Thursday, April 08, 2010
'Infinite Jest' David Foster Wallace
Notes and Errata
1. Although in the novel the millennium has been and gone, there are no references at all to real contemporary American or global political events of the time of writing. Chapstick, Pledge, and Skevener in their study The Endless Loop of History: Space Time in the work of DFW (London 2001) have already noted the way Infinite Jest divorces itself from history by the use of sci fi elements. They note how compared with the American post moderns, whose works interact with real historical time, Infinite Jest takes place in an ahistorical, allegorical time.
2. DFW’s invention of Subsidized Time, and the renaming of years after products and companies shows the way in which the soul-rotting effects of advertising infect time as well as internal and external space (cf: Phillip K Dick’s adverts projected onto the moon in The Man in the High Castle). Otherwise, the ubiquitous presence of advertising in contemporary daily life is absent from the novel.
3. This ambiguity notwithstanding, the internal chronology of the novel is accurate, spanning a frame of nine years, with flashbacks to before standardized time, in the backstories of the characters. However, narrative chronology is severely disrupted in the huge gap between the events of the plot as they can be discerned by the careful reader, and the highly fractured discourse in which those events are presented anti-chronologically. Chapstick et al argue that this is one of DFW’s greatest contributions to post post post post modernism. However, it’s more accurate to see this as merely an extension of the achronological games of the modernists (starting in media res, use of flashbacks, flash forwards, open recursive endings etc –cf: the work of Muriel Spark for examples of similar achronology), and, as such, while brilliantly handled here, it is not as original as they claim.
4. Actually, this is not correct. The theme of waste management (also the underlying structure of Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld) reflects some of the anxieties of the 90s, the decade in which the novel was written: namely, global warming, environmental concerns, nuclear waste management, including its export to third world countries, the trading of carbon emission points, futures swaps in carbon footprints etc. DFW is here simply satirizing contemporary concerns; and a Freudian reading of this theme is both unnecessary and not really illuminating, Don Gately’s work as a shit hoser notwithstanding.
5. DFW’s use of spurious knowledge and scholarship (including a spurious academic apparatus at the back of the book) has been amply commented on, especially the doubtful physics of J.O. Incandenza’s work with lenses and nuclear annulation, and the iffey math involved in the Eschaton game. By his use of the spurious DFW is not only satirizing the discourse of academic knowledge, but making a serious point about the extent and typology of knowledge itself. Once knowledge becomes so specialized as to become comprehensible to only a very few –those firmly inside the discourse- what status does that knowledge gain? To those outside the discourse, the knowledge can only be taken on trust, and therefore all manner of hoods may be winked. In this case the boundaries between the fictional and the real become blurred, a matter for argument. We are used to questioning the reliability of the narrative voice in fiction, but not so able to question in the same way the reliability of academic discourse or specialist knowledge. The presence of the spurious next to the real infects the real, inviting us to extend our distrust of fictional narrative to non-fictional exposition, the fiction (le mensonge) and the truth become mirrors of each other.
6. Rubbish. Not true at all and totally erroneous, if not sheer and utter nonsense.
7. The title of a work stands in metonymic relationship to the content of the work: War and Peace, for example, signifies the two main themes and structuring devices of that novel. For existing books, (real, read books), the title summons up everything we know or remember about the book. Where that work is non-existent (fictional, spurious, lost or simply unknown/unread) the title acts as an empty signifier, which we can fill with our imagination, effectively writing the work ourselves in a flash. Barthes calls these bookless titles prolepses; Nabokov creates summaries and detailed commentaries for them (in Pale Fire and The Real life of Sebastian Knight); Borges bases his whole stylistics on this process of metonymic expansion; and Eco fills entire imaginary libraries with these fantastical books. DFW for his imaginary works, like Hoffmann, has a penchant for excessively long and humorous titles, whose length guides us in this process of creation cf: Good Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms that Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space With Mind-Boggling Efficiency (title of one of J.O. Incandenza’s entertainments), and Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race (title of one of Murr’s books from Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr).
8. For further discussion on the influence of Murr in Infinite Jest (the supernatural goings on at ETA, the circular structure, description of highly irrational, psychotic states, themes of education etc etc) readers are referred to my forthcoming study: Master Abraham’s Magic Lense: The Infinite Prescience of Hoffmann (University of Formosa 2023)
9. Gaps in the filmography notated thus: “Untitled. Unfinished. UNRELEASED” are the subject of Rowena Spitrack-Bagstock’s unpublished phd thesis (Cornell 2011), in which she bravely – some would argue foolhardily- tries to draw links between French theory –namely the silences of Macherey- and the use of typography in Infinite Jest. In 2000 pages of densely argumentative prose she sets forth the idea that the space created in the mind of the reader by these silences/gaps in the filmography is only partially filled by the cacophony of the alternating typeface. I remain unconvinced.
10. Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
11. Linguistics is of course an important theme in the novel. Hal has memorized the OED, and his college admission essays focus on language. Avril Incandenza’s important work as a militant prescriptivist – biro-ing in apostrophes on public signs, her debate with Pinker and subsequent participation in the MIT language riots, her incredibly patronizing correction of Mario’s syntax- is undermined by the rambling sentences and grammatical inaccuracies of DFW’s prose style, which eschews the ‘literary’ in favour of a contemporary talkiness, effectively asserting a descriptivist position as counterbalance. Perhaps DFW’s greatest break with the post modernists of the previous generation is his refusal to acknowledge the norms of a literary/linguistic aesthetics which has its roots in the 19th century prose stylists. Even the great post-modern writers Pynchon, Gaddis and DeLillo employ a writing style that has echoes of T.S Eliot (in his Prufrock mode), Beckett, Joyce, Dickens, Dr Johnson, Pope, Woolf etc. These writers create moments of recognizable beauty amidst their post-modern games; or at least, we can say, moments of sensitivity that are more in tune with our notions of beauty inherited from the canonical tradition. DFW, however, deliberately creates a style of great ugliness, even ineptitude, with redundant grammar, valley speak, the use of fillers such as like and everything like that, huge, rambling compound sentences consisting of end-on-end clauses, eschewing precision, eschewing subtlety, eschewing focus in favour of a kind of mad abundance of detail. Avril Incandenza would have a fit if she were to read the prose in which she is presented. Of course, any writer worth his salt can do the characters in different voices, and DFW shows a Joycean facility for writing indirect free discourse that both indivuates the characters’ internal lives and creates a whole range of stylistics. There are passages in which the English takes on the syntax of Quebecois French, resulting in a hideous mash of language: The upper hinge squeaks no matter the oil, as the shop drives Lucien crazy by becoming again dusty each time the door is opened to the street’s grit, and from the dust of the alley with so many dumpsters behind the back room which Bertrand refuses not to open the iron door of, to spit. This linguistic ugliness is not always only a function of characterization, however, but is also used by the narrator for descriptive passages.
12. DFW is the supreme master of discourse collage, fusing totally separate discourses to huge comic and satirical effect. The Eschaton game, in which the discourse of diplomacy and warfare is constantly interrupted by the discourse of children’s games is an excellent example, as is the description of Mario’s Interdependence Day entertainment.
13. DFW more than any other writer of his generation has really caught the tenor of the times; the way thoughtful analysis has been subsumed in a kind of gooey, Oprah-emotion. The poverty of thought is expressed in a kind of rubbish heap of language, piling emotive detail on emotive detail rather than the thoughtful stripping away of superfluous words. The high school prose bludgeons the subject and the reader, working by an accumulation of feeling rather than by skewering a thought with a neatly expressed aphorism or a well turned phrase.
14. Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, they are the life, the soul of reading. Laurence Sterne
15. Thaddeus L. Incebince III, in his monograph The Brothers Incandenza (Spohringer Verlag 2000), has written extensively on the pervasive influence of Dostoevsky on Infinite Jest. Briefly summarized, this study dwells on the structural similarities between the elevated dialogue scenes of Helen Steeply and Marathe and those of Ivan and Alyosha. Incebince also sees the severely handicapped but innocent Mario as another incarnation of the epileptic ‘holy fool’ Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, and draws interesting parallels between the Quebecois terrorists and the revolutionaries of Demons. He notes how both Dostoevsky and DFW focus on the ‘humiliated and insulted’ of their times, the urban ‘poor folk’ in the former’s case, the (reformed) drug addicts and hideously deformed in the latter’s, and how both use students as protagonists. Incebince’s best chapter analyses the influence of Notes from Underground on Infinite Jest especially how the theme of consciousness appears in both books. The relentlessly foregrounded consciousness of the Underground Man (Consciousness is man’s greatest misfortune) which complicates his relationship with the world, in the opening scene of Infinite Jest, tips over the edge, becoming a radical and violent split between how Hal articulates himself to himself (and how we overhear this: I am in here.) and how the other characters respond when Hal tries to articulate this consciousness to them. To himself – and us- Hal is not just a boy who plays tennis, but has an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I’m complex. Others react to this self-revelation with horror and violence. Incebince notes how this reaction – and the self-revelatory speeches of the addicts at their meetings- goes some way to fulfilling Prince Valkovsky’s dictum from Dostoevsky’s Humiliated and Insulted: If it could come about that each of us were to describe his innermost secrets –secrets which one would hesitate to tell not only to people at large, but even to one’s closest friends, nay, to fear to admit even to one’s own self - the world would be filled with such a stench that each one of us would choke to death. Perhaps from sensitivities surrounding DFW’s suicide, Incebince shys away from suggesting that DFW, like Dostoevsky, portrayed the consciousness of his times as a pathology; but nonetheless, it’s possible to see a continuum stretching from the existential crisis of the Underground Man to the clinical depression of Kate Gompert, and to read both of these as dispatches from the front in the battle for the integrity of the self in an increasingly fractured and dehumanizing era.
16. The actual quote from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk is: There is a crack in my soul, and I can hear it trembling, quivering, stirring deep inside me.
11. His sentences have a feverish, hysterical, idiosyncratic pace and their lexical content is an all but maddening fusion of belles-lettres, colloquialisms, and bureaucratese. His digressions were prompted more by the language than by the requirements of a plot. Reading him simply makes one realise that stream of consciousness springs not from consciousness but from a word, which alters or redirects one’s consciousness. This is Brodsky writing about Dostoevsky’s use of Russian, but Incebince convincingly argues that it could just as well apply to DFW’s use of English.
17. A Yearbook of Wheelchairs and other Ambulatory Devices for the Disabled Available in North America (Springer Verlag 1995 edition). Readers are invited to consult this reference work in their local library.
18. Actually, although the novel appears to be highly digressive and loosely structured (one of James’s loose baggy monsters, perhaps) it is in fact just as highly structured and intricately wrought as any 19th century novel. The action is centered around two loci: the Enfield Tennis Academy and the Enfield halfway house are locations both removed and isolated from the outside world, where individuals are in a state of transition, of becoming. Gradually, connections (structural, thematic and plot) between these two locations and groups of protagonists become clear. The thematic spine of the novel, buried in the notes and errata, is the spurious filmography of J.O. Incandenza, in which themes, symbols, images and even events present in the text are signaled, foretold or echoed. An example, taken at random, is the Medusa theme, in which beauty is so terrible it is veiled, indistinguishable from ugliness (as in the fate of Madame Psychosis), signaled in the title of Incandenza’s cartridge: The Medusa vs the Odalisque, in which the spectators turn to stone, effectively what happens to those who see the Infinite Jest cartridge. Interestingly, a whole team (funded by Yushityu) has been set up at the University of Yushittinme in Japan to study and plot in detail the relationship between the text and the filmography.
19. DFW, in exasperation perhaps at the illiteracy of his fans, remarked in an interview, that everything in the novel has a place and a reason for being there. This, of course, is part of the craft of any novel, and hardly the literary innovation his fans claim it is. DFW might have referred his readers to Bleak House or Middlemarch for, again, 19th century examples in which every detail is connected, and connection itself is the main theme. DFW’s great achievement, of course, is that he has managed to sustain this acute attention to detail and craftsmanship over such length and such variety of material, and at the same time to sustain the illusion of chronic digression, irrelevancy and sheer chattiness.
20. The links between addiction and freedom in the novel are the subject of a mysterious unpublished, incomplete, anonymous ‘found’ phd thesis, which explores in detail the conversations between Steeply and Marathe concerning freedom. This strange and possibly fraudulent document argues that the urge to freedom in the North American soul has been replaced by an urge for voluntary submission to entertainment; that the restless, radical, frontier spirit of America has atrophied into the gullible couch potato (cf: the passing reference to Oblomov –the first description in literature of the slacker- in the text p.282) due to a surfeit of entertainment, leisure time, and consumer goods. Infinite Jest portrays this condition.
21. The actual quote is from p.320: There are no choices without personal freedom…We say that one cannot be human without freedom…Your freedom is the freedom from, no one tells your precious individual USA selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint, and forced duress. But what of the freedom to? Not just free from. Not all compulsion comes from the without…how for the person to freely choose? The symbol of our inability to freely choose, is of course, the Entertainment, on the one hand, and the various addictions on the other. And the Entertainment is itself a symbol of addiction, an addiction to pleasure.
22. The irony is of course that addicts in recovery replace one addiction for another, in that they become addicted to AA.
23. Another nod to Dickens is in the bizarre and euphonius names DFW chooses for his characters. ‘Anne Kittenplan’, ‘LaMont Chu’, ‘Randy Lenz’, and the ‘Prettiest Girl Of All Time’ are modern day equivalents of ‘Dolly Varden’, ‘Bradley Headstone’, ‘Silas Wegg’, and ‘The Infant Phenomenon’.
24. Bikkhu Nobodhi Isindere is currently working on a monograph exploring the links between Gately’s realization that Everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not abiding in the present (p. 861) and the Buddhist notions of the self and the world as a projection of that illusory self. Bikkhu Nobodhi also sees strong parallels between Gately’s notion of abiding within, and the Buddhist notions of sammā-sati (right mindfulness) and sammā-samādhi (right concentration). An endless Now stretching its gull wings out on either side of his heartbeat. (p. 860) is a form of Enlightenment, argues the reverend Bikkhu.
25. Harold Bloom (lampooned in endnote 366 of Infinite Jest ) defines canonicity as: strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. By this definition at least, it is safe to assume that Infinite Jest, the most important work of fiction in English, probably, since Gravity’s Rainbow, looks set to become canonical.
26. Briefly summarized the argument runs like this: The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the chief obstacle to a perpetual motion machine, the Philosopher’s Stone of physics. Were the Second Law to be overcome, a system would have no entropy, and an infinite loop of energy would be established. This is symbolized in the novel by annulation, a type of fusion that can produce waste that’s fuel for a process whose waste is fuel for the fusion (p.572), the loop of the Entertainment, and the circular structure of the work, in which the beginning follows the end.
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I think the observation that there's a lot of "descriptivist" (or just flat-out wrong) grammar in IJ is an acute one and is not mentioned nearly enough. I haven't done full-on research yet but the available evidence points to the AA sections having the most grammatical errors. Theory: there's no way DFW, being a hardcore syntax nut, wouldn't have noticed all the solecisms the AA members were making up there, telling their stories. Maybe instead of concluding that their stories were powerful in spite of the verbal missteps, he thought the grammar errors were actually an integral part of the stories. Maybe. I swear that in some AA sections, it seems very possible that every sentence has a hidden grammatical mistake... Take when Green is tracking Lenz who is on his way to killing the wrong Canadians' dog. Various mistakes include: "like" for "as if"; "out loud"; "can't help but"; extraneous "of"s in "all of..." phrases; "utilizing"; and other more obvious errors (DFW's objections to the last two are are addressed specifically in his sections of the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus). In the same way the book almost tricks you into thinking it's a mess, it gets away with being rife with grammar issues that only the most hardcore would notice. The precision of this book continues to astound this reader.
thanks for this interesting comment. I agree with you. I think DFW's style is a deliberate choice, a way of asserting spoken, contemporary English (with all its faults and drawbacks and idiosyncracies) as a vehicle for literature.
Interesting piece. I enjoyed it overall, despite disagreeing at a few places. 2 Things:
1)You spelled Samuel Beckett's name "Becket". I'm not generally a spelling nerd, but proper names are kind of big deal.
2)I'd same that DFW's name are more indebted to Pynchon than Dickens.
and Pynchon's names are indebted to...?
...and Dickens' names are indebted to...?
"Perhaps DFW’s greatest break with the post modernists of the previous generation is his refusal to acknowledge the norms of a literary/linguistic aesthetics which has its roots in the 19th century prose stylists."
i thoroughly enjoyed this post, however, it's precisely this aspect of dfw that isn't a break from the post modernists. this style of great ugliness, as you put it, is his take on the ugly-pretty sentential juxtapositions of barthelme. read barthelme's short essay on his story 'paraguay.' it's an amalgam of high and low art on the micro level, a reliance on the angularity of rhythm patterns and almost latinate constructions that don't allow one's eyes to glaze quickly past a sentence but rather pay attention to the awkwardness of the sentence. the "notion of beauty" is, what exactly? a sentence that glides by on a soft sibilant sound that stirs the soul and uses words that have a phonoaesthetic quality to them? a pretty face is forgettable. an awkward one will stick with you longer.
joyce did this as well.
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