Symptom or Cure?

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Incandenza Festival

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the play that gives Infinite Jest its title (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” [Act V, Scene 1]) and some of its structure, opens with the dead father’s ghost. In David Foster Wallace’s novel, however, the ex-king’s “wraith” waits over 800 pages before showing up (and when he finally does, the references to Hamlet pile up: “LAERTES [. . . ] POOR YORICK” [832]). Moreover, he appears not to his son but to the semi-conscious Don Gately, former burglar and current staff-member at Ennet House, who is confined to a hospital bed following a tremendous bust-up with three armed and angry Canadians (long story; literally). He features in one of Gately’s many (relatively non-medicated) dreams, as a “ghostish figure [. . .] of a very tall sunken-chested man in black-frame glasses and a sweatshirt with old stained chinos, leaning back sort of casually [. . .] resting its tailbone against the window sill’s ventilator’s whispering grille” (829). As so often in this novel, the reader has some work cut out to identify the figure, who isn’t explicitly named, but the allusions start coming thick and fast: “The wraith says that he, himself, the wraith, when animate, had dabbled in filmed entertainments, as in making them, cartridges” (835); “The wraith says [. . .] they’d thought all his agitation meant was that he had gone bats from Wild Turkey-intake and needed to try to get sober, again, one more time” (838). What other Wild Turkey-drinking entertainment-makers have we met?

So we prick up our ears when the ghost tells us that in life his aim was above all to communicate with a reclusive son whom he feared was “experimenting with Substances” (838). Is this then the key to the “Entertainment”? The desire “to contrive a medium via which he and the muted son could simply converse. [. . .] His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (838-39). There is, after all, an echo here of the diagnosis applied to Hal, currently in withdrawal from his marijuana addiction: a “hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia” (695). Yet Hal has apparently never seen the video, and is one of the few characters who still seem to be utterly unaware of its very existence. Indeed, if the wraith is even now, from the afterlife, trying to communicate with the boy, he’s making rather a mistake by appearing instead to Gately, who can make little sense of the vision: unlike the young Incandenza, who’s memorized half the OED, he barely understands half the vocabulary that crops up in his dream, which is described as a “lexical rape”: “terms and words Gately knows he doesn’t know from a divot in the sod now come crashing through his head with the same ghastly intrusive force” (832). And at this stage, he and Hal have yet to meet, or even to become aware of each other’s existence, as the boy’s one visit to Ennet House comes only after Don is already hospitalized. In other ways, however, the burly ex-burglar’s plight reminds us of Hal’s own situation in the novel’s opening scene: both find themselves strangely inarticulate, their attempts to speak mysteriously short-circuited as they can frustratingly utter only grunts or animal noises. In Gately’s case, the sounds that emerge resemble “a runover kitten” or at best a cow (823; 828): “something in his raped throat won’t let whatever’s supposed to vibrate to speak vibrate” (813). There are here layers upon layers of failures to communicate, that entangle even the misguided ghost.

Moreover, the film that the wraith claims to have made also surely misses its mark, and not merely because it remains unseen by its intended viewer. For the paradox is that the movie that Quebecois terrorists and US secret services alike are desperately trying to track down because of the deadly threat it is thought to pose to the US body politic, was (we are now told) devised as a cure for the country’s malaise. After all, “ennui and jaded irony” are presented as diseases afflicting an entire generation, sadly celebrated when they should be fought: “It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial USA treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. [. . .] Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human” (694-95). The “Entertainment” was contrived as a means to shake its viewers into life, to dispel all cynicism, as “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh” (839). And yet there is surely something ambivalent if not directly counter-productive about a would-be tonic that is also seen as the apotheosis of a mind-numbing popular culture that turns its viewers into inhuman zombies, pale shadows of their former selves.

Given that the cryptic cartridge and the novel in which it features both (it’s now confirmed by film scholar and Joelle van Dyne’s friend, Molly Notkin [788]) share the same title–Infinite Jest–we’re forced to consider the relation between the two works, the one fictive and the other solidly material, all 1079 pages of it. Does the ambivalence and counter-productivity of the one infect also the other? Should Foster Wallace’s novel be envisaged as a cure for the malaise that afflicts us (if indeed we agree with his diagnosis) or as more of the same, if not worse? For now, as we enter the book’s final hundred pages, I think that the jury’s still out. In some ways it surely is a deeply impassioned (and deeply moralistic) cri de couer against inauthenticity, cynicism, and the myriad forces of desubjectation that surround us. In some ways, in short, it is a strangely nostalgic, even modernist novel. But in other ways, it continues and even exaggerates characteristic tics of literary postmodernism–the footnotes, the allusive cleverness, the play and endless deferral–that make it part of the problem (again, if problem it is), perhaps in fact its most hysterical symptom.

Only Disconnect!

[Cross-posted to Infinite Test].

Infinite Jest is a book of both set pieces and discontinuous strands. On the one hand, there are relatively self-contained episodes: the opening scene of Hal’s inquisition by the college authorities, for instance; or the Eschaton game, or Joelle van Dyne’s (attempted?) suicide, or some of the tennis matches, such as the exhibition put on between Hal and Ortho Stice. These stories-within-stories have their own narrative arcs, their own climaxes and dénouements, and they leaven the strain of having to keep tabs on the novel’s broader, ongoing plot (or plots). On the other hand, there are many intervening strands (which sometimes break up the set pieces themselves) that recur without necessarily seeming to take us anywhere in particular, but that occasionally unfold snippets of information or otherwise resonate with what is happening elsewhere, at another point in the broader narrative.

Marathe and Steeply

Perhaps the most notable and peculiar of these strands is the long conversation between Rémy Marathe, Quebecois wheelchair assassin and double (triple? quadruple?) agent, and Hugh/Helen Steeply, transvestite operative for the United States “Office of Unspecified Services” and would-be seducer/seducee of Hal’s brother, Orin. For almost six hundred pages (so far) we have periodically returned to Marathe and Steeply as they perch on a mountain ledge high above Tucson, Arizona, talking through the night, neither daring to doze for lack of trust in the other. Here, there is no climax, just the long, more or less patient wait for dawn to come while the two men chat, sometimes friendly or curious, more often guarded and suspicious. Their talk turns increasingly to the “Entertainment,” but in some ways there is little less entertaining than this encounter in which, quite literally, almost nothing ever happens. Something is going on down at the valley floor, but they are (here at least) only spectators who can but dimly discern the main action.

As the book proceeds, these various disparate elements gradually start to contaminate each other, or to reveal the ways in which they are already mutually contaminated. We learn, for instance, that the figure dimly spotted at the edge of the Eschaton disaster, lurking in a Ford sedan by the dumpsters, is Helen Steeply herself, posing as a journalist for Moment magazine who is writing a “soft” profile of Orin Incandenza. The tennis academy staff are wary of giving her the access she wants to what the narrator calls (highlighting the real reasons for her visit) “the samizdat Entertainment director’s other son” (675), but she is permitted to sit in on Hal’s match with “The Darkness” Stice, at which she hears a long disquisition on what makes one tennis player better than any other. It’s all about having a “complete game.” For the boys have “different strengths, areas of the game they’re better at” (679), and for instance “Hal can’t lob half as good as even Possalthwaite, and compared to Ortho or Mike his net-play’s pedestrian” (679-80). But what makes the younger Incandenza a bright hope for the professional “Show” is that his “strengths have started to fit together” (680). And so perhaps it is for the novel at this point: it is starting to fit together.

“Only connect” is the motto that E M Forster used as the epigraph for Howard’s End. This is shorthand for the idea that, even in a modern society torn apart by industrial change, demographic mobility, and the loss of master narratives, it was still possible (perhaps heroically) to envisage at least the shadow of an over-arching totality. Or as Forster expands upon this theme, via his character Margaret Schlegel: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” By contrast, what often distinguishes postmodern writers such as David Foster Wallace (but also Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy, say) is the more cynical notion that of course, like it or not, everything is always already connected–by money, or power, or some strange subterranean conspiracy–and that tracing the webs of influence or intrigue leads not to exaltation, transcendence, and love, but to a disenchanted (one might add, posthegemonic) understanding of the way the world really works.

It would be a surprise were Infinite Jest to be leading to a sense of “human love [. . .] at its height.” Its very title suggests otherwise. Indeed, there’s little in the way of any kind of love to be found here: relationships are more likely to follow what, in the case of Orin’s multiple hook-ups with “subjects” (who in fact are treated as anything but), is described as “the Excitement-Hope-Acquisition-Contempt cycle of seduction” (574). Moreover, the image we are given of family lives is almost always of silence and abandonment, atomization if not outright abuse. Steeply’s conversation with Marathe, for instance, ends with a long semi-confessional disquisition on the part of the US agent, in which he describes how his own father gradually became a recluse, obsessed by “M*A*S*H” in a manner that anticipates the devastation allegedly wrought by Jim Incandenza’s “Entertainment”: “every night late at night, for the nightly hour, the old man too wide awake, and hunched over weirdly, head out, as if pulled toward the screen” (640).

So everything is connected, the game is finally coming together, but it appears to be a game nobody can win, or one in which winning is only another form of losing. The best we can expect, and the mission of the tennis academy, Steeply is told, is “self-transcendence through pain. These kids [. . .] they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them. [. . .] To forget themselves as objects of attention for a few years and see what they can do when the eyes are off them” (660). As with the (hideously) beautiful Joelle van Dyne, the challenge is to become invisible, to ward off the gaze and disappear. A more suitable motto than Forster’s, then, might be the (perhaps equally heroic) exhortation: “Only Disconnect!”


I’ve long expressed my enthusiasm for the photographer Martin Parr. So it’s worth checking out a burgeoning debate recorded by Owen Hatherley between himself and Nina Power, inspired by a visit to Parrworld.

But it does sound as though Owen rather quickly concedes:

Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again.

They focus on what happens to documents of working class militancy, such as posters from the miner’s strike.

A first point to note is that Parr is equally (if not more) skeptical about the claims of those in power (think of the Saddam Hussein watch series) or of popular culture (the Spice girls chocolate bars).

Second, I’d say that Parr was more skeptical about political claims, political symbols, and political projects (including, yes, that of the the National Union of Mineworkers) than about politics per se. Or perhaps he clears the ground for a different kind of politics.

In any case, I don’t think he can be so easily dismissed as run-of-the-mill postmodernism gone amuck.