lead to would be incomplete without this sort of view from the street. Whether or not it was necessary to write it in a voice from the street is debatable. It’s a difficult section to get through, for sure. I probably had a similar reaction upon my first read of IJ. This time around, it didn’t bother me so much, but I won’t pretend I thought it was the best writing in the book.

Fewer Words

I read something recently (I forget where, though I suspect either a comment to a blog post or perhaps even a tweet, which, this latter, would be pretty fitting) about how Wallace could be saying a lot of what he says with a whole lot fewer words. The idea, I guess, is that the sort of prose Wallace gives us in Infinite Jest is in a way masturbatory and hostile to the reader. I remember feeling this way about books I was forced to read in high school. It’s related to the “I’ll never use this algebra stuff again anyway” attitude I also had in high school. It arises out of a sort of pragmatism, I guess: For the person wanting simply to say that he read the book, all those words do rather hinder progress.

The thing about literary fiction is that it has mannerisms, and these mannerisms are often what make it worth reading. A Dan Brown book and a John Grisham book are more or less interchangeable in terms of the prose framework across which the often riveting (I’m not throwing stones here) plots are strung. It’s the style, the tics and quirks and fluidity or herky-jerkiness of the prose (and a thousand other things) that make literary fiction fun to read. It’s not about efficiency.

Saying that an author like Wallace is using too many words is like saying that — well, let’s just go with a big obvious but simple example here — DaVinci should have rendered the Mona Lisa as a stick figure. Surely no one will doubt that that modified painting I’m imagining would in a general sense convey the idea “woman” (or “person,” at least), but all of the nuance, all of what makes the picture art rather than just a picture would be leached out of it.