Infinite Jest #3

November 11, 2009

Alright, let’s talk teeth.  As you may have realized I stole the name of my blog from a title of James Incandenza’s films.  Fun with Teeth is about a dentist who “performs sixteen unanesthetized root-canal procedures on an academic he suspects of involvement with his wife,” (987).  Then we have Hal, whose has suffered from tooth pain through the book, finally having a removal by Dr. Zegarelli, (508, 526).  The dentist who has such terrible bad breath that you can smell it through his mask, which seems like a sign you might want to find a new dentist.  Then the dream Hal describes to Mario “I dreamed I was losing my teeth.  I dreamed that my teeth dry-rotted somehow into shale and splintered when I ate or spoke, and I was jettisoning fragments all over the place…” (770).  So what is the deal with the teeth?  Well I have a theory and it has to do with my obsession with Hal’s buddy Schacht.  Schacht has proven to handle the challenges and changes in his life with a level of maturity and Zen-like calm that eludes Hal.  Hal describes back on pg. 269-270, how Hal envies Schacht for his ability to accept the fact that he will never make it to the Show and is basically wasting his time at the Academy.  This fear, among many others, has fed Hal’s drug use.  And what profession has Schacht chosen to pursue instead, dentistry.  He even interns twice a week when not on tour.  My theory being that Hal has people in his life setting a positive example for him, demonstrating to him ways of behavior that he could be emulating.  He ignores all those, perhaps because of a possible depression or because of the drugs, and continues to make bad decisions.  Maybe Schacht is the anti-Hal or Hal without the traumatic childhood.  Okay it’s not a perfect theory, but then what do you think of the teeth?

Infinite Jest #2

November 4, 2009

If as the saying goes the devil’s in the details, then this particular section is its own circle of hell.  We begin by learning the basics of rehab and drug use.  We get a list of tattoos.  We follow the boys through their various tennis matches, and examine each one’s rankings and abilities.  Then the mother of all detailed sequences: Eschaton.  The description of this insanely complicated game (it can only be calculated using a computer program!) goes on for pages.  Why David Foster Wallace why?  It feels too easy to say that he is choosing to write in a way that is uncomfortable to a reader.  When a fictional story begins to read like a textbook or instructional manual the reader is jolted and must reorient themselves.  Sure it is a challenge, but it can also feel like an assault.  I have to look to the sections in between these endlessly detailed sections and find human nature pushing there way back into the novel.  The complicated game of Eschaton devolves into a violent fight between the students.  We are given a literal peek behind the curtains of the tennis matches to see the anxiety before a match.  As Gately begins to learn more about his residents they defy the “rules” that were previously established in the text.  Then Wallace is providing us with both the surface (bland numbers and complex rules) and the depth that connects the reader to the characters.  Why both?  It is going to sound awfully sensitive, but perhaps there is a deeper theme about communication emerging here.  How many problems could be solved and relationships improved if characters spoke to/confronted each other?  Instead of focusing on rankings, numbers, rules they could be confronting various characters about their drug use.  Hal could be dealing with his traumatic history etc.  They would rather play games then be honest with each other.  It is easier to give into your demons then to face them.

Exploratory Draft

October 28, 2009

In my exploratory draft I am trying to explore Wallace’s use of transvestism and homosexuality in the novel Infinite Jest.  The character of Steeply, our US agent dressed as a woman, is one prime example.  What does Wallace gain from making Steeply crossdress?  How does that connect to the other examples in the novel, Poor Tony, U.S.S. Millicent Kent’s father?  Wallace’s uses humor throughout the novel and my contention is that he is using transvestism as a source of comedy.  I see the fact that *Spoiler Alert* most of the characters believe Steeply is actually a woman as the kind of low-brow humor we see in Mrs. Doubtfire and Big Momma’s House.  He may be aiming for Shakespeare, but I clearly disagree.  Then the representation of transvestism through Poor Tony and Millicent Kent’s father is even more damaging.  Poor Tony’s situation only gets worse and worse.  Wallace’s attempts to write homosexual characters seem to veer to the sterotypically butch (Ann Kittenplan, Millicent Kent) or to sexual violence.  At times, the character and characterizations seem pointless.  At one point a homosexual character is introduced, he flashes back to being violated by his father, and then the character is never mentioned again.  Is the scene a sucker punch to the gut?  An easy shock?  That is the essence of what I am exploring.  I am hoping to include other writing by Wallace.  He examines sexual relationships and compulsions in a lot of his short stories.  Also, to perhaps include other white heterosexual male writers of his generation.  My hope would be his uses of sexuality are part of a trend amongst that select circle of writers.  That would be ideal.  Any suggestions/questions/directions?

 

Infinite Jest #1

October 21, 2009

I am amazed how much reading Infinite Jest reminds me of the experience of watching Lost.  The reader is dropped seemingly at the end of the story, and we do not know how we got there.  Instead of focusing solely on Hal we are introduced to many other characters whose importance we do not yet know.  Also, Wallace seems to leave little clues, clever winks to the reader, that can clarify or frustrate.  Now, reading this for the second time, I continue to find new access points to better understand the novel.  Or, attempt to understand the novel.  The names of the characters, as in Lost, may provide the reader with more knowledge.  On page 17 Hal is concerned about defeating Dymphna.  Dymphna (according to the great Wikipedia) is the patron saint of mental illness and nervous system disorders.  This is particularly relevant as Hal has been whisked away to yet another hospital.  We do not know his experience at the hospital, but instead we are given the story of Kate Gompert.  If this were Lost, Hal and Kate would pass each other in the hallway or something.  Infinite Jest differs from Lost in that the common experiences that are shared by the characters are not meant to shock or surprise, but instead to illuminate.  Hal is a part of many systems, his family, his academy, the drug community and he acts against them in both obvious and unique ways.  He was raised to believe that he was exceptional, and is now finding that to be less true.  He can be defeated.  Infinite Jest taps into that common lie that parents often tell their children, that you are special and can grow up to be anything you want to be if you work hard enough, and shakes it apart.  The novel points out that there are great forces in the world influencing decisions from the government to your own father.  These forces can lead you to a tennis academy or to a life of crime.

Dr. Horrible

October 13, 2009

Dr. Horrible gives us some interesting representations of masculinity through the production.  Dr.  Horrible is the emasculated wimpy villain who can barely speak to the woman with whom he claims to be in love.  Instead he tries to impress her and us with his guns.  His nemisis, Captain Hammer, on the other hand, is the exaggerated macho superhero who is able to impress Penny with his (sort of ) heroics.  Dr. Horrible reacts by singing and posting his frustration on his blog rather than confronting Hammer.  The doctor demonstrates a real naivete, and immaturity, to the male/female relationship as he stews over the fact that Penny and Hammer are “probably going to French kiss or something.”  He is given the opportunity to fight for Penny at the laundromat, but instead cowers away from Hammer.  He allows himself to fall into the role of sympathetic friend sharing fro-yo over the spin cycle.  Meanwhile, Hammer demonstrates his dominance and alpha maleness through his threats to Horrible and by even describing his own “hammer.”  How does Horrible respond?  First by imagining himself as a giant and crushing Hammer.  Then, by whipping out an even bigger gun and threatening Hammer’s audience with it.  It is through this fight over the gun that Penny, the person they are supposedly fighting over, is pierced with shrapnel from the gun.  The shrapnel also hurts Hammer who becomes infantilized begging for his mommy or “someone maternal.”  He is shown later speaking to a therapist and has been emasculated.  Horrible achieves everything he has wanted, demonstrating strength and power at the end but is still the same sad, pathetic figure he was from the start.

Lost

October 7, 2009

What sets Lost apart from so many television shows, well one of the things that sets it apart, is its use of flashback to provide the audience background on a character that the other characters never have access to.  Yet, it is never clear if the characters are recalling these events at the time they are presented to the audience.  Perhaps these survivors are so tormented that they often recall their past mistakes.  It appears that everyone on that plane had a pretty dark past, and all of them, had a opportunity to start over.  This is most obviously true for Kate who is revealed to be a criminal although for much of the season it is unclear what she did.  However through flashbacks we see that Locke gained the most from the do-over of the island.  How did he regain the use of his legs?  This brings us to the mysteries of the island itself, and how it exists as its own character.  It even has it own dark history, according to Rousseau.  Perhaps the island brought the people there to allow it its own restart.

Blog Post #3: What’s your sign?

September 23, 2009

David Fincher’s background as a commerical and music video director has always influenced his films.  All of his previous films contain a visual style , a gloss, a layer of cool.  In Zodiac he seems to have taken a different more straight-forward and academic approach.  Compare the murders in this film to the ones presented in Seven.  In Zodiac the crimes take a back seat to the investigation.  The goal is singular, to catch this guy.  However the man himself, the Zodiac killer, is really a minor character.  He is presented through letters and phone calls.  The main suspect is introduced fairly late in the film.  Then our impression of the Zodiac is filtered through the laid-back crime reporter and the boy scout cartoonist.  Both seem to revel in this opportunity to solve puzzles and tell the story of this infamous man.  Indeed it is the telling of the story of the Zodiac that consumes the characters.  Graysmith is attempting to write a book about the crimes, albeit it one with a rather unsatisfying ending.  He gathers evidence, interviews witnesses and takes copious notes.  The film refuses to diverge from the timeline, hitting all the highlights in the story.  I found the film pretty boring, but honest.  Fincher insists on presenting these real-life men as regular guys just trying to do their jobs.  I am struck again as I have been with every text we have looked at thus far, at how much emphasis is placed on those that tell the stories as opposed to those that lived the story.  I realize that it would be impossible and completely unrealistic to tell the story of the Zodiac from the perspective of the killer.  However, is there value in telling the story of the educated guess of a cartoonist as to the identity of that killer?  In my opinion Fincher’s focus on the ordinary both visually, the starkness of the Chronicle’s newsroom etc., and narratively affected the dramatic weight of the film.

Blog Post #2: The Uses of Enchantment

September 16, 2009

One of the themes of the novel is identity.  Identity, as it exists in the novel, is a malleable thing that can be manipulated and recreated.  Many of the characters take on different personas and in some cases they literally impersonate others.  Mary’s mother pretends to be her sister Helen in order to deceive Mary’s doctor, but also to avoid potential humiliation.  Late in the novel, we are treated to two important figures in Mary’s life (her mother and her doctor) both misrepresenting themselves at a fundraiser.  Mary feels forced to pretend she is someone else, someone more complex, more adult in order to gain and keep the attention of those around her.  She does not have that label that her sisters have.  Regina, “the poet” and Gaby, “the athlete,” overshadow Mary, “the unexceptional.”  Desperate for an identity of her own, she settles for Mary “the liar” and accepts this role for much of her life.  It is only with the death of her mother that she is forced to confront the damage that she has done to herself and those around her.  The complexity of the narratives make this a difficult confrontation for her.  How much responsibility should be placed on her mother, who was unable to communicate real feelings with her children?  On her various doctors, who used her for their own future success?  On her “abductor” who shouldn’t have let her in his car in the first place?  Julavits does not provide an easy answer for any of these questions.  All the characters are struggling with their own identity crises and are unable to recognize this in others.  Julavits captures something that is rarely discussed among adults.  While many people like to stress the importance of just being oneself so much time of our time is spent adjusting who we are for the benefit of others.  As students we have a specific classroom persona, with our friends another, with our family another and so on.  The eternal question (who am I?), that Mary is grappling with at sixteen and at thirty will continue throughout her life and can not be resolved.

Blog Post #1: Oscar Wao

September 9, 2009

Whew!  What an intense read!  Junot Diaz brings together so many narratives, references, and voices at times it reminded me of living in New York City.  Just walking down the street and hearing so many accents, languages, slang throw together and able to function together cohesively.  I wondered if he was trying to reflect his own cultural upbringing (Dominican Republic to New Jersey wow).  It would create a pretty distinct voice.  As the book traces the violent history of the DR, I wondered if we were reading the story of the ultimate culture clash.  No matter how hard you try to outrun your heritage with fantasies and role playing games you can always be pulled back into it.  Beli tried to literally escape her past, but watched as her son was seduced and destroyed by it.  Whether that is a fuku or just the natural order of things (many desire to run away like Lola, and most of us never get very far, again like Lola). 

What about our narrator, Yunior?  Where does he fit into this?  He has total control of the narrative of the novel and yet he seems so distant from so much of it.  The information he is providing is mostly second-hand, about events he has not seen.  He can not be completely trusted, nor can his account of the actions of the novel be trusted.  Then he is just a storyteller, a fantastic storyteller, but still…I believe his control to be a negative that many of the characters would fight against.  So much of the novel is about breaking free from cruel regimes and yet the cruelest may be when one controls the narrative of a history that is not their own.  Dictators rewrite history to suit themselves, don’t they?

Reflective Essay

August 22, 2009

    I love a good mystery.  Well, to be honest I love secrets, gossip and eavesdropping on others’ conversations. If I think you are keeping something from me, I make it my mission to find it out.  As an adult these are not good qualities and are probably a sign that my own life is pretty dull.  As a reader of Infinite Jest, these bad habits really came in handy.  The text is dense with hidden connections between characters, explicit and subtle.  You have to read very closely and remember little details that pay off hundreds of pages later.  It raises dozens of questions as it is being read, and only answers half of them.  By the end of the novel, I began to realize that David Foster Wallace is not attempting to firmly answer anything.  He is merely posing questions and using the text to work out an understanding for himself and the reader.

 “Are we not all of us fanatics?  Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care.”

    Marathe poses this question to Steeply on page 107 and it speaks to one of the larger themes of the novel.  Every major character is fanatical about something.  It could be tennis, sex, film, or sobriety.  While following their passion, they are also trying to make sense of it.  Many of my best reading experiences have been those that force/allow me to look at my life in a new way.  The author is able to put into words what I have been struggling to understand.  Perhaps I interpret the text to imagine a connection to my own experience.  I struggled with this question.  What, in fact, was my own temple of fanaticism?  What if I don’t have one?  Am I lacking something?   

 “Make amusement all you wish.  But choose with care.  You are what you love.  No?  You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.” – pg. 107

    What would I die for without thinking twice about it?  The characters in the novel have so much to care about; there lives seem so full and rich.  Even the folks in the Ennet House have such compelling histories and inner lives.  As a writer, I have often thought that my soft upper-middle-class-suburban-white upbringing may have deprived me of a certain edge.  It is a mistake to believe that you must suffer for your art, but you have to admit there are some famous examples to the contrary.  I have never been to rehab or prison or a mental institution of any kind.  The content of the novel lead me to consider David Foster Wallace’s own history and how much of his life informs his work.  

   There are characters that exist outside the tragic and traumatic circumstances of the others.  Teddy Schacht was of great interest to me throughout the novel.  He is an extremely well-adjusted teenager.  He has decided due to illness and injury to forsake the dream of tennis stardom and instead pursue a realistic goal of dentistry.  Now he plays for the sport of it, not the competition.  Hal describes him as being nicer now than he was before the injury.  He could easily have turned to drugs at the loss of his potential, but he didn’t.  His strong mental state is proved by his closeness to Schtitt.  I am so envious of him.  As a teenager I suffered from anxiety and depression and could barely speak to my classmates.  Even now, I am far away from the kind of emotional maturity that Schacht exhibits.  If Hal had followed Schacht’s example might his circumstances have changed?  Is there anything or anyone that can reverse the psychotic depression described in the novel?    

 “It is a level of psychic pain…It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil…It is a nausea of the cells and soul. 

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed.” – 695-696

    As a reader I have found very few books that are able to accurately describe the feeling of depression beyond the usual clichés.  In the memoir genre there are some, I found Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel particularly honest, but in fiction they are rare.  This is why I found David Foster Wallace’s words so frighteningly accurate and impressive.  He seems to have a deep understanding of sadness, depression, and anhedonia.  As a writer I have never been able to put my own experience with the disease into proper language.  Hal struggles to contain something within himself that is out of his control.  There is no cure and untreated there is really only one conclusion.  Hal’s experiences pulled me in as they were so different, but so similar to my own.  I understood his pain if that makes any sense and rooted for him to improve.  This is why when others called his behavior a breakthrough I saw a breaking down. 

    There is no way to be sure.  The novel ends without giving the reader a definite answer for his behavior at the beginning.  I am not giving up.  I am convinced that the explanation is in there somewhere.  Perhaps there are more clues in the endnotes, or in a flashback.   Unfortunately even I find an answer I can accept it may just be one of many possible solutions.  As David Foster Wallace was sure to know, in math it is not finding the correct answer that matters.  It is more important that you show your work.