the agony and the Xtasy

INFINITE JEST pp. 157-240 (notes 56-83)


The IJ book club has in practice functioned more like a support group. Which is what this novel warrants. And i think im more interested in a support group approach rather than a typical book club — a way to read long difficult texts together. Members report frustration and anger. Lots more of the book could afford to be cut. We dont know why we are reading reams of details about tattoos or everything the sound engineer for the Madam Psychosis radio show does in the MIT building that’s shaped like a brain. It’s certainly well-written on a sentence-by-sentence basis. But it’s been so damn exhausting. i read 20 pages a night, and it usually takes two hours, averaging a horrid six minutes per page. That’s probably the duration it takes me to get through those pages which are a solid block of text, tiny print and tiny margins.

We are not smart enough to read the JEST, and we are not smart enough to avoid reading it.

This set of reading lays down some of the first links between the ETA and its network of characters with the Ennet recovery house and its characters. There’s a line about how the ETA nearly buried the Ennet house in debris from leveling the top of the hill for the tennis courts (talk about the city on a hill ideal). There’s a link to James Incandenza’s movies: THREE CHEERS FOR CAUSE AND EFFECT (“The headmaster of a newly constructed high-altitude sports academy becomes neurotically obsessed with litigation over the construction’s ancillary damage to a V.A. hospital far below…”), and DIAL C FOR CONCUPISCENCE which hired some hospital security guards.

And yet i feel like this entry will be shorter than the last two.

The biggest frustration of talking about this book is that it kind of silences you, the way you have nothing to say when there is an obvious brainiac in the room. Sure, i have loads of responses and thoughts to the torrent of data points and minutiae as they go by, but at the support group meetings, or this entry, i draw a blank. The narration is hyper-focused like a telephoto lens on whatever the subject, such as the production of crack by Madam Psychosis in her friend’s bathroom. And so you just feel adrift in an infinite and featureless ocean without any of the usual signposts to help you keep track of the novel’s macro-structure.

To make it harder this info’s all coming in that fragmented non-linear style. A metaphor for fiction that i like is a guided tour of a building; a linear unfolding of a 3D structure. But with the “baroque” model, the JEST is more like the hallway of doors in the YELLOW SUBMARINE cartoon.

All of this conspires to leave you gobsmacked and silent in the face of a massive edifice of systematized data. And to be honest it’s more often irksome than amusing. i overhear hipster doofuses who read this book talking about how great Michael Pemulis is and how this one bought his own yachting cap after reading the book, and other unintentionally funny things. The distance between me and that is closing.

One thing i want to touch on is the novel’s violence along with its anti-realism. i mean ive been okay with aestheticized violence in other places. (Although while i revelled in the gore in END OF EVANGELION in middle school it’s a little too much for me now). i can waste cops all day while playing GTAIV, because it’s a fantasy. Why is the violence here so disturbing?

One reason is that bodies and corporeality is becoming a major theme. The first thread of this reading set was a wild monolog from Jim’s father in 1960, when Jim is only ten. (Hal’s grandfather refers to his dad as Himself just as he does to the late James.) Jim’s dad is gearing up his son for tennis, and says “The trick will be transcending that overlarge head, son.” There’s an extended metaphor with a car:

…that driver who treats its body like its own, who feels the nubbly plastic of the grip of the shift up next to the wheel when he shifts just as he feels the skin and flesh, the muscle and sinew and bone wrapped in gray spiderwebs of nerves in the blood-fed hand just as he feels the plastic and metal and flange and teeth, the pistons and rubber and rods of the amber-fueled Montclair, when he shifts.

…those thoughts in your mind are just the sound of your head revving, and head is still just body, Jim. Commit this to memory. Head is body.

This bit climaxes when Jim’s dad takes a spill on court, destroying his knees by scraping them as he slides to the net. It’s really gross. (This is also where that oft-quoted “tennis ball as ultimate body” remark comes from.) So in light of how concerned the narration is for the visceral aspects of bodies, i cant merely laugh at the Quebecois guy accidentally killed by Gately, or the torturous death of yrstruly’s friend, or the guy in the documentary Orin sees who gets spun around in the MRI machine, or Gately’s prank partner at Ennet who is kicked out, and the narrator casually mentions that she is found dead in prison with her genitals mutilated. (Also notice that the students at ETA are grotesquely shaped, with ripped legs and their racket arm bigger than the other arm.)

im not exactly keeping track of the structure or the characters or settings. But i am seeing how the distance between myself and the text fluctuates. When i think about the violence, or the casual misogyny and homophobia, i know i am radically split off from the audience the narrator is addressing. (every novel constructs an audience in this way at the authorial and the narrational level; a doubling if you will.) This constructed audience is assumed to be in on the myriad references to ancient religion or Leave it to Beaver, and is assumed to have a high threshold for misogyny and homophobia, for they are not part of those social groups. There are other parts where im drawn in, and dare i say “identify” with some of the characters, such as Kate Gompert’s abuse of pot (just like my undergrad years).

Which is why the fantasy and satirical aspects are disturbing, because they’re counterbalanced by the realistic stuff; IJ is massive enough to sustain the whole gamut of reader responses, from mimesis to experimental.

But is it worth it? i still dont know.


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