Wednesday, March 25, 2009

DFW, IJ and Slate: a response, of sorts

In order to be fully aware here is the link to the podcast as originally posted by the good folks over at

Infinite Jest will be referred to as IJ throughout.
David Foster Wallace will be referred to as DFW
Admittedly I’m biased towards Wallace and IJ. There is some attempt to be objective. I’m not entirely sure it succeeds.
These are very rough thoughts. Comments are welcome.

This post has two purposes. The first is to work through some of my thoughts on my first reading of IJ while also discussing this podcast. Admittedly, these individuals are not critics. This is marketed as a Book Club thus, in my view, the expectation of a critical approach is less likely. Also in keeping in the vein of Lewis a good critic finds good in any text. Thus I will begin with what I liked about this podcast.

Slate's Audio Book Club. Katie Roiphe, Troy Patterson, and James Surowiecki discuss David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. We recommend, but don't insist, that you read the book before listening to this audio program.

1) They discuss not reading Infinite Jest in the context of DFW’s suicide. I think this is a point that cannot be stressed enough. The work needs to be able to stand on its own, within its own context. The Slate team does quite a good job on bringing up and elucidating this point. Kudos.

2) They do a decent job of bringing in interviews and other semi-critical writings on and by DFW. This is tremendously important in my opinion. Examine the book but also examine the literature and interviews by the author about his writing process and thoughts on the work. Again, kudos.

3) Some really excellent observations such as the mention of DFW’s use of windows throughout the work. Troy Patterson really nails this idea, noticing that IJ opens with a window and basically closes with a window reference (23:40-24:10). Very nicely done. (Personally I think he does the best job out of the trio in this case.) [2]

4) The fact that IJ gets an hour long discussion in this public forum/form is a great thing and should happen more often. Also, that the work invites criticism is definitely a good thing.

The stuff I did not like and blows my mind a bit. Again I recognize that these individuals are not, as it were, professional literature critics. Also IJ is indeed a huge book. It is huge not just in content but in terms of the amount of story, ideas, theme and complexity. Thus some degree of blithering about in attempting to discuss and explain it is, in this informal arena, to be expected. However, I don’t think this means that some aspects of this discussion cannot be called into question as fundamentally and deeply flawed.[3] For the record I don’t care what annoys you about the work.

1) Why is the size of the work mentioned so often? The discussion, especially in the beginning seems to revolve around the size of the work and complaints about its length. Okay, IJ is big. James Surowiecki quotes Wallace from an interview that Wallace said what was included in IJ is meant to be there. Then collectively the debaters proceed to trash the length all over again. Wallace creates a very intense and deeply involved environment that requires a very intense and deeply lengthy work. It strike me that IJ is an immersive work not unlike an Olympic sized swimming pool compared to a whirlpool. To traverse an Olympic sized pool takes more effort, gumption and understanding of one’s limitations than a whirlpool. I found this novel, even with its length to be completely immersive. Even though it’s huge, I find myself, even several weeks after finishing IJ being able to recap and think through scenes of this work and names in a way I’m not always able to do.[4] It is not unlike going underwater in the Olympic pool with goggles on. Everything becomes clear though distant. Removing the goggles transforms the end of the pool to a murky, possibly endless, depth. In this world that Wallace creates he invites/requires immersion into the text. Immersing without goggles (effort) will leave one with the feeling of messiness, I think. Immersing with goggles (effort/connection) will allow the reader a unique and necessary perspective on the work.

2) IJ is said to be a mess. Compared to what? The commentators obsess over the style/style as mess but do not do any comparative analysis of any other work that would say yes IJ is a mess. Ulysses still confuses the nonsense out of me. I have a harder time tracking Joyce’s characters than I do Wallace’s in IJ. Perhaps it is relative. I would not say, simply because I have a hard time following parts of Ulysses that it is a mess. My difficulty to understand Ulysses on the 1st/2nd time through should be judged on the strength of the material rather than my reaction to my interaction with it.

a. As a sub-question they complain the book does not end in the “traditional sense”. For a podcast that has recently discussed Run, Rabbit, Run (Updike) and The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) what is a book ending in a traditional sense? IJ is not Little Women. Any book that starts a year in advance in the first chapter, flashes back to a character that shows up once and then disappears except for a peripheral mention 600 pages later[5] is probably not going to end traditionally. Think Messiaen versus Bach. You don’t expect Messiaen to come to a cadence with an I-IV-V-I. Not happening. Why is it expected of IJ? This seems to be an inconsistent reading of the postmodern context in which DFW is writing. If this is a postmodern novel, wouldn’t you expect it to have a postmodern ending?

3) They complain about the challenge to the reader. Personally, I like it. It is a characteristic of DFW’s style.[6] It seems listening to this that they do not want to work at reading for the sake of working of at it for the end result of knowledge/reading for knowledge’s/reading’s sake. I believe that approach falls into the trap that I believe IJ, is in part, attempting to deal with i.e. that what DFW shows to the reader is that even in a semi-fantastic universe living/obsession takes work; sometimes for its own sake. Gately and later Hal work to overcome addiction; Hal works, even as a genius, to better his tennis and retain his seed, Jim Incandeza works on film, Joelle works to kill herself and the Quebois work quite hard to attain the video tape. Hal’s working through, if you will, his father’s video collection in dialogue with the contents and himself benefits no one else except for himself. If the characters are going to work, the reader is going to need to also work to keep up with them.

4) It’s interesting, at least to me, that these talkers call Jim Incadenza’s films “art”. I would have to go back and really check this but I’m 75% certain that throughout IJ Wallace calls these “entertainment”. That’s a big difference. But I am a little shaky if that difference exists.

5) It is deeply disturbing and troubling to hear any sort of critic, armchair or professional, discuss what they would remove from the work if they had their druthers. This is the worst kind of scholarship/criticism. It’s too late. The work is there. Nothing is getting removed. It’s like attempting to Photoshop your estranged aunt out of that family reunion photo from five years ago and replacing her with a pine tree. It’s messy and unhealthy. The work needs to be dealt with in its entirety. While this text is not canonized the form it is in, is the form the author, and his editor, have mutually decided it should be in, for better or for worse. Deal with it responsibly.

6) DFW in IJ deals with the transparency of the mundane/ordinary. I believe is the focus of the OED, on Hals’ know-it-all-ness which characterizes his nature. Not taking anything for granted but continually watching for the blind spot, drilling down to the minutiae which in this case is addiction/obsession and/both sport/survival. Wallace’s style/approach slows down our/my reading processing and typically unconscious view and processing of life so I am forced to view the grit of life in its individual grains. In library literature there is a quote by Michael Buckland that states “What is familiar tends to be transparent.”[7] This is why Walter Benjamin, w/ others, experimented and documented his experience with hash-hish. Benjamin was seeking to view the transparent/familiar through a new, in their thinking, tripped-out leans as it were. They were attempting to reinvent their perspective by chemical process. In IJ’s case the hyper-magnifications/hyper-realism/uber-grittiness is the tripping out, the literary hash-hish the reader inhales. Thus IJ is lengthy because it takes time to take effect. The characters, especially the peripheral ones are given so much space so to allow the reader to immerse completely into this small and particular world (Potok) that has been created for our understanding and interaction.
There is an uncertain parallel in my mind between Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project and DFW’s IJ. Both have individual microcosms coalesced to form/present an understanding of a world. Whiel Benjamin’s world can be supported through other documentation he never finished the Arcades Project, thus there is serious speculation on what he was actually going to do with the massive collection of quotes accrued. IJ is arranged into a sequence of connected and interwoven-events that give rise to a somewhat orderly and coherent view of this world.

7) I do not believe, as the podcast mentions, that the ending is abrupt. The reader has simply, in the author’s view, been given enough information and the story has reached its end. No one complains about not having enough information to start the story. The reader assumes information will be given. The end assumes that you’ve been given enough information. If it seems to be completely unresolved then you as the reader probably missed something.[8]
Personally I think of most literary works as a photograph or photographs that connected on a long roll. The image(s) are scrolled past when the author gives the word and stops when the author stops giving the word. With the information provided the reader must then analyze and identify the salient moments of the work. Even if the author sees additional imagery beyond what is shared in the text, the reader is concerned with what is shared. Conjecture on material outside the known is, to my mind, unhelpful and misleading.

8) There might be a distinct Joyce-ian parallel here where after multiple character interaction and movement throughout the work the books focuses down on one character and his/her monologue. IJ focuses on Gately and Joyce focuses in on Molly Bloom. Both finishing sections are deeply introspective, wondering about survival, safety and purpose.

These are some of my thoughts about IJ and Wallace’s writing. I’m hoping to put together another essay, in better form on Wallace’s interaction with the transparent aspect of life through his writing. This bit is really to help clear the air/start the juices flowing for that essay.

[1] I know that the use of footnotes and slashes seems to be pure imitation and blind, slavish imitation of DFW’s style. Frankly this use falls into the former category. Footnotes are simply useful and slashes help the both/and aspect of postmodern language.

[2] I really like Troy Patterson’s insights and input. He’s definitely the smartest and most tactful of the readers. His pronunciation of “Madame Psychosis” as “My Damn Psychosis” was brilliant though I’m not sure if it was on purpose. This reading/pronunciation fits in well with Mario’s obsession with her radio broadcasts.

Surioweksi annoys me the most especially when he gets the Mario interaction with Lyle as the homeless person wrong. (approx 20:20-20:35) He seems very full of himself which is distracting.

[3] The format of this discussion bothers me to no end. I suppose it is the typical fashion to talk over/through one another and traipse about the field of discussion with multiple tangents flowing after oneself like maypole ribbons but it makes for awkward listening and awkward dialogue. The form of this discussion is very free and I think is detrimental to successfully talking about IJ. Because its size a definitively, almost systematic method is necessary to adequately deal with it in discussion.

[4] I understand that this is anecdotal and this is, ironically, something I’m reacting against in the commentators but I don’t think I’m completely alone in this and it ties in well to my swimming pool analogy.

[5] Slight exaggeration.

[6]As an example, the Pale King’s and IJ’s use of the OED. You’ve got to love words/language almost as much as DFW does to track along with him in these sections.

[7] Buckland, Michael Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto

[8] Not to say that there isn’t bad writing out there which just takes a sideways, flying leap off a literary cliff leaving the reader to wonder what just happened to the plot line; I don’t think IJ falls into that category. This may just be my bias, but I don’t think so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Say, I don't want to take anything away from found insights or push any spoilers on anyone, but if you reflect on a certain radio host and what else she's done, in IJ, and then look up the word "metempsychosis", I believe it will profit you.