Thursday, May 17, 2007

Infinite Jest: How David Foster Wallace Has Failed Me and Why It Doesn’t Matter

I find myself with a unique perception of Infinite Jest and the experience we have all gone through due to the simple fact that I hail from a culture and mentality crucially different from that of David Foster Wallace's intended audience. (This digression is important for my preception of the merits of the book later on to make sense.) The crucial difference[1] between easternly and westernly culture (w/r/t the Iron Curtain[2]) lies in that the former is fundamentally empathetic, whereas the latter is fundamentally sympathetic. Despite the two words having similar connotations, their denotative meaning is notably distinct: to empathize is to understand and share the feelings of another[3], while to sympathize is to feel pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune[4]. Thus, easterly sensibilities, which I posses due to spending the first sixteen years of my life in Bulgaria[5], have molded me to expect and seek in art an emotional evocation of introspectively cathartic properties. Westernly sensibilities, on the other hand, dictate a certain emotional detachment[6] which burdens all artists with the American public as their target audience since any depiction of true-to-life emotional breakdown is easily mistaken for pretentiousness and is thus ineffective.

The target audience of Infinite Jest is precisely the American public and David Foster Wallace carries the burden described. Consequently, he is never able to satiate my desire for emotional catharsis as he is never able to build up emotions to the necessary level to begin with. Instead, Infinite Jest is a masterfully written[7] but paradoxically cold and detached treatise on the theme of human communication.

That one of Infinite Jest’s themes is human communication is immediately apparent, but that it is the primary one is not. The book is manifold in its aspects and all of them I claim deal directly with the breakdown of human interaction. There is the Incandenza family, within where Mario[8] is the only one able to converse. Avril is the founder of the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, which founding is an act that implies Avril has an impeccable control of language. Ironically, she is compulsively determined not to impose on her children, not to betray any form of personal sentiment that would be potentially binding. This desire is an honest one, as described by James Himself through the Mother Death mythos in Infinite Jest (V), but because of her ambiguous at best approach has inspired exactly the opposite. Hal feels as if all of his actions need to conform to her explicitly non-established expectations of The Moms, which near subliminally burdens him. Orin in turn sees this as a subversive, outright evil parenting technique which coupled with Avril’s various other compulsions (dread of enclosed spaces, overhead lighting, love for plants, and tendency adultery inclinations) force Orin to consciously demonize her. Hence, he has broken off all contact with her while his life has become an incredibly weird reenvisioning of Oedipus’ complex. Orin, as well as Hal, are both unappreciative of James’ apparent recession, which recession was, judging from the nature of his movies, due to an inability to communicate on any standard level with his children or wife. The primary reason he established ETA was to foster a higher understanding of tennis within specifically his prodigal children, but in a much more efficient manner than the way his father before him had attempted to. Then, he immediately moved over to film because he observed(and James was very observant) a scary regression in Hal’s abilities to express thoughts(despite that Hal was mowing through the OED), which needed to be acted upon right now as opposed to the long-term plan of the Tennis Academy. Finally, Hal Incandenza is for the most part of the book a self-described empty, devoid of substance character, whose most glorious moment in terms of spiritual richness is the epilogue first portion during Year of Glad. In that portion, Hal’s inability to communicate has inverted as he now seems to not be able to communicate externally when he actually does internally, as opposed to preceding times when he appeared much conversational but felt empty inside. Curiously, that is also James’ perception of Hal literalized, but given James’ purpose with Infinite Jest (V) to awaken interest in Hal and the film’s paralyzing effect, it seems James’ perception was as well inverted.

Then there is ONAN, interdependence and Quebecois Separatism, whose primary reason is again the breakdown of communication, this time on an international, intercultural level. Outside the philosophical tones of Marathe’s & Steeply’s discussions, the mode of operations of the A.F.R. and the Gentle administration, these portions of the book serve to illustrate how not only are Quebecois and USA culture vastly different, but that discourse between the two cannot lead to holistic mutual understanding, despite existent mutual understanding of the concrete ideas. Furthermore, notice how, even though distorted by Mario’s puppet show interpretation, Gentle is figurehead of ONAN and so there has never been direct feedback from the administration to the public. This is also present in the discussion regarding the warning video regarding the Entertainment, which discussion is focused on effective relation of information based on pure analytics, which is similar to the current video’s contrast to previous educational videos. Simultaneously, Tine Sr. and Tine Jr. are at near-row point while Mr. Yee epileptically faints and needs to not have that relayed to him.

Then there is ETA, which is grounds for a silent power struggle between players and instructors, while Schitt’s theory and Lyle’s esoteric psychology are drilled little by little into the heads of the students. The academic virtues of the school are dubious at best, given the hilarious description of the various elective programs run by the coaches. So then, the primary purpose of the academy is clearly a holistic education through the means of tennis, while everything else exists due to the anti-confluential quirkiness of founder James Incandenza. The various traditions at ETA are notable for the fact that while they are bonding and build a sense of community (Escathon, Tunneling, Interdependence Day videos, Big Buddies) the communication is left at a level just before any actual personal interfacing. As a result, everything non-tennis related is artificially formalized, as James expected students to achieve enlightenment through the spiritual implications of plateau-hopping.

Finally, there’s Don Gately and the Ennet House Residents, all of whom are necessarily the addicts. Notably, from the first description of the nature of addiction (Erdedy’s breakdown), a primary motif is the purposeful isolation from every other human being. Substances replace human contact, which to the addicts in order for all of them to have started has been missing to begin with. Such is the case with Gately, Kate Grompert, Hal Incandenza, Randy Lenz, Poor Tony Krause and the rest: they are all acutely and destructively alone in their lives, unable to interface properly with anyone. It is no wonder that Joelle van Dyne and Don Gately’s love subplot has them for each other a driving force, as together they cease to be alone. Regarding Joelle van Dyne, notice that her relationship with Orin, Himself and then her Radio Show all were various expressions of an inability to communicate, a fundamental lack of understanding in how to convey and reach out others. The Madame Psychosis segments are important in this regard, as while they are considered incredibly ant-confluential by most, Mario is able to correctly gauge their sadness and actively empathize. Gately functions also as a canvas for the ideas of AA to be presented. AA in fact is focused on exactly communication, on Identifying, which is exactly the reason it works. AA breaks down the barriers between people and allows them to relate, to express their pains, however contrived. This is not surprising as AA is anti-substance, anti-anti-people thus.

In my perception then, the breakdown of communication is what the book is ultimately about[9]. But the book is even more than that because of the awesome style David Foster Wallace uses throughout. The first 400 pages contain the largest range of diction I have ever read, while the lateral 600 contain what is essentially a streamlined version of the first 400’s style. Still though, the read was incredibly enjoyable because David Foster Wallace really knows how to actually write and has an admirable mastery of the English language (unlike the peasant Palahniuk). However, this streamlining of the style did disappoint me as it made the initial sections seem as personal experiments. And so the novel does not have a holistic idiosyncratic direction that would maintain my fascination in terms of form.

The largest flaw of the book though is its cold portrayal of everything. Despite the incredibly personal subject matter DFW deals with and the often times gross and extreme acts he depicts, he remains a certain distance away, a distance maintained by the overwhelming style he uses throughout. I recognize that the book is in fact meant as a satire and social commentary but its nearly self-conscious irony of both style and content simply does not allow DFW to work on a subtle emotional level in a powerfully evocative way. If he did, the tragic circumstances of most characters would seem, to the average American reader(who is his audience[10], much more of a farce because the average American’s westernly sensibilities do not tolerate raw emotions. I, on the other hand do, and thus feel that David Foster Wallace has failed me as all these cathartic moments are hinted at, but are never investigated fully. This is perfectly acceptable for the genre of satire and comedy he has aimed for, but then I wish for him not to have written in that genre. This too, however, doesn’t matter because as a satire and comedy, Infinite Jest works really well and the tints of emotive catharsis are only bonus points. A third however, however, the information a satire or comedy communicates is information that could easily be gotten from any dry encyclopedic text; the genre envelope only provides for an entertaining read. Thus, the value of Infinite Jest as a work of art to me, personally, is ultimately and unfortunately, low.

[1] (as I have perceived and interpreted)
[2] This seperation actually dates back like two thousand years back to the cultural differences between Slavs and Anglo-Saxons/Germans/Celts/whatever peoples in Western Europe at the time
[5] Former USSR Satellite country originally founded in 681 by a composition of Slavs and the semi-nomadic Bulgar tribes who had gradually migrated from central Asia
[6] Which my mother has summarized in that a title for her observations of American life would be “America: At Arms Length”
[7] (for the most part)
[8] Mario is the single spiritually and emotionally pure character in the whole book, I maintain
[9] This is unfortunately a very general statement as conflict arises from the interaction between people and interpersonal actions imply some form of communication.
[10] Infinite Jest is a national bestseller: a fact I find difficult to wrap my head around


Blogger Cory said...

Wow, Vlad, we have really similar blog posts.

I'd disagree with you in terms of Americans preferring detachment, though. I'm sure there are differences, but I'm not sure I'd agree that most books Americans read are like IJ in terms of their removal. ::shrug::

5/17/2007 12:52 AM  

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