Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Quotations/Movie Buff: Adaptation

"Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn't be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I'm a walking cliché. I really need to go to the doctor and have my leg checked. There's something wrong. A bump. The dentist called again. I'm way overdue. If I stop putting things off, I would be happier. All I do is sit on my fat ass. If my ass wasn't fat I would be happier. I wouldn't have to wear these shirts with the tails out all the time. Like that's fooling anyone. Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. I need to have a girlfriend. I need to read more, improve myself. What if I learned Russian or something? Or took up an instrument? I could speak Chinese. I'd be the screenwriter who speaks Chinese and plays the oboe. That would be cool. I should get my hair cut short. Stop trying to fool myself and everyone else into thinking I have a full head of hair. How pathetic is that? Just be real. Confident. Isn't that what women are attracted to? Men don't have to be attractive. But that's not true. Especially these days. Almost as much pressure on men as there is on women these days. Why should I be made to feel I have to apologize for my existence? Maybe it's my brain chemistry. Maybe that's what's wrong with me. Bad chemistry. All my problems and anxiety can be reduced to a chemical imbalance or some kind of misfiring synapses. I need to get help for that. But I'll still be ugly though. Nothing's gonna change that."
So guess what film I watched last night? Adaptation is a film about... flowers, I guess. Also about screenplay writing. And loneliness. Man, is it about loneliness.
Yeah.... Let me try that again. The plot of the movie is that a screenplay writer, Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) , is hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean's (played by Meryl Streep)book, the Orchid Thief. Kaufman is a neurotic, balding, middle-aged man who can't seem to put his life together or barely even function from one day to the next. It doesn't help that his twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) is on the upswing: he's got a steady girlfriend and just sold his first own movie script for at least 5 figures. At the same time, we get Susan's story of a journalist who, in her own way, is as lost as Charlie is. Gradually, it becomes clear that the adaptation Charlie is writing is the movie we're actually watching. And thus the film becomes a bizarre meta-experience. The closest thing I can compare it to is the movie adaptation of Tristam Shandy, which was about the filming of the movie adaptation of Tristam Shandy, and also had a main character who was playing multiple roles. It's almost so aggressively meta at some points that it comes across as a cheap stunt or overly clever joke (I'm looking at you, "discussion on internal monologue" scene), but for the most part it works.

For the record, the movie's real-life writer, Charlie Kaufman, doesn't have a brother. And the real-life Susan Orlean never went to the lengths of the fictional one. Nicholas Cage does a fantastic job as the twin brothers--at points, it's possible to determine which brother you're watching just by their body posture--Charlie is haunched over and nervous, and Donald is wide-eyed and often oblivious. It's a wonderful performance. It's amazing that this is the same man who starred in Ghost Rider.

Oh: and in case anyone's wondering, the vote has been tallied for the most responses ever to my post yesterday, and it looks like I'll be reading The Road. My hopes for this post-apocalyptic story: more sentient dogs, less ridiculous blind men. (And as I look for the link, I realize I never did do that review of "The Book of Eli." Spoilers!)

Later Days.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book List

Yes, yes, it's another book related post. Well, I didn't wind up with a career in the field of English (videogame focus notwithstanding) by reading tea leaves, after all.
At any rate, I keep a large portion of my personal library in my university office. The reason for this dates back to my bouts of house-moving last year. Knowing firsthand that transporting books en masse is a huge hassle, I slowly brought all my books, a half dozen or dozen at a time, from my apartment to my office. So instead of going through a single large imposition, I have dragged it out over weeks. And since most are still in my office, it's been dragged out indefinitely. The point is, my half of the office is a miniature library, albeit a very eclectic and scattered one. The story of the moment begins when my office mate recently remarked to me that a student who came to the office for an appointment didn't believe that I'd read the books on that shelf. Well, to that student I would like to make a reply:
You've got some attitude, mister.
The unmet student is also, sadly, largely correct. While I have done my best, large parcels of my personal paper possessions have gone unpenetrated. (I regret embarking on this alliteration.) I examined a single shelf, and came up with fourteen different books that I either failed to finish or haven't even cracked the spine:
John Barth Coming Soon!!!
John Bunyan The Pilgrim's Progress
Italo Calvino Mr. Palomar
John Gardner Grendel
Richard Garrett Starship Death
Stephen Hunt The Court of the Air
K. V. Johansen The Storyteller
Samuel Johnson History of Rabelais
Machievelli The Prince
Cormac McCarthy The Road
Karl Marx The Communist Manifesto
John Milton Paradise Lost
V. Sackville West The Land
Tolstoy War & Peace

Granted, that's a lot of books. But, in my defense, it's 14 out 84, which means I've read 5/7, or over 70% of the total--which isn't bad, when you're talking a few thousand pages of reading. And do keep in mind that this 84 is a single shelf--there are four more. Like I said, it's basically it's own library.
At any rate, in the interest of improving the ratio further, I will read one book from this list--whichever book is most often suggested to me in the comments thread for this post. Predicted outcome: not a damn person comments, and I pick one myself.

But I'd have tried, so I'd feel better.
And by God, if it takes me hundreds, even thousands of hours, it'll all be worth it, just so I can show that undergraduate student I'll meet what I'm made of.

Later Days.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

"We are now, reader, arrived at the last stage of our long journey. As we have therefore travelled together through so many pages, let us behave to one another like fellow-travellers in a stage-coach, who have passed several days in the company of each other; and who, notwithstanding any bickerings or little animosities which may have occurred on the road, generally make all up at last, and mount, for the least time, into their vehicle with chearfulness and good-humour; since, after this one stage, it may possibly happen to us, as it commonly happens to them, never to meet more." --Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

I started reading Tom Jones last month, in my nine-hour stay at the Toronto airport terminal. (Why nine hours? Well, you know the little voice in your head that tells you that you should start a trip as early as possible in case something goes wrong? Well, sometimes, being as early as possible IS something wrong.) Sadly, it was NOT, as some may expect, the story of a Welsh-born crooner. Rather, Tom Jones is Henry Fielding's 18th century tour du force, a "history" (and more on that word choice later) of the foundling Tom Jones from his birth onwards. I'll be honest--I've read so much 18th century literature at this point of my scholarly career that I can't read a book such as this on its own terms, as either entertainment or moral instruction; instead, I'm approaching it as more of a cultural artifact. There's plenty to talk about on those grounds, so let's get started.

First, let's do an overview. The book is very, very long. Reading it felt like a marathon exercise, a struggle so epic that it doesn't compare to anything I've read since... since... well, since I read Infinite Jest last month. (Maybe I'll go for a "ridiculously long trifecta" and try another giant page turner in February. What should it be? War and Peace? Les Miserables? Atlas Shrugged? Write in with your suggestions!) Actually, the difference between the two, structurally, makes an interesting comparison. Infinite Jest didn't really have chapters; the book was divided into parts that ranged from a half dozen to twenty or so pages, often with paragraphs that overlapped multiple pages. Tom Jones is divided into 18 parts (called "books" by Fielding), each of which consists of ten or more chapters, which in turn are about 6 pages long. In other words, while Infinite Jest felt like an organic whole that I couldn't put down for long without losing the entire thread, Tom Jones was more of a regimented system that I could digest in chunks. The result, for better or for worse, is a less intense, but more structured reading experience.

Infinite Jest (and about six other books) happened in between starting and finishing Tom Jones, so I'm a little shaky on the early parts of the novel. As far as I can recollect, the book can be divided into three parts. In the first part, the characters and background are set up. Squire Allworthy (a classic example of 18th century subtlety in naming) decides to raise a bastard foundling alongside his sister's son, and to treat both as his own. The foundling, Tom Jones, grows up to be an exemplary young man, save that his passions sometimes overwhelm him. His foster brother, Master Blifil is the opposite--he's coldly calculating, but puts on the face of a dutiful relative when it suits him. Tom eventually falls in love with Sophia Western, the daughter of the neighbouring squire. However, said neighbouring squire gets it in his head that Sophia should marry Blifil. A series of unfortunate events lead Allworthy to assume Tom to be "no good," and he is soon kicked out of his childhood home and forced to make his way in the world. In the second part, he wanders through the English countryside, acquiring a loyal servant and supposed father in the form of Mr. Partridge. The duo eventually make their way to England in search of Sophia, who has fled there to avoid her impeding, unwilling nuptials. And in England, we have the third part of the novel. The two would-be lovers face a series of obstacles including ill-timed duels, potential suitors, willful relatives and a misplaced marriage proposal, but in the end, things turn out... well, largely as expected. (Spoiler Alert.)

Naturally, I'm glossing over a lot. 800 pages requires a fair bit of plot-jiggering on the writer's part. Since going over everything in detail would be rather exhausting, we'll go over a few of the issues I found particularly interesting: gender standards, exemplars, the use of letters, and the book sections' prefaces.

Let's start with the prefaces. Each of Fielding's 18 books start with what's essentially a nonfiction essay wherein Fielding waxes philosophically concerning some topic that, at best, is tangentially connected to the book's content, but usually corresponds nicely with his goals for the novel at large. Book 4, for example, starts with a justification for the use of ornament in writing; Book 9 begins with a description of the traits a writer should have under his belt before he is allowed to write a novel (He should, for the record, possess natural genius, book learning, and real-world experience). The essay chapters fulfill a number of different purposes. First, they explain what it means for a novel to be a history. A history carries with it an air of authenticity that comedies and dramas (according to Fielding, anyway)lack. And as it's supposedly based on the real world, it can serve as a source for proper didactic models. The prefaces also prove that Fielding fulfills his own definition of the ideal writer--they demonstrate his wit and learning, to an extent greater than the novel itself usually has opportunity. Finally, there were exactly two points in this book where I had a genuine, emotional reaction (besides frustration, anyway). The first I'll discuss in a moment with the novel's use of letters, but the second was during the quotation above. I had to admit, by the end of the novel, I agreed with Fielding; it's a little mawkish, but I felt like I had gone on a journey of sorts, with the narrator as a companion, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. The narrator of the book felt like a character in his own right by this point--better developed, in fact, than most of the characters in the actual novel proper. By that eighteenth hole, I was looking forward to the digressions almost more than the story.

Next up: the use of letters. I bring this up because it's an example of how media changes us. Throughout the novel, letters are basically the only way of communicating with someone not physically present. They're also a form of intimacy; a letter allows the gentleman and ladies of the novel to express themselves without having to worry about the formality of face-to-face conduct, or the difficulty of arranging a meeting. In essence, then, the writing of letters in Tom Jones is treated as a Romantic endeavor, with a capital R--it exists to further intrigue, or to make "exciting" plot revelations. And though it doesn't come up as often, it's also a clear indication of class--Sophia's maid servant, Honour (subtle naming again), sends Tom a letter at one point, and it's written in essentially the manner in which she speaks, only riddled with spelling errors; the implication is that writing, and the emotional tumults associated with it, are a privilege that only the upper-class and well-educated should practice. Incidentally, in terms of intimacy and romance, I think we still regard the written letter the same today. The difference is that it's also somewhat antiquated, and even quaint. We still have intimate person to person exchanges--in fact, we've got more methods of doing that than ever before, with phone-calls, texting, Skyping, emailing, instant messaging, and so forth. The difference is, as Virilio would point out, the speed. In the 18th century, you could send a letter, and the respondent could take hours to reply--perhaps even days. Now, with the possibility of near instant reply, the tenor and purpose of the message changes considerably. Crafting a long, involved message is still possible, but the expectations and meanings of that message shift greatly, especially in an online context (kind of like how no one wants to read a long convoluted blog po--ooooh).

I've got more to talk about, and the letters subject brings me to my favorite scene in the book, but a) the post is getting long, b) I left my copy of Tom Jones at the office, so I can't look the scene up, and c) after a week of essentially not posting, I feel like I should put up SOMETHING. So we'll make this part I, and I'll finish up at a later date.
Or should I say...
Later Days.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Brief Interruption

Sorry for the relative web silence this week; I've been working on a book review, but it's not quite ready yet.
In fact,I've spent most of today preparing for tomorrow's lecture on cluster criticism. So far, I've spent most of the time trying to think up a clever title. Result? "Cluster Criticism: Invisible Collage."
Genius. Sheer genius. More than worth that half hour of time.

Later Days.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Quotations: Ou est le bibliotheque?

Quand les routes à suivre sont brutalement indiquées par la combinaison des dés dispersés sur la table, on peut essayer d'atteindre le but placé aux extrêmes limites de l'imagination.
Evidemment, c'est le succès ou l'insuccès qui se poursuivent dans la nuit comme une réclame lumineuse à la porte d'un dancing.
La réussite comporte moins d'agréments spirituels que l'insuccès. La joie dans le premier case est de courte durée, car la popssession de ce que l'on espérait vouse mêle instantément aux foules prudentes et paisables.
Il n'en est pas de même dans le cas d'insuccès. L'insuccès apporte aux hommes de grandes joies permanentes qui accompagnent la durèe de leur existence. Car les regrets ont le goût doucereux des gommes stériles et parfumées que mâchent les hommes d'aciton importés d'Amérique, avec une notice eplicative. Les regrest sont doux et acidulés, parfois sucrés.
Ils possedent la qualité materiellé inusable de la gomme en ce sens qu'ils ne sont pas assimilables et qu'ils ne nourrissent pas ceux qui les ruminent.

--Pierre Mac Orlan, Manon La Souricière

Who has deux thumbs and is finally trying to study for his French equivalency language requirement? C'est moi!

Later Days.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Short And/Or Sweet

I know I said I'd do a long post today, but that was before I accidentally overslept three hours. (Remember how I said yesterday that I was trying to get up earlier? Guess how that's working out. Go on. Guess.) So in lieu of what was promised, here's something fast and easy.

For six--SIX!--straight days now, someone has recalled one of my library books on each days. If the books were all on the same subject, I'd have assumed someone or some class was doing a research project, but there's a huge variety: a book on variantology, a graphic novel, two books on video games, a DeLeuze book, and a first year textbook on rhetoric. So either someone's got a hold of my book list and I'm being subjected to an elaborate practical joke, or I'm victim of a bizarre, unlikely coincidence. ...All right, I do have 71 books out at the moment, which is... um... excessive. But still, it seems somewhat unlikely to have so many books recalled to a library that has thousands of the things lying around.
I have angered the library gods. And for that, a price must be paid.

Later Days.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

General Upkeep

I'll do a nice long post tomorrow, but for now, I'm going to try the "brevity is the soul of wit" approach and go for a 500 word limit.

--I’m teaching my first solo course this semester. It seems to be going all right so far—the students are very enthusiastic. Okay, that’s a bit much. They’re interested. Mildly interested. All right, one guy showed up for class and immediately slept for the next hour and a half. It’s a new class. They’ll learn. I won’t be discussing the class in any great detail here, though, for the same reason that I don’t blog about my research—it lacks a sort of professionalism, y’know? At the same time, I’m not going to pretend that this blog is particularly well hidden; if a student knows it exists and looks for it, he/she/it stands a good chance at being able to find it. So let’s make things interesting. To my students: the first of you to find this site, and email the word “hedgemuffin” to my university email account gets one bonus mark on the midterm test. First come, first serve.

--As part of the whole “I’m a real instructor now” theme of 2011, I’ve upped my wardrobe and my sleeping schedule. On the clothes front, I’ve always wanted to generally dress nicer, but there have been certain things holding me back: general cheapness; a intense, passionate hatred of trying on clothes in stores; utter and complete lack of style. But I’ve got my new X-Mas gear as outfit, a lovely grown-up winter coat with buttons and everything, and I think the new glasses really add some vim to the whole number. Excelsior! ...Sorry, I’ve been reading old Stan Lee press releases. They kind of seep into your brain. Anyway, I’ve also been getting up early—for a total of two days in a row. Considering I was averaging a wake-up time of around noon for most of last semester, it’s a big step. I really like early morning work at the university. It’s so much easier to work when those student things aren’t around.

--Random pop culture thing: I just purchased the DS game Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. The plot is classic sci-fi/horror: after years of pollution, humankind has ravaged the earth. The worst devastation is a strange, expanding hole that’s appeared in the Antarctic, that’s destroying everything in its path. I play a UN commando sent in as part of a large force to investigate. Things then go horribly wrong... The game follows the typical Shin Megami Tensei template (it’s a big series in Japan). You recruit demons, and unleash them in battle to fight for you. The difference between this game and others in the series, such as Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3, is that rather than play characters that unleash demons, you recruit the demons and they fight directly alongside you. The shift supports the game’s story directly, which is all about uneasy truces with Earth’s new demonic residents. It’s long, yet you can still play it while watching TV, which is, sadly, one of the big things I look for in a DS game.

That’s it. Later Days.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

"I am not sure whether you could call this abuse, but when I was (long ago) abroad in the world of dry men, I saw parents, usually upscale and educated and talented and functional and white, patient and loving and supportive and concerned and involved in their children's lives, profligate with compliments and diplomatic with constructive criticism, loquacious in their pronouncements of unconditional love for and approval of their children, conforming to every last jot/tittle in any conceivable definition of a good parent, I saw parents after unimpeachable parent who raised kids who were (a) emotionally retarded or (b) lethally self-indulgent or (c) chronically depressed or (d) borderline psychotic or (e) consumed with narcissistic self-loathing or (f) neurotically driven/addicted or (g) variously psychosomotically Disabled or (h) some conjunctive permutation of (a) ... (g)."

"And who could not love that special and leonine roar of a public toilet?"
--Infinite Jest by Davide Foster Wallace

Indulge me for a moment, and imagine that every experience one has with a story, or a work of fiction, or some sort of narrative can be described in terms of a journey--metaphor as vehicle, as Michel de Certeau would put it. (And by my trotting out a French theorist in the first paragraph, you can reliably extrapolate exactly what kind of review this one is going to be.) A thrilling page turner is a kayak through some rapids, a familiar poem is a contemplative walk through a favorite neighborhood, and the blog post is the rough equivalent of walking outside, coming to a complete stop, and staring blankly straight ahead a few moments before going back home, because you've forgotten what it is you wanted to do in the first place. At least, I feel my posts are often like that.

Under those terms, then, my reading of Infinite Jest is a pilgrimage. I made the first attempt to read the book about five years ago, when I was a baby-faced first year MA. Newly flush with my success over finishing House of Leaves--a 500+ tome in its own rights--I was eager to jump into another post-post-modern epic. I got about 50 pages in before the reality of grad classes set in, and reminded me that reading unassigned books is a luxury reserved for people who were capable of writing faster. Next year, I tried again, this time bolstered with the knowledge that I made it through the 600+ paged pre-post-modern juggernaut, Tristram Shandy. This time, I dented a whole 75 pages before calling it quits. A third attempt in a third year brought me up to 100. Given the total page count was approximately 1000, I would, at this pace, finish the book shortly before I acquired senior citizen status.

The problem was, with each new reading, I not only had to forge a new trail, but to repeat everything that came before it. Infinite Jest is not a book that can be read in installments. Every time I tried to pick up where I left off after a busy week, I found myself completely lost, and set it aside for another year. This year, however, I vowed things would be different. I had, as I've mentioned, my syllabus and dissertation proposal forwarded to the appropriate bodies, and I had some time for myself. So, I marshaled my forces, and, in between X-Mas preparations, pored through the volumes one more time. I went through the familiar landmarks: Hal's original disastrous interview, Gately's fatal burglary, the really, really intense marijuana scene. And I blazed onward into new grounds: the halfway house. The puppet show. The Eschaton, which may be one of my favorite scenes ever. And onward and beyond them, to the end, up to and including the extra 100 pages of endnotes. Somewhere along the way, I realized what kind of pilgrimage I was on. Essentially, all of my previous readings were the spatial equivalent of wandering up to the foot of Everest, and wistfully mouthing "some day," before going back into the cabin for some cocoa. This final reading was the climbing of the other thousands of feet, and coming to a stop at the pinnacle, wild-eyed, frost-bitten, and with fewer appendages than when I started, wondering who the hell's idea this was anyway, and what the hell is wrong with spending the holiday season watching Star Trek re-runs.

Sorry for the ridiculously long (and still unfolding) preamble, but how a person reads is, I think, absolutely essential to their understanding of what it was they were reading. And when you read something intensely for a long period of time, the book has a tendency to linger. I've noticed this tendency before; after Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, everything seemed like a quest; after a power read of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, everything was a little more confusing, but in a generally pleasant sort of way. I think this tendency most wrt my comp exams; after spending months in intense study, it wasn't just the ideas of the books that stayed with me, but their style, and cadence; for a lingering time after, I thought in the terms of an academic essay, picking everything apart, and marveling in a detached sort of way about the power of a REAL ideological apparatus. (In fact, that's probably the point of the process; sure, learning the ideas are important, but how would we ever know a scholar if she/he didn't sound like one?) What I'm saying, then, is that there's a haunting, lingering specter of Infinite Jest still present in my own thoughts--and particularly in my articulations--and I'm not sure exactly when, or if, it'll go away.

But the plot of the book. A tennis pro--James O. Incandenza--opens a teaching academy before turning towards film. His final work before he commits suicide is the movie "Infinite Jest," whose content is so thoroughly engrossing and addictive that anyone who watches it will continue to do so exclusively until they die. The book follows a variety of characters related to the master copy of this film and its creator, including his three sons, Orin, Mario, and Hal; a transvestite Unspecified Services man and his colleague/competitor, a Quebequois who is also a legless member of the League of Wheelchair Assassins, both searching for the "Infinite Jest" tape; and more than a few of the members of a halfway house nearby the original academy, in particular, its "manager," Gately. And it all begins long after Mr. Incandenza's suicide, with a "flashforward" to Hal having a mental breakdown during a college interview. The plot takes a long time to come together; it's not very clear until a few hundred pages in, which really didn't help my attempts to weld together a unified mental map of the story. It meanders at a very leisurely pace, and Wallace takes every opportunity to digress, whether on the page, or in the detailed endnotes, a single one of which can be a dozen pages long.

But the plot's really not what's at stake here. It's like a nail in the wall; it plays a necessary role and does it in a functional manner, but one's attention should really be on the picture it's supporting. Infinite Jest is not about its plot. If I had to reduce it to two things, I'd say it's about compulsions and addictions. Many, if not all, of the characters in the novel are addicted to something, and they've certainly all got their own compulsive actions. In fact, there's a passage where one character complains that if AA had its way, everyone would be labeled either an addict or a recovering one. His sponsor doesn't tell him he's wrong. AA itself isn't portrayed in a particularly positive light here, as more than one character notes its resemblance to a cult. But the same can be said of the tennis academy. Or Incandenza's films. Or the Entertainment industry itself. Or the FLQ's desire for vengeance. Or... You get the idea. These things aren't particularly portrayed in a negative light, either. Avril Incandenza, James' philandering wife and the boys' overwhelming mother, makes a big point out of never condemning or judging the boys' actions, and letting them come to their own decisions. It's as if the narrator of the book is taking the same approach, and portrays Mario (the mentally and physically disabled son) and his puppet show in the same light as the former addict who fills his own personal void by stalking and murdering alley cats. The irony of this nonjudgment, if that's what's going on, is that more than one character espouses that Avril's approach places a monstrous weight on her and her children; is Wallace placing that weight on the reader? (Answer at 568 pages in, at 3 am: YES.)

I could fill a book about other interesting elements of Infinite Jest(and a quick search of Google books tells me that some people already have). So I'll limit myself to three long ramble-style comments about three facets that I found particularly appealing or significant.

First, there's the observation relating the quotation above: bad parenting. Every addicted, obsessive person in this novel had a monstrous parent in one form or another. There's fathers that molest their sons, fathers that covet their daughters, mothers of enormous girth, mothers that seek out abusive relationships, mothers that drink themselves daily into oblivion. One of the more inventive cases (Gately's father, I think) starts watching M*A*S*H. That's it. He watches the new episode every week, and brooks no interruption. Then he starts watching the reruns. Then he switches to a VCR. Soon, he's quit his job, and frantically watching it all day, unable to talk about anything else for any length of time. It's one of Wallace's more obvert points: entertainment doesn't have to be "Infinite Jest" to become a compulsion. And looming behind all the parents are the leaders of the Incandenza clan, James and Avril, or Himself and the Moms, as their sons know them--one perpetually sunny, and one a suicide.

What does it mean, all these terrible parents? Well, on the surface, it appears that it means that there is Someone To Blame--these neurotic, addiction-prone children are forged in the crucibles of their parents' pressures. But it's not that simple--James and Avril are both subject to unhappy childhoods of their own. There doesn't seem to be anyone at fault; just people in pain.

It's a rather gloomy conclusion, really; so much of narrative fiction is about punishing the guilty, if not righting a wrong (or both). So let's turn from that, and consider the story in terms of its sci-fi. (I really wanted to do an in-depth analysis of Eschaton here, but alas, that would make this post a little too long, even by my standards. In short: it's like DEFCON, but played in person, and I would have been thrilled to read 1000 pages of nothing but it.) Now, readers may be somewhat confused at this point. More than usual, I mean. Besides from the Infinite Jest tape itself, I haven't really mentioned the sci-fi element of the book. But if the plot is the nail, then the sci-fi is... the frame, let's say, to stretch the analogy further, and the futuristic setting allows some of Wallace's most cutting satirical attacks on contemporary culture to shine through.

A quick word on the satire aspect. It was this side of the book that reminded me the most of another classic work of satire, Catch 22. Catch 22, for those who haven't read it, is a critical examination of the American side of things of the last days of World War II, the point where the Ally victory was inevitable, but soldiers knew they could still die in the mop-up stages. The enemy, then, ceases to be Nazi villains and becomes instead the relentless, plodding bureaucracy that forces the soldiers to stay there against their will. The satire is starts as fairly lighthearted--arbitrarily censoring letters home, going to brothels, and so forth. But there's a point in the book where the bodies of the main character's best friends start piling up, and the horrors stack up, one after the other, and the reader realizes that whatever levity was there is now gone; there's nothing left but the darkness. There's the same moment in Infinite Jest, but with one big difference: when you realize the full extent of just how dark the book is, you realize it was that way the whole time, that the laughter was always a bit hysterical--which, in its own way, is much worse than shifting into darkness gradually.

The main historical sci-fi difference is a change of political climate. As documented by Mario, a compulsive neat freak became President of the United States, and pushed forth an agenda of extreme cleanliness. What this meant was taking a large tract of the American Northeast, pouring all of the USA's waste, nuclear or otherwise, into the area, and succeeding the whole territory to Canada--experialism, whether Canada wants the waste dump or not. But rather than render the entire area barren, all the waste turns inward on itself, and turns the rest of the area into a superverdant valley of mutants--watch out for the feral hamster herds, in other words. The other historical change is (comparatively) more subtle; in this alternate world, the FLQ is much more active and much more violent, assassinating Canadian political leaders such as Jean Chretien and Lucien Bouchard. It's nice to see an American sci-fi novel even acknowledge Canada's existence, albeit in a rather "short end" of the stick kind of manner. But again, everything comes back to addictions and compulsions: the President's compulsion towards cleanliness, and the FLQ splinter group's, the Wheelchair Assassins, obsession with reclaiming their nation, and their pure absolute hatred of anything and anyone that gets in their way. (Some of the best scenes of the book feature an American secret agent/transvestite arguing with a Wheelchair Assassian double/triple agent over the viability of the American dream in the face of such obsession.)

Finally, I'd like to talk about the elephant in the blog post. Infinite Jest is, as you've heard ad nauseum at this point, a book about compulsion and addiction. And it's about what happens when you try to find a release for those items. The book presents many alternatives: a slide into madness, homicidal tendencies (okay, maybe that's a subset of the first one), and almost religious devotion to AA. But it also doesn't shy away from a permanent solution: suicide. And given that Wallace committed suicide himself in 2008 (and, in a further parallel, was apparently a tennis prodigy), it's tempting to read the characters' stance on suicide as Wallace's view on the subject. According to the reports I've read, Wallace was on anti-depressants for most of his life; his attempts to wean himself off the drug failed, and he found that when he returned to the drugs, they were no longer affective. And when the depression returned, there was nothing to stop it. That's how one of the character's in the book describes suicide: as a pain so great, that there is no price not worth paying to alleviate it, to stop it, just for a moment. If there's any condolence to be had, Wallace is now beyond whatever pain he was experiencing.

And on that less than uplifting note, I'll draw to a close. Infinite Jest is a complex, compelling, and even sometimes funny, book. It's also a very difficult book, one that will require intense commitment and attention to finish. It's a huge time investment. And when I finished it, I felt like the first year psychology major that thinks he/she has every disorder in the book; I was convinced that my own life operates under a half dozen compulsions of my own. And yet for all that, I think it was worth reading. If you've ever got the time and inclination, go ahead and tackle a monumental text like this--everyone needs a pilgrimage every now and then.

Later Days.

The Triumphant/Shameful Return

Alright, it's true that my hiatus has stretched out a bit longer than I originally intended. A week longer, in fact. And I am okay with that. Sure, it meant letting some events slide. Books that will never be reviewed. Events never recorded for posterity. Witticisms gone unchortled. And I was okay with all of that. But when I realized I was letting down my loyal readers--no, sorry, didn't really care about that either. Sorry, gang, but you're going to have to display more presence than a record of IP addresses to tug at the heartstrings of this jaded guitar. No, what got me to return was the realization I had missed a Friday Quotation. I have broken my great tradition, violated a convenent between blogger and blog. And for that, you all have my sincere apologies.
Oh, and it was going to be such a good one too. See, I had tracked down a rare, almost nonexistant copy of--ah, but the moment's passed. Next week? Perhaps. But for now... I'm back, blogging and open for business.

Later Days.