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July 26, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Three Cheers for DFW!

No quasi-philosophical speculation this post – just some ordinary reflections on part of this week’s reading. I am, to put it simply, rather in awe of the immense entertainment (or is that Entertainment?) value of two carefully structured chapters of IJ, and want to give three Interdependence Day Cheers to DFW.

Cheer #1: The Chapters Heading for these two days, November 8 Y.D.A.U. includes not only the date and location, but also the phrase Gaudeamus Igitur (Let us rejoice), which most readers have probably already googled, but if you haven’t, it is a university song stemming from 1274 B.S., supposedly light-hearted by not by today’s standards; it begins:

Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troubling old age
The earth will have us.

I wish this song to be sung every Independence Day, or Interdependence Day, or Totally Dependent Day, or whatever. Sure beats “God Bless America”! Simply putting it out there is cheer #1 for DFW.

Cheer #2: There are a number of excellent commentaries on Eschaton (pp. 321-342) out there already, especially here and here and here and now also here (apologies for any overlap between what follows and the insights on those sites). Two central issues have emerged. First, the growing confirmation that Hal is, if not the only narrator, at least a primary one, in something like a “free indirect voice.” This is especially relevant at footnote #123 (from p. 323), where Hal is clearly an active amanuensis to Pemulis’s Tenuate-slurry description. Compare this with the footnotes from the following section, describing Don Gately and the Boston AA Commitment experience, specifically notes #137 (which reads “None of these are Don Gately’s terms,” the “these” referring to a description of the AA Crocodiles, a group of old-timers), #140, and the controversial #141, each of which intentionally surmounts Gately’s own narration perspective.

Second, Eschaton makes clear the difficult relationship between a text and a “real” world, by confusing the Eschaton “scenario” or “map” with the actual territory being traversed by the ETA students. The failed distinction between map and territory recalls both Borges and Baudrillard. Most interesting, though, is that the meticulous details of the game scenario itself, described lovingly by DFW, are not as compelling to Hal as the questions raised by the disruption of the game scenario: “It also occurs to him that he finds the real-snow/unreal snow snag in the Eschaton extremely abstract but somehow way more interesting than the Eschaton itself, so far” (p. 335).

The “so far” is key here, since game-master Lord is ready to throw up his hads and declare Utter Global Crisis by donning the red beanie (p. 336f). After pages of slow build-up, excruciating detail of AMNAT and SOVWAR and going SACPOP or inflicting SUFDDIR, the tempo begins to increase. Nobody is at all clear whether ETA players are mauling each other (they are) and if the game still exists (it does). As the first punches land, “The snowfall makes everything gauzy and terribly clear at the same time eliminating all visual background so that the map’s action seems stark and unreal” (p. 341 – also a clear reference to Joelle’s veiled perception). The intensity of the story threatens a bubble-bursting outcome, but DFW comes through in the end. Eschaton Lord Lord trips while fleeing the melee and at the finale of a long, slow free-fall, puts his head through the Yushityu color monitor, a definitive resolution indeed to the map-territory ambiguity. Cheer #2 for DFW!

Cheer #3: Gately’s ruminations (pp. 343-367, continues to p. 374) on the intricacies of the AA program and its local permutations is likewise fascinating, meticulous, and drawn-out. As with the Eschaton section, it meanders about, discussing Commitments (traveling presentations at other AA meetings), Identification (the primary response to AA speakers), Bottoming, Hanging In, life Out There, etc. I was intrigued by Gately’s earlier comment about how cliches somehow work (e.g. pp. 204, 273), and that is furthered by his skepticism about how AA works combined with the realization that, well, it works. No Why or How, just That it works. “The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap…. And the folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with How. You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine” (p. 349f).

This section, though, is beautiful for the way it slowly draws together all of the characters who have stimulated such interest. As one comment somewhere or other had, nobody really cares all that much about the specific ETA tennis players yet, and may even have a hard time keeping apart Schacht, Pemulis, Troeltsch, etc. But there’s no mistaking the fast and hard impacts made by Kate Gompert, Joelle van Dyne [15], Ken Erdedy (who apparently has a first name), Clenette Henderson (who apparently has a last name), even Bruce Green. While it seemed like pretty much inevitable that they would meet up at the Ennet House Recovery House (sic), what is amazing about DFW’s writing here is how slowly he re-introduces them. As a reader, we are heart-poundingly excited, but he sure takes his time. And since Gately himself doesn’t have a stake in the characters, he mentions them almost casually.

What does have a stunning impact is how Joelle simply if unintentionally destroys Gately at the end of the chapter. She complains to him that the commonly-used AA phrase “But For the Grace of God” is a subjunctive, and makes sense only conjoined with a conditional clause, all of which is correct, and she is upset that “the foamy enthusiasm with which these folks can say what in fact means nothing at all makes her want to put her head in a Radarange” (p. 366). And for once, Gately has nothing to say “to Identify” with her, and as a consequence:

his own heart grips him like an infant rattling the bars of its playpen, and he feels a greasy wave of an old and almost unfamiliar panic, and for a second it seems inevitable that at some point in his life he’s going to get high again and be back in the cage all over again…

The very last thing I expect was Don Gately being exposed to such fear, and these lines drop on the reader like a ton of bricks. Just as with the parallel Eschaton section, these pages would be perfectly good without a tempo shift, without a sharp and powerful resolution, and they are often so rambly that they seem more likely to evade such a resolution. But when it comes, wow. Third cheer for DFW!

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5 Comments

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  1. Paul / Jul 26 2009 6:06 pm

    First, thanks for the nod! But more importantly, I am decidely impressed by how we both wrote about the same sections of th ebook and we both saw more or less the same thing, but your eloquence at explanation is jut so enjoyable to read. It’s also a treat to see someone else really appreciate the sames things I did.

    Since I haven’t been thinking to Philosophically about the book, I hadn’t considered the Baudrillard aspect, but seeing you mention it makes so much sense.

    Keep up the great synopses!

    • infinitetasks / Jul 26 2009 9:29 pm

      I appeciate the nice words, Paul. Lots of people seem to think the Eschaton is a key to the novel (or, variously, its highlight), and though I don’t have much to add to the analyses that are out there, it was fun to talk about. Glad you’re reading along.

  2. Srini / Jan 16 2010 8:50 pm

    regarding “map is not the territory”, I think I’ve always looked at the book “infinite jest” itself. In a way, David Foster Wallace with his own personal problems was writing the book about the addictive experience… “so you don’t have to”. The novel infinite jest is the map of addiction, but thank God it is not the real experience of addiction.

    On the other hand, the movie depicted in the book, also titled “infinite jest”, is itself the territory! Having just read your excellent post about Joelle having “too much fun” in the 80s, something flashed on me — somehow, JOI might have been able to convey not just Joelle but also “weaponize” her energetic, enthusiastic addiction as if it were anthrax dust (eg hypercontagious).

    The viewers of this movie synchronize up with the energy and even the broken logic of her embrace of addiction so strongly that they, like Joelle in the 80s, would never, ever stop scraping for more.

    Authors are limited in ways that filmmakers are not. Every artist that somehow makes a piece worth obsessing over wonders to themselves, “can I make them more obsessed next time?” encouraging intelligent people to become obsessed with a 1000+ page novel for a few weeks, and then puzzle over it and its relation to their own lives for another intermittent decade or so, would appear to be just about as far as an author could possibly get with such ambition.

    I compare that with the thousands of times I have listened to the stooges album “fun house”. these are the pieces worth obssessing over, the hall of fame, monolithic achievements of art, and ultimately shaping my experience of the world. As a writer, DFW finally achieves that “flip the album back over and start with the first song again” magic that books and movies seldom achieve. the unspoken invitation to reread the book immediately upon concluding it, if only to go back to try and puzzle out what was going on with Hal at the beginning, is one of the features of infinite jest the novel that reminds me of putting a stereolab record like “switched on” on infinite repeat while making stoned love for hours straight.

    the only movie I have ever seen that had this energy of “watch this again immediately” was Slacker. I’ve wanted to watch other movies a few times, but with Slacker you felt like you were getting to know people better and better each time you watched it. I wonder, sometimes, if our entire generation has been playing out the movie Slacker in sequel after sequel within our own lives. In other words, “the map BECAME the territory”.

    This is also the attitude of neurolinguistic programming — that it is possible to alter behavior, even and possibly especially in a group rather then just an individual basis, through throwing out “suggestions” and delineating an archetype that the subjects could then mimic in order to follow through on the suggestions. I wonder if Orin, with his talk about encountering and influencing “subjects”, was a way for David Foster Wallace to make a little jab at NLP.

    there is a lot of art in music and literature that is good, of course. But not every author takes it upon themselves to approach creation in the scientific manner adopted by JOI. it seems to follow that David Foster Wallace approached the creation of infinite jest in a similar way. True to this understanding, here I am three years later trying to puzzle out the strange new territory reading infinite jest has caused me to inhabit.

    • infinitetasks / Jan 17 2010 9:03 am

      Really interesting, Srini! I’m thinking of other books/films/music that creates the wrap-around effect. The first ones that spring to mind: The Descendents, Milo goes to College; Michel Foucault, History of Madness; Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go; and the Christopher Nolan film, Memento.

      And it is truly amazing that there are so many of us who, having finshed IJ some time over the last decade (three years for you, six months for me, etc.), still find ourselves continually at one or another point in the inescapable jest. I would re-read IJ with even the barest of encouragement, since I am, after all, always inside of it.

      Btw, I love your website/business, and appreciate your unamerican contribution to making ours a better place!

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