on being blue

INFINITE JEST pp. 503-601 (notes 209-245)


You know what, im starting to like it.

It only took 500 pages, and strangely enough as my enjoyment began to increase it’s become harder to read, or maybe that’s just my stamina lowering. But I’ve finally realized that even though the novel has a consistent literary persona, that DFW quirky, verbose, earnest voice, it’s still free indirect discourse depending on the given strand’s central character. So we’re getting the ETA boys’ or Gately’s bits of cluelessness along with the authority and control (yet untamed) of the narrator. I remember hearing James Wood quoted as saying no matter what character we’re aligned to, it sounds like Wallace is still talking, which is right.

The biggest giveaways are the casual ableism/sexism/racism which stuck out when i wasn’t reading it as limited third, as well as the general vocabulary choices. We spend a lot of time with Randy Lenz in this reading set, a skeevy asshole guy with a disintegrated septum, still using coke. His sections can be a little hard going because the sentences hiccup on weird repetitions, and there are lots of tiny malapropisms. For example:

Mr. Doony R. Glynn said at the House’s Community Meeting Monday once that one time in B.S. 1989 A.D. after he’d done a reckless amount of hallucinogen he’d refer to only as ‘The Madame’ he’d gone around for several subsequent weeks under a Boston sky that instead of a kindly curved blue dome with your clouds and your stars and sun was a flat square coldly Euclidian grid with black axes and a thread-fine reseau of lines creating grid-type coordinates, the whole grid the same color as a D.E.C. HD viewer-screen when the viewer’s off, that sort of dead deepwater gray-green, with the DOW Ticker running up one side of the grid and the NIKEI Index running down the other, and the Time and Celsius Temp to like serious decimal points flashing along the bottom axis of the sky’s screen…

ok that’s enough. “Reseau” is another word for grid, btw. Did you catch “reckless”? There’s also “scam gone rye” and “bonerfied miracle” shortly after.

Given the book’s twin big concerns with language and drugs, i havent come up with much to say about my own experiences with substances. i cant really read this book while drunk, but ive read large patches of it while waiting for edibles to kick in. The text has prompted some intimate sharing in the book club/support group (like my reading comrades im a rather private person — a published writer with no intention of combining that work with this blog — but generally it’s the private people who will share the darkest shit when the time is right. The biggest personal addiction this novel reminds me of is to the language of theory. When you do a lot of reading of postructuralism, continental philosophy, or literary theory, and start slinging terms like rhizome, war machine, Dasein, parataxis, isotopy, it’s really, really hard to stop and learn how to talk like a human being again. So i read with sympathy the grumblings by radical youth who have been locked out of the communities and institutions where this language thrives for one reason or another, since deep down i still believe these ideas have radical potential, and that such ideas are to an extent too counter-intuitive and complex to be delivered in a simpler rhetoric. But the same kabbalistic theory speak that keeps everyone inside on the same page is also smothering out whatever revolutionary/liberating power these thinkers came up with. Sometimes I consider doing some kind of English-to-English translation to present this stuff in more accessible forms, but i dunno if i have the spoons for it.

The kind of social world the JEST presents is one of individuals over-steeped in this or that language field (of queb, of filmmakers, of tennis prodigies, of AA) or institution. It’s one dimension to all the shit popping in US colleges these days. One nice little insight I got from Joseph Tabbi’s critical biography on William Gaddis is that INFINITE JEST along with UNDERWORLD and THE CORRECTIONS (and maybe 2666 but i havent read that yet) distinguish themselves from the first wave of these male author doorstop systems novels by emphasizing individual experiences of suffering in the context of these proliferating language fields and corporate states and all that; so even these pomo bricks were affected by the rise of MFA programs and the turn to personal narrative they fostered.

Also in this reading set is the first tantalizing description of what’s actually in the film INFINITE JEST:

the thing apparently opens with an engaging and high-quality cinematic shot of a veiled woman going through a large building’s revolving doors and catching a glimpse of someone else in the revolving doors, somebody the sight of whom makes her veil billow, before the subject’s mental and spiritual energies abruptly declined to a point where even near-lethal voltages through the electrodes couldn’t divert his attention from the Entertainment.

The veiled woman being Joelle. But this imagery sounds kinda familiar, like Maya Deren’s seminal avant-garde work.

I was a little less interested in Hal’s sections in this set, he gets obsessed with the color blue. Pemulis is still acting like a douche and walks in on Avril and John Wayne doing something kinky.

A connection is established btwn Gately and Joelle via dialog, and an indirect connection being Gately and Mario (they don’t actually make contact). The stuff that would be the major driving forces of a conventional novel are trivialized here. Everyone keeps saying that the JEST needed a firmer editor; that truly masterful narrative is concise and lean. But what do you do with a text that is so clearly strategically shaggy? There are condensed versions of ULYSSES and FINNEGANS WAKE, but i actually cant conceive of something similar with the JEST; it’d be too arbitrary. It’s not that the important “plot points” are separated by lots of padding, but that they are for the most part nonexistent. Background becomes foreground.

These long-ass novels, almost always by straight white menz, can be seen as acts of imperialism and literary onanism, with the white guy jerking off and spoiling thousands of pages of self-aggrandizing prose; a sentiment i can certainly understand. And yet i feel like novels get extremely long when they want to explore in depth every single character who walks on the stage. i enjoyed getting to know Bruce Green’s traumatic yet amusing back story — a democratic impulse? It’s not the form i blame but the gendered double-standard (which can be the same reason people blame the form) — Wallace, McElroy, Vollmann, Knausgaard, Pynchon; all these guys are geniuses while it’s hard to imagine such praise lavished on a woman who would produce a novel like theirs. When was the last time you saw loads of mainstream attention on Stein’s MAKING OF AMERICANS, Young’s MISS MACINTOSH, Vanessa Place’s LA MEDUSA. i also think of the disparaging comments ive already read on Marianne Fritz’s NATURE OF THINGS, which looks incredible (will it ever be translated?)

(And i cant believe INFINITE JEST is shorter than ATLAS SHRUGGED, i simply cant.)

Everyone’s still suffering, and the novel makes you face the question squarely on how you should feel about it. The comic treatment invites laughter, yet i remember Gass writing about how laughter requires indifference. Ted Schacht gets a line on p.567: “Somebody in pain isn’t entertainment.” A score for the anti-entertainment argument for this book?

Speaking of pain, way back on 488, we see Lucien, a video store owner, get horribly, painfully murdered by the wheelchair assassins, skewered alive by his own broom handle in excruciating detail. This is also the first major fantasia in the narrative, as his death becomes a peaceful release:

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.

ive just started reading SATANTANGO, and i never thought id be comparing these two novels. But Estike (her name in the film, i think it’s different in the book but i havent gotten that far yet) also gets a gentle death, and these two scenes strike me as the most tender moments in what are otherwise miserable and bleak story worlds. As bad as things get, at least death (as distinct from dying) will always remain a comfort.


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