Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘pleasure of the text

Instead His Novels Feel Like Labor, as Though They Are Tabulating the Results of Some Desperate Experiment

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Written by gerrycanavan

June 26, 2011 at 10:32 am

Infinite Jest #10: On Endings

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This post ditches the official spoiler-line and talks about the ending of Infinite Jest. If it’s important to you not to read such a post, please do not read this post.

I decided to read through to the end of Infinite Jest this morning, which means (1) this is post is off the spoiler-line and consequently deals with the text as a whole and (2) this may or may not be my last Infinite Summer post. In light of (2) I’d like to say that it’s been truly great, and while I’m not able to participate in the Gravity’s Rainbow followup due to my pending exams I hope to pick up again with whatever Book #3 turns out to be.

I think it’s natural to end Infinite Jest in the spirit of of anticlimax nicely captured by Infinite Detox:

…as a reader, who’s poured 1,000 pages of emotional investment into this novel and its characters, this rings hollow and false. Frankly, I’m pissed off.

…Here’s the irony: One of Wallace’s big projects in Infinite Jest was to champion the notion of sincerity, right? Of forging connections and telling the truth and dropping the anhedonic mask and opening yourself up to the emotional gooiness that may result. From an intellectual standpoint, Wallace is very much pro-sincerity. And definitely ambivalent about “hip irony”, if not downright hostile toward it. Wallace can talk the talk about sincerity and directness and forging connections, but it’s like when it comes to the point of enacting that sincerity, dramatizing it and building it into the very fabric of Infinite Jest, he can’t (or doesn’t want to) bring himself to do it.

This tension between sincerity and irony—the impossible yearning for an open, unmediated authenticity of the sort we’re smart enough to know can never be achieved—is productive of the melancholic tone that has characterized most of my reading of Infinite Jest this summer. In some essential, baseline sense I think it’s what the book is All About.™ So IJ is most assuredly not a failure, exactly, so much as a very pointed and frustrating framing of a particularly intractable problem—which is to say IJ is a (mostly) successful book on the subject of universal human failure. We are left at the end of Infinite Jest with a story that hasn’t even happened yet, much less capable of directing us towards some personal epiphany—but if we’ve been reading carefully all along we should have known it could never be otherwise. (See, for example, the conversation between Remy Marathe and Kate Gompert from 774-782, in which Marathe’s story repeatedly resists the narrative closures an increasingly desperate Gompert is desperate to assign to it. How this book would end has always been right in front of our faces.)

Now, you can allow yourself to be seduced by the teasing but doomed impulse towards closure, the fantasy that answers to all the mysteries exist somewhere inside the book. Wallace himself even points to this in an interview:

(DFW) There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.

(Wallace is, I think, being coy here. Of course there’s hints about what happens after pg. 981, but they are completely incomplete and even contradictory, as he well knows, and in any event beside the point.)

Over the years Wallace fans has struggled admirably to puzzle out these supposedly converging lines with varying levels of success, and that work goes on in the Infinite Summer forums as we speak. For what it’s worth: I think the DMZ/mushrooms theory makes a lot of sense, and definitely explains some of Hal’s strange behavior in the middle of the novel, but I remain committed to the partial-viewing-of-the-Entertainment hypothesis, the heroic partial overcoming of which in evidence during the “Year of Glad” chapter I think better matches DFW’s existential themes. I think they must have really dug up Himself’s head, even if that seems to introduce precognitive dreams into the world of the novel alongside “wraiths,” and I suspect a microwave-destroyed copy of the master was inside. There is no anti-Entertainment. I don’t think the Entertainment ends the world, a la Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph One”; what it does is both less and more apocalyptic than that. Whether or not John Wayne was a spy he was “on Hal’s side” by the grave and whatever came later, and I guess he probably died somewhere along the way, somehow. I don’t know if I think Hal gets better. I think things get worse for Pemulis. I think O.N.A.N. dissolves.

But the impulse to make this sort of over-interpretive effort is itself a kind of misreading of the novel, which is, we must recognize, explicitly anticonfluential along the theories of Himself’s own films. The displeasure of this sort of text is laid out unmistakably for us within the novel itself:

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. (947)

The book—which, centered as it is around a mind-consuming MacGuffin called “the Entertainment” that destroys your ability to think, and therefore live, refuses to entertain us—is an object lesson in the fact that literature is about something other, and we can hope more, than mere pleasure. Infinite Jest is extremely fun at times and incredibly tedious at others—but in its mammoth scale, sprawling scope, and discontinuous presentation it could only ever leave us with a kind of unfulfilled, anti-entertained sense of disappointment at its end. To see the missing Year of Glad or to know X, Y, and Z about it would not change that inevitable anticlimax; in all likelihood it would only bring the discomforting divide between literature and Entertainment into even sharper relief while in the process sacrificing the calculated denial of easy pleasure that is at the core of the novel’s claims to aesthetic worth. To try to close a narrative like this one is a readerly impulse that is almost impossible to avoid—it was, I’ll admit, essentially the first thing I embarked on when I put down the book—but we should only attempt to do so with the understanding that we can’t, and knowing that if we were better readers of Wallace we wouldn’t even try. The ending was never and could never have been what Infinite Jest is about; that’s why it comes first.

Infinite Summer #7: Is ‘Infinite Jest’ Science Fiction?

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There have been some interesting Infinite Summer posts about whether Infinite Jest “counts” as science fiction—see, for instance, these two at Infinite Tasks and this from Chris Forster)—so I thought it might be interesting to run through some of my standard classroom definitions of science fiction and see how the book shapes up. (My notes on this are older than the Wikipedia page and mostly cribbed from Fred Chappell, but most of these definitions appear there as well.)

To begin with, there are a few classic definitions it clearly doesn’t meet.

…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.
—Hugo Gernsback

Versions of this notion of “scientific prophecy” pop up whenever science fiction is discussed, and Infinite Jest pretty clearly meets neither criteria; its speculations are philosophical, not scientific, and it is surely a satire, not some coherent futurism.

Another take:

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.
—Sam Moskowitz

I would defy anyone to claim that their willing suspension of disbelief is not frequently and fatally challenged by the hyperbolic “hysterical realist” elements throughout IJ. “FREAK STATUE OF LIBERTY ACCIDENT KILLS FED ENGINEER: BRAVE MAN ON CRANE CRUSHED BY 5 TON CAST IRON BURGER” (398) is not a sentence calculated to brace a spirit of credulity.

Still another:

Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.
—Norman Spinrad

This is usually the last definition I offer my students in my introductory SF lecture, and the one I usually argue is the most important. SF is, as much as it is anything else, a discrete, recognizable set of consumer practices and preferences—and here, too, Infinite Jest is clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by “science fiction fans.” IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction—which is a perfectly cromulent brand, if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not SF.

So, then, 0 for 3. Not a great start. But there are other definitions of science fiction that do cast a strong light on Infinite Jest:

Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.
—Brian Aldiss

Here science fiction collapses into a special category of existential literature, in which the SF aspects are merely the engine motivating the text’s more-central philosophical speculations. The science-fictional elements in Infinite Jest, it seems clear to me, are operating almost entirely on this level—each inventive speculation in the novel drives existential speculation about how we might be able to live in ultratechnological modernity in the shadow of the death of God. (Side question: is Infinite Jest “in the Gothic mold”? I’d have to pull out an entirely different set of quotes to discuss that question fully, but in its massive textual sprawl, its strong tendencies towards melodrama and hyperbolic excess, and its palpable atmosphere of both individual and familial tragedy I think we could have the start of a fairly strong case.)

We come now to the two definitions I use most commonly in my writing and teaching, which are (I concede) are completely in conflict with one another. But I think—I hope—it’s a productive tension. First is Darko Suvin, who inspired Fredric Jameson and most of the Utopian school of SF theorists I primarily read:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. —Darko Suvin

There’s a lot to pull out there, but the key words are “estrangement,” “cognition,” and “imaginative framework alternative.” What Suvin argues in his work is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the pwower of defamiliarization that allows us to see our own world more clearly (and maybe for the first time), which is accomplished through the sort of intricate, even obsessive world-building confabulations SF is famous for. In particular, Suvin and his successors argue, SF expresses the desire for another kind of life, whether explicitly (as Utopian fiction) or implicitly (the desire for a plausible alterity expressed in negative in most dystopian, anti-Utopian, and apocalyptic fictions).

Infinite Jest, it seems to me, is pretty deep in the murky swamp that divides this sort of SF from more generic Utopian/dystopian political satire. The trouble for any Suvinian analysis of Infinite Jest, I think, comes in the unstable irony I was going on about earlier in the week; as Infinite Tasks lays out in detail, O.N.A.N.-ite politics is not in any sense a imaginative framework alternative to the present. It’s a series of gags. Wallace’s world-building just isn’t on the level. It’s no coincidence, to take but one example, that a close reading of DFW’s references to the Gentle administration and the start of Subsidized Time c. the year 2000 would seem to place the “Limbaugh administration” around the year of the novel’s composition in the mid-1990s, and therefore somehow impossibly concurrent with the Clinton administration that is also occasionally referenced. Infinite Jest is our cracked self-reflection, not another world.

And finally there’s Delany, who rejects political readings of SF in favor of a definition focused on wordplay, and really on the pleasure of the text itself:

In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible.
—Samuel Delany

This literary-linguistic pleasure, I think, is quite clearly a huge part of the pleasure of IJ for those of us who are enjoying it; the way in which, 400 pages in, we find ourselves now able to parse a sentence like this one:

All this until the erection of O.N.A.N. and the inception, in Clipperton’s eighteenth summer, of Subsidized Time, the advertised Year of the Whopper, when the U.S.T.A. became the O.N.A.N.T.A., and some Mexican systems analyst—who barely spoke English and had never once even fondled a ball and knew from exactly zilch except for crunching raw results-data—this guy stepped in as manager of the O.N.A.N.T.A. computer and ranking center in Forest Lawn NNY, and didn’t know enough not to treat Clipperton’s string of six major junior-tournament championships that spring as sanctioned and real. (431)

There is surely something Delany could recognize in this sentence and the subtle mental acrobatics required to make sense of it; if this isn’t quite science fiction, exactly, it seems to me it’s something very close.

Chabon on Entertainment

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Michael Chabon writes in praise of entertainment.

Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature. In so doing I will only be codifying what has, all my life, been my operating definition.

Here is a sample, chosen at random from my career as a reader, of encounters that would be covered under my new definition of entertainment: the engagement of my interior ear by the rhythm and pitch of a fine prose style; the dawning awareness that giant mutant rat people dwell in the walls of a ruined abbey in England; two hours spent bushwhacking through a densely-packed argument about the structures of power as embodied in nineteenth-century prison architecture; the consummation of a great love aboard a lost Amazon riverboat, or in Elizabethan slang; the intricate fractal patterning of motif and metaphor in Nabokov and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”; stories of pirates, zeppelins, sinister children; a thousand-word-long sentence comparing homosexuals to the Jews in a page of Proust (vol. 3); a duel to the death with broadswords on the seacoast of ancient Zingara; the outrageousness of whale slaughter or human slaughter in Melville or McCarthy; the outrageousness of Dr. Charles Bovary’s clubfoot-correcting device; the outrageousness of outrage in a page of Philip Roth; words written in smoke across the sky of London on a day in June, 1923; a momentary gain in my own sense of shared despair, shared nullity, shared rapture, shared loneliness, shared broken-hearted glee; the recounting of a portentous birth, a disastrous wedding, or a midnight deathwatch on the Neva.

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May 1, 2008 at 3:06 am

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