All posts by Dave Laird

After the Beach

For all the possible directions a last post about Infinite Jest could take, I’ve decided to look ahead to what comes next. The last few months with you guys have been totally awesome, and I’ve loved the adventure of helping “guide” y’all through the subterranean underbelly of the Enfield Tennis Academy and out to the freezing sand of Gately’s beach; we hope you’ve enjoyed the tour.

But so where does one go after Infinite Jest, novelistically speaking?

One of my favorite questions to ask people is what book they read after Jest, and to see how their experience compared. I remember reading David Sedaris’ Naked right after, and though it was a light, funny break from the density of Wallace’s dystopian future (or present as the case may be now, twenty years after publication), I recall feeling that it was somehow very lackluster, underwhelming by comparison. I’m sure if I’d read it any other time in my life, it would have been a great experience, but coming off the high of Jest is very hard to follow indeed. I feel like I’m still chasing the literary dragon almost ten years after my first read, and nothing has compared to that high since.

So here are my recommendations for books/authors that I think can hold something of a flame to Jest and Wallace, and that I think you might enjoy. (If you listen to The Great Concavity podcast I co-host, some of these will be familiar to you, since I’ve talked about books/authors other than Wallace there from time to time. If you don’t listen to it, now’s a good time to start, since you’ve now conquered Jest):

The Instructions by Adam Levin

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Like IJ, it’s really big, mostly about teenagers, has violence, and takes place at a school. It’s not as dense or hard to follow as Jest, so it’s a nice follow-up if you want to carry on the theme of rich literary worlds, while also coming down off the big high. Not that this doesn’t pack a punch; it does.

White Noise, Underworld, and Libra by Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo started me on my path to Wallace, having read these three of his novels before I finally got to Jest. I was thrilled to later find out that the two writers had correspondence, and that Wallace looked up to DeLillo as a major influence. DeLillo even spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 13). Underworld is a particularly massive and rich undertaking, so go there if you need more of that in your scene. Lots of stuff in there about garbage and waste, so shades of the Concavity abound.

Gob’s Grief & The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

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Mostly unrelated, these two books are brilliant. I recommend reading them in this order. GG takes place during the U.S. Civil War, and Walt Whitman is a main character. CH imagines a diluvian apocalypse wherein a children’s hospital serves as an ark. Magical realism of high order, this stuff. I saw Adrian give a reading at Buena Vista Park some years ago, and he was wearing a dog costume, so that’s tough to beat.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

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Pretty similar in style and tone to Wallace (footnotes included), Diaz introduces us to a nerdy loaner in the character of Oscar, with descriptions of comics, Dungeons and Dragons, and the romantic woes of someone with no game. Magical realism here too. Won the Pulitzer in 2008.

Anything by George Saunders

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I’ve read Tenth of December, In Persuasion Nation, and Pastoralia by Saunders and they’re all brilliant. He’s a master short story writer. Wallace apparently loved Civil War in Bad Decline, which I still have to get to. Really similar themes of techno-paranoia, waste, and absurd consumerism like those in Jest. Saunders also spoke at Wallace’s funeral (page 15 of the above document with DeLillo), and speaks of him with great respect and fondness (like in this Charlie Rose interview starting at 22:40).

The Brothers K by David James Duncan

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We hear of “the good old Brothers K.” in IJ in the scene with Barry Loach and his Jesuit brother, and this novel picks that up heavily. Like Jest, Dostoevsky’s work is engaged big-time here, also in a contemporary U.S. setting. Lots about baseball, growing up in post-WWII America, and the spiritual paths of four brothers, this book is super funny and very poignant.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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A thinly veiled depiction of Wallace, Leonard in this book seems to capture all the qualities and traits of Wallace himself, though casted as a Biology major rather than an English/Philosophy/Math guy. Like Eugenides’ other novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this is a great read and sure to make Wallace fans smile. (Also won a Pulitzer)

The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony

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Think Tommy Doocey but instead of being a drug dealer selling out of a camper in Massachusetts, the protagonist is a mute Hungarian dwarf selling meat out of one in Virginia: meet Rovar Pfliegman and the bizarre history he chronicles of his ancestors. Amazing cover by one of my favorite all-time artists Jacob Magraw-Mickelson.

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia

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One of the wildest, most playful textual forms I’ve seen, this book is about a village that’s preparing to wage war against Saturn. The planet. Originally published by McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ publishing company continues to put out my favorite magical realism hits (The Instructions, The Children’s Hospital, The Convalescent, and this).

The Pale King, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

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A novel, a collection of essays/journalism, and a short story collection, respectively, these three books are good places to go next if you want more Wallace. And if you made it this far, I wager you might.

Kinds of Redemption

*I’ve made a slight change to this since its first appearance on Friday, as Mark Flannagan, during our last video round table, brought to my attention a point I’d misinterpreted in Hal’s timeline. (Yes, even guides are fallible.) 

Congratulations; you’ve finished my favorite book of all time. I’m sure, as I claimed in my intro post, that we’re better able to understand each other now.

I found I read faster and more earnestly this week than any previous during Infinite Winter. The in-sight finish line goaded me on. I don’t think I recall feeling this way on my first read though, approaching 981 with fear and trepidation about how the myriad plotlines could even remotely resolve in the dwindling pages between my thumb and forefinger. I recall seeing there wasn’t a paragraph break after Gately and Fackelmann’s flashback of reckoning, and being so discouraged there wouldn’t be a final word about Hal, Mario, Marathe, and the fate of the samizdat and O.N.A.N. I recall being confused, and even dissatisfied with Gately out there alone on the freezing sand.

But time does good things for this book. As do conversation, Googling, and straight-up rereading it.

The thing is, there is a final word (to some extent) about those characters and things. There are clues littered everywhere in plain sight, but on first encounter we don’t have the equipment to recognize them. So I recommend that you read it again to find them (the clues), many of which you will, with great investigative relish.

The things I love most about this last section are the ways we see Hal, Gately, and Mario resolve. I’m currently in the final stages of writing a long academic thing about this, regarding how these three end up, in the context of theological salvation. Now that we’re done, we know that Hal’s ending is in the first pages of the novel, in the Year of Glad, the final Subsidized year we’re given, according to page 223, that great Rosetta Stone I referred to in my intro post as the beginning of the novel’s generous relenting.

Hal has a psychic meltdown in his judgement by the trinity of the three Deans, but we’re given some other details about what happens to him after the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. On 16-17, we see Hal, “NR” Wayne, and Gately in a graveyard, at some earlier point which must also be in Year of Glad (given Gately’s hospitalization and recovery time), digging up J.O.I.’s head looking for the master copy of Infinite Jest. This week we read of Gately’s proleptic vision on 934, that “he’s with a very sad kid and they’re in a graveyard digging some dead guy’s head up and it’s really important, like Continental-Emergency important,” which Mark pointed us to on Monday. So Hal appears to be out in Arizona, but we do have a few other details about what he gets up to after the novel’s main action in Y.D.A.U.

Then Gately’s in a kind of limbo state, Abiding and overcoming addiction one gleaming car at a time, though in a great deal of pain. Again, we can thank that cryptic glimpse about the graveyard to know that he ends up recovering from his wounds. Gately by this point has not only come to manage his addiction, but has heroically saved the despicable Randy Lenz from certain death in a staggering gesture of self-sacrifice, and has come full circle with the A.D.A. coming to ask for Gately’s forgiveness for his own unforgiveness for the unfortunate toothbrush and bottom incident way back on 56. The final pages revisiting Gately’s narcotic rock-bottom, with his kind of baptismal reawakening on the beach, actually feels satisfying to me now, like a very fitting ending.

And then we have Mario, certainly a less central character than Hal and Gately in terms of air time, but packing a serious final scene in the recollection of Barry Loach’s redemption from a fate “dangerously close to disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse-ridden and stemming in the Boston Common and drinking out of brown paper bags” (970). Along comes guileless Mario, offering his semblance of a hand, extending basic human warmth to the socio-economic leper that is Barry Loach, pulling him out of what is indeed a very bleak future, necrotic rot of the soul and all.

So I argue in my thesis that Hal, Gately, and Mario represent a kind of figurative salvation spectrum, with Hal unresolved or even doomed, Gately a sinner-turned-redeemer, and Mario a savior, marking one interesting theological conversation the novel engages with. And there are many other conversations the book has with a variety of other faith traditions. In the 20th anniversary foreword, Tom Bissell claims it’s “a mistake to view him [Wallace] as anything other than a religious writer. His religion, like many, was a religion of language. Whereas most religions deify only certain words, Wallace exalted all of them” (xiii).

I trust we can all now say together, “Amen.”

The Churchillian Fantods

One particularly striking feature of Infinite Jest is its odd blending of actual historical people with those of the fictional world that it presents. So far, we’ve seen the likes of Marlon Brando, David Lynch, Venus Williams, Jean Chretien, and now, recurring again this week, Winston Churchill. Wallace’s inclusion of these historical personages functions along the lines of theorist Brian McHale’s discussion of “transworld identities” in the world of literary fiction—in his 1987 book Postmodernist Fiction—whereby real-life people inhabit the world of fictional characters.

I wrote about this in my 2015 DFW Conference paper, in relation to Wallace and Infinite Jest’s cryptic inclusion in Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. I said that Lethem takes this idea even further in his book by fictionalizing Wallace by naming him Ralph Warden Meeker, and calling his “opus” Obstinate Dust. Many other parallels abound, such as the book constituting a “heft” that “must have been a thousand pages long” and instilling in its readers the feeling they’d “incurred a responsibility, [were] somehow doomed to the book.” Feel familiar?
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I’m thus curious this week about the invocation of Winston Churchill yet again, and wonder what Wallace’s fascination with the man’s aesthetic failure signifies. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the British WWII P.M., having heard the legend of U.H.I.D.’s name origin as being coined by him, and Ortho Stice’s perfect Greco-athletic body being stuck with the face of Churchill himself:

The Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed was unofficially founded in London in B.S. 1940 in London U.K. by the cross-eyed, palate-clefted, and wildly carbuncular wife of a junior member of the House of Commons, a lady whom Sir Winston Churchill, P.M.U.K., having had several glasses of port plus a toddy at a reception for an American Lend-Lease administrator, had addressed in a fashion wholly inappropriate to social intercourse between civilized gentlemen and ladies….W. Churchill — when the lady, no person’s doormat, informed him with prim asperity that he appeared to be woefully inebriated — made the anecdotally famous reply that while, yes, yea verily, he was indeed inebriated, he would the following A.M. be once again sober, while she, dear lady, would tomorrow still be hideously and improbably deformed. Churchill, doubtless under weighty emotional pressures during this period in history, had then proceeded to extinguish his cigar in the lady’s sherry and to place a finger-bowl napkin delicately over the ruined features of her flaming visage. (226)

Hence, the U.H.I.D. veil.

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Stice is one of those athletes whose body you know is an unearned divine gift because its conjunction with his face is so incongruous. He resembles a poorly spliced photo, some superhuman cardboard persona with a hole for your human face. A beautiful sports body, lithe and tapered and sleekly muscled, smooth — like a Polycleitos body, Hermes or Theseus before his trials — on whose graceful neck sits the face of a ravaged Winston Churchill, broad and slab-featured, swart, fleshy, large-pored, with a mottled forehead under the crew cut’s V-shaped hairline, and eye-pouches, and jowls that hang and whenever he moves suddenly or lithely make a sort of meaty staccato sound like a wet dog shaking itself dry. (636)
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From what I can gather, Churchill actually did say something to this effect to the politician’s wife, but it appears Wallace may have taken creative liberties with that last part, from which U.H.I.D. gets its name. And we can just picture Stice now, forehead fastened to the window, Hal trying to defenestrate him, and the Churchillian visage pulling away to reveal “for a second…what might be considered Stice’s real face, his features as they would be if not encased in loose jowly prairie flesh: as every mm. of spare flesh was pulled up to his forehead and stretched, I got a glimpse of Stice as he would appear after a radical face-lift: a narrow, fine-featured, and slightly rodential face, aflame with some sort of revelation, looked out at the window from beneath the pink visor of stretched spare skin” (871).

And so Gately’s dream in this section about Joelle van Dyne’s undressing to disclose “an incredible female body, an inhuman body…this body to die for,” with the removed veil revealing the “historical likeness of fucking Winston Churchill, complete with cigar and jowls and bulldog scowl” (847), really drives the point home, visual fantods-wise.
Winston Churchill, 1929

As to what Wallace’s fascination with Churchill’s mug indicates, I know not, except that he continually mashes up the grotesque with the aesthetically desirable in a great many places throughout the book. Think of Orin with his gargantuan left side, forearm and thigh in stark disproportion to his starboard side, and E.T.A. players with gorilla-esque arms pasted on the bodies of children. I read a 2001 essay on this subject by Catherine Nichols in a directed studies class with my MA supervisors a few years back, entitled, “Dialogizing Postmodern Carnival: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” and I think she is very much onto something there.

Theorize what you think all of this Churchillian invocation might signify in the comments below.

Three M’s

Nice work getting into the 800s, team. The end is starting to feel close, for better or worse. Do you feel nervous that the book might have a hard time resolving in the remaining 150 pages? Or that you’re good and ready for this whole kertwang to be over and done with?

For me at this time, I’m still very much enjoying the ride, but finding the reading/writing schedule to be a bit intense to juggle with all the other life things happening right now. For example, my wife and I are looking to relocate cities and are in the midst of selling our house this week (and were looking at houses last weekend in the other city), my thesis defense got a tentative date put on it for this summer (so now I’m really under the gun to finish), I had to do report cards for my teaching job late into the evening the other night (report card week, any teacher will tell you, being full-on and no fun at all), I had a Netrunner tournament last night (which I won, you’ll be relieved to know), there’s a Great Concavity episode to finish editing and get out ASAP to the adoring masses, plus a bunch of other commitments too banal to mention.

And so, to keep it light this week (as opposed to my heavier posts about morality and psycho-spirituality in the last month), here’s a list of things (all categorized as starting with M) that made me laugh and kept me having fun during this week’s reading:

Mario. Mario. Mario.

  • His conversations in this section are just so funny. Talking to LaMont Chu, and getting this exchange: Chu—“Jesus, Mario, it’s like trying to talk to a rock with you sometimes.” Mario—“This is going very well!” (759)
  • Mario’s observations in the Moms’s office that “some of the prints in the deep shag he can see are shoes, and some are different, almost like knuckles” and of “a couple odd long crinkly paper strips of bright red hung over the side of the wastebasket,” which reminds us of the bewildering John NR Wayne and Avril football/cheerleader fantasy scenario the Peemster happened upon not long ago. (764, 766)
  • Mario to Hal: “I like the fans’ sound at night. Do you? It’s like somebody big far away goes like: it’sOKit’sOKit’sOKit’sOK, over and over. From very far away.” (772)
  • Mario to Hal: “Hal, pretty much all I do is love you and be glad I have an excellent brother in every way, Hal.” (772)

Marathe

  • “I know what it is you are meaning” (774)
  • “Out of a blue place, in one flashing instant.” (775)
  • “It is a long story to the side of this story, but my part of the Swiss nation is in my time of no legs invaded and despoiled by stronger and evil hated and neighboring nations, who claim as in the Anschluss of Hitler that they are friends and are not invading the Swiss but conferring on us gifts of alliance.” (776-7)

Miscellaneous

  • That the Incandenza family idiom for leftovers is “Many Wonders.” (762)
  • “Kertwang” – I’ve been using this word all week as many times per day as I can reasonably fit it contextually into conversation, both as a verb and a noun.
  • The alliteration of “[Trevor and] Pemulis’s penises.” (784)
  • Molly Notkin’s assessment of Wild Turkey being “some very gnarly-tasting liquor indeed” (790). (Personal side note: When I was on my way home from the DFW conference in Illinois last year, I came across this display in the Chicago O’Hare airport, moments before I randomly bumped into Matt Bucher whilst I was buying popcorn, and then having a several hour conversation about literature with him, without which The Great Concavity probably would not exist in its current form.

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  • The sheer volume of kitchen appliance suicides and demappings, with recurring mentions of J.O.I. and the microwave, and now Joelle’s mother having “committed suicide by putting her extremities down the garbage disposal—first one arm and then, kind of miraculously if you think about it, the other arm” (795). Jeez.
  • Basically just the entire Inner Infant scene, with poor old Kevin Bain crawling on all fours by scene’s end, “his face unspeakable” (808). And again that revelation that Lateral Alice Moore was in the chopper that went down and killed Bain’s parents on the Jamaica Way commuter road.
  • Tiny Ewell’s recollection to Gately of “the Money-Stealer’s Club” (810). I don’t care what anyone says; this is the best name for any club ever in history.
  • The wraith. Just in general. So yeah, there’s a ghosty thing in the book now. And he appears to be very tall, and to incept Gately’s mind with specifically regional and filmic terms like LATRODECTUS MACTANS, CHIAROSCURO, BRICOLAGE, SCOPOPHILIA, SINISTRAL, POOR YORICK, etc., making it pretty clear who this revenant is. Could this be the…thing(?)…responsible for the mysterious goings on of the tripod-in-the-thicket, Ortho Stice’s bed moving in the night, and brooms X’ing in the cafeteria of the Enfield Tennis Academy?
  • Pemulis’s comforting of Todd Possalthwaite in endnote 324 about the capital-T truth of “math. As in Matics, Math E. First-order predicate logic. Never fail you,” &c. (1071)

And probably a whole bunch of other things I laughed out loud at in public this week—having been kicked from our home during a great many real estate showings—but missed in my skimming over of the section.

I look forward to hearing about your favorite moments from this week’s section in the comments below.

The Hip Empty Mask (OR) The State of the Union

Enter one of the most famous and oft-cited passages from Infinite Jest, that of the hip millennial entertainment description and its impact on Hal Incandenza’s psycho-spiritual state (694-5). In the context of New Sincerity—something of a trend in U.S. arts and culture since about the mid-90s (which people often put Wallace at the literary center of)—this passage bears some reflection 20 years after its publication.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui.

Is this observation a comment on the fictional universe of O.N.A.N.ite America in Jest, the actual America we all know and (to varying extents) love, or both? From what I can gather from Wallace’s wide range of interviews, “both” seems to be the best answer here. So what’s the source of this? Do we want to get academically technical and start citing the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, or is it easier to call out James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Saved by the Bell? (I opt for the latter).

Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No?

Slightly more obscure than Zack Morris, maybe David Lynch is a key player here (who’s mentioned in footnote 24 [J.O.I.’s filmography] and briefly, later on [not a spoiler, I promise]). Films like Lost Highway (for which Wallace was on set and writes about in “David Lynch Keeps His Head” in A Supposedly Fun Thing), might qualify as this kind of older, world-fatigued auteur’s attempt at portraying emotional detachment and ennui, which I think he succeeds gloriously at in that film (and basically all of his other work as well), for better or worse. 20 years later, what’s the state of American entertainment? Does our current literary and pop-cultural landscape still look and feel the way Jest describes it? Or have we moved closer to more honest expressions of the human experience?

We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration).

For me growing up, I hit this point getting into bands like Nirvana in about 6th grade, and MuchMusic (the lamer Canadian equivalent of MTV), which projected this kind of too-cool-for-school weariness. Getting into skateboarding in middle school, as I mentioned in last week’s post, did me no favors in this department, as hipness was the altar of worship, through fashion brand names, obscure music, and an anti-authoritarian ethos. It’s a wonder I ended up as a teacher myself, given this history.

One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.

And is it still true that we don’t talk about sin in concrete terms? Is theology only theoretically possible in the context of entertainment? Has hipness eradicated the viability of spiritual metanarratives, or is this again the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, et al.? Both? In the upcoming episode of The Great Concavity, we talk to scholar Rob Short about this very thing, the notion of the post-secular possibilities of Jest and its message. Is there real redemption, recovery, and affect to be had, or does the novel leave us, like O.N.A.N.’s  cultural landscape, alone and mask-strapped?

Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.

Is this what Wallace means when he talks about what it means to be human with Larry McCaffery in the 1993 interview and in the essay “E Unibus Pluram”? Is authentic humanity reducible to a puddle of facial fluids signifying emotional meltdown? Or is there a less pathetic way to be fully human? I’ve posed a lot of questions here, to which I’m genuinely interested to hear what you think about all of this.

One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

I see Jest to this point as a confrontation with humanity’s darkness (i.e. our very own), and conversely, its possible redemption. Stay tuned for what that might look like, however (un)successful it may be.

Searching For Roger Federer

Incandenza took a lot of bringing along. He didn’t used to quite have the complete game to be able to do this. Slice the court up into sections and chinks, then all of a sudden you see light through one of the chinks and you see he’s been setting up the angle since the start of the point. It makes you think of chess.’

The journalist blew her red nose. ‘ “Chess on the run.”

‘Nice term.’ (659)

I come from a long personal history of involvement in the skateboarding subculture. I got my first banana board for $2 CAD, a little red plastic thing from a garage sale across the street. I graduated to a large 1980’s style beast shortly after that had a gap in the griptape with a skull graphic and the text “OUTLAW.” After that, my dad made me a deck out of aluminum (which was theoretically really cool, but actually significantly heavier than a normal 7-ply maple wood deck, despite our lightness-of-soda-can thesis), and I bought some legit Venture trucks and Spitfire wheels off this kid Kyle for a dumb amount of money, probably getting ripped off, if I recall correctly.

It wasn’t long after that I got wise, bought a legit Plan B deck off another friend, and was doing kickflips in the front driveway, taking me about three months of repetition and failure before I landed my first one. Some other friends from my neighborhood also got into skating around the same time, but we weren’t cool enough to bring our boards to school, our new daunting 8-12th grade high school, in which skaters constituted the upper echelon of the adolescent social class coolness stratum. We listened to bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Weezer, and other alternative acts, but these skaters, even ones our age, were deep into really underground rap and punk, stuff we’d never heard of, and we were intimidated.

In 9th grade, one of the apparent leaders of the skate kids my age socially courted me, attempting to draw me into the group, which I eventually was, leaving some of my friends behind. I started bringing my board to school and skating with them at every break and lunch, finding out pretty fast that I could hang, trick-wise, and quickly fell in with them, doing the things skater kids do on weekends, much to parental chagrin (my own parents’). Team sports quickly dissipated for me. I was a pretty hardcore basketball kid from 5th to 8th grade, but rapidly adopted the anti-establishment, -rabid-jock-machismo attitude that characterizes virtually all skateboarders. I was now on a self-alone pursuit on a sandpapered log with four urethane wheels.

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Ollie snap

After high school, I got sponsored by a local skate shop, got my picture on the side of city bus for one of their ads (along with the rest of the skate team), had a part in the shop video, got a job teaching skateboard day camps to 6-15 year-olds, became a volunteer leader and camp counselor for a local skate club (for which I’m still on the steering committee), and was, needless to say, deep in the scene. Around that time, I weirdly also got really into chess, one of the older guys in the skate community having taught me after I graduated. I took out chess books from the library, watched Searching for Bobby Fischer a lot, and basically just nerded out on chess theory between trips to the skatepark.

And then so in 2007 I read Infinite Jest for the first time, and I was stunned. All of this stuff about tennis—a sport to which I’d pretty much never given a thought—actually sounded cool. I started thinking of parallels between it and skateboarding: solitary dependence, endless repetition, the eventual satisfying engagement of muscle memory, the same pock sound of snapping an ollie and hitting a forehand winner, the flailing limb dreams that shock you awake during unintentional naps on the couch, etc. Dave Eggers’ claim in the 10th anniversary edition foreword of Jest that “there were times, reading a very exhaustive account of a tennis match, say, when I thought, well, okay. I like tennis as much as the next guy, but enough already” (xiv), didn’t quite resonate with me, as I found myself enjoying these passages more and more as the book went on. And then the line “chess on the run,” and I was hooked.

I got a stick and started playing with friends, finding out when I started that I had a horrendous time with hitting a consistent forehand shot, but oddly, that like little “pint-sized” seven-year-old Tina Echt, I was “a true cannibal off the backhand side” (511), hitting all my winners with an aggressive low-flat double-hander. Then Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience” came across my browser one day, and I started watching ATP tournaments, just to see what Wallace was talking about. He was right; having now played some casual tennis and knowing the physics involved, watching Federer was a “bloody near-religious experience,” in the words of a tournament press bus driver Wallace quotes.

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I have Fed’s shoes

So we saw Federer play Stan Wawrinka live at the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal in 2009, and they somehow botched our tickets (making us miss the first 14% of the match [yes, I did the math]), and so they comped us free tickets to the entire week’s 2010 Rogers Cup in Toronto, which we went to, obviously. There I ate my heart out daily, feasting on virtually every Federer, Nadal, Monfils, and Djokovic match in the gaudy humidity of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, that kind of fuel-exhaust shimmer to the air Wallace always describes radiating off the aluminum stands.

On the recent Episode 11 of The Great Concavity, our friend Alex Sinclair asked us if we thought Wallace was a great sports writer, to which I say Yes, resoundingly so. If an author can persuade a too-cool-for-school, anti-sport skateboarder like myself to become fascinated with not only playing, but watching a sport like tennis (which is no small commitment, come time for each of the four Major tournaments each year), they’re clearly doing something well with their prose.

I’ve pretty much now, at age 33, retired from an active lifestyle of skating, the old bones not having the structural integrity they once did (I fractured my elbow a few years back on a super routine trick and that was pretty much the coup de grâce of my casual career). I now opt for the (somewhat) more forgiving sports of tennis and (as an indirect result of Wallace getting me into tennis) hockey. A guy I play casual drop-in hockey with a couple times a week hilariously sets up his GoPro each game and puts “highlights” on YouTube, which I’ve joked will need the synonym-heavy approach of Jim Troeltsch to describe common occurrences on the ice.

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Somewhat

There’s a great deal more I could say on this topic (nets and fences and opponents being mirrors, letting what is unfair teach you, how to sweat, etc.), but like Dave Eggers, I’m sure you like tennis as much as the next guy (though I now like it more), so enough already.

Looking Down the Garburator

There’s been a lot of buzz around Randy Lenz in the last couple of weeks, so I’ll try taking him on (thanks for the challenge, Nathan Seppelt!). For instance, in our roundtable discussion on Saturday, we visited the question (at about the halfway point), “Is Randy Lenz the novel’s most despicable character?” which generated some interesting answers, ranging from wild disturbance (Mark) to mild adoration (Nathan).

In Episode 3 of the The Great Concavity, artist Robyn O’Neil made the claim that one of the things that really struck her about Infinite Jest was its ability to confront deep parts of the reader, that she sees herself “in way too many characters.” In that sense it has a kind of morally instructive quality to it, prompting the reader to serious self-reflection and inner interrogation. I jokingly asked if she saw herself in Randy Lenz, and we all three laughed abjectly at the thought of that, but it’s recently got me to thinking.

In our present section, we catch Lenz doing some pretty appalling stuff:

  • Demapping rats with chunks of detached concrete (540)
  • Poisoning and capturing cats in Hefty and SteelSak bags, swinging them into street signs and telephone poles, lighting them on fire (541-5)
  • Slitting the throats of neighborhood canines (545-6, 587)
  • Putting an injured bird down the kitchen sink garbage disposal, alive (547)
  • Trying to get Yolanda Willis to kneel at the altar of his own personal Unit, making it her Higher Power (565)
  • Treating the urban city as one big commode (578)
  • Using Don Gately like a shield at gunpoint, like a coward (611)
  • &c.

There.

It’s really easy to waggle morally judgmental fingers at those we deem to be bereft of axiological sensibility, like the Hitlers, Maos, Stalins, Dahmers, and Lenzs of the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that we’re able to differentiate their kinds of behaviors from those that are nourishing and redemptive, but in each of our darkest souls’ nights, are we really all that much different? Given the right social and psychological circumstances, do we not all have the capacity to become moral monsters? Had our own mother, like Lenz’s, died from an overdose of peach cobbler in a truly grotesque fashion, and with “three ex-husbands and feral attorneys and a pastry-chef that used pastry-dependence to warp and twist her into distorting a testament toward the chef and Lenz’s being through red-tape still in Quincy’s Y.C.A. hold and in a weak litigational vantage, the ruptured Mrs. L.’s will had left him out in the cold to self-fend by his urban wits while ex-husbands and patissiers lay on Riviera beach-furniture fanning themselves with high-denomination currency, about all which Lenz says he grapples with the Issues of on a like daily basis” (577), might we have turned out a little differently?

Sufjan Stevens brings this sentiment hauntingly to life in his song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. After cataloguing the disturbing list of ways in which Gacy would treat his victims, Stevens sings, “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It’s a grim thought, but I hear what Stevens is saying. In his theologically-mapped worldview, we’re all irrevocably fallen, morally bankrupt, and bereft of sincere goodness. For Stevens, it takes an outside force to redeem humanity.

In my MA thesis (which is almost ready for defense), I argue that Infinite Jest is a soteriological novel, consumed by theological themes relating to salvation and redemption. In this context, Randy Lenz becomes a fascinating case study. While I don’t spend a ton of time talking about him in my paper, he does show up in this moral context. One of the things that strikes me about Infinite Jest is its ability to hold up the mirror to its reader, to urge them to take stock of where they find meaning and value, and of how they empathize with and care for their fellow humans.

If Stevens’ song were about Randy Lenz, it might urge us to take stock of what’s in our own kitchen garbage disposals. I’d presently be looking down mine, if I had one.

Top Ten “Souvenirs of Canadian Affiliation”

There were many things about Canada during this week’s halfway-mark section of the reading.  Here’s a recap of my ten favourite souvenirs of Canada (in order of appearance):

1. “I even remember. The Brandon Psychiatric Center.” Marathe pretended to cough in the recognition of this. “This is a mental hospital. The far north of Manitoba. Forbidding wastelands. The center of nothing.” (471)

Marathe said “Giving away their souls and lives for p-terminal stimulation, you are saying.” “You can maybe see the analogy,” Steeply said, over the shoulders to smile in a wry way. “In Canada, my friend, this was.”.…“Your point finally is Canadians also, we would choose dying for this, the total pleasure of a passive goat.” (474)

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Yes, it’s true that many Canadians do not regard northern Manitoba as a picnic locale. We on the coastal brackets of the continent tend to jest often at the expense of the prairie provinces and their meteorological plight. I’d be jockeying the p-switch like a wild man too if I had to live in northern Manitoba.

2. A burly bearded thoroughly Canadian figure in one of those Canadianly inevitable checked-flannel shirts appears out of the dim light in the shop’s back room and wipes its mouth on first one sleeve then the other…looking edgy and emotionally pale, which might explain the X of small-arms ammo-belts across his checked chest and the rather absurdly large .44 revolver tucked and straining in the waistband of his jeans. (480)

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We all look like this, yes. Reasons to fear Canada.

3. And Lucien finally dies, rather a while after he’s quit shuddering like a clubbed muskie and seemed to them to die, as he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues. (488-9)

A sweet portrait of what going home feels like (despite the morose circumstances befalling Lucien here), soaring north.

4. “Fuck the Albertans,” Steeply said. “Who’s worried about the Albertans? The Albertans’ idea of a blow the U.S. plexus is they blow up rangeland in Montana. They’re wackos.” (489)

The whole country agrees: Alberta is Canada’s Texas. (No offense to Texas, but you get the idea).

5.  Marathe pretended to sniff. “The temptation of the passive Reward of terminal p, this all seems complex to me. Terror seems part of the temptation for you. Us of Quebec’s cause, we have never felt this temptation for the Entertainment, or knowing. But we respect its power. Thus, we do not fool crazily about.” (508)

Maybe it takes a Canadian to appreciate the hilarity of Marathe’s French-Canadian English syntax, but Wallace really nails it, here and throughout.

6. He’d apologize profusely when you had no idea what that sentence meant and say maybe the obfuscation had been unconsciously deliberate, out of some kind of embarrassment over his first and last limelighted architectural supervision, up in Ontario, before the rise of O.N.A.N.ite Interdependence, when he’d designed the Toronto Blue Jays’ novel and much-ballyhooed SkyDome ballpark-and-hotel complex. Because Tavis had been the one to take the lion’s share of the heat when it turned out that Blue Jay’s spectators in the stands, many of them innocent children wearing caps and pounding their little fists into the gloves they’d brought with hopes of nothing more exotic than a speared foul ball, that spectators at a distressing number of different points all along both foul-lines could see right into the windows of guests having various and sometimes exotic sex in the hotel bedrooms over the center-field wall. The bulk of the call for Tavis’s rolling head had come, he’d tell you, when the cameraman in charge of the SkyDome’s Instant-Replay-Video Scoreboard, disgruntled or professionally suicidal or both, started training his camera on the bedroom windows and routing the resultant multi-limbed coital images up onto the 75-meter scoreboard screen, etc. Sometimes in slow motion and with multiple replays, etc. (516-7)

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Believe it or not, these hotel rooms actually exist.

7. When now he dreamt of his father, it was of the two skating, young Marathe and M. Marathe, at a St. Remi-d’Amherst outdoor rink, M. Marathe’s breath visible and his pacemaker a boxy bulge in his Brunswickian cardigan.” (528)

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My father (sans pacemaker) and I: an integral part of the Canadian Bildungsroman.

8. Whether English misspelling or Quebecois solecism, sic. (Note 203, in reference to the misspelled “Antitoi Entertainent” on 480) (1034)

This is fairly common among the Quebecois. We know one who once said (what sounded like) she was going to “wash her teets,” by which she meant “brush her teeth.”

9. Being out of the sociolinguistic loop, L.A. has no way of knowing that ‘To hear the squeak’ is itself the very darkest of contemporary Canada’s euphemisms for sudden and violent de-mapping. (Note 206) (1034)

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Our cat Kristofferson will swing open our front door’s outer screen on numerous occasions throughout any given day when he wants to come in, the screen’s springs producing a groan that’s audible from well inside the house. My wife Rachel and I have started referring to this as “hearing the squeak” over the past several months, in homage to this passage. Just imagining this little guy in a wheelchair with a flannel blanket over his lap and wielding a Glock is a source of great mirth.

10. Wayne and a Manitoban in T-shirts with leaves on them, hands over their hearts, facing north. (Note 209) (1035)

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A sight that’s become pretty familiar, in recent memory.

Hope you enjoyed the cultural tour!

The Psychoaesthetic Line

This week in IJ we read more about Canada, vomiting, and some added gross-out hygiene ads. All the things I love.

My first read’s standout passage, in terms of pure hilarity and awe at Jest’s ability to word, was the NoCoat Inc. lingua-scraper advertisement description on 413-414, which “clearly crossed some kind of psychoaesthetic line.” I like this passage so much that when I gave a presentation a couple years back in a U.S. Fiction class on Infinite Jest and its relation to the novel Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, this is the passage I read aloud, to give my audience a sense of Wallace’s prose and sense of humor. (I then wrote a paper on this relationship between CC and IJ and presented it at last year’s Wallace conference at ISU).

The NoCoat spot’s chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor.   

I just try and imagine sitting on my couch, seeing this ad come on during some kind of ATP Grand Slam event I’m watching in the late AM of a summer day, coffee in hand, still waking up. This ad amongst Pinty’s, Trivago, and Tennis Canada initiative spots that recur at every single commercial break, without fail, composing a kind of Sisyphean exercise in patience with their mundane repetition.

The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

I think consciously of my own AM pre-brushed mouth and tongue, the coffee’s cream layering coats, cup after cup. I think to myself that the poor guy’s arm-over-whole-face act of shame and public humiliation at his oral abjection invokes Kramer’s “Look away; I’m hideous” scene from Seinfeld.

It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.

Wallace: the master of capturing the dark web of human self-conscious thought and reflexive metacognitive unease. See also “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men for further evidence of this. Ken Erdedy’s opening scene of waiting for the woman who said she’d come with the marijuana comes to mind as well.

The NoCoat campaign had three major consequences. The first was that horrible year Hal vaguely recalls when a nation become obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue-scraper and an emergency backup tongue-scraper than they’d fail to wash and brush and spray. The year when the sink-and-mirror areas of public restrooms were such grim places to be.

I can just imagine the spattery offscouring of lingual gray matter on restroom mirrors (the reflection of which you can even see, at the right angle), all over mirrors all across a nation that’s been hypnotized into developing a phobia that wouldn’t even have occurred to the grand majority of people.

But by this time everybody from Procter & Gamble to Tom’s of Maine had its own brand’s scraper out, some of them with baroque and potentially hazardous electronic extras.

So this passage just does it for me, in both literary and comic terms. Wallace’s writing appears uniquely able to transport me into imagining a world so closely akin to our own, yet with a darker, more extreme consumptive edge. The writing of George Saunders approaches this as well, in his ability to imagine future dystopian consumer nightmare scenarios, rife with irony and social criticism of the logical extensions of our own contemporary moment’s aesthetic fanaticism.

Until next week, scrape on.

“The Dark Stars of Melt”

The entitled kids atop the hill at E.T.A.—whose leisure-game Eschaton eats up a significant portion of this week’s reading—presents an interesting juxtaposition to the world-weary addicts down the hill at Ennet House as they attempt to Hang In at AA meetings they deem to be absurd yet strangely effective. Interestingly, we see Hal, Pemulis, and their peers languishing on various drugs as they spectate the Eschaton debacle, headed for a life of substance-dependence and addiction themselves, but without enough life experience to have hit their own rock-bottoms yet. One day they might just slouch down that hill to Ennet House themselves.

My friend Nathan has been reading Infinite Jest for the first time recently, and told me about his experience reading the Eschaton scene on an airplane, embarrassed by his subdued but irrepressible laughter in a cabin full of bored and tired strangers. Moments that do it for me, comically speaking, include:

  • Everyone’s “thanatoptic fury” (327) [“thanatos” meaning “death” in ancient Greek, which I happen to know about because I actually took ancient Greek in my undergrad for some masochistic reason]
  • Jim Troeltsch’s running commentary of the game, which is “tough to enliven, verbally, even for the stimulated. Being generally too slow and cerebral” (329) [Troeltsch probably being my third favorite character after Mario and Pemulis]
  • Evan Ingersoll in the act of “positively strip-mining his right nostril” (332)
  • Struck’s being “abruptly ill all over his own lap” (331) [which if you recall from my post last week is funny for already established reasons]
  • And then also LaMont Chu’s “throwing up into the Indian Ocean” (341) [Ibid.]

The scene is also punctuated with moments of meteorological beauty, such as, “It starts to snow harder, and dark stars of melt begin to multiply and then merge all over the courts” (334), and “the no-sound of falling snow” (342), which strikes me as a beautiful but apt paradox.

So Eschaton, as you’ve probably noted from this week’s posts, is a fan favorite section of the novel, and for good reason. Its technical detail and metafictional cleverness make for 20 pages of ear-to-ear toothy glee. Nathan (the Guide) hinted at some of the interesting critical stuff going on in this scene in his post this week, and at the risk of me getting too academically obtuse and going against the Guide’s Mandate laid out by one Mark Flanagan, I’ll just briefly mention a few additional quotes about how fun the map/territory elements of this scene are, as they relate to Jorge Luis Borges’ cartography fable discussed by Jean Baudrillard at the outset of his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” (if you’re into this sort of thing). If it’s new, simulacrum is a weird phenomenon whereby copies are produced of an original thing that doesn’t actually exist. Baudrillard uses Disneyland’s themed “Lands” as examples of this kind of simulation. And so we get:

  • Pemulis: “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” (333)
  • Axford: “Except is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though!” (334)
  • Lord: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!” (334)
  • Unknown: “Real-world snow isn’t a factor if it’s falling on the fucking map!” (334)
  • Regarding Hal: “It also occurs to him that he finds the real-snow/unreal-snow sang in the Eschaton extremely abstract but somehow way more interesting than the Eschaton itself, so far.” (335)
  • Narrator: “Now a real-world chill descends over the grainily white-swirled landscape of the nuclear theatre.” (337)
  • Pemulis: “It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory.” (338)

So that aspect of the scene cracks me up, and like Hal muses, it’s abstract stuff when put in relation to post-structuralist critical theory’s blah blah blah.

And then in the AA section, this made me laugh for a sustained 30-40 seconds, “Four-year White Flagger Glenn K.’s personally chosen Higher Power is Satan, for fuck’s sake. Granted, nobody in White Flag much likes Glenn K., and the thing with the hooded cape and makeup and the candelabrum he carries around draw some mutters, but Glenn K. is a member for exactly as long as he cares to Hang In” (352).

These moments are part of the reason Jest is so personally compelling to me, that combination Wallace strikes between high-art philosophizing and low-rent slapstick that just about no one else can execute in quite the same way. Feel free to fire away in the comments about your favorite lines from Eschaton; there’s a lot there to laugh about.