infinite confessions

INFINITE JEST pp. 76-156 (notes 31-55)


This set of reading doles out various types of discourses, some funny scenes in the Tennis Academy, an absurd sort of dialog between two new characters, Marathe and Steeply, and a lot of gags, some of which are funny. There are math footnotes, essays, emails, normative scenes, but also shifts in tone that sometimes happen line by line. The novel has this literary personal that can go from one extreme register of high academic or bureaucratic sanitizing language, to another extreme of colloquialisms, sometimes in one sentence.

There are some patches of really great writing. There are other parts that i think are contemptible. This is a really dark book; its humor is pitch black. im only 14% in but the novel already has a great deal of violence which is given a cinematic treatment, that is, it’s the kind of violence you see in Tarantino or FARGO.

im not sure what the text is doing with the unseemly stuff that ill get into; are we supposed to be offended like those i-shouldnt-be-laughing-at-this “jokes” that are the trade of college liberal menz? Is the JEST an entertainment or an anti-entertainment?

A word on the length: im fascinated by long books, or rather big books. This material effect on the book as an object is lost in ebooks, although an ebook would definitely be the easier form to read this in, rather than flopping back and forth between the text and endnotes. i recall DFW on Charlie Rose mentioning a feminist criticism that the JEST‘s length betrays a chauvinistic urge to dominate through size and information. i mean, there are way more terrible things about this novel from a feminist critique.

There’s something to be said about length and experimentation. i heard a soundbyte from a theorist that the longer a work is, the more “chances” there are for new kinds of combinations, insights, aspects of the world to collide. And maybe, looking at Proust, Gaddis, Joyce, Pynchon, Powell, Stein, and the rest, high formal accomplishment might be something that happens across a large canvas.

Now the JEST‘s length was a selling point for Little, Brown when they were hyping it, implicating that sort of object-status about big books. Which leads me to wonder, is this book truly avant-garde? i put it in the tags, but i wouldnt disagree to the charge that i use the label too generously. DFW and Pynchon both had/have big-time publishers; their writing might be radical in some ways, but they also fit the blockbuster hype mold that seems to be sustaining the book world. Meanwhile Evan Dara is publishing their three novels with their own press (are they super wealthy?). A lot of great modernist writers self-published, and ULYSSES first came out in an obscure avant-garde French press.

A word on structure: The opening scene with Hal is really strong (starting your work on your strongest writing is advice i hear often), and also remains the most recent scene in the story’s chronology. Other than this “anchor” we’re sifting through fragments and threads. For a long time ive been interested in novels and films (not middle-brow PULP FICTION, more like RESAN or THE TIES THAT BIND) that depart radically from dramatic structure, so much so that now i cant really justify these sort of choices.

i hope Hal’s curtain-opening scene remains the “last” point in the story so that the work sort of feels like a loop (annulus?), but i think there have already been scenes taking place after that point so i dunno.

A word on style: Some of these fragments are in first person, some are in limited, and high omniscient third. Some fragments are present tense, some are past tense. This seems like a way to make the book even messier, though i like it since it helps the readability. i cant say i know why the fragments have the narration or tense that they do, but the first person opening establishes Hal as the “hero” (as his essay that we read develops). Past tense is like the default — it gives the writer the widest range of options bc it has a temporal stability. The 3rd person narrator is situated in the future relating past events which itself is an historical event as the text to be read. And you can modulate that tempo (simple past, continuous past, perfect past, etc.) That goes away with present, as does the range of tone. Which is why a lot of the time present tense is kinda boring for me, if it’s only there to give the scene some punch.

They say you should write your story in first person if the narrating character naturally has an interesting voice. Hal is a precocious kid so that’s fine.

(A note on the first person fragment about the dream. The speaker is unidentified [maybe it’s Hal?], but it comes after another brief fragment in which Jim Troeltsch comes down with a really nasty cold after watching a video with the sound off. He takes some cough medicine but it’s having unexpected opiate-like effects. If i comprehend this right, Troeltsch is roommates with Pemulis, who we meet later on. Because the bits go together it’s conceivable that this is Troeltsch narrating his nightmare. On my first reading i was inclined to read it as entirely separate, bc i like to keep fragmented narratives fragmented.)

The other “I”s have unique voices, such as Clenette who does the all-AAVE chapter and yrstruly, who im guessing is a transwoman with other transwomen but yrstruly uses he pronouns for hir companions, so they are male cross dressers but also they are probably transwomen and sex workers.

Ugh, i dunno — i don’t like these sections. They are racist and transmisogynist, and i wonder if the aggressively experimental style is like a fig leaf for DFW writing about stuff beyond the cultural and class milieu he’s more comfortable in. Clenette’s narrative is a litany of family abuse and other tired black narratives; yrstruly covers the exploits of heroin junkies, one of whom dies horribly, in some kind of William S. Burroughs febrile discourse with little punctuation. i have no clue what DFW is doing here. These nasty bits are denigrating cliches, the kind of thing you’d get from TV, which is what i mean when i ask is the JEST an anti-entertainment: is this supposed to feel like a really unpleasant confrontation with a toxic culture of imagery as it gets rubbed into our noses? Or as Marathe puts it:

Of this anti-film that antidotes the seduction of the Entertainment we have no evidence except craziness of rumors.

The antidote to entertainment’s seduction. Is it fair to say that describes the novel’s M.O.?

Another sort of interpretive key or aesthetic model happens a little earlier. ETA head coach Schtitt has a personal rapport with Mario, and one fragment follows them having a chat on a pleasant day and getting ice cream. It’s a demanding section because it pours on a lot of math and analytical philosophy and its bearing on tennis, arriving to the final point after lines and lines of parentheticals:

…he, Schtitt, knew real tennis was really about not the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite — not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid. In short, Schtitt and the tall A.E.C.-optics man (i.e. Incandenza), whose fierce flat serve-and-haul-ass-to-the-net approach to the game had carried him through M.I.T. on a full ride w/ stipend, and whose consulting report on high-speed photoelectric tracking the U.S.T.A. mucky-mucks found dense past all comprehending, found themselves totally simpatico on tennis’s exemption from stats-tracking regression. Were he now still among the living, Dr. Incandenza would now describe tennis in the paradoxical terms of what’s now called ‘Extra-Linear Dynamics.’ [34] And Schtiitt, whose knowledge of formal math is probably about equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartner, nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed intuitively to sense that it was a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, 2^n possible to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian [35] continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian andbeautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled by humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

im still finding the whole thing well-written. Sentences are taut, even when their massive. Word choices develop the tone, or make cliches interesting again; and even when they unduly stick out, at least they serve one conceptual motif such as mysticism or ancient religious holidays, or another.

The opening of a fragment headed ‘MARIO’S FIRST AND ONLY EVEN REMOTELY ROMANTIC ENCOUNTER, THUS FAR’ is a wonderful bit of scene setting and dramatic structure. Anybody, no matter what kind of stuff they’re writing, could get something out of it:

In mid-October Y.D.A.U., Hal had invited Mario for a post-prandial stroll, and they were strolling the E.T.A. grounds between the West Courts and the hillside’s tree-line, Hal with his gear bag. Mario could sense that Hal wanted to be able to go off by himself briefly, so he contrived (Mario did) to be very interested in some sort of leaf-and-twig ensemble off the path, and let Hal sort of melt away down the path. The whole area running along the tree-line and the thickets of like shrubbery and stickery bushes and heaven knew what all was covered with fallen leaves that were dry but had not yet quite lost all their color. The leaves were underfoot. Mario kind of tottered from tree to tree, pausing at each tree to rest. It was @ 1900h., not yet true twilight, but the only thing left of the sunset was a snout just over Newton, and the places under long shadows were cold, and a certain kind of melancholy sadness was insinuating itself into the grounds’ light. The staggered lamps by the paths hadn’t come on yet, however.

i mean, this is nice. The passage chooses the right details to use to set up the whole scene, and, just as crucially, they are placed in a logical order. Moreover, it starts from the actions of the characters and moves outward toward the sun’s position to mark the time of day, and does so without making us lost.

But then it introduces ‘U.S.S.’ Millicent Kent, and you’re like, what the fuck. Wow, we get it, she’s a large girl, so title her like a battle ship. What kind of hellish 1980s red piller boys club stuff is that? In fact, i thought ETA was a boy’s academy until some offhand mentions of women students came by. It’s a male-focused novel for sure, and it’d be really damning in a funny way if a novel this massive actually failed that Bechdel test. (im not sure if any women have talked about something that didn’t involve men yet).

ive read somewhere that DFW has admitted to a weakness for cheap gags. They are cheap, and they are unfunny. The novel does make me laugh, though. And it’s when it’s doing what it does best, delivering a shitload of information in an efficient and entertaining way.

Take for instance perhaps my favorite bit from this set, a kind of Consumer Reports-style expository article on the rise and fall of video phones. They are interesting in a hi-tech way, until people realize that when they’re on camera they can’t only half-pay attention to the caller, and realize that their listener is only half-paying attention to them. They also become far too nervous about their appearance. Then, like everything else in the novel, the reality principle is abandoned and we get services like facial masks, and then photo-shop like mods to the video feeds. So it’s another funny look at the hellscape created by video.

This was a fascinating bit bc it talks about the anxieties of self-representation and the lengths people go to idealize these aspects. That’s sort of true in our Internet age. But things have also gone in a different direction than what the novel anticipates. Folks seem really happy to broadcast their selfies and other sometimes intimate data about themselves — what at least the 8-bit Philosophy YouTubes characterize as part of Foucualt’s ideas of a confessional society. So rather than construct ideal representations, people are happy to broadcast their more or less true selves at the risk of losing privacy (think of those social media posts of people’s own credit cards).

One more thing about this section is that it has an explicit reference to the ring shape which appears in the text from time to time:

(3) But there’s some sort of revealing lesson here in the beyond-short-term viability-curve of advances in consumer technology. The career of videophony conforms neatly to this curve’s classically annular shape.

The notion of this consumer graph as a ring is a little baffling to me, but the ring shape is of course another reference to infinity. (And there’s that movie RINGU and it’s US remake that i like about another videotape that kills they who watch it.) But what’s up with that shape? They make another chapterization system along with the headings (though some fragments dont have headings). Some distances between rings are very much longer than others. And why does the annulus shape have its inner circle closer to the left side? It looks a lot like an annular eclipse if you search google images.

This has gone on too long, and again was far from exhaustive of everything that happens though i am exhausted journaling about it. i pledged after the first update to touch on everything i didnt cover there here, such as all the Hamlet references and the more violent/spectacle set-pieces, but that hasn’t happened, yikes. im very glad to be reading it with a book club, actually more like a support group.

Questions to keep in mind: where are all the mystical allusions going? And why is this novel, and so many other landmark postmodern novels, about drugs?


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