All posts by Ryan Blanck

I Knew This Day Would Come

I knew this day would come. Even before Infinite Winter began, I knew I’d be right here. And sure enough, here I am. To be honest, I’m a little surprised it took this long to happen.

I’ve fallen behind in the reading.

Life has gotten in the way. Teaching. Youth grouping. More teaching. Family obligations. Grading. Even more teaching. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

So, here I am, about 50 pages behind.

I thought about just BS-ing my way through a post. I know the book well enough to pull it off. I might not fool everyone, but I’m sure I could fool a lot of them.

But then I would feel guilty. I’d feel like I was letting you all down. Like I was failing in my job as an Infinite Winter guide. I take my responsibilities very seriously, after all.

Fortunately, during last week’s Group Chat, a conversation topic caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it all week. I think it was Nathan who brought up the idea of first impressions of this motley bunch of characters. Hal Incandenza. Don Gately. Kate Gompert. Orin Incandenza. Tiny Ewell. Even Poor Tony Krause. Even though when we first meet them we see that they are pretty horrible people, there is something endearing about them.

Hal has a total breakdown in the middle of his college admissions interview, and yet we feel his frustration with his inability to communicate with those around him.

Image 82 Don Gately PraysDon Gately is burglarizing some rich dude’s house and taking selfies with the burglary victim’s toothbrush up his ass. He even kills a guy. And yet, we are hoping that this time in jail and in rehab will help him get his life in order.

Image 72 Kate GompertKate Gompert is on suicide watch, trying to get the young resident to understand the physical pain that her depression causes her. All she wants is a little Hope, and we hope that she will find it.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Sure, they aren’t presented in the most flattering light at the beginning, but as we get to know them, we are quick to forgive and hopeful they can redeem themselves. Some do. Other’s fail to. But we are cheering for (most of) them all the way to page 1079.

Why is that? Why do we find these sometimes horrible and hideous individuals so endearing?

I think that it’s because we see a little bit of ourselves in each one. We see our flaws and insecurities and our imperfections. And yet, we have our redeeming qualities as well. Like our friends in the pages of IJ, we may have a rough exterior. At first glance, we may not be very likeable either. But deep down, there’s someone worth getting to know.

This is How to…

Image 22 This is how toAt the time of this post’s publication, I will be fewer than 30 days from my 40th birthday. And when I was young, I’d always imagined that at some point in my adulthood I would have it all figured out. That I would have my shit together. I’m certainly closer to this goal than when I was in my 20s, but I am certainly far from it. Some days I feel like I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

I usually go with the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy, which has served me well. But deep down, I feel like the narrator from that story in Oblivion: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.”

Ennet House
Ennet House

If only I had someone to show me the ropes along the way.[1] If only I could have gotten my hands on an instruction manual, or Mario Incandenza’s film, “Tennis and the Feral Prodigy” at some point.[2] Or, at the very least, been able to soak in some of the random knowledge and wisdom one can learn from spending time at Ennet House:

“That you don’t have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it.”

“That it is simply more pleasant to be happy than to be pissed off.”

“That acceptance is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.”

“That God – unless you’re Charlton Heston, or unhinged, or both – speaks and acts entirely through the vehicle of human beings, if there is a God.”

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.”

But more importantly, I wish I had learned these couple of lessons a long time ago:

“Try to let what is unfair teach you.”

and “What is unfair can be a stern but invaluable teacher.”

Dammit. Where was Mario when I really needed him??


[1] Don’t get me wrong, I had some wonderful role models in my life; men who definitely helped steer me in the right direction. But what I mean here is that I wish I had this same kind of step-by-step instruction for each new situation I faced. There is no instructional video* for what to do when you lose your job or when you piss of your wife or when your kids refuses to do her chores.

*Maybe once I figure these things out, I could create a YouTube channel devoted to these sorts of things. I could make a fortune.

[2] Again, I’m not a tennis player, but you know what I mean. I wish I had a video like this for the situations I faced that I didn’t know how to deal with.

 

The Other Boy

“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion. Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again” (84).

Image 18 Mario-SchtittIn this – one of my favorite passages from the book – Coach Schtitt shares these words of wisdom with Mario as they observe the ETA students practice their afternoon drills. The language here is beautiful, bordering on the poetic. But what Schtitt describes is a thing beyond even poetry: the transcendence of the sport, something described in greater detail in this New York Times article, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.”

Image 31 Tennis MatchesNow I’m not much of a tennis player – hell, I’m really not much on an athlete [1] – but I certainly can appreciate the “kinetic beauty” and artistry and grace of a seemingly impossible shot on the tennis court, or a miraculous catch on the baseball diamond.

But I’m not here to talk about sports. I want to focus on the third through fifth sentences in the quote above. Here they are again [2]:

“The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion.”

I continue to fight the urges to have this devolve into a treatise on the beauty of sports – perhaps that will come in a later post [3] – but I wonder if this “dance” or “partnership” can also be found in other works of beauty and art. Maybe in a book. Maybe even here in Infinite Jest.

I wonder if, perhaps, this reading of Infinite Jest could be the, what is the word, excuse or occasion for meeting the self. Might we, if we give the book a chance, find ourselves anew within the 1079 pages of this monstrous tome? As we dig deeper into the text, might we dig deeper into ourselves?

It might be a dreadful, fearful thing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable as read march through this text. It can be “tragic and sad and chaotic,” but also “lovely.” It just might turn out to be a thing of beauty and grace, and maybe even a thing of transcendence.


[1] I like to say that I have all of the athletic ability of a Pop Tart. The only reason I have a letterman’s jacket from high school is because my school was that the school was too small to make cuts on its sports teams.

[2] So that you don’t have to go back and try to find the sentences yourself.

[3] But probably not. I’ve got a lot of other writing projects to work on.

 

None Shall Pass

 

I feel like such a latecomer to the Infinite Jest party. I had not even heard of David Foster Wallace until the spring of 2009 – about six months after his death – when my wife’s book club read Consider the Lobster. And it would be another three and a half years before I would finally finish reading Infinite Jest. But it was not for a lack of trying.

After spending the summer of 2009 binge-reading Wallace’s nonfiction and some of his short stories, I took the plunge and bought a copy of IJ. I started reading it that fall, but standing in my way was Ken Erdedy. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python blocking King Arthur’s way, Erdedy stood there proclaiming, “None shall pass.” Hal’s interview at UofA and its ensuing chaos were no problem, but Erdedy was too great an adversary. [1]

Image 69 Ken ErdedyCall me a lightweight; call me a noob; call me whatever you want, but those twelve anxiety-filled pages of Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman to bring him the dope proved to be too much for me. So many have said that Wallace becomes the voice in our own head as we read him, and this was certainly the case during the first… and second… and third times I attempted to read Infinite Jest. Erdedy’s anxiety became my anxiety. And each time, I was putting down the book before the phone and doorbell could simultaneously ring at the end of that section. Erdedy – the Black Knight – firmly stood his ground.

“None shall pass.”

But you know what they say, the fourth time’s the charm. A few years later, [2] after reading almost everything in Wallace’s canon but Infinite Jest, I decided to tackle it again. And somehow, I made it past the Black Knight and into the rest of the book. [3]

Image 02 Hal InterviewBut it’s not just the Ken Erdedy passage that resonated so deeply with me. Like Hal, I have been frustrated by my inability to communicate with those around me. [4] Like Hal’s father, I have felt the desperation of not being able to effectively communicate with my own children. [5] And like the medical attache, I too often feel the need to unwind after a long day’s work with some mindless entertainment. [6] And I have felt Hal’s frustration with Mario as I lie in bed trying to sleep, only to have someone wanting to talk my ear off. [7]

Image 05 JOI GraveAs I embark on this attempt to read Infinite Jest a second time, it is these moments that draw me deeper into the book. These characters, who will seem like family in a few weeks, beckon me to join them once again on this epic journey. I’ve made it past Sir Ken Erdedy, and I’m ready for what’s in store.


 

[1]  My response was likely caused by – or at least strongly tied to – my own struggles with anxiety. This was right about the time that I was formally diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorders.

[2] By this time, with the help of a good therapist and the right medications, I had my own anxiety issues under control. Perhaps this was what enabled me to conquer the Erdedy section.

[3] I will leave that statement as vague as possible so as not to be accused of publishing any spoilers.

[4] However, I’ve never been tackled in a men’s room and hauled off in an ambulance. I speak more metaphorically here.

[5] Again, speaking metaphorically. I’ve never been so desperate as to pose as a “professional conversationalist.” Although I wonder if such a job exists. What do you think a professional conversationalist might get paid? What kind of medical benefits might they get? Just wondering.

[6] But once again, not to the extreme that he unwittingly does.

[7] And although the sections about Don Gately and Kate Gompert are some of my favorites – or at least they are two of my favorite characters – I have neither burglarized the house of a Quebecois terrorist, nor been placed on suicide watch in a mental hospital.

I really have no business being here.

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

infinite-jest-circle

Image 94 DFW as minifig

I really have no business being here.

I really can’t commit to a 15-week group read of Infinite Jest. 75 pages per week? One thoughtful, conversational, engaging blog post per week? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I feel like, in a burst of machismo and on a dare from a friend, I signed up on Wednesday for the marathon being held on Saturday. And the most physical activity in my day is dashing the copy room then to the restroom in the five short minutes between classes.

I really have no business being here.

I’m a full-time teacher with three additional part-time jobs. I’m hip-deep in co-writing a book with my dad, and I just started writing my first-ever novel. And these LEGOs aren’t going to build themselves.

I really have no business being here.

And yet here I am. One of six guides through this Infinite Winter group read. And still asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

And then I thumb through my copy of IJ, recalling Tiny Ewell’s dissertation on tattoos, and Kate Gompert in the hospital on suicide watch, and Mario’s first ever romantic encounter. Those characters that, after reading all 1079 pages, feel like members of the family.

And I recall conversations over drinks at cafes in Antwerp after the day’s proceedings at the Work in Process conference. Conversations about connections between Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Conversations that went well into the late-night hours as we couldn’t pull ourselves away from either the topics or the company.

And I recall finally meeting face-to-face those I only knew from Wallace-l and/or Facebook at the DFW conference at Illinois State. It was like going to a high school reunion in that everyone already knew everyone. And soon the conversations began. Once again sharing our favorite scenes, or discussing some new interpretive lens through which to read Dave’s works.

So, what the hell am I doing here? In spite of all my busyness and excuses and reasons not to do this, I can’t help but to be drawn back to this text and to the fellowship and camaraderie it creates. I love the conversations. I love the community that develops around Dave’s works.

So yes, I really have no business being here. But I wouldn’t miss it for anything.