Sunday, April 28, 2013

Infinite Jest: The Future is Now

Infinite Jest brings to mind the Irish saying, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan?"  No novel published in the past 20 years has attracted more analysis than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  As I spent the past two months reading the 1000+ book, I've listened to several interviews with Wallace.  He's always so self deprecating, polite, and interested in what the interviewer has to say. He was a master of deflecting questions by always relating them to his own experience without ever really addressing the question directly.  Wallace saw and processed so much in a world where people are so strange, sad, isolated, hilarious, heroic, petty, and full of so much curiosity, loss, and regret over history.  Yes, reading Infinite Jest feels like victory; albeit, a victory more akin to Austerlitz than Waterloo.

Honestly, I believe the novel is at least four scrunched into one.  All the plot lines do intersect at the end - or so I've been told The ending lacks the satisfaction one finds in Ulysses or most literature, but maybe that's the point.  In a first reading I won't even try to venture a theory.  I will say the final 150 pages the descends into one anti-climax after another.  Wallace takes the reader into the darkness of an imagination thriving on the banality of existence in modern America.  

Addiction and entertainment. In a narrow those are the penultimate themes in the novel.  Set at some point in an early 21st century where everyone lives for getting the entertainment.  Most of Infinite Jest takes place at various locations in Boston. One is a tennis academy for prodigies.  The other is a halfway house for recovering addicts.  Life at both places is highly structured to provide assurance for people in highly sensitive situations.  Hal Incandenza is the protagonist, the seventeen year old son of the deceased founder of the academy, who is in a constant state of anxiety.  Hal carries the world on his shoulders and smokes large quantities of pot.  At the halfway house the patients have every part of their daily routine under surveillance as they struggle to imagine life without drugs. The halfway house is the place where the American dream is not only broken, but squashed into goo.  Wallace writes about addiction in such a terrifyingly realistic way and with such virtuosity that one gets a visceral sense of its corrosive aftermath.  But the writing goes beyond mere accounting of addiction and into insights on the human condition, namely, the conflict within the human heart.  What happens when our pleasure outlets no longer satisfy?  How much do we need to escape from reality?  The void awaits . . .   Sometimes these dilemmas, as Wallace presents them, feel insurmountable. And then maybe there lies a faint hope.

The plot of Infinite Jest revolves around entertainment discs ( a precursor to DVD's) where any sort of film is available on demand. One such film causes so much pleasure for the viewer it will literally kill them. Today millions of people are addicted to the internet and its endless opportunities for pleasure.  What does it all mean? Where do we go from here?  Wallace was obsessed with boredom in a world where so many luxuries are available while the need for anti-depressants keeps rising at time when so much entertainment is available.  

The geopolitical situation of Wallace's 21st century plays like a comic tragedy.   America has formed a union with Canada and Mexico, most of New York state is a landfill and angry Canadians plot war with the United States.  Vague references are made to massive population shifts, civil unrest, and economic catastrophe.  A renegade group of Quebec terrorists plan on using the film to alter the geopolitical balance.  The American president, Johnny Gentle, is combination of Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, and other oddities in the landscape of American celebrity.  

At the forefront of, is the saga of the Incandenza family.  Hal, the tennis prodigy, is the youngest son of James Incandenza, an avant guard filmmaker  (the footnotes contain a ten page filmography).  Hal has two older brothers as well: Orin and Mario.  Orin is a punter in the NFL who has an obsession with insects and single moms.  Mario is kindly, eternally optimistic, and Hal's conscience.  Their mysterious mother is headmaster the tennis academy.  All are in various stages of grief after the patriarch James took his own life; they are also in need of something they cannot quite define.  Themes of longing are juxtaposed with wrenching passages on the dread of loneliness:

Even when alone, able to uncurl alone and sit slowly up and wring out the sheet and go to the bathroom, these darkest mornings start days that Orin can't even bring himself for hours to think how he'll get through the day.  These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light - the soul's uncertainty that the day will not have to be traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer (p.46). 

Struggles to make connections haunt all the characters as they ricochet like atoms off each other.  In Wallace's dialogue the characters tend to talk not at, but, past each other. 

The novel is made accessible with all the its pop culture references. The 1980s TV shows Cheers and Hill Street Blues are reassessed among other things.  One character devotes his entire life to watching reruns of MASH.  Relationships with media, TV shows specifically, can, for many, be more meaningful than real world relationships.  That's a conflict any American living in the 21st century must face whether they are aware or not.  All are in danger of being trapped in Plato's cave, only now it's in the form of screens representing reality.  But back to my first point, some predict the end of literature as an art form in the digital age.  However,  If good books are written - people will read them. 

What did I get from reading Infinite Jest?  For starters, I know it's made me a better reader.  It took me about 200 pages to get comfortable with Wallace's writing style.  After a while I felt like I was absorbing the prose instead of reading it.  The effect is cinematic because the text overwhelms
with so many images, almost like a collage at times, that it felt akin to watching a fast paced action film on another level entirely   Paragraphs come in large clumps going on for multiple pages.  My favorite section is about a role playing game called Eschaton;  a game simulating nuclear war on a tennis court. The book also triggered an interest in math (my least favorite subject) and the idea of it being a secret language and a skeleton key into philosophical thought.  Mathematics is the antithesis of the fragmented mindset perpetuated by a mass media driven age.  And the book demands rereading after rereading because despite all its intricate wording, fractured plotting, and shifting perspective Infinite Jest is an immensely entertaining and consistently thought provoking read.  Wallace delivers a rhetorical beating to the reader, not as a disavowal, but a plea to wake up and try to see hope within the white noise of the 21st century.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Midcult and the 21st century

 Post-war USA saw the predominance of mass culture with the rise of television, rock and roll, bestselling books, self-conscious consumerism, pop heroes, pop art, and pop stars.  Mass culture, designed as a one size fits all entertainment to reach the widest possible audience.  Elite culture went into retreat.  I read Dwight MacDonald's seminal essay, "Masscult and Midcult." The essay, which appeared in 1960 in the New Yorker, lashed out at middlebrow art. While low art always existed throughout Western history in the form of folk art; the new midcults took high art and transmogrified it in a way to reach the masses.  Basically, MacDonald argued midcult cheated its audience.  For example instead of reading Romeo and Juliet, one could watch a massively popular Broadway show like West Side Story.  For MacDonald, such artistic endeavors cheapened literature because it had the pretension to masquerade as high culture.  Yes, I suppose it's fair to call to MacDonald a snobbish elitist, but his ideas are are an intriguing mix of stodginess and prophecy.

Building upon the work of the Frankfurt School's Marxist critque of the show business industry, MacDonald used Ernest Hemingway's career as a case study.  In his early writings, Hemingway mastered the short story while living as an ex-patriot in Paris under the strong influence of modernists Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.  MacDonald cited "The Defeated" as a masterful examination of mortality with the story's painstaking attention to character development through detailed descriptions of mood.  In 1953, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea and later the Nobel Prize.  MacDonald crticized the novel as a sellout to the middlebrows with its "pseudo-biblical" language and overtly broad characterizations.  The nuance of Hemingway's early work gave way to a need to write something the "masses" would read and consider literature.  Thornton Wilder's Our Town is another target.  Wilder, who's play is about the passing of time in small town America with all its folksy wisdom.  Once again, instead taking on issues of mortality and the real problem of economic equality, Our Town, side steps the issues in favor of bland sentimentality.
High and Low Culture Merge

Ideas raised in "Midcult" seem partly from another era, but strangely prophetic.  By the late 1960s, the whole "middlebrow" system broke down.  Intellectuals started taking rock music seriously. The London Times declared the release of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart's Club Band  a decisive moment in Western Civilization. College kids couldn't get enough of Marvel Comics brand of complex superheroes the Fantastic Four and Spiderman (one fan was Italian filmmaker Fellini once visited Marvel headquarters).  Pop culture began to envelop high culture.  MacDonald insisted a democracy must insist on the highest standards of art and never settle for quick, easy solutions.  By essay's end he envisions a revolt of the artists who aspire to high art will find their esprit de corps and set themselves off from society.

 Mad Men, which many consider the finest fiction writing anywhere these days, shows the possibilities of good TV.  Long running dramas like The Sopranos unfolded like a novel with complex character developments, subplots, and ambitious themes.  Mad Men is set in the 1960s; a time when mass media exploded on television.  In a brilliant fifth season episode, ad man Don Draper and colleague attend a Rolling Stones concert and witness the powerful combination of rock and roll and youth culture; a young fan tells Draper, "you guys are jealous because you never had any fun."  Both are enthralled with the energy or the Stones, but also see them as a marketing tool.  The irony, however, is Madison Avenue now uses anything considered hip and revolutionary as a marketing tool.  Outbursts of personal expression fall under the spell of mass media.  One time revolutionary bands of the past now sell their songs to monolithic corporations. A recurring theme in Mad Men is the struggle for individual identity in an increasingly homogenized world. I would speculate that Macdonald would be a fan of Mad Men because of its realistic engagement with 20th century America.

MacDonald predicted the fragmentation of culture in his essay. As audience tastes become more and more diverse he hoped the middlebrow impulse would go away, and he predicted, "perhaps one would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing."  But today, with so much entertainment out there; consumers know some of is good for them and some serves as time filler.  Currently, I'm in the process of reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The addictive nature of mass media is central to the novel.  In the bleak 21st century of of Infinite Jest, the West is controlled by corporations (corporate sponsorship replaces the Gregorian calendar), people thirst for non-stop entertainment available at a moment's notice.  The catchphrase, "getting the entertainment"  takes on many meanings in the Jest.  Personal relationships are dissonant.  Is isolation the price we pay? Champions of middlebrow maintain art aimed at the masses can have a transcending (or cosmic) effect.  MacDonald scoffed at the notion; he imagines great art usually comes from alienation and isolation.  Are such distinctions still necessary?  Does the question still matter?  

The passing of Roger Ebert is significant here as well.  Ebert wrote about every type of movie. Campy classics or obscure b-movies had a place beside the films of Antonioni or Bergman.  Ebert's Midwestern background had a strain of anti-elitism combined with an open mindedness towards art films made to challenge or even provoke its audience.  MacDonald himself wrote film criticism in a recognition of film's ability to weave between levels of expression.  Nevertheless, over 50 years later the idea of Midcult still has an edge and a point of view to ponder.