Monthly Archives: June 2009

A meditation upon ‘Infinite Jest’

This is a guest post by my son, Tom Gilbert, a college sophomore majoring in philosophy.

David Foster Wallace expressed dissatisfaction with the reviews for his ambitious  Infinite Jest. The 1,104-page book is so expansive that any attempt at a plot synopsis is useless; any sweeping thematic summation seems to feel reductive.  However, the novel’s polyphonic structure and character voices are illuminating in its discussion.

The novel bears numerous similarities to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in its character relationships.  Infinite Jest3Instead of Fyodor we have possibly the most disturbing matriarch in fiction.  Each of the Karamazovs had a different mother; here (possibly) it is different fathers.  But Wallace’s book lacks the central engine of Dostoyevsky’s: instead of Dmitri’s passionate hatred and rivalry with his father over a woman, Orin simply became estranged from his father.  Likewise, the naïve and religious Alyosha of Dostoyevsky’s novel is replaced with Mario Incandenza, an ambiguously deformed and slow-minded teenager with a passion for filmmaking.  Finally, Hal is essentially Ivan minus the philosophical ebullience and plus a substance abuse problem.  I am tempted to conclude that Wallace is trying to say something about modern life, that we have the freedom now to cut off our connections with humanity when they become too painful; modern life encourages self-fulfillment in the worst possible way.

But Wallace is not merely trying to capitalize on Dostoyevsky’s archetypes by affecting a postmodern setting for them to frolic in.  Their motivations have become completely twisted.  Orin shares Dmitri’s passion for women but not his passion for living—his life consists entirely of seducing women.  Mario, like Alyosha, is the only character able to break outside the dysfunction of his family, but he remains oblivious to the pain they are experiencing.  His spiritual transcendence does not necessitate emotional maturity, awareness, or even compassion. And Hal instigates no action throughout the course of the novel.

Karamazov is explicitly mentioned once in Infinite Jest, when the narrator refers to its philosophical conundrums as a “carcinogen.”  The primary difference between the two novels is that where Dostoyevsky’s characters passionately aim their pistols directly at each others’ temples, Wallace’s would rather shoot into the air or into themselves.  The immediate effect of this on the reader is the formation of a narrative that is at best severely disjointed and at worst nonexistent.  This is not exactly a flaw; Wallace’s editor described the novel as shattered pieces of glass dropped from on high, and the novel does indeed import an epic emptiness in proportion to its considerable girth.

I have read several reviews of the book, all of which mention the point at which the reader realizes, close to the end, that there is no way in hell Wallace is going to be able to wrap up the search for an infinitely entertaining piece of film, and by extension, any real sense of closure for the reader to absorb.  It remains unclear if the novel is an assortment of hundreds of unrelated subplots, one giant plot that we are missing the pieces to, or a work that simply necessitates a second reading.  The “narrative,” rather than taking its usual place as the engine of the book, instead feels like an iron lung that cruelly resuscitates characters that really, truly, agonizingly, would be better off dead.

I don’t think it’s a novel about addiction, the same way Moby-Dick isn’t about whaling.  But I do think that the real meta-question here is whether the reader is anything more than a lab rat pushing a button for its endorphin fix.  We crave narrative because of its assistance in finding meaning, and for its unparalleled ability to deconstruct and reinforce whatever parts of ourselves we care to open up about.  Is that infantile?  Sure.  But Wallace is subverting his characters and plot so much that the narrative is our own addiction (and withdrawal) to the bleeding-heart sentimentality of the aesthetics of Aristotle.

We are Wallace’s narrative.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  But narrative is a covenant between the author and the receptor; and if we pervert it and abuse it in an escalating and never-ending search for the next post-structural, postmodern “high,” we aren’t really growing as people—we’re just shooting in the air.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, theme

“A Dry Year” in Chautauqua

My essay “A Dry Year,” about reconstructing a pond on our land with a legendary local contractor, during a season of drought, flood, heat, and locusts, appears in the new issue of the literary annual Chautauqua. The man, whom I call William, had killed a woman in an accident when he was young and wild. An Chautauquaexcerpt:

“He knew our land. As a boy, he’d dragged raccoons pelts in a burlap sack behind his pony all around our farm, leaving scent for hound trials. We walked through the pastures and our pants got soaked past our knees by dew—the grasses were that tall, despite the drought. When we came to a metal gate, overgrown and rusted shut, we paused—I thought. It was a natural break at the top of a rise, a place to catch our breath. William was beside me and I was looking dreamily across the farm, when from the corner of my eye I saw him melt over the gate. His movement was quick but unhurried, fluid and silent. He’d shown me a rural skill I hadn’t even known existed. He must have defeated many such hurdles during his days and nights roving these hills. It was as if he’d entered another dimension before my eyes. I wanted to see it again. I knew how I climbed the farm’s arthritic gates: slowly, precariously, and with flailing, middle-aged effort.

“And incompetently, I now saw.

“William was older than me by almost thirty years. I mounted the barrier after him with earthbound clumsiness, which now seemed a deeper flaw.”

I adapted this essay from a chapter in a memoir, and I learned in the process. The most compelling stories to tell may be the ones we can’t stop thinking about because we can’t figure them out. I’m haunted by William’s story, slender as my information is, and he’s connected to my memory of that extreme summer of biblical plagues, which was itself puzzling and humbling. “A Dry Year” is my attempt to leave readers with the same questions that devil me. Here was a good man, hard-working and competent, who had lived for maybe five decades in the wake of what his younger, stupid self had done in one moment one night, driving drunk on a curvy road. Who was he then and who is he now? How does he go on? And is an unusual thing he did regarding his work for me a partial answer?

While polishing the essay I read and reread three essays in last year’s Chautauqua that helped me: Diana Hume George’s “White Girl,” which is a beautifully colloquial memoir with a classic three-part structure that influenced the directness of my language; Dinty W. Moore’s “A Good Man is Still Hard to Find,” for his light touch in capturing a brief moment; and Leslie Rubinkowski’s powerful “Message,” about the death of her father, for the sheer poetic beauty of its sentences. I’d read their essays and then go to mine and see where there should be line breaks, cuts, rewordings.

I’ve heard writers say they can’t do such things, that great writing can be overwhelming and lead to bad imitation. It does not work that way for me: under the influence of some stories my clumsy work gains clarity and power and grace.

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Filed under craft, technique, editing, memoir, revision, structure

Narrative’s evolutionary roots

from Origins of Human Communication, Chaper Six, “The Grammatical Dimension,” by Michael Tomasello

“Why do people in all cultures tell stories in the first place? . . . Basically, such sharing is a way of expanding our common ground with others and so expanding our communicative opportunities, and, in the end, making us more like them and enhancing our chances of social acceptance (with conformity to the group playing a critical role in processes of cultural group selection). Telling narratives contributes to this process as only members of our group know our stories, and our shared evaluations of the characters and their actions as we tell these stories are an Tomaselloimportant bonding mechanism as well.”

“The phenomenon of grammaticality—that certain utterances sound ungrammatical (‘That’s not English’)—would seem to be very far removed from following social norms in order to avoid shame and guilt. But, we would argue, it is actually just another instantiation of social norms for everyday behaviors, like harvesting honey in our group-specific way and using chopsticks to eat—but reinforced by the fact that commonplace grammatical utterances are heard dozens or even hundreds of times every day so that their pattern is quite entrenched in our communicative activities . . . “

“The two major problems that narrative discourse sets are: relating events to one another in time, and keeping track of the participants in those events when they are sometimes the same and sometimes different across events . . . It is difficult to imagine any other communicative context, other than narrative discourse, that would require such arcane temporal bookkeeping in the form of different verb tenses and aspects.”

I am grateful to my brother-in-law John Wylie, a psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist, for calling my attention to this book.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, narrative, NOTED, structure, syntax

Narrative Newsweek?

The newsmagazines’ having-it-both-ways blend of newspaper-style objective conventions and jarring rabbit-punch opinions in their news columns always made me queasy. As a friend said, “I feel like I need to take a shower after reading Time or Newsweek.

But I was a Newsweek man, and hung in there through frequent redesigns. Alarmed at first , I soon accepted the Newsweek1new layout and features because I valued the in-depth and reflective coverage, the trend stories, and some of the columnists. Now comes the weekly’s newest and truly radical conception: the magazine has dropped news for “the reported narrative” and the “argued essay.” Wow! But I hate it. Newsweek was an important news source for many of us with poor local newspapers. (Besides, a highly perfected magazine is already doing what Newsweek aspires to; it’s called The New Yorker.) And the new design, with a font that makes the entire magazine look like an advertisement, by a firm pretentiously called Number 17, leaves me cold.

Newsweek’s trying to capitalize on the word “narrative” is an interesting cultural signal in itself. But terror and desperation are likely more responsible for the rebirth than is the magic of narrative. Newsweek’s response to a drop in circulation reminds me of my favorite media theory, which is that each medium—radio, newspapers, broadcast TV, etc.—has its moment in the sun as a mass force before being displaced by a new technology. Here’s the key: the medium does not die but just drops back to an appropriate niche. Before accepting this Darwinian reality, mangers go through guilt and angst: We drove our audience away by doing (or not doing) XYZ and must become more like the gorilla that’s killing us.

I wonder how many readers they will lose as they fruitlessly chase the audience that abandoned them for the Internet. The new Newsweek feels a lot like the current blogosphere, except with longer pieces. Their tiresome attack essay on Oprah in a recent issue was perverse: it was like bringing a battalion of Army Rangers into a high school to depose a popular but silly student leader. The subset of Newsweek readers who view Oprah surely can judge her parade of nutty health advisers for what they are without the magazine’s heavy-handed help. Narrative means telling a story, which really means showing, not going on and on and on with an argument.

Radical media makeovers are fueled by such companies’ legendary greed. Yet it does go against human nature and the reality of American business to happily settle for an audience of only one million when you had grown fat and important on a much larger market share. I remember going to our town’s movie theater as a boy and seeing signs in the lobby urging people to sign a petition (how quaint) against the looming monster of cable TV because they were going to make you pay for what you’ve been getting for free! I was in a newsroom in the 1980s when the newspaper designers were chasing the light-and-bright look of USA Today, which seemed to be aping television in print form.

Admittedly, as the Internet metastasizes, we live in interesting times. With entire publishing companies converting from physical books to digital, writers are worried about getting only a lousy digital contract. In a few years they might be bragging, because digital means their books are big and hot—Kindle worthy—rather than art house objects. So it goes. I might even become fond of the new Newsweek in time. I find myself trying to figure out and read the new issues lying around. But my wife is miffed too, and we are going to let our subscription lapse before I change my mind.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, narrative

Digging deeper

from the website of Sandra Scofield a novelist and author of Occasions of Sin: A Memoir

“[I]n memoir you’re stuck with a story your history gives you. You don’t have the license to invent in the old, fictional way: you can’t leap to making up things to fill the holes or change the shape of an event. You don’t alter chronology to make a dramatic arc tighter. At least I don’t think you do. What you do instead is dig deeper, into whatever artifacts you have, or you go to the library, or you just confess that you are making a best guess. Readers accept that. I think it makes them trust you. And it teaches you new ways to fashion a story.”

“If the past is dark, it’s scary and empty and haunted. I just say to the reader: Look, this is what I lived. I remember Scofield2it. None of us did great things, we weren’t important, except to each other, but remembering is important. Writer Charles Baxter suggests that when we write our memories, we do a kind of battle against the corporate mentality; we stop being consumers, we’re individuals. I like that idea. I don’t think memoirists are narcissistic; they are conservators.”

“Nothing comes fast or easy. Everything is about discovery. You have to think of writing as day labor; you show up. You work. At night, you study. Only you don’t get a paycheck, you get insight and story. And if you don’t get them the hard way, they won’t be worth very much. If you do, they are grace.”

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Filed under honesty, immersion, memoir, NOTED

Review: ‘The Inner Circle’

The Inner Circle, a novel by T.C. Boyle. Penguin. 432 pages.

T.C. Boyle has a gift for bringing to life historical figures in his fiction. He did it to John Harvey Kellogg in his comedic novel The Road to Wellville, made into a movie by the same name, and he does it more movingly in The Inner Circle, also turned into a film, about Alfred Kinsey, whose sex research at Indiana University transformed scientific inquiry and helped change Americans’ sexual knowledge and attitudes.Kinsey

Boyle captures key events, factual content, and setting. More importantly, and yet stemming in large part from real exterior details—the weather, Kinsey’s dressing and bathing habits, the town’s bars and streets—the emotional texture of Kinsey’s world felt right. And it is probably the latter reason that some stories are more doable in fiction: it’s difficult to find a narrator open enough and patient enough and trustworthy enough to limn his and others’ inner lives to the extent that we—voyeuristically, yes—desire. In The Inner Circle readers experience how it felt to be pinned like an insect by Kinsey’s blue eyes, how he smelled in an embrace.

The senior members of Kinsey’s team depicted in The Inner Circle bear some resemblance to actual men, but Boyle appears to have created his narrator from whole cloth. With a name as bland, neutral, and wholesome as his Hoosier hometown, John Milk is the perfect acolyte to tell us his and Kinsey’s tale, which he dictates as a memoir into a tape recorder. Kinsey is literally the father he didn’t have, and Milk swallows Kinsey’s scientific view of sex completely. Boyle shows Milk, as an undergraduate English major, encounter Kinsey’s magnetic pull in the professor’s popular and controversial “marriage” class. Soon he’s working side-by-side with the distinguished zoologist, who shifts his focus from gall wasps to human sexuality and brilliantly hones a questionnaire for taking individual sexual histories. The Inner Circle proceeds chronologically, as Kinsey’s work and office grow to meet his ambition. The freakishly energetic researcher works his staff like dogs and is utterly dominating. Milk forgives all because he knows beyond doubt that the courageous Kinsey is one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century.

But Milk’s wife, Iris—as her name implies—sees: she sees the bigger picture. Though Kinsey is clearly a genius, Iris resists, judges him a monster, rapacious and manipulative and ethically blinkered. In his rage to sever sex from love, from monogamy, from marriage, and especially from religion—to see it purely as a biological necessity and a physical outlet—Kinsey dishonors his role as a mentor. Iris, a virgin when she married Milk, learns her husband has regular sex with Kinsey and that he lost his heterosexual virginity to Kinsey’s wife. In spite, but also acting on genuine attraction in the Kinsey group’s spirit, she has an affair. Kinsey approves, but neither she nor Milk can live with her infidelity. Later, when Milk excitedly packs for a long trip with Kinsey to take the history of a sexual athlete, Iris points out in cold fury that the man is not just an epic satyr but also a pedophile, a serial child rapist. These events, and the book’s dramatic clash among Milk, Iris, and Kinsey at a mate-swapping party Kinsey arranges for his bewitched staff, reflect information about Kinsey that has filtered out from the remnants of the inner circle in the past decade.

Somehow he escaped personal scandal in his lifetime, an era of unbelievable sexual repression, ignorance, and censorship. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male made him rich and famous with its publication in 1948. Five years later, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female made him infamous and finished off his overworked body. He died in 1956 at the age of 62. Americans just couldn’t accept that women were as sexual as men, and they were outraged to be informed differently; also, a growing cadre of critics and enemies attacked Kinsey’s methodology and his nonjudgmental, informational stance toward all sexual expression (his research with active pedophiles would be illegal today). The Inner Circle illuminates the layers of tragedy in the Kinsey story.

Boyle makes us care about his characters, or at least gets us interested in them, which gives his book great narrative drive. I inhaled this novel, losing myself in it to a degree rare in adulthood. Its depth causes it to linger in the mind: Kinsey was a freak of nature and a great scientist. But his certainty (flowing from his own history and sexual needs as much as from his study of zoology) that human sexual restraint is purely negative and conditioned, instead of also being part of our evolutionary and social gestalt, limited his scientific grasp of our species. His critics were largely low and mean, but something indeed was wrong, at least according to the book’s moral touchstone, the all-seeing Iris, she whose name in Greek mythology describes a messenger between the gods and humans, she the wife of Kinsey’s most focused pupil.

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