8 April 2011

David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest (1996)

Why write about such a well-established novel when David Foster Wallace's new (and of course posthumous) one The Pale King has just been published? Because I began re-reading this literary behemoth (set in Boston and Cambridge, MA) a few weeks ago as I'm going to Boston shortly: I wanted to re-acquaint myself with it. 

I have no intention of repeating the various intricate strands of the story, which have been covered so many times, and are more than adequately discussed on The Howling Fantods! website. I just have a few comments to make about this wonderful book which stretches to 1079 pages, 96 of those consisting of 344 endnotes, several of which last for several pages, and several of which have footnotes.

There are a few references to the the seventeen-year-old intellectual and athletic prodigy Hal in this novel as 'Prince Hal', although the most obvious reference to Shakespeare is in the title Infinite Jest itself, which is of course an allusion to two words in Hamlet when the character Hamlet picks up the skull of the king's jester and says: 'Alas, poor Yorick! - I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy'. Significant to the novel is the fact that Infinite Jest is also the title of Hal's father James Orin Incandenza's last film, which is so addictive that anyone who sees it is spellbound and dies watching it, being incapable of performing any other action: therefore this is the perfect terrorist weapon, but that's another narrative, and this thing could go on, er, infinitely. The film director's initials spell the acronym JOI, the French for 'joy', which ties in with the initial effect of the film at least, but bearing in mind the result of this spectation, it is also ironic. Plus it's ironic because JOI (incidentally called Himself by Hal) was a chronic alcoholic with a sexually promiscuous wife who ended his life by putting his head in a microwave. Suicide is of course also contemplated by Hamlet (and also actually carried out by Ophelia), as well as by several characters in the novel Infinite Jest. Hamlet is also thought to be 'Mad as the sea and wind' by his step-father Claudius.

And almost all the characters in the novel are mad or like hopelessly Xed up in some way, and maybe all come from like disfunctional families: apart, that is, from the briefly mentioned representation of the Robert McClosky's fictional Mallard family in his children's book Make Way for Ducklings, now frozen in bronze in the Public Gardens in metro Boston.

Addiction is another way to self-demap: for instance, Steeply's (unnamed) father's addiction to M*A*S*H, which eventually sends him mad; or Gene Fackelman's retreat into the physical and psychic anaesthesia of Dilaudid when he'd have been better advised (by, say, dear old Don Gately) to run as far as possible away from Boston so as to avoid certain demapping (but torture first) by his enemies.

Many of the characters have O.C.D. (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and Marlon (R. in n.24, but K. in n.234) Bain is a blazing example of this, with his ritual washing, checking, cleaning, who takes a T-square onto the tennis court to verify the raquet strings are intersecting at 90 degrees, and who sweats excessively. Himself used him in the film Death in Scarsdale, 'if you want to see way more than you want to know about perspiration', says Hal's brother Orin in transcript fragments for Moment mag in an interview with the transvestite Helen Steeply. Plus, Bain didn't trust his senses and would not only take three hours to shower, but another two to get out of shower door, checking the frame, etc. Later, he owned a greeting card company subsequently bought out by a larger one, and now lives on the third floor of the former Waltham Public Libary, which was the Children's Reading Room, and he never goes out, and of course never has to walk through any doors. (Hal's mother, the Moms, has a far less incapacitating variety of this disorder.)

Maybe an example of Wallace's writing style is screaming out to be read - in the example below, there is an endnote reference which refers the reader to an earlier endnote:

'A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself's work illuminated the central condundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.379'

Note 379 states 'See Note 144 supra.'

Note 144 states 'E.g. see Ursula Emrich-Levine (University of California-Irvine), 'Watching Grass Grow While Being Hit Repeatedly Over the Head With a Blunt Object: Fragmentation and Stasis in James O. Incandenza's Widower, Fun With Teeth, Zero-Gravity Tea Ceremony, and Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell', Art Cartridge Quarterly, vol. III, nos. 1-3, Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken.'

Wallace, who began his academic career in mathematics before moving to fiction, explains - in an interview with Michael Silverblatt on the radio program 'Bookworm' 11 April 1996 - that the book is based on the Sierpinkski gasket, although there were a number of emendations to the original typescript that made it a lopsided Sierpinski gasket, and it's basically 'a pyramid on acid'. He says that when he was in his twenties he thought the point of writing was to show the reader how clever the writer was, but he'd never experienced loneliness then, and now he thinks art has 'something to do with loneliness', and he wanted to do something sad, 'about what was sad about America'. He says that part of this sadness that is infusing the culture is related to 'this loss of a sense of purpose or organizing principles, somethin' you're willin' to give yourself away to', and that the addictive impulse which is very much part of today is 'interesting and powerful only because it's a kind of a distortion of kind of a religious impulse, or an impulse to be part of somethin' bigger.' This is his fascinating interview with Silverblatt for KCRW .

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