And now, they're coming for your Social Security money - they want your fucking retirement money - they want it back - so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all from you sooner or later. Because they own this fucking place. It's a Big Club: and you're not in it.
This post contains spoilers for a while, and then doesn’t, so I’ve marked the end of spoilers.
Book Clubs generally make me sad. Even at their best, what you’re likely to get, the best possible outcome, the thing that makes you go to and leave from a book club is ultimately just somebody else’s opinion on what it was it all meant and, perhaps, the chance to make (er, help) somebody see it your way instead. If the book in question is merely a bit of magical realism masquerading as high literature: no problem. It’s when the book in question is actually good, or even great, that there start to be problems: it’s not cut and dried; style may be an issue; what’s with this complete lack of recognizable paragraphs and or commas? And so forth. But when the book in question is a genuine (and, to my mind indisputable) masterpiece of the late 20th century, and one of the finest American novels you’re likely to encounter that’s also actually in-print and reasonably popular on a broad, everyday culture level to boot, there’s going to be real trouble. People are going to complain about hetero-normative bias in the statements of particular characters made by them (the character) as expressions of their character. Which clearly cannot be allowed, as there are no people with hetero-normative bias still around in the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. And so forth. And even if there were, they certainly wouldn’t allow themselves to be quoted saying so in a book written by some all-seeing eye by way of one Hal Incandenza. Book Club People also have a real tendency to miss the most obvious things and radically overstate the importance of the trivial; for all you fags dressed up as girls out there laboring under plainly, painfully false spectation theories: Hal is on DMZ at the beginning of the book. And, no, he didn’t suddenly metabolize something he ate years previous. He took it in the sense of stealing it from Pemulis near the end of the book, and took it in the sense of ingesting a substance at the one time during which it’s been established that he could do so (the break before the Whataburger). He even says so:
‘I cannot make myself understood, now.’ I am speaking slowly and distinctly. ‘Call it something I ate.’
This line is followed directly by the “I ate this” story, which, hey what-do-you-know, is about mold. And it’s well established that DMZ is also a mold. And the description of “cannot make myself understood, now” is almost directly lifted from the way the effects of DMZ are described chronologically earlier in the narrative: the Ethel Merman tunes and all that. Because I thought this was as clear as it could be made without including some diagrams and a cartoon with an angel somewhere around page 700. Seriously, did we all read the same thing? Because it’s really not worth going through if not. And but maybe you should try a little harder next time out, and maybe work on the old comprehension and retention before moving on to chapter books.
John NR Wayne: Quebecois agent of some kind. CT too, apparently, as both are described as graveside for operation dig-up. That’s why Wayne “would have” won the Whataburger in the Year of Glad. Because he isn’t there; mission accomplished, and all that. But we also know that The Entertainment master wasn’t there: “too late.” Orin obtained it long ago. He’s the one sending the tapes as some kind of bizarre vengeance against his mother. That’s why, for instance, the mid-eastern attaché (presumably one of the many Avril liaised with, at least according to Himself’s perception, and to Orin that “truth” is all that matters) receives a tape marked “Happy Anniversary.” The anniversary in question is that of his canoodling with the Moms.
A clockwork orange: The reason Fackelmann is getting the full Kubrick? They’re preparing to show him The Entertainment. We know that Sixties Bob has acquired it from the Antitois (they traded trade a blue lava lamp and a lavender apothecary’s mirror for it); and that the Antitois are involved in a more-moderate-than-the-AFR Quebecois terrorist sect but that they can’t make copies, so this is not the master we’re dealing with here. We know 60’s Bob and his son are furthermore involved in Fax’s Big Score. Why the hell else are they setting up a TP viewer and forcibly opening his eyes? And it’s also the reason why Gately is doped into unconsciousness with the strongest (specifically) Canadian shit there is: so he doesn’t see any of it. What, you thought they were just doing him some kind of substance-tinged favor? And, of course, we know the final outcome was sufficiently gruesome to put Gately off the substances for good.
And but so I’m actually a lot more interested in the book as work than the book as it works, and I want to put some thoughts down while the book still feels like my companion:
I previously knew David Foster Wallace’s writing from his non-fiction work. Entirely. I’d wager that’s most people’s experience, in that he was a far more regularly published writer in that domain. I found him to be almost outlandishly talented in a way that seemed very familiar (but completely unreachable) relative to my own ways of approaching writing, a kindred spirit. In pieces like these, he unleashed a kind of writing that felt intimately familiar to me. As though we had shared many of the same influences, took some of the same essential lessons to heart, and then each set about writing; sharing a certain sensibility that he had honed to a far higher and more elaborate level than I ever had dreamed of doing. Obviously, if we extend that metaphor he’s Mozart and I’m a busker in the streets, but you get the idea. Feeling a strange insight into his methods, I always sensed the gears working, felt like the diversions were too this-is-my-voice-focused, too telegraphed, and so found the totality of it to be often suffocating and even somewhat counterproductive. But still enjoyable. Sometimes in an absolute sense, sometimes in the more cerebral sense of appreciating a job well done.
And so I avoided his fiction. 1000+ pages of heavily footnoted, variably voiced ramblings with a non-linear plot? A few thousand words on grammar was often too much to deal with in any kind of enjoyment-type fashion. And so it went. Until he went and demapped himself, and I felt the profound sadness of one who’s under-appreciated that which they have until it is gone. Along came the notion of an Infinite Summer. A tip of the old cap to DFW, in internet book club form. Resisted, started later, avoided the online forums and discussions like the fucking plague, but read it anyway. Just worked on my side of the street, as they might say. And I shall undoubtedly read it again.
DFW is the writer Pynchon wishes he were. Pynchon, clearly holding his reader in contempt, provides one millimeter of plot or character development surrounded by 14,000 kilometers of absolute blather, sound and fury signifying nothing; followed by another millimeter of progress. Rinse, lather, repeat and you’ve got Gravity’s Rainbow without employing even a single monkey. DFW addressed this topic not once but twice in a 1996 Salon interview; noting his various influences he cites “about 25% of the time Pynchon” (which I would obviously rank as overly generous) and then, separately, more or less spells out exactly why that is:
…one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read.
Quite the opposite, then, in Infinite Jest Wallace gives us tightly wound characters that inhabit the same world, interact with one another directly and indirectly, lodges important details in your brain for a few hundred pages such that, when the time comes, you feel the moment of discovery: ah, this is that. All without a moment of “hey, look here, this seemingly innocuous detail about the different variants of AA meetings is going to be important!” and without a moment’s sense of a book written in linear fashion and then chopped to pieces and reassembled to make it seem more “important” from some perceived but utterly invented difficulty. After reading this book you feel like you’ve known these characters, intimately and for a long time. From inside their minds, and but also from the outside looking in. The level of voice control exerted in Infinite Jest is utterly astonishing; also the language. Complex and varying, sometimes invented out of whole cloth. Large sections of it are essentially free-standing short stories that have little direct impact on the plot; however idiosyncratic they seemed at their varying moments, I can’t think of one that didn’t ultimately lend a fullness of humor, a depth to character, or add some crushingly painful realization into an already claustrophobic and terrifyingly personal story-line. In the hands of a lesser author, it would be poisonous to include a length diversion about M*A*S*H or prison tattoos, but here it’s very nearly always convincing. Eric Strohm puts it nicely:
Of Infinite Jest’s pleasures the most intoxicating is the march and hum of words and sentences which form the environment, ambient noise, and very foundation of any novel. Here they sculpt a sensuous, irresistible terrain. It is no minor irony that the very thrill and rush of language in Wallace’s hands forms a serious habit. And Wallace accommodates the reader’s desire endlessly-a torrent of tales on tennis (junior-level), Dilaudid, film theory, eschatology, alcohol, Quebecois separatism, heroin, Greater Boston, differential calculus, twelve-step recovery, and all things under the sun, told every which way, with perfect pitch to hilarious effect.
DFW his own personal self shows almost alarming insight into his masterpiece:
It’s a weird book. It doesn’t move the way normal books do. It’s got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off.
They piss me off too. Infinite Jest most definitely did not piss me off and is simultaneously almost impossibly smart. I see that as a fuck you also, by the way. A different kind, but the same term. I’ve found that the really big fuck yous in this life make you want to write. This one made me need to write.
Lastly, I’ll just lift a line that has no real meaning outside the context of people who have read the book, but I think is quite wonderful either way:
And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.