Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Infinite Summer 2: Chapter Headings, Postmodernism, Time

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Page 140 marks a major shift in the narrative presentation of Infinite Jest. The all-caps chapter headings, which up to now have constrained themselves to either the name of the year in Subsidized Time or (much more rarely) a short one- or two-line description of the event to be described, suddenly explode into totally excessive information overload to a degree the chapter-heading pattern to which we’ve grown accustomed cannot hope to contain:

HAL INCANDENZA’S FIRST EXTANT WRITTEN COMMENT ON ANYTHING EVEN REMOTELY FILMIC, SUBMITTED IN MR. OGILVIE’S SEVENTH-GRADE ‘INTRODUCTION TO ENTERTAINMENT STUDIES’ (2 TERMS, REQUIRED), ENFIELD TENNIS ACADEMY, 21 FEBRUARY IN THE YEAR OF THE PERDUE WONDERCHICKEN, @ FOUR YEARS AFTER THE DEMISE OF BROADCAST TELEVISION, ONE YEAR AFTER DR. JAMES O. INCANDENZA PASSED FROM THIS LIFE, A SUBMISSION RECEIVING JUST A B/B+, DESPITE OVERALL POSITIVE FEEDBACK, MOSTLY BECAUSE ITS CONCLUDING ¶ WAS NEITHER SET UP BY THE ESSAY’S BODY NOR SUPPORTED, OGILVE POINTED OUT, BY ANYTHING MORE THAN SUBJECTIVE INTUITION AND RHETORICAL FLOURISH

The next two major chapter headings are likewise unrestrained and rambling, with the third chapter heading introducing ellipses, em-dashes, and question marks to the first’s regime of parenthesis and cascading dependent clauses. The multiple perspectives characteristic of Infinite Jest have now, suddenly, infected the text itself; the chapter headings that had previously presented themselves as objective and reliable third-person-omniscient narration are now uncovered as subjective and perspectival, opinionated, excitable, and frankly a little confused.

The question Well, so whose perspective is this? immediately presents itself, only to be apparently foreclosed by the content of Hal’s essay on postmodern heroism, which (with surprising sophistication for an 8th grader) argues that postmodern culture denies individual subjectivity in favor of herd subjectivity and interconnectedness, and denies traditional narrative hero in favor of bureaucratic flux. So maybe “perspective” is an outmoded category to look for in Infinite Jest; maybe this sort of decentered narrative chaos is the best we can hope for.

That postmodernism now emerges as a named problem in Infinite Jest—and maybe the problem—is further highlighted at this moment by a related complication of the way the chapter headings have heretofore been presented. The @ symbol in the quoted text above draws our attention to what I think is the second major textual innovation of the chapter heading on page 140: the reintroduction of history against the Jamesonian “perpetual present” of Subsidized Time, which in assigning totally arbitrary names to succeeding years both blurs all temporal distinctions and obliterates memory. Unsubsidized time—numerical time—implicitly foregrounds the importance of history in the steady increase of its digits; whether this is ideologically coded as “progress” or just “one damn thing after another,” it is at least a map. Time, if we can say nothing else about it, passes; 1977 is thirty years after 1947 and thirty years before 2007. Subsidized Time is in this way the ultimate triumph of the postmodern over history; it delinks each year from any other, deterritorializing history itself. But history is tricky, and reemerges unexpectedly in a kind of return of the repressed: suddenly we learn that The Year of the Purdue Wonderchicken is four years after one event—the end of broadcast television—and one year after another—James Incandenza’s death by suicide—at a time when Hal was in 8th grade, which marks this moment as occurring approximately five years before what is natural to think of as the “present” of the novel, the timeframe of the remarkable first section, the Year of Glad. Suddenly (and, perhaps for readers who are struggling with the time leaps, blessedly) we have history; we have context. How appropriate, then, that at the end of the “spoiler line” for today we are thrown back further than we have ever been, further, I think, than we might have thought we could go, so deep into IJ‘s history that it might as well be prehistoric: WINTER, B.S. 1960—TUCSON AZ.

* * *

On a completely unrelated note, let me add that the videophony section (144-151) is one of my absolute favorite pieces of this novel. Hilarious, brilliant, amazing, and totally 100% true. A+.

Written by gerrycanavan

July 6, 2009 at 4:01 am

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